HC Deb 25 January 1973 vol 849 cc619-24
4. Mr. Duffy

asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the operations of the British Army in Northern Ireland.

2. Mr. Cronin

asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a further statement on the operations of the British Army in Northern Ireland.

6. Mr. Goodhart

asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the operation of the British Army in Northern Ireland.

8. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether he will make a further statement on operations in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

Since the House adjourned before Christmas the Army has continued to mount patrols and selective search and arrest operations throughout the province and the security forces are making considerable progress in the fight against terrorism. For three days over Christmas the Provisional wing of the IRA called a cease-fire, with the direct result that the level of violence including bombing and shooting attacks fell. After the cease-fire ended, the toll of death and destruction inevitably increased but, thanks to the strenuous efforts of the security forces, it has nevertheless been reduced to a level some 60 per cent. below that of last July.

Mr. Duffy

Does the Minister recall that the last time he answered Questions he dealt with one from me about the morale of the troops and that within a week all the Press had headline reports that 28 members of the Second Battalion of the Paratroops had applied for discharge rather than return to Northern Ireland? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that through parliamentary Questions and correspondence I have continually sought to improve the morale of the troops through improved accommodation and that I am probably the only hon. Member to do so? Will the Minister now act entirely out of character, eschew the vicious personal smears and confine himself precisely to saying what he is doing to improve the well-being and morale of the lads over there?

Mr. Gilmour

The hon. Member sometimes uses odd methods to improve the morale of our troops. I was in Northern Ireland last week and I found morale extremely high.

Mr. Goodhart

Will my hon. Friend convey our congratulations to the British Army units in Northern Ireland for their most encouraging successes in recent weeks? Will he also give our congratulations to the GOC Northern Ireland who deserves our warmest thanks at the end of a most arduous and difficult tour of duty? Is it not the case that the strain on the Army of internal security operations in Northern Ireland is still very great and that the quickest way of relieving that strain is to build up local defence forces? Will my hon. Friend put fresh vigour into the recruiting drive for the Ulster Defence Regiment and, so far as he can, for the Royal Ulster Constabulary?

Mr. Gilmour

I entirely accept and am grateful for what my hon. Friend said by way of congratulations to the troops and the GOC. I am sure that the whole House will echo them. I accept also the difficulty of the conditions in which our troops are operating. However, as my hon. Friend knows we attach considerable importance to the UDR and we are giving urgent attention to recruiting.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I also commend the successes of our forces but in view of the need to replace Regulars with local forces as soon as possible will my hon. Friend now introduce Regular companies into UDR battalions? Will he also see what can be done to establish some form of Home Guard, whether under military or police auspices, drawn from both communities?

Mr. Gilmour

My hon. Friend will realise that we keep all these options under review. I think, however, that the provision of Regular companies of the UDR would need legislation. The UDR is in a sense in the nature of a Home Guard. I agree that not everyone who joins is able to serve exactly where he lives but his locality is taken into account so far as possible and I am not at the moment convinced that any further force would be useful.

Mr. John Morris

Will the hon. Gentleman seriously reflect on his observations in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) a few moments ago and the offensive remarks, if I recall them rightly, made on a previous occasion? Will he pay my hon. Friend the compliment of confirming that he has taken a great interest in the welfare of our troops in Northern Ireland and will he withdraw any suggestion that he has made either today or on previous occasions? Will he tell the House in terms what has been done to improve accommodation and deal with matters of that kind in Northern Ireland since this matter was last dealt with at Question Time?

Mr. Gilmour

I have nothing to withdraw in what I have said to the hon. Gentleman. I cannot regard his normal interventions or remarks relating to the Army as being helpful. As I said earlier we have done a good deal to make the conditions under which our soldiers live in Northern Ireland much more tolerable. In the nature of things, they have to some extent to live uncomfortably. Their morale is extremely good.

Mr. Pounder

As there have been so many false dawns in Northern Ireland over the past three years and as my hon. Friend has referred to violence having fallen by over 60 per cent., presumably since Operation Motorman in July, may I ask him to tell us how that sort of figure is quantified, bearing in mind that while the number of bombs may have diminished the number of awful and hideous assassinations has been on the increase?

Mr. Gilmour

It depends on where one takes the date. The number of incidents of violence has fallen in recent weeks from the high level of six months ago at the time of Operation Motorman. I did not intend to suggest that the level of violence is not far too high. It is and we are not at all satisfied with it.

Mr. Simon Mahon

While I have always supported the Army and all it does in the difficult and arduous conditions of Northern Ireland, may I ask the Minister to give us the guarantee that it will continue to carry out these difficult duties with complete and utter impartiality between the sections of the community? This is vital to the future of Ireland.

Mr. Gilmour

Of course I can give that guarantee. The Army meets violence from wherever it comes with the right amount of violence and it is entirely impartial in the performance of its duties.

Captain Orr

Can my hon. Friend say whether in the event of the Ulster Defence Regiment having to be fully mobilised, under any circumstances, there are enough weapons at present in Northern Ireland to equip each soldier?

Mr. Gilmour

As far as I know, the answer is "Yes". I will look into this.

Mr. Stallard

Is the hon. Gentleman in a position to give a date for the ending of the occupation of Casement Park by the Army?

Mr. Gilmour

No, I am not. I visited Casement Park and in my view it is a useful location for the troops and an important position for them to occupy under present conditions.

11. Mr. John Morris

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether he will make a statement on the conditions of service of soldiers serving in Germany who are temporarily transferred to Northern Ireland.

13. Mr. Goodhart

asked the Minister of State for Defence what steps he is now taking to ensure that no British Servicemen are worse off financially as a result of emergency posting to Northern Ireland.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Peter Blaker)

It is my objective to ensure as far as possible that no Serviceman sent on a temporary tour to Northern Ireland is worse off financially as a result.

Mr. Morris

Does the Minister recall that 17 men of the Welsh Guards returned to this country from Germany on 8th December and were obliged to pay duty on the motor cars they had purchased in Germany? Is it not a great scandal that they and 23,000 other soldiers are at risk since they have the expectation that if they serve in Germany for more than 12 months they will be able to import goods tax-free? Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the letter from my constituent which says that this is tantamount to soldiers having to pay for the privilege of serving in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Blaker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing to my attention the case of the Welsh Guards who suffered in having to pay duty on the importation of their cars. I am glad to be able to tell him that it has been agreed in principle that in exceptional cases involving tours of duty in Northern Ireland a Serviceman may be reimbursed in circumstances such as these. The detailed instructions are in course of preparation.

Mr. Goodhart

Does my hon. Friend realise that many of us think it wrong that any soldier who has to leave a comfortable home in Germany to undertake arduous duties in Northern Ireland should lose money? As a step in the right direction, will my hon. Friend consider paying separation allowances earlier than 31 days after going to Northern Ireland, which is the present limit?

Mr. Blaker

I know my hon. Friend's close interest in this question. As my right hon. and noble Friend has explained, he is having this question reexamined. My hon. Friend will understand that it is a difficult one with wide ramifications.

Mr. Morris

I am sure that the whole House appreciates the Minister's response. Does he agree that these Welsh Guardsmen suffered a miserable experience on 8th December and also a miserable Christmas awaiting the result of representations? May I take it that his answer will apply to them?

Mr. Blaker

Indeed it will apply to them, and I regret the anxiety they suffered.