HC Deb 01 April 1974 vol 871 cc879-89
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about events in Northern Ireland in the last few days. I do so in the full realisation of the weight of my responsibility to this House.

On Thursday 28th March a bomb of between 500 and 600 lb. exploded outside a hotel in the centre of Belfast which is at present an Army headquarters. On the following day there were more bombs outside Catholic bars in Belfast, and on Saturday 30th March the level of violence was further stepped up, with bomb and incendiary attacks in Armagh, Lisburn and Bangor as well as more incidents in Belfast, and the violence continued on Sunday 31st March.

In these four days six civilians were killed and 65 injured. The Army had eight casualties and the RUC two, fortunately not serious. The pattern of these incidents shows a succession of acts of retaliation and revenge between one community and another.

On Friday morning I visited the city centre and in the afternoon had an urgent discussion on the security situation with the GOC and the chief constable. On Saturday I visited other areas of Belfast in company with the brigade commander, meeting some of his local commanders and troops responsible for security in the area. My hon. Friend the Minister of State had discussions in Belfast on Sunday morning with the GOC and the deputy chief constable. Later on Sunday afternoon, in company with local representatives, he visited Lisburn and Bangor. He reported to the Prime Minister and to me last night by telephone. After further consultation this morning, he returned to Northern Ireland.

In the course of our visits, both my hon. Friend and myself have talked to many members of the public and are in no doubt about the strength of their feelings at these latest outrages. I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning these senseless and vicious attacks which cause so much distress and damage and, I say again, will achieve nothing. I find it impossible to understand the motivation of those, from whichever side they come, who believe that political ends can be achieved by violence or who seek to destroy the Constitution Act and power sharing not by political action but by bombing and killing.

It was a bad weekend, and it has led—and I fully understand this—to demands for increased action by the security forces. If violence on this scale occurred in cities in Great Britain hon. Members would rightly be demanding that all available resources should be thrown against those responsible. As hon. Members will know, I have since I came into office four weeks ago been reviewing with the GOC and the chief constable the security situation. I can already say quite clearly that no increase in the number of troops in Northern Ireland would eliminate the sorts of incident which happened last weekend. For example, I was told on Saturday in Belfast by Army commanders that the security forces are making about 100,000 searches a day at the Segment.

The small incendiary bombs which wrecked the stores in Bangor are easily made from commonplace materials, secreted in books or cornflake packets, and placed by apparently innocent shoppers. They cannot always be detected by security forces; their placing can be prevented only by the vigilance of other shoppers, and by effective security arrangements for which the stores them selves must be responsible.

Much the same is true of city centre car bombs. Hon. Members will probably have heard that a huge but selective anti-terrorist operation involving sealing off a complete area near the city centre and conducting a thorough search began this morning. It would be feasible completely to close off city centres to cars and lorries; it would cause massive congestion and bring the commercial life of the Province to a virtual standstill. It would not prevent the placing of devices of the type which were used in Bangor.

I want to make it absolutely clear that, important as the role of the security forces is and will continue to be, much of the sort of violence which happened last weekend can effectively be prevented only by the actions of ordinary citizens, who have a plain duty to report to the police suspicious activities which they see or information they have about those who plan or carry out destruction and violence. I know that the terrorists try to prevent this by intimidation; the more people who come forward to help the security forces, the more difficult it will be for them. The security forces will continue to do their utmost to arrest them from whichever section of the community they come, and to remove them from the society which they are poisoning. Some of them are even prepared to give interviews to the Press about their crimes.

There is no question whatsoever of the security forces being prevented by political directives from taking any necessary action against terrorists; the forces have always to bear in mind the consequences of their actions on the commercial and social life of the community which they are protecting. At the end of the day, it is for the community and the police in close co-operation to bear the main responsibility for law and order in Northern Ireland. I can assure the House that I will do everything practicable to support them in this; and to any of the terrorist organisations who, as I have heard suggested, have increased their acts of violence recently to test the present Government I can say quite clearly that I pledge this Government to act resolutely to deal with the terrorists from wherever they come. Nor will they deflect us from those political decisions and actions which this House has supported.

Mr. Pym

The House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement It is certainly horrified by the events in Northern Ireland over the weekend. I am sure that every hon. Member will join with the right hon. Gentleman in condemning what happened. It was, as he said, a very bad weekend.

What is the extent of the increase in violence? It has by no means been at a particularly low level recently. Has it doubled? Has the right hon. Gentleman any view about the underlying cause of the increased violence in recent days? Can he say whether there is any connection between the increase and the characters who, for one reason or another, have been released from detention in recent months.

There is a myth in Northern Ireland which needs to be dealt with very firmly. Therefore, can the Secretary of State confirm that political constraints are not hindering the work of the security forces? I believe that they are not. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and the House will agree that the security forces are doing a superb job in very difficult circumstances. Is it not essential for all people in Northern Ireland to pay the maximum possible regard to their own security, and, in the case of businesses, to undertake regular inspections? That would contribute to preventing a repetition of the sort of event which occurred in Bangor.

Regrettably, is not intimidation more rife than it was before? To what extent do those who have been forced to leave bombs at the behest of terrorists feel able to co-operate and provide information? What advice would or does the right hon. Gentleman give to people who may be threatened by intimidation? What action should they take? Whom should they telephone? What steps should they take to try to get out of being put in that position?

I am sure that the House will agree that the Secretary of State is right to continue the anti-violence campaign to the maximum, and that the elimination of violence is the top priority. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that ending violence is a responsibility shared by everyone in Northern Ireland and is not a responsibility only of the security forces. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the co-operation of everyone in Northern Ireland in giving active and positive support and help to security forces is a crucial factor in ending the violence, which is the desire of the whole House?

Mr. Rees

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, outside the political aspect, this will be dealt with only with the co-operation of the community. We shall discuss the political aspect later.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there had been an increase in the number of acts of violence. Although there has been an increase in bombing, the increase overall is not substantial. But that reply, taken out of context, might make the people who have been injured this weekend feel angry. The figures over the last two or three years show that more than £1 million-worth of damage has been done. But that answer does not help someone who lives in the middle of Belfast—in Royal Avenue—for example. These comparisons matter, I suppose, in a statistical survey, but a small bomb that kills is far worse than a big bomb that simply damages property.

I mentioned one cause of terrorism, which is to test the Government. Other causes have been put to me, for example, that terrorism is a means of bringing down the Northern Ireland Constitution Act and the Sunningdale Agreement. It has also been put to me that this is the spring offensive by members of the IRA to bomb themselves to the conference table. On behalf of the Government, I say that we talk with those who act politically, because that is why the House is in business.

With regard to those who have been released, I simply say that I signed ICOs for some people who were released at Christmas. There is evidence that some who were released are going back to do what they were doing before. I leave it at that. We must return to that matter on Thursday. I emphasise that if a man who has been released returns to the same trade of violence as before, he will be dealt with by the security forces in exactly the same way as will anyone else.

I said that there are no political constraints, but there are constraints known to the Army that the Army does not need to be told about. For example, what is to be done in an area that is being searched? Does the Army just go in indiscriminately, as some people seem to want? Some people seem to think that it is a matter of going in and showing who is boss, but that is not the way in which the Army wants to behave.

I have not—and the right hon. Gentleman said that he had not—put any political constraints on the use of the Army. There are regular inspections. Shop owners, particularly in areas where there has been little trouble in recent years, will have to engage and train guards. That is the only way to deal with small bombs.

There is a temptation for those who are well away from the trouble to utter platitudes about intimidation. It is easy for me, as it is for the right hon. Gentleman. cosseted and protected as we are, to say what people should do. While some intimidation can be dealt with by the public using the confidential telephone system, what happens in proxy bombing is that large bombs are made from nitrogenous substances which come from agricultural products. The Conservative Government did much to control the use of gelignite. The procedure now is that the bombers hold up a vehicle, put the material in the back, put in a charge and tell the man to drive the vehicle down to town. They tell him that if he does anything else he and his family will be dead. I would be a fool to offer advice to that man. He may be able to find a means of not doing what he is asked to do and he may want protection afterwards. For the IRA to bomb by proxy is cowardly when one sees the results.

Mr. West

I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances. Although I appreciate that we shall have a greater opportunity to examine this problem on Thursday afternoon, I stress the urgency of a remedy for the problem. Policy in Northern Ireland seems to have been a failure over the last four years. Terrorism has continued, and the IRA has never been stronger than it is now. It was significant that the Minister did not mention the IRA in his statement. Lest the House should be misled, the right hon. Gentleman said that a bomb was placed outside a Roman Catholic public house, but bombs were also placed outside Protestant public houses this weekend. I should like to inform the House that we believe—

Hon. Members

Ask a question.

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is to be a debate on Northern Ireland later this week. This is the time for supplementary questions.

Mr. West

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the main imports of explosives are from Southern Ireland and that there is a strong case for tighter security on the border, which is now wide open? This has been going on for four years. I ask the Minister, on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, to tighten up security along the border and to man the main crossing points on the border with security forces for 24 hours of the day. That seems to be a sensible way of doing it. I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to push the anger of the much-strained community in Northern Ireland any further. It would be dangerous so to do.

Mr. Rees

I have no wish to push any part of the community in Northern Ireland. Like all administrations here. we are conscious of our deficiencies in a part of the United Kingdom that has a history of violence going back for many years. There is no simple answer. The hon. Gentleman says that he has a remedy, and I should be pleased to meet him to find out what it is. My reading of the subject is that the violence has gone on for longer than five years.

I referred to the IRA in my statement. The hon. Gentleman referred to Protestant and Catholic public houses. He may well have seen an article which appeared in the Sun newspaper today in which the UFF gave details of its bloody assassinations.

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about this and that on Thursday he will stand up and say that men who say "None of us will rest until every Catholic in Ulster is dead or out of the country" are men of violence who should be dealt with. Both sides of the House are against violence. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman and other members of his party saying what they really think about the UFF.

Mr. McNamara

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Will he indicate to the House, as he has so rightly done in the past, that this is a matter which requires both a political and a military solution before we reach the stage of a final settlement between all parties to the Sunningdale agreement? Until we have that sort of situation, does my right hon. Friend agree that we shall remain in a state of indecision, and that it is in a state of indecision that the men of violence on both sides are able to play such a terrible part?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that all administrations have to find the balance between the political and the security approach. There will be a chance later this week to develop that argument.

The Government have firmly supported the Sunningdale approach of the previous administration. There is no alteration from that. There are certain steps that must be taken by the Government in the South and the Executive in the North and we are still awaiting reports which are necessary before any steps forward are taken.

Mr. Beith

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept the thanks of the Liberal bench—and I suspect of many other hon. Members—for the frankness of his statement and his answers? Does he realise that he continues to enjoy support from the Liberals and that hon. Members and the people in Ulster and the United Kingdom look forward to Thursday's debate in the hope that, having had more time, he will be able to offer further assurances on the security situation, without which the political developments to which we are all looking are so difficult to achieve?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is right in saying that security is an important part of a political move forward. The people who are bombed get angry. I noticed a report in one newspaper that the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) shouted at me. That is not true. People were angry with me, but I understood their feelings. To achieve a move forward something must be done about security. The two go together, and that is the search in which the House has been engaged for some time.

Mr. Fitt

Although my right hon. Friend referred specifically to the tragic events of last weekend, does he agree that the events of the previous weekend in which more people died were just as tragic? This has been happening for the past four years.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that the violence in Northern Ireland and its escalation is a determined effort by men of violence to try to defeat agreements which were freely arrived at in Sunningdale? Does he also agree that as well as the men of violence on both sides of the religious and political divide, there are also certain elected representatives of the Northern Ireland people who, by their efforts and demeanour, are almost inciting these people to continue their acts of violence?

Will he give a firm undertaking that the Labour Government will stand, as did the Conservative Government, fully and firmly behind the Sunningdale agreement and the power-sharing executive duly arrived at by the Northern Ireland people, and that he will give it his full support? Will he further accept that the SDLP is totally opposed to all men of violence in Northern Ireland and believes that its supporters should show the same courage as our leaders are showing at present in an effort to prevent violence?

Mr. Rees

When my hon. Friend spoke of the events of the previous weekend, I am sure that it struck a chord in the minds of those right hon. Gentlemen opposite who had responsibility for Northern Ireland. The events of last weekend were very bad, but it is remarkable how soon we forget the events of the weekend before that, the weekend before that and indeed the weekend before that. But the people of Northern Ireland do not forget these events. If we are looking for political freedom, we must not forget that these events are eating into people's hearts to such an extent that they find it difficult to act politically.

We must give encouragement to those in Northern Ireland who act politically. This we shall do, and the Labour Government will support the general policy of their Conservative predecessors. We have said this before, we say it today, and no doubt we shall say it again during the full day's debate on Northern Ire- land on Thursday. That is, and will continue to be, our policy.

Mr. Kilfedder

I join the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in condemning the terrorism over the weekend which led to the destruction of many premises in my constituency in Bangor, which up to now has been a relatively peaceful part of Northern Ireland. I wish to express sympathy to the relatives of those who died during the past week and to the injured, including the gallant policeman who was badly burned on Saturday. I condemn violence from whatever side it comes, but would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the IRA has claimed responsibility for tearing the heart out of the towns and cities of Northern Ireland in the past few weeks?

On the question of the UFF, the Secretary of State referred to an article in the Sun newspaper. Is it not possible that those who gave the interview were impostors—[Interruption.] I am not prejudging the issue—just as a Captain Wilson alleged that the UFF was responsible for the murder of Senator Fox, when in fact the Provisional IRA was responsible for that act? Why was action not taken immediately after the Bangor bombing to seal off and search thoroughly the notorious safe houses used by the IRA in Bangor and Donaghadee?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Ulster people are angry at the words used by the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, who told the people of Northern Ireland, in the midst of their anguish, that violence would end only when the communities so decided? Does he not realise that the IRA has no interest in peace but is interested only in capitulation—and that the Minister of State's advice to the Ulster people is like telling Londoners to make peace with the criminal underworld, to leave their houses open and to let them steal and murder? This is not the answer. Finally—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] Hon. Gentlemen opposite do a great deal of talking. Finally, will he not agree that if the people are to give their judgment on Sunningdale, there should be an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly?

Mr. Rees

On the last point, which was a very good point, I must tell the House that there will be elections, but not yet. They will be held in the fullness of time under the Constitution Act, and the Executive of Northern Ireland—the power-sharing Executive—will be given the time which the United Kingdom Parliament, to which the hon. Gentleman is loyal, said that it would have. The Constitution Act envisaged a period of four years. It is the aim of the Labour Government to give the people the chance to show that power sharing will work.

With regard to the UFF, I am interested in the suggestion that this is all being done by imposters. There are a number of people who always find wrong on one side of the question but not the other. The UFF, whether they are in the picture or not, are a bunch of murderers who murder on a sectarian basis. They are evil, and the Provisional IRA members are evil as well; it comes equally from both sides.

In regard to Bangor and the question of a search, I have not yet had a full report, but I understand that the bombs were small ones made out of readily available material. It is not a question of searching for a large bomb factory. It is extremely difficult to find these stores; indeed one could not find the factory if one searched for it. We must remember that one unit in one segment of Belfast has been there for three weeks; it has searched a million people in three weeks. The terrorists went to Bangor because it had been a quiet area; they went to that Protestant area to whip up feeling against Sunningdale and the Constitution Act. They know what they are doing. We ought to know what they are doing and stand firm for political action.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must ask for the assistance of the House. This is the last day of the Budget debate, and I must remind hon. Members that a whole day has been allowed for a debate on Northern Ireland later in the week.