HC Deb 10 April 1974 vol 872 cc429-40
Rev. Ian Paisley

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the wave of violence in Northern Ireland during the past two days.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

First, I apologise to the House for the length of my reply. I considered it important that all the facts should be given, which perhaps would normally not be appropriate in answer to a Private Notice Question.

The House will have noted with great regret the wave of violence which has again beset Northern Ireland in the last two days. Reports which I have received from the security authorities this morning indicate that there were comparatively few incidents on Monday last but two of them were of a major nature. In one in Armagh an extensive fire was started by incendiaries planted in a shop. The fire spread and destroyed eight shops in all. The second major incident was a car bomb attack on the RUC station, Ballygawley: two cars were hijacked for the attack; about half the station was demolished but there were no casualties

The violence increased yesterday and was mainly in Belfast. Two 100 lb. car bombs, one delivered by a proxy driver, exploded in the city centre causing considerable damage but no serious casualties. A third car bomb was neutralised in the Crumlin Road. Ten incendiaries were planted in Belfast in six different shops: eight of the devices exploded but no shops were seriously damaged. Fifty-five vehicles were hijacked and used to block roads in the city, mainly in the Falls Road and Upper Springfield Road areas. Eleven of these vehicles were burnt out.

There was also 27 shooting incidents in the city, 12 in Andersonstown, where there was an exchange of fire between terrorists and a mobile patrol. A security forces vehicle was hit. Two Catholics who were in a nearby club were hit in the exchange of fire—one fatally. There were eight blast bomb incidents, including one which seriously wounded a 17year-old Catholic in the New Lodge.

Outside Belfast, bombs exploded yesterday in a partially built pub near Moy and in a newsagents in Portadown. Three incendiaries started small fires in Dungannon. Seven incendiaries were planted in Newry—one was neutralised. The remaining six started fires, one of which was serious. In Donaghadee, shots were fired at military vehicles outside the RUC station following the arrest of 10 Protestant suspects. Two soldiers were wounded and two civilians caught in the crossfire were wounded.

The House will note that in all this violence in Belfast there are only two explosive bombs. A most disturbing feature is the large number of incendiary devices which are believed to have been planted mainly by young women and girls, and the extensive hijacking which, I am informed, was undertaken by very young people who were clearly acting under a plan devised by the IRA. This pattern emphasises two points to which I referred both in the debate and in my earlier statement—namely, the dangerous new development of incendiary devices against which armed soldiers can play only a limited part and the increasing involvement, under direction, of not only young people but even young children.

The last few days have been a bad period, and it is no consolation to the people of Northern Ireland that, in spite of these tragic incidents which were deliberately designed to disrupt the life of the community, the level of violence in recent months is very much below that before Operation Motorman in July 1972. We all appreciate the anger of the people of Northern Ireland with the Provisional IRA, which is showing once again its lack of understanding of the effect of its brutal campaign on the people whom it wishes to convert to its own views on the future of Ireland. Its campaign is deliberately designed to frustrate the recent political developments in Northern Ireland, which, it fears, offer hope of future peace and stability. Her Majesty's Government ask the great majority of the people of Northern Ireland who believe in political action not to give the Provisional IRA any hope by their reactions that violence of itself can bring down the new institutions of Northern Ireland.

I wish to make it clear to the House that it is Her Majesty's Government's firm policy to act against terrorism from whatever quarter it may come. My hon. Friend the Minister of State had a follow-up meeting this morning with the Chief Constable and the GOC to discuss proposals for dealing with terrorist attacks. While long-term changes in security policy must await the policy review that is being undertaken, firm action is immediately to be taken by the security forces. It would, however, obviously he unwise to say what will be done or to indicate its timing. But there will be specific measures involving a large part of the community, and they will be clearly and specifically explained as and when they come into operation. At the same time, I must stress that the security forces are acting within a society where people still live a normal life. They go to work in the morning; travel on buses; and fetch their children from school. That normal life must continue.

But action taken by the security forces is bound to cause inconvenience and make life difficult for the community. I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland will understand, and support, what is to be done. Above all, the community itself must help to deal with the new threat. If business and commercial premises are to be put at risk by the fire bomber, those responsible for the premises must themselves do everything possible to protect their property against the fire bomber. We for our part intend to introduce measures of advice to deal with that.

It would be idle to pretend that guerrilla warfare can easily be dealt with in a modern society; it is the enemy within. But Her Majesty's Government will continue to deal with the security threat, in both its old and its new forms. It would be a tragedy if the terrible deeds of the Provisional IRA led others to lose their faith in peaceful political action.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving the full details to the House. Is he aware that the Provisional Irish Republic Army said that it would bomb and burn the centre of Armagh and that it now glorifies in the fact that it carried out the operation which it threatened? Further, is he aware that Mr. Faulkner has said that Sunningdale is irrelevant in view of the present serious security situation? Will he give an assurance to the House that the Sunningdale agreement will not be ratified during the parliamentary recess.

Has the right hon. Gentleman any details of the murder of Lieutenant Colonel George Saunderson, a retired officer of the UDR, who was murdered before his class today in County Fermanagh? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the people of Northern Ireland through the House when his security review will be completed and when he will be in a position to make a statement concerning definite action that will take care of terrorism in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Rees

With regard to the Provisional IRA and its announcements, it glories in what it is doing, which is an attempt to bomb political action oft the table. It may be an attempt to bomb iself to the conference table. That is not on, and it is vital that the people in the community should face the facts. Perhaps it is easy for us here but there should be no sign of giving in to the Provisional IRA. In that respect I am heartened by a statement made today by a councillor of the SDLP in Derry. The majority of Catholics do not support the hatefulness that leads to the bombing.

There are a number of steps which need to take place before ratification of the Sunningdale agreement. I will inform the House before any such steps are taken.

It is better that I simply say that I am sad about what has happened to the schoolteacher who was killed. I would need fuller information before reporting to the House. I want to get one thing clear about the short-term and long-term security review which I ordered when I first took this job. The long-term purpose is to look at overall policy —the relationship between the troops and the RUC, and to examine the rôole of the Army. We have been in this situation for four or five years and it is important to assess again what is the rôole of the security forces. The short-term steps which we have to take to respond to the changing pattern of terrorism will not await that long-term review. The examination of the long-term rôole will take a number of weeks. Where security does not enter into matters I will inform the House about our results.

Mr. Pym

The Secretary of State has made a very grave statement. It may well increase the sense of anxiety in the House but at the same time it ought to have increased the sense of determination and resolution to root out violence from wherever it may come. Do not the new ventures which the Secretary of State has described underline the importance of increasing the size of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? Are not the new measures of which he spoke in the debate last week of critical importance in view of the need to have the maximum degree of involvement by the people in Northern Ireland? Since so many more young people have been involved, will the right hon. Gentleman say to what extent he can urgently involve teachers, parents and any other organisations or groups of willing citizens in Northern Ireland in sharing with him the solution of this extremely serious aspect? The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the security review which he has in hand. In view of the scale of the violence now taking place, is it not now extremely urgent? Should he not hurry on with that review, because, even though young people are involved, the security forces still have a prominent and preeminent rôle to play there and time is not on our side?

Mr. Rees

I am aware of the urgency of this. The right hon. Gentleman will know that it is the security forces which are carrying out this review. It has to be got right and does not lend itself to speed. It is not a matter of having more meetings to get a report by next Tuesday; it is a matter of looking at our rôle in Northern Ireland from the military angle as well as the political angle. The new measures are not features that can be dealt with by soldiers with guns. It is impossible to do it that way unless anyone is prepared to recommend that children, however hatefully they are behaving, should be dealt with by the bullet. That is not the way to do it, and that is what the IRA shelters behind.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the school teachers, parents,—whom one meets—and the Churches are helpful. This has to be seen against the sociological background of certain areas, Belfast in particular, where the influence of teachers is not very great.

Mr. John Mendelson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while there is, and will continue to be, widespread support for his generally even-handed policy in opposition to violence and terror from all sides, there is also among some people a great concern that at a time when my right hon. Friend has held out some hope of political involvement by some of the extremist groups the IRA should have proceeded to this cowardly offensive against the economic life of Northern Ireland? Will he accept that many of those who support his general policy will not accept that the chairman of the political wing of the IRA can give interviews in which he completely disclaims any responsibility for the terrorist policy and pretends that the two are different movementsc which can be divided? Will he also accept that in view of his staunch support for the Sunningdale agreement the Government now have a perfect right to get in touch with the Government in Dublin and to expect that they should take more risks in fighting terrorism jointly with the Government of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his initial remarks. He is absolutely right in analysing the attitude of the Provisional IRA. There are those who on the one hand pretend to be political while nevertheless engaging in this sort of terrorism. I am aware of that. I am clear on one thing. We still have to put our mind to dealing with those people who want to act politically. That must be the overall aim while dealing with the security matters.

In the relatively short time that I have been in this job I have found the southern Government extremely helpful, not only on the border, within their own resources, but in dealing with the flow of arms. It is an extremely difficult task. I can only report that the Government of the South have told us that they very much want to be helpful. There is much that they and we have to do.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these seemingly unending bestial acts of violence leave a great many people in the House and in the country with a feeling of helplessness about what can be done or advocated in a constructive way? The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) has referred to the co-operation of the public and the Minister said that we cannot cope with guerrilla organisations of this kind by arms alone. Is the Minister able to say that the extent of public co-operation with the security forces in Northern Ireland is increasing? Can he say anything about what progress the security forces have made in preventing what must be a regular flow of arms to the terrorists? Are the security forces making any progress in that regard?

Mr. Rees

I agree with what the hon. Member has said about the feeling of helplessness. It is matched by a feeling of great anger among the people who live where it happens. This is perfectly understandable. We have to find means of enabling the public to play their part. It is much better, and the parties in the Executive are aware of this, to do it through the authorised organisations like the RUC reserve and the UDR. It would lead to possible conflagration if people took the law into their own hands. It is very difficult for me to say whether the situation is improving over the years. The political situation has to be taken into account. All I can report is that I have increasingly found over the last fortnight that I am getting letters from all parts of the community saying "We want to help". I offer to the hon. Gentleman the statement by the Executive, which is made up from the three parties in the Assembly. It was made in a forthright way.

Mr. James Johnson

Bearing in mind what my right hon. Friend's predecessor in office has said about the need to unite the people of Northern Ireland, may I ask my right hon. Friend why he has to say, if two persons are killed, that they are Catholic? Does he not think that this terminology leads to a polarising of opinion, which is the last thing we want? We want to unite our people, not separate them.

Mr. Rees

I used the word "Protestant" today just to put in perspective the mood of some people that it was only Catholics who were involved in the problems over the last couple of days. While as a norm I use "majority" and "minority" we have to face up to the words used in the community. Whatever the feelings might be here, when we do not care what a person's religion is, it is sometimes important for me to isolate this for purposes of public presentation.

Mr. Harry West

Is the Secretary of State aware of the callous murder that we have learned of this morning of Lt.-Col. Saunderson, a close personal friend and a constituent of mine, a man who served his country in peace and war? He was murdered in a building full of schoolchildren within a few miles of the border. Is it not high time that security on the border was strengthened here? Is not the right hon. Gentleman now satisfied that, as we have told him so often, the border is wide open for any terrorists, arms, explosives and all the rest of it to come across, and that there is absolutely no protection? I plead with him and the House to ensure that adequate protection is given to people living in that part of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Rees

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the death of his friend in a school building illustrates the nature of what is going on in Northern Ireland. He above all will know that what is happening is terrible.

One of the subjects that the security review must consider is the border. I told the right hon. Member in Belfast that I did not think it right that trained soldiers should be searching people going into the Segment. It is not the job of soldiers to do that. What we are looking at is the rôle of soldiers and whether they should be in a static position or whether they would not be better in a more mobile situation and nearer the border.

The Taoiseach and the Irish Foreign Minister met my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and me recently. They have expressed concern about the situation, and have taken certain steps. We want to do far more in this respect. However, I put one point to the hon. Gentleman. He does not know, and neither do I know yet—maybe I shall not have this information—where the gunman came from. The fact that the murder was near the border does not necessarily mean that the gunman came from over the border. This is one of the difficulties of movement of people within the Province.

Mr. George Lawson

My right hon. Friend made the point that the Provisional IRA appeared to glory in what it was doing. Will my right hon. Friend consider the methods that he and the Opposition have been using in giving maximum and detailed publicity to all that happens? Does not my right hon. Friend consider that this type of violence might feed on and grow on what it is being fed? Will he not consider for a time adopting a policy of ensuring that the Press, radio and television adopt the policy of trying to ensure that nothing but the barest of detail is given about what happens? We all know that many people glory in appearing on television. Will not my right hon. Friend try the effect of damping down, as far as he possibly can, every possible incident?

Mr. Rees

That is a difference between, say, the last war and this guerrilla warfare. There was a Ministry of Information to speak on the radio—there was no television in those days. I ask my hon. Friend to consider whether, even if we had the power, we should act like that in Northern Ireland. Let him consider what rumours would spread around Northern Ireland, what rumours would be afoot in the House, if there were not the fullest of information. That is the other side of the medal.

I remember one occasion when I was in Opposition when there was an incident—it does not matter what it was now—that was reported on the radio news every half an hour, all day, between pop programmes and so on. That sort of thing tends to build up feeling. I can only hope that the media take account of that. Of course I will listen to what my hon. Friend says, but this is a problem of guerrilla warfare in what are called normal times.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Was not the only chance for the Sunningdale agreement that it should lead to peace? Is it not now the last hope for Sunningdale that from the South we should get real co-operation, leading to the apprehension of fugitive criminals, whether by extradition or by other means, and a concerted all-out effort against terrorism, which is the enemy of both the Governments in Ireland?

Mr. Rees

It is absolutely right that an all-Ireland effort is needed, but in the last five weeks I have learned that the major effort has got to be made in the North. We have just heard my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) mention publicity. There are those here who have political disagreements with Sunningdale. Of course we accept that. But whenever it is mooted abroad that Sunningdale or the political development is in doubt, these are the very words that the IRA wants to hear because that is what it is trying to end. I again declare that the attitude of the House is that Sunningdale and all that goes with it, which we strongly support, is up for political discussion. That is fine. However, I would not be prepared to give in politically to men of violence. That would be an open door to many terrible things, and more terrible things could happen if it broke down.

Mr. Duffy

Far from Sunningdale being irrelevant, as was asserted by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland now confirm that it is the only constructive way out of the present darkness, that it is threatened by activity on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, and that it is, therefore, incumbent on those in Northern Ireland as well as in the House who subscribed to it to put their heads down now and push ahead with its implementation?

Mr. Rees

I say to my hon. Friend, as I said the first day I was in Northern Ireland and have said since in the House, that the Sunningdale agreement, which we inherited from the previous administration, is the best approach to try to bring together the two parts of Ireland and the two communities. We support the agreement. There are still steps to be taken in carrying out the Sunningdale agreement, steps that we have already mentioned.

Mr. McCusker

Will the right hon. Gentleman convey the gratitude of myself and the people of Armagh to the two hon. Gentlemen on the benches opposite who found the time to come to see the £3 million damage caused by the Irish Republican Army? Does he accept that there was a lot of anger and frustration that neither he nor the Minister of State, nor anyone else from his office, was able to come along as well? Bearing in mind what he said about allowing people to see that they are winning, will he expedite the rebuilding of the centre of Armagh, remembering that over 100 jobs were lost and also that some claims for criminal damages have been outstanding for two years?

Mr. Rees

Rebuilding is vitally necessary, and I shall look at my responsibilities, as I am sure the Executive will look at its. The hon. Gentleman praised those of my hon. Friends who visited Northern Ireland, and I am glad that they did so. My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I, at two ends of an aeroplane, as it were, and with all the work that there is to do, go out and look, but the fact that we do not look at everything is not a sign that we are not concerned. It would lead to our not going anywhere, in case everybody expected us to visit everything that happened. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the fact that I was not at Armagh with my hon. Friend who was in Northern Ireland yesterday is not a sign of not caring. There are jobs to do.