HC Deb 02 July 1974 vol 876 cc191-5
6. Mr. Dalyell

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make an official visit to the units of the British Army doing duty at the Maze prison, Long Kesh.

Mr. Mason

I have at present no plans to do so.

Mr. Dalyell

Since we insist on running what is, after all, a major barbed wire prisoner-of-war camp, is there not a moral obligation on a senior Cabinet Minister to find out for himself what it is all about? If my right hon. Friend can go to Lossiemouth and make other worthy visits, surely he should go on this awkward visit. Some of us, having visited Long Kesh, at least understand why people are driven to commit outrages of which we do not approve—[Interruption.] You have not been there. Go and see what is going on.

Mr. Mason

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that the next time I visit Belfast or Northern Ireland in general I shall try to take Long Kesh into my itinerary. I should advise my hon. Friend, however, that there are some moral obligations on the people of Northern Ireland too. A situation has been created in which there are large numbers of people—terrorists, bombers and murderers—in Long Kesh, and that is the necessity for Long Kesh.

15. Mr. R. C. Mitchell

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

13. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a statement about operations in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mason

I have nothing to add to the reply I gave to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) on 25th June.

Mr. Mitchell

What is the estimated cost of maintaining the Army in Northern Ireland? Is my right hon. Friend aware that on several occasions he has said we can have a major reduction in our defence expenditure only if we reduce our commitments? Will he look at Northern Ireland as a commitment which he might reduce?

Mr. Mason

I am speaking off the cuff, but I think that the total cost is £33 million a year.

Mr. Goodhart

Is it still the objective of the Government to alter the time-lag between emergency tours in Northern Ireland for infantry battalions to 12 months, and if so what progress is being made regarding this?

Mr. Mason

I can inform the House that it is our intention to work to do what the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but that we cannot do this in the meantime, because of the persisting levels of violence. If we can encourage more people to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment and take over some of the peace and part-time military rôles, we can lower the unit levels and thus give a longer respite between tours.

Mr. Dalyell

When in 300 years have English and Scottish troops ever had any success in Ireland?

Mr. Mason

I would have thought that the Scottish units there acquit themselves well and are having great success against terrorists and bombers, particular proxy bombers. If I were my hon. Friend I would go out of my way to praise some of those young men who in their difficult security rôle, acting as civilian police, are standing up to the arduous conditions extremely well.

Mr. Kershaw

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Members on his back benches care about finance only in unlikely situations regarding defence, and that they do not otherwise care a hoot about finance?

Mr. Mason

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friends and other Members of the House have a right to express their concern. [Interruption.] it is their democratic right to express that concern in this House and it is just as right that hon. Gentlemen should understand my hon. Friend's point of view as that they have to listen to the hon. Gentleman's point of view.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope the House knows that in my remarks I was not criticising the troops themselves.

23. Mr. Marten

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what approximate proportion of British troops in Northern Ireland are engaged upon controlling the frontier with the Republic.

Mr. Mason

In broad terms, five of the 15 units which are there now have areas which include parts of the border. As I told the hon. Member on 21st May, the General Officer Commanding allocates the forces under his command taking into account all the operational factors involved.

Mr. Marten

Would it not ease the military burden if suitable sectors of the frontier were totally closed, in agreement between the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Government of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman is worrying this bone persistently week after week. I have tried to explain to him that there are 300 miles of border and 280 crossing points and that it is extremely difficult to patrol all of it. With infantry and helicopter patrols, however, we are managing to patrol most of it fairly successfully. I think that with the increasing co-operation that is now coming from the South we may have greater success still. As I have told the hon. Gentleman previously, it is not possible to build a Berlin Wall between the North and the South of Ireland.

Mr. Bradford

Is the Minister aware that a significant number of Ulstermen would involve themselves readily in border patrols but are excluded because they belong to certain religious orders and because they have in the past belonged to certain special constabulary units?

Mr. Mason

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is aware of that and I am aware of it too. But I must leave matters of that kind to the GOC who is in charge of operations. The hon. Member may also appeal for more people to join the RUC and the UDR. If that happened we should be able to withdraw our troops from Ireland more quickly.

Mr. Churchill

The Israelis have a border with their Arab neighbours rather longer than the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. With forces smaller than those which the right hon. Gentleman has indicated are at present patrolling the border of Northern Ireland, the Israelis are able to ensure control of their border far more effectively. Will the Minister reconsider the situation in view of the 280 crossing points to which he referred? Is he really satisfied that with so many crossing points lie is able to control what is coming across the border from the Republic?

Mr. Mason

No, I am satisfied that we cannot completely and successfully control the 280 points with the forces that we have there and the number of Irishmen who are prepared to help. That happens to be a fact. We must do the best in the situation. I thought that the analogy with the Israelis was ridiculous.

Mr. Whitehead

Would not a much better solution than any of those proposed so far from the Opposition side of the House be to have joint patrols with the army of the Republic and the Gardai as soon as that can be arranged?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I am hoping that much more of this will happen. My hon. Friend must have heard me indicate earlier that this co-operation is forthcoming and that the police of Southern Ireland are now co-operating much more than they were previously. It would be a good cooperative step forward if there could be joint patrols.

Sir John Hall

Does the Minister agree that the great demand for troops in Northern Ireland is leading to armoured units being employed as infantry, with great detriment to their training, which is likely to make it impossible for them to carry out their NATO rôle? Will he do something to offset the damage that is now being caused?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the more the operation in Northern Ireland continues, calling upon 15,000 troops at one time, the more it is bound to affect their training and their effectiveness in NATO and the British Army of the Rhine. But until the level of terrorism allows, it will not be possible for us to withdraw the troops.

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