HC Deb 20 May 1974 vol 874 cc32-41
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Stanley Orme)

With permission, I should like to inform the House of the circumstances leading to yesterday's proclamation of a State of Emergency in Northern Ireland.

On Tuesday 14th May a body calling itself the Ulster Workers Council, with no trade union or democratic standing but supported by para-military organisations, advertised in the Press that there would be a general stoppage if the Northern Ireland Assembly voted that day to support the Sunningdale Agreement. The Northern Ireland Assembly did in fact vote to support the Executive's policy on the Sunningdale Agreement and the broadly based system of government established under the 1973 Constitution Act.

On Wednesday 15th May 1 met the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) accompanied by Assemblyman Laird. Three members of the Ulster Workers' Council and three observers from Protestant para-military organisations were also present. The Ulster Workers' Council told us that the purpose of its action was to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement and have new Assembly elections at an early date. It intended to force this by limiting the supply of electricity, dictating itself who should have current and who should be denied it. It said that further measures would be taken if the Government refused to negotiate.

I made it plain that the Government, and indeed this House, was committed to the Northern Ireland Constitution Act and the Sunningdale Agreement, that the Northern Ireland electorate would be free to decide their future at elections held in accord with the Constitution Act, that the strike was a political one for purely sectarian purposes and that the Government would if necessary maintain essential services. There was no agreement.

The next day, Thursday 16th May, there was an attempt by widespread intimidation to bring normal life in Northern Ireland to a standstill.

On Friday 17th May a meeting was arranged between my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with elected political leaders and members of the Ulster Workers' Council, it being made clear that this was without any commitment by Her Majesty's Government. No members of the Council availed themselves of this opportunity and the Secretary of State saw the right hon. Members for Belfast, East and Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. West) and Assemblymen Beattie and Barr. The Secretary of State said that the stoppage bore no relation to normal industrial action and that the Government would not be blackmailed.

On Saturday 18th May the Ulster Workers' Council called for a complete stoppage from midnight on Sunday 19th May. It drew back from this however, but still called for extensive closure of industrial and commercial business and presumed to dictate the times when certain shops would open.

It was in these circumstances that my right hon. Friend, following consultations with the Northern Ireland Executive issued the proclamation of a State of Emergency.

A number of roads around Belfast were obstructed today, as were roads in and around some of the other towns including Larne and Bangor. The blocks included trees and hi-jacked vehicles. Some have already been removed by security forces and in many cases alternative routes were available. But the net effect has been a disruption of ordinary traffic and considerable inconvenience to parts of the Province, particularly in North and East Belfast.

Mr. Len Murray on behalf of the Trades Union Congress and after consultation with the Northern Ireland Trades Union Committee has condemned the actions of the Ulster Workers' Council. He said: They are a body created to pursue a sectarian policy which is rejected by the trade union movement generally, and their objectives and activities have no connection with the protection of working people or the promotion of their common interests. He went on to say: The welfare of the great mass of the workers of Northern Ireland is at risk, and the TUC is in no doubt that they will return to work as soon as they can safely do so. The House will earnestly hope that those who are bravely standing out against bullying and intimidation will rally the mass of the people of Northern Ireland to the path of reason.

The Government have a duty to preserve life. They will do so. Her Majesty's Forces have been put in a position to help maintain essential services if necessary. I hope this will not be necessary. The Government are not seeking a confrontation. But if it is necessary to take action to preserve the essential services, then this will be done. Equally, all the necessary steps will be taken to maintain law and order.

Mr. Pym

The Minister of State has made a very grave statement about a very grave situation that is certainly damaging to the economy of Northern Ireland. It is an attempt at disruption by a group of people unelected by anybody and unrepresentative, as is indicated by the intimidation used to force workers to stay away from work. Does the Minister of State agree that this disruption is based on a misrepresentation of the Sunningdale communiqué and the present situation in relation to that communiqué?

I am quite certain that the House and my right hon. and hon. Friends will stand firm and resolute behind the Constitution Act and support the Government in not allowing the timing of elections or any other events to be dictated by political strikes. The Secretary of State has said that he will not be bombed to the conference table and we feel that he is right to be neither bullied nor blackmailed there. The House will accept that the Government are not seeking a confrontation, and we hope that no confrontation is forced upon them.

May I ask the Minister to say a little more about the Executive and its role in this situation, because it seems to us crucially important that Her Majesty's Government and the Executive should concert their action to take all possible steps in this situation. Can the Minister assure us that all possible steps are being taken to see that the lives of ordinary citizens are interfered with as little as possible by these threatening gangs and that he will use troops to preserve essential services should the situation require it?

Mr. Orme

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. In reply to his questions about the Sunning-dale Agreement, we believe that there has been a great misinterpretation of what this agreement stands for, that both the majority and the minority are protected in every aspect of any policy they feel they ought to pursue, and that there is no threat in any sense to push them into a united Ireland or any other threat. If Sunningdale were allowed to work— incidentally, the Agreement covers other aspects besides the Council of Ireland, such as joint action on security with the Republic and general co-operation on economic and social matters—it will be to the benefit of people in both the North and the South of Ireland. This misinterpretation is bedevilling the situation in Northern Ireland at the moment. I believe that when the majority of people there realise the full facts they will come to see that at present they are being misled by a minority.

I was asked about the role of the Executive. The Executive has devolved powers in this situation and it is itself responsible for the maintenance of the services and the rationing of power supplies. Officials and members of the Executive are playing their full part and are taking decisions in consultation with Her Majestys Government. But we are there only in case we may be needed for support in the form of providing technicians through the Army or any other measures of that kind.

It is important to repeat what Mr. Faulkner said to me after a meeting we had yesterday. He said to me when we had concluded that meeting that far more was at stake within the Province than just the Sunningdale Agreement and the Northern Ireland constitution. I believe that these words need to be carefully noted.

With reference to the security situation, the Government have taken over contingency proposals. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has taken steps to see that suitable technicians are available if needed and for movement of troops that may be necessary.

Captain Orr

Is the Minister of State aware that we welcome what he said about the Government not seeking a confrontation and that this is probably the most serious situation that has arisen in the whole of the history of the past four years, and that it is necessary to guard one's words with the greatest possible care? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the majority of people in Ulster at present dislike the concept of a political strike and that they dislike particularly any idea of intimidating people into such a strike, and that they quite understand that the Government should not concede to that kind of pressure?

None the less, is it not a fact that reason at the moment suggests that what one may not necessarily concede to a strike one ought to concede to the result of the ballot box? Is it not perfectly clear that what the people of Northern Ireland want is a chance, through their own Assembly, to express their views, both about the Act and about certain aspects of the Sunningdale Agreement, which they well understand? Their attitude towards it is not as a result of misrepresentation. Is the Minister aware that the path of wisdom would suggest some degree of flexibility now?

Mr. Orme

I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for what he has said about the confrontation issue. I hope that, from the measures I have explained, it will be seen that the Government have not caused a confrontation. The confrontation could be thrust on us if the present situation escalates. Then we shall be in a very serious position. If the ordinary people of Northern Ireland were to assert themselves—and there is an indication that some trade unionists and many others want to do this—then this intimidating, bullying minority could be deflected and defeated—by the people rather than by the security forces.

We have already debated at great length political aspects such as the Assembly and the Constitution Act. The decisions on the constitution were taken by this House. Elections were held under that legislation. An Assembly was elected, power sharing was created. Many members in the Assembly refuse to go to the Assembly and to use it as a parliament ought to be used. In those circumstances I rather wish that the hon. and gallant Gentleman would direct such questions to those who sit behind him.

Mr. Duffy

In any further dealings with the Ulster Workers' Council, will the Minister remind it that what is at issue, contrary to what the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) has said, is not a more or less flexible Sunningdale programme but something truly fundamental and therefore not negotiable, namely a more powerful injection into the life of the people of Northern Ireland all the British virtues of moderation and compromise? Does my hon. Friend agree that the people there could not better demonstrate their loyalty than by upholding such virtues?

Mr. Orme

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I want to make it absolutely clear that by our actions we are not condemning a whole community, just as we do not condemn a whole community for the actions of the Provisional IRA. There are extremists on both sides, on this occasion on the majority side. They are not working in the interests of the majority. The State itself could be in jeopardy as a result of the actions these people are taking.

Mr. Beith

Will the hon. Gentleman take note of the fact that he and the Northern Ireland Executive have support from many quarters in this House in the stand that they have taken? Will he remind the Ulster Workers' Council that the kind of disorder which it seems intent on creating by its actions is more likely to serve the interests of the provisional IRA than those of the people it purports to represent? Does he agree that it is likely to do a great deal of damage to the interests of the elderly, the sick and others in the community of Northern Ireland, who have suffered quite enough already? Can he be more helpful in saying just what the State of Emergency in Northern Ireland amounts to in the way of specific additional powers which he is now able to use?

Mr. Orme

The declaration of the State of Emergency is primarily to deal with the electricity situation and the allocation of essential services. The Ulster Workers' Council is a very odd body. It is non-elected. We still do not know many of the members who purport to be active and operational within it. We do know that some other people are associated with it, people who, in our opinion, should not be associated with such a body. We will not negotiate with the Ulster Workers' Council. We have listened to what it had to say at a meeting. What it is asking for is not negotiable.

Mr. Amery

While agreeing with the Minister in his condemnation of the political strike, may I ask him to recognise that what he is up against is precisely the issue which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition put to the country at the last General Election, namely whether we are to be governed by Parliament or by a pressure group operating through industrial action? Is he further aware that the fact that many supporters of his Government have supported the National Union of Mineworkers and the AUEW in a strike against the law and Mr. Scanlon on the subject of sales to Chile very much weakens his hand in taking the stand which he eloquently developed at the Box just now?

Mr. Orme

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is an authority on foreign affairs and has often spoken about them in this House. He appears, however, to know much less about Northern Ireland than elsewhere. It is wrong to equate normal industrial action by bona fide organisations, which have an elected leadership responsible to their membership, with an organisation backed by a para-military force which in parts of Northern Ireland is closing down shops and extorting money from businesses, employers and employees. I wish that the right hon. Gentleman could hear what many trade unionists in Northern Ireland and many employers have to say about the situation. There is no comparison between that situation and the situation which he mentioned. He does not help by trying to drag that in.

Mr. McNamara

Is my hon. Friend aware that many people support him in his stand, particularly because the feeling behind this movement is not to put the clock back to before Sunningdale but to put it back to 1968, something no one in this House would tolerate? Will my hon. Friend please spell out for us the name of the paramilitary organisations which were represented at the conference to which he referred? Will he say what steps are being taken by the Government, particularly with respect to tomorrow's proposed marches, to help those of the ordinary Protestant working class of Belfast who seek to do so to get to work and back home without fear of intimidation, of their cars being destroyed and without fear of later retribution?

Mr. Orme

If workers demonstrate this week—and" at some time it is the intention of the Northern Ireland Congress of Trades Unions to organise a march led by shop stewards from factories, building sites and shipyards in Northern Ireland, based on the right to work—and if protection is required, I am confident that the Government will see that as much protection as possible is provided. The difficulty is that this is not in the form of a normal type of demonstration or march. We know that, unfortunately, behind the people wearing masks and carrying clubs there are also people carrying guns which can be used in the near future. As to the point about the para-military people at the conference and the organisations associated with them, the people who have been acting as observers have been the UDA, the UVF and the Orange Volunteers.

Mr. Parkinson

May I go back to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) asked the hon. Gentleman? I would urge him to think very seriously about this. It is no good talking about misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the Sunningdale Agreement—[HON MEMBERS: "Question."]—when the Government to which the hon. Gentleman belongs persistently misrepresented and misinterpreted such measures as the Industrial Relations Act——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question.

Mr. Parkinson

I am about to. May just say this——

Mr. Speaker

No. That is just what the hon. Member may not do. He must put it in an interrogative form.

Mr. Parkinson

All I would say to the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The usual form is, "Is the hon. Gentleman aware …?"

Mr. Parkinson

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of us on this side of the House who support a bipartisan approach to solving the Ulster problem have in recent days felt uneasy when listening to right hon. and hon. Members opposite talking about politically-motivated strikes not paying and confrontation not being the way? Does he accept that the Ulster Workers' Council, undemocratic though it may be, is probably far more representative of Ulster workers than many of the bodies which the hon. Gentleman has supported in their politically-motivated actions and in their seeking confrontation to support a political aim?

Mr. Orme

If the hon. Gentleman would like to discuss with the trade union movement in this country any issue he wishes to discuss and then would go to Belfast, where I could arrange for him to meet the para-military organisations, he could come back to this House and give his considered judgment.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are too many important people on the other side belonging to the Northern Ireland Protestants who wish to go back to the 1968 situation? If they were to use their strength and argue on behalf of accepting the recent agreement, we could make strides forward. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that there is a growing feeling and demand among people in this country, yet in a minority, that our troops should be withdrawn from Northern Ireland? If we return to the 1968 situation, that feeling will increase further, and if that happens it will be a terrible calamity for Northern Ireland and for the Irish people as a whole.

Mr. Orme

I thank my hon. Friend. I understand people's feelings about the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland. I know that it is questioned in some quarters, though I believe that the majority of people support the view that the British Army should remain in Northern Ireland until we have moved into a political situation in which there is some stability and peace.

My hon. Friend has referred to the Protestants in Northern Ireland. I think that the Protestant people are being vilified by those who purport to represent them. They should realise that the British Army is there to protect them, as it is to protect the minority, in a difficult situation.

Mr. Bradford

First, does the Minister agree that the majority of people in Northern Ireland have genuine misgivings about the Sunningdale Agreement because of the conflict of interpretation even within the Executive? The majority of people in Northern Ireland deeply regret the need for the strike, and the only method of resolving this complex and difficult situation is by political means, namely, by granting Assembly elections immediately.

Secondly, does the Minister agree that to take the political step of holding Assembly elections is the only means of averting a civil war in which the Army would be opposed to the Protestants of Northern Ireland, a situation which would be exploited by the IRA? We continually hear that we must use political means, but those political means are being denied us.

Mr. Orme

The people giving the greatest succour to the IRA are those in the Ulster Workers Council. In fact, they are on their coat tails and they could create the confrontation which the hon. Member fears and which we are trying to avoid. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of political aspirations in regard to the holding of fresh elections. That is a genuine political aspiration, but the hon. Gentleman has put forward the same point of view as the Ulster Workers Council. I wish that he would condemn the intimidation and paramilitary forces which are at work within a part of the United Kingdom.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is Private Members' time.