HC Deb 21 May 1974 vol 874 cc162-5
4. Mr. Marten

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will strengthen military control of the frontier between Northern Ireland and Eire.

Mr. Mason

The deployment of the Armed Forces within Northern Ireland is a matter for the General Officer Commanding. In deciding how to allocate the forces under his command he naturally takes into account all the operational factors involved including those outlined by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, last Thursday.— [Vol. 873, c. 1435-36.]

Mr. Marten

Does not the Secretary of State agree that anyone can cross the border by keeping off the roads? The longer this situation continues, the more difficult it becomes for our forces to cope with the IRA. Is there not scope for the British Government and the Southern Irish Government jointly trying to exercise more control over frontier-crossing once the situation in Belfast has been restored?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he approached that supplementary question. As he knows, there are about 300 miles of border and 280 crossings. We have border patrols, in which the Ulster Defence Regiment plays a prominent part. To cover areas where there are not any crossings we have helicopter patrols as well. Certainly we want more cooperation from the South, and in recent times that has been forthcoming.

Mr. Dalyell

Is the Secretary of State saying that it is an impossible job?

Mr. Mason

No, not impossible, but obviously difficult.

Mr. Wm. Ross

Does the right hon.Gentleman agree that spiking the roads is of no use because the IRA can operate a shuttle service?

Mr. Mason

We recognise the difficulties. To try to help the British forces in the North, we have been trying to seal off some of the roads. It would be impossible to have a Berlin-type wall along the frontier.

Mr. Molloy

Is my right hon. Friend prepared to consider consultations between his opposite number in Eire and police forces on both sides of the border, which might make a useful contribution to reducing terrorist activities?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. If the authorities in Southern Ireland were prepared to talk along those lines, we would certainly be willing to comply.

17. Mr. Gow

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what were the total strengths of the Armed Forces serving in Ulster on 1st Januray 1974 and on the latest available date.

Mr. Mason

The strength of the Regular Armed Forces engaged on security duties in Northern Ireland on 1st January 1974 was approximately 15,500. Recent reinforcements have temporarily brought this figure up to around 16,000. The strength of the UDR—including women members—on 1st January and 15th May was 7,927 and 7,754 respectively.

Mr. Gow

Is the Secretary of State able to confirm that the level of British troops in Ulster at the moment is not below the level for which the Commander-in-Chief in Ulster has asked? Secondly, when deciding on the future level of British troops in Ulster will he bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of people living there want the strength of the British troops to be maintained and that any reduction in their number would give comfort only to the extremists on both sides?

Mr. Mason

On the first point I assure the hon. Gentleman that Her Majesty's Government have responded to the request by the General Officer Commanding on the spot by granting him the troop additions that he requires. Secondly, I agree that while we have the present amount of terrorism and violence in Northern Ireland the troops must be maintained at this level and that until we build up the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment no troops can be withdrawn.

Mr. George Lawson

Despite the sniping from this side of the House, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the great majority of people who appreciate the nature of the difficulties in Northern Ireland wish us to continue to defend law and order in the Province?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his support. I think that most hon. Members will welcome what he said.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Is there any chance that the tours of duty by Her Majesty's Forces in Northern Ireland could be cut shorter than they are at present? Is there any limit on the tours of duty that officers and men are asked to undertake?

Mr. Mason

I am sorry to inform the hon. Gentleman that there is no limit on the tours that they are asked to undertake. It is a worrying feature that they have to go back so often. As the hon. Gentleman will have noticed recently, the Devon and Dorset Regiment has been worried because it has to go back for the third time covering a Christmas period. While the terrorism and violence continues in Northern Ireland it will not be possible to lower the levels of troops there and consequently lengthen the period between their tours of duty.

Mr. Dalyell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is a question not of sniping but of facing the reality that 16,000 English and Scottish soldiers will not help solve the historic problem of Ireland?

Mr. Mason

The House has heard my hon. Friend's views. He has expanded on them before. I must reiterate that while the violence continues the force levels must remain as they are. If the situation worsens they will have to be increased.