HC Deb 22 May 1974 vol 874 cc379-86
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a brief statement on the situation in Northern Ireland in view of the involvement of further troops.

The Government repeated last night that they will continue with their duty of preserving the life of Northern Ireland and helping to maintain essential services. They will not be intimidated or blackmailed into departing from the Constitution Act or into negotiation with the Ulster Workers' Council. Nor will they be diverted from their avowed intention of proceeding with the Sunningdale agreement, which left a number of matters for further discussion in the context of the Sunningdale package as a whole.

The House will wish to know of the present situation. Security operations have been mounted to achieve important and specific objectives. Yesterday, some of the major access roads into Belfast were reopened and they have been kept open. Last night and today road blocks were removed in a number of areas including the Village, Sandy Row, Donegal Road, East Belfast, Shankill and most of North Belfast. The operation was completed without serious incident. A number of Protestant estates are still sealed off and some roads are blocked in the Province. In some areas blocks are put back shortly after they have been taken down. The security forces' operations, which are still continuing, have had a marked effect. More people are at work in the centre of Belfast and more shops are open. Further troops are being made available.

The effects of the strike are serious. Great efforts have been made by the Northern Ireland Executive and the public authorities in the Province, with the assistance of Her Majesty's Government, to maintain essential services and supplies. The strike hits mainly at the ordinary people of the province, and hardship cannot be avoided until it stops. I shall keep the House informed of further developments.

Mr. Pym

We are grateful to the Secretary of State for keeping the House informed. It is clear that the situation in Northern Ireland continues to be extremely grave. Is he aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends believe that he was absolutely right to insist on removing the barriers? It is essential that the roads are kept open.

What is the right hon. Gentleman's assessment of the support accorded to the strike by the general public? Second, has he any further plans for action to try to dispel the misconception in Northern Ireland about Government policy for the Province? Third, will he indicate the extent of the stoppage in industry and will he give further information about the effect on agriculture, which is important in the Province and which has been hit hard?

Will the right hon. Gentleman reiterate and reassure the House yet again that the Government will take every possible step to maintain the life of the community?

Mr. Rees

I can give the right hon. Gentleman the firm assurance for which he asks and which, as he acknowledges, was contained in my statement. The security forces, which are being increased, are dealing with the problem of the barricades.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for an estimate of the number of people involved in the strike. It is clear to me that a large proportion of the population wishes to get back to normality. But returning to normality is easier said than done in the face of intimidation of the most vicious sort, not only at the place of work but where people live.

The right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Conservative Government, who brought about the Sunningdale Agreement with the Government of the Irish Republic and the three political parties in the North. Unfortunately, very few people have read the Sunningdale Agreement carefully, and a version—under Sunningdale as a sort of nom de plume, as it were—is being put about to suggest that there is a sell out to the South. Sunningdale is not a sell out. I hope that people will study the agreement carefully.

The effects of the strike on industry vary in different parts of the Province. The supply of electricity is about 30 per cent. plus, but the supply varies with the type of industry involved. Continuous process plants, for example, which absorb large amounts of electricity, are not working, and of course Harland and Wolff, the major employer in Belfast, is not working either.

In agriculture, the problem depends on the nature of the product. For example, pig farmers are in trouble because of feed difficulties and because the plant which processes pig meat is not working. There are serious problems for agriculture—of that there is no doubt. Perhaps in many respects they are more serious than those affecting other industries

Mr. Stallard

Will my right hon. Friend accept that he has the greatest good will from Members on both sides of the House in the task he has to perform in Northern Ireland? I personally wish him well and appreciate the informative statements he makes. But will not my right hon. Friend also accept that there is great apprehension among many people in this country who are interested in the affairs of the six counties that leading politicians and, sadly, trade union leaders in the Province do not seem to represent or to speak for the people they purport to represent? Will my right hon. Friend therefore take steps to augment the advice he receives from what appear to be out-of-touch civil servants and their advisers by having early meetings with the newly-legalised Sinn Fein and the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force, as well as the Ulster Loyalist Council, who represent thousands of people hitherto not consulted?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. Of course I will talk, and have talked, with political leaders of all sorts, seeking advice over a wide range. But I must make it abundantly clear—and three months in Northern Ireland has taught me this even if I did not know it before —that what no one in this House or elsewhere who believes in democracy can do in that island is talk with people who believe that they can get what they want with the bomb and the gun. If that were done, all that has been built up in recent years would be finished, and I would not like to think of the outcome in such a case.

Mr. David Steel

Will the right hon. Gentleman re-emphasise to the people of Northern Ireland when he speaks on these matters that, both in his actions in the last couple of days and in his longer-term policy in the Province, he has the support of the overwhelming majority of the House of Commons? Will he at the same time convey to them that those of us representing other parts of the United Kingdom are receiving in our postbags clear evidence that the population is becoming increasingly irritated by the intransigence of those who claim loyalty to the Crown but are causing great costs, both to the ordinary people of the Province and to the United Kingdom tax payers as a whole?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I hope that it will be noted that I speak for the vast majority of the House of Commons when I speak as I do in Northern Ireland. He is quite right. Words have different meanings in Northern Ireland. One word which I find difficult to accept is "loyalist" from people who are seeking to impose their will on the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly when they say that they are doing it in order to remain part of the United Kingdom. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman and hope that his words will be noted.

Mr. Dalyell

What does my right hon. Friend mean by his statement that further troops will be made available? How many will be made available? Does he accept that some of us have the gloomiest forebodings about more soldiers being subjected to the conflict in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Rees

If my hon. Friend is suffering the gloomiest forebodings, then he is in extremely good company with people in Northern Ireland. No one is intending to drag the whole of the British Army into Northern Ireland, but, in what is a part of the United Kingdom, I must ensure that men who want to go about their business in a normal fashion can do so without road blocks and without intimidation and that we maintain the essentials of life. Not only in Northern Ireland but on a much wider scale in other parts of the world, one sees how law and order—about which some hon. Members were talking yesterday—can break down. When it does, the consequences can be extremely serious.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

But how can misconceptions be removed if there are no talks? Is it the policy of Her Majesty's Government that they will never talk to people who are involved in industrial action with a political motive?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman asks how misconceptions can be removed, and I will tell him. They can be removed if hon. Members like himself would say clearly what they mean when they visit Ireland and do not support people who would bomb or strike their way to the conference table.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I do not support them. Ministers talked to the IRA.

Mr. Rees

When the hon. Gentleman refers to talks in the way he has done, he is giving hope to people who believe that they can drive us to talks. I believe in the men who were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, out of which came the Executive, and any words which could weaken them will only help to bring down what has been built up in recent years.

Mr. McNamara

May I return to the substance of the first part of my right hon. Friend's statement? Can he give an assurance to those members of the minority population who live in isolated communities and towns on the east coast, and so on, that their interests will be looked after, because there has been some concern about minorities caught behind the barricades? Secondly, looking at the general problem in Northern Ireland, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that he has adequate contingency plans to ensure that there is proper provision of fresh food and basic essentials of life to the ordinary communities in Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant alike?

Mr. Rees

In some areas, minorities are more of a minority than elsewhere, and we have this problem very much in mind. The security forces will do all they can to help them. We have been working on contingency plans over the last ten days—dealing, for example, with water supply and food. We are doing all we can to maintain essential supplies. We are dealing only with essential supplies because there is no question of going beyond that point. That is our aim.

Mr. Peter Mills:

Will the right hon. Gentleman be a little more forthcoming about his plans to assist agriculture in Northern Ireland, particularly in getting essential feeding stuffs through to the farms, for otherwise further thousands of animals will be slaughtered? Could he be more definite, for this is essential to the farmers of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Rees

As the hon. Gentleman knows, from his knowledge of Northern Ireland agriculture while serving in the Conservative Government, this is a major problem. The Northern Ireland Executive, who are responsible for agriculture, are putting their minds to it, I assure the hon. Gentleman. The situation has, in fact, improved in the last day or two. But while we can do something about feeding stuffs, there is little we can do in those plants which require electricity for dealing with animals after they are killed. This arises from the shortage of electricity as part of the overall strike action, and I cannot offer the hon. Gentleman hope on that aspect.

Mr. Delargy

Will my right hon. Friend convey the appreciation of the House to the British Trades Union Congress and particularly to Mr. Len Murray, its General Secretary, for his very courageous efforts yesterday to try to settle the strike?

Mr. Rees

I met Mr. Murray the other evening, and I assure my hon. Friend that he knows our thoughts on this matter. It did take great courage to join the march in that part of Belfast, knowing full well that intimidation and the like would make it difficult. It took great courage. Indeed, great courage is being shown by people in both the majority and minority communities at the moment. It is not courage that is lacking over there; what is lacking is good sense—and we hope that people of good sense will reassert themselves.

Mr. Tugendhat

When the Secretary of State conveys the words of the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) to the people of Northern Ireland, will he also remind them of the petition organised by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved)? Will he point out to the people of Northern Ireland, especially those who claim to be Loyalists, that those of us who wish to see Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of the population wants it to be so will find it increasingly difficult to withstand the pressure of our constituents against the activities of the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford while the Protestant section which claims loyalty to the Crown behaves in this way?

Mr. Rees

All of our postbags tell us this. As I said earlier, the word "Loyalist" means different things in different parts of the country. It is important that people over there should realise this. The worst aspect of this is shown in the photographs we have seen of the way people who call themselves Loyalists behaved towards Len Murray yesterday. That is the sort of thing done by these people who walk around with hoods over their faces and who belong to paramilitary organisations. Acting like that is not what I understand by being British. They have certainly got the meaning of the word "Loyalist" wrong.

Mr. Duffy

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what is novel about the present policy involving vicious intimidation in Belfast is that it is no longer being directed towards traditional victims but is being carried out at a cost to members of the community to whom these people belong? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that there are no people at risk because they have been cut off by barricades or because they have tried to go to work one day this week?

Mr. Rees

The plain fact is that a large proportion of people were afraid to leave their estates. There were people around when the march started, I am advised, who were waiting in shop doorways trying to see which way the wind was blowing. Even they did not add up to a large number. People did not put themselves at risk. I agree with my hon. Friend that they knew they would be at risk if they were to move and show that they wanted to get to work. This is the problem of intimidation. We are trying to deal with it in a variety of ways. One of them is by removing road blocks. It is extremely difficult to deal with the intimidation of the sort we have seen, particularly when on some of the estates roving bands of young people, perhaps not composed of many members, are making it difficult for ordinary members of the community.

Mr. Pym

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are grateful to him for keeping the House informed? I think it would be fair to say that the House would entirely understand if he as Secretary of State is in Northern Ireland while statements are made here by one of his Ministers. The House was extremely generous towards my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) when he was constantly in Northern Ireland and other Ministers made statements on his behalf here. We would like to make it clear that whenever the right hon. Gentleman feels it right to be in Northern Ireland, then in Northern Ireland he should be.

Mr. Rees

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that. He will know that with the curious situation in this House at the moment about voting, there has been an extra problem. I know that all parts of the House are being helpful in this respect.