HC Deb 04 December 1975 vol 901 cc1917-23
6. Mr. Rost

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is Government policy concerning house searches, screenings and road-stops in South Armagh.

8 Mr. Alexander Fletcher

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will consider raising the military profile in South Armagh.

9 Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress has been made during the current year in securing the effective and continuous enforcement of law in South Armagh; and whether he will make a statement.

10. Mr. McCusker

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he is satisfied with security in South Armagh; and if he will make a statement.

15. Mr. Goodlad

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the Government's policy on military ground patrols in South Armagh.

17. Mr. Miscampbell

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is Government policy concerning military ground patrols in South Armagh.

21. Mr. van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he is satisfied with the liaison between the Army and the RUC in South Armagh.

27. Sir Nigel Fisher

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps he is taking to ensure that the Queen's writ runs in South Armagh and that troops can enforce law and order effectively in that part of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Violence in South Armagh has continued unabated, and the Provisional IRA cease-fire has not been observed there. The Security Forces have responded to the violence and have received good co-operation from the security forces of the Republic, but the task is made difficult by the terrain, the proximity of the border and the limited assistance given by the local people.

The police, supported by the Army, are meeting with success in bringing before the courts the people thought to be responsible for this violence. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in the House on 24th November, 30 people have been charged with terrorist-type offences in South Armagh since 1st August, including two people charged with murder, six with attempted murder, 14 with firearms offences and eight with explosives offences. In addition, about 300 persons have been charged under the ordinary law, for various offences.

The detailed security measures to be taken on the ground, including the number and types of patrols and road checks, are matters for the operational commanders. I give them my full support.

Mr. Rost

When will the Government realise that the country is becoming increasingly angry about our Security Forces being required to risk their lives because they are still having to fight with their hands tied behind their backs? How much more United Kingdom territory will have to be surrendered to enemy occupation before the Government realise that they have a war on their hands?

Mr. Rees

I think that the hon. Gentleman assumes that South Armagh is a built-up area, with thousands of terrorists available to shoot. I do not think that he understands the nature of the terrain or the nature of the border. [Interruption.] I think that there are others who do not understand, either. Within South Armagh, with the small number of people involved, to suggest to the Security Forces that they should treat the area like John Wayne, with the American cavalry, would be absolute nonsense. They have to deal with this situation with the expertise that they have, and I have full confidence in what they are doing down there. They are not outgunned; nor are they outmanned. When the hon. Gentleman criticises in this way, he does it with a lack of knowledge. The only people who are pleased with this sort of thing are the members of the Provisional IRA.

Mr. Fletcher

Will the Secretary of State accept that Question No. 8 was tabled before the most recent Army tragedy in South Armagh?

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's reply, will he say whether the composition of ground patrols in South Armagh is being reviewed by the Army? Will he also comment on the report in The Times, today, in which Mr. Cooney, the Minister of Justice in Dublin, said that the Irish authorities would have provided cover had they been told of the men's vulnerable hillside position during the recent trouble in South Armagh? Are those facts correct? If so, it would appear that we were for some reason denied the co-operation which is essential to our men in South Armagh.

Mr. Rees

In reply to the hon. Gentleman's first point, the operational use of patrols and covert hiding places for observation must be a matter for the Army, and I am not prepared to become involved in it. The decision how to do it is for people down the line. If, sadly, it sometimes goes wrong, that is a matter which they must consider. It is not a question of the Army being stupid, as is sometimes made out, although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman had not done so.

This was a covert hiding place, which nobody could see, established for a particular purpose. There would have been no point in telling anybody else that it was there. To have had, across the border, a police car keeping guard on a covert patrol would rather have defeated the purpose of the patrol. The fact that the Irish authorities were not told about it was not due to a feeling that they would not co-operate. On the contrary there has been co-operation between police and police—Garda and RUC—over the past year. Co-operation between the RUC and the Garda grows and grows every day. It is not between army and army; it is between RUC and Garda. I have nothing but praise for the co-operation that we get on the border. The fact that shots come from across the border and that these soldiers were, in fact, shot from across the border, is something that we must take into account, but there is certainly co-operation.

Mr. Madden

Will my right hon. Friend say whether, in his opinion, the security position in South Armagh and in other parts of Northern Ireland—and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom—would be improved by the introduction of capital punishment for those found guilty of acts of terrorism? Does he agree that all the available evidence points the other way?

Mr. Rees

I cannot give my hon. Friend accurate figures, but between 300 and 400 members of the Republican forces in Northern Ireland have been killed, and that has been no deterrent. Given the nature of martyrdom, in the Irish sense of the term, the death of 300 or 400 has not deterred. To go back to capital punishment in Northern Ireland—and that is my responsibility—would be a retrograde step, and I say that for the same reasons as were given by the previous administration.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

When the right hon. Gentleman said, on a previous occasion, that there was a substantial and permanent military presence in what he called the bandit country of South Armagh, did he mean that effective forces were available, trained and equipped to deal with the undoubtedly difficult problem of this rural borderland no-go area? Will the Secretary of State tell the House and the country today that the Government seriously mean to liberate the oppressed people of South Armagh from the tyranny of terror?

Mr. Rees

In reply to the hon. Gentle-man's last point, the people of South Armagh look not to the North but to Dundalk for their amusement, their religion, and other things, and it is one of the areas in the North—perhaps the only one—that seem not to be a part of the North. I make no other comment about that. Liberation, in that sense of the term, is, I believe, the wrong word to use. What I say to the hon. Gentleman is that the General Officer Commanding is satisfied with the weapons that he has. If he wishes to extend the scope of the weapons available to his soldiers, I shall consider his proposals. [Interruption.] It seems to me that if some of the noise that we are hearing at the moment were related to the sadness and the reality of the situation, the House might do better.

The IRA has used home-made mortars. There is no substantive evidence that they have been employed in South Armagh for more than a year. It certainly is not true that the IRA uses these mortars with pinpoint accuracy. The RPG7 rocket has not been used in South Armagh for more than a year. In the hands of the IRA it has proved to be an unreliable weapon, usually used for publicity. There is no certainty that the IRA has even one Browning machine gun in working order. While it is true that an AK47 Kalashnikov weapon was found in Tyrone, there is no evidence that we are outgunned in South Armagh. We are operating in the sort of country in which large forces are not required, and where what is needed is the sort of approach that the Army is using.

Mr. McCusker

While the Security Forces may not be outgunned, the statistic which impresses me is the evidence that 14 of their members and 12 innocent citizens have been killed in South Armagh, as opposed to one terrorist. Other statistics may be impressive to some, but that is the statistic which impresses me. It gives little consolation to me or to my constituents to know that the spearhead battalion, brought in to reinforce the Security Forces in South Armagh, has been withdrawn.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me how I can accept his comment that part of my constituency is bandit country, when he writes and tells me, a few days later, that the situation is not one of rampant and unchecked lawlessness? When am I to believe him—when I hear him on the wireless or when he writes to me?

Mr. Rees

I have just given the House the figures for arrests on serious charges. One active service unit of the IRA has been broken up recently. It is not something that I particularly wanted to say loud and clear, and although it is time it was said, it would be much better, from the police point of view if it were not. [An HON. MEMBER: "Where are these men?"] The men are in prison. However, I think it is better, on this sort of occasion, not to talk about it but to leave it alone. I have got to defend the Security Forces, and it is right that I should say so.

The shootings, of course, are terrible. The hon. Gentleman comes to see me, and he has every right to do so. On the previous day another hon. Gentleman from the other side of the community came to see me about the terrible deaths in the murder triangle on the other side of the fence. It happens on both sides, and our job is to deal with both sides. South Armagh is different, and the method of dealing with the situation there may require to be different. But the problem is not only in South Armagh. There are Republican killers; there are Loyalist killers. And we have to deal with both.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us are amazed that a part of Armagh now known as South Armagh has been discovered by Members of the Opposition in the last few months? Is it not a fact that South Armagh has been a continuing problem, in terms of the division of Ireland, from the 1920s right through to the present day and the present troubles? We on the Government side of the House, while deploring the loss of life, whether it be among the Security Forces or among civilians or terrorists, will support my right hon. Friend in all his efforts to ensure that law and order, in Northern Ireland runs in South Armagh, based upon evidence, trial, judgment and conviction. We must ensure that the rule of law remains supreme in our country.

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said. South Armagh is different from other parts of Northern Ireland, where sectarian murders are affecting the other side of the community. There is a particular problem in South Armagh. The fact that I defend the Security Forces and have given facts to the House about the Army not being outgunned and outmanned does not mean there is not a problem. Hon. Members who have been there know the nature of the border area. The three soldiers were shot from across the border, and we have to put our minds to the weakness in the border area.

Press speculation about criticism of the Government in the Republic is not true. Whether it be the case of civilians travelling across from the South, one of whom was killed near Newry, or anything else, we have to put our minds to these problems and find a way through them. The Army has my support. It does not need large numbers of troops and police; it needs the support of the community, and support on both sides of the border.

Mr. Miscampbell

I accept that the troops may not be outgunned, but will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that he will keep sufficient troops in South Armagh to ensure that if patrols get into difficulties they can be reinforced and rescued immediately?

Mr. Rees

The answer is firmly "Yes". In terms of reinforcements and methods involved, and how this may look in Press reports, I have confidence not only in the GOC but in the commander of the battalion in South Armagh, and all of his men. I know them, I was down there only a few days before the soldiers were shot. I have been advised that when men are shot, or other incidents occur, they do not always happen according to the textbook. My advisers have been in the war and know it from first-hand. I know it only in a different context.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Will the Secretary of State accept that only he has the necessary knowledge to settle the question of the timing of the release of further detainees from South Armagh? Does he agree that the strategy that he is following in relation to detention has its roots very deep in preparations made by the last Conservative Government, upon whom changes of this kind, as I know, were urged by, among others, some of the toughest and most professional policemen in the Province, including one of great distinction in Armagh? In those circumstances, will the right hon. Gentleman understand that he has a much wider measure of steady support from the Opposition Benches than he might suppose, for the strategy that he is following?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the hon. Member. I know that he was involved in the detention process. I am also grateful for what he said about the nature of the people in Northern Ireland who are opposed to the use of detention. In Northern Ireland there is large support all round, and not just from the minority community, for ending detention.