HC Deb 21 July 1975 vol 896 cc37-43
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement.

On Thursday 10th July, in South Armagh near the border village of Forkhill, the security forces saw what appeared to be a suspect device possibly containing explosives. This was kept under observation until Thursday 17th July, when an Army patrol went to deal with it. As it approached, an explosive was detonated from a distance. Four soldiers were killed and one was seriously wounded. A man has been arrested and has appeared in court charged with murder. The House will join with me in expressing sympathy for the relatives of the dead and injured.

The Crossmaglen PIRA claimed responsibility. It has used the excuse that it was avenging the death in Bessbrook on 4th June of one of its members and the death of a man in Belfast on 13th July. These are specious justifications. In the Bessbrook incident a man was shot by the security forces whilst trying to throw a bomb into a crowded bar. The Crossmaglen Provisionals had set up their ambush at least three days before the Belfast incident.

Overall there has been a substantial reduction in the violence attributable to the Provisional IRA. It has never ceased completely, and particularly in the South Armagh area shootings and booby traps have continued, although less frequently and less successfully. The Government are very conscious of the desire—indeed the longing—of the people of Northern Ireland from all parts of the community for peace and a return to normality. The Government have, therefore, responded sincerely to the reduction in activity by the PIRA by a very substantial lowering of activity by the Army, but without lowering its guard. In normal circumstances violence should be dealt with by the police, and by bringing criminals before the courts and not by detention. So far in 1975, the police have charged 640 persons with security type offences including 66 with murder and 59 with attempted murder. Also, as I have said, a man has been charged with the murder of one of the soldiers killed last Thursday.

Accusations have been made of so-called Army harassment. I pay tribute to the good will and restraint shown by the security forces in carrying out our policy of maintaining a level of security force activity related to the level of violence. They have done neither more nor less than this. They have my full support.

As I have said before, I want an end to detention. But this will depend on the progress towards the cessation of violence and on the continued success of the police in bringing criminals before the courts. It will, however, clearly be necessary to retain for some time to come the power to detain people, and I shall not hesitate to use this power if I am satisfied that it is needed.

In the light of all these factors, I must under the law exercise my own judgment on releases. I have to make the judgment on each individual case, balancing the right of the community to be protected against the right of the individual to his freedom. Decisions are difficult, but I will not shirk them. I do not know whether the Provisionals from Crossmaglen want to see detainees released, but I shall not be deflected from what I think is right.

The big questions I have to ask myself are: whether the leaders of the Provisional IRA are able to control their followers, for example, in South Armagh; whether such actions do not make the ceasefire meaningless; and whether they will not provoke reactions in retaliation against innocent Catholics.

With every incident and each new Provisional statement such as the one it made today, there is speculation about the end of the cease-fire or changes in Government policy. The Government's policy is clear and has been explained fully in this House. It is that we are looking for a lasting and permanent peace and for a genuine and sustained cessation of violence which will create a new situation and make further progress possible on the basis of the statements I have made. The Provisional's political aims as restated today are well known. Provisional Sinn Fein is free to pursue them by peaceful and legitimate means. I must make it clear that the Government have not entered into any agreement.

I have already informed the House of the changing nature of violence in Northern Ireland in recent months. All those who engage in violence in Northern Ireland should be considering their position. The British Government want peace in Northern Ireland as do most of the people there. What is needed is a positive and continuing response from the PIRA and from other groups involved.

Mr. Neave

The Opposition wish to express their deep sympathy with the families of those who died in defence of the people of Northern Ireland as a result of this contemptible ambush and at a time of the alleged IRA cease-fire. The Secretary of State said that the political aims of the Provisionals were well known. Is it not obvious that the Provisional IRA has not given up its political objective of removing British sovereignty from Northern Ireland, in defiance of Her Majesty's Government's resolve and the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland? Is it not a fact that the known terrorist leaders are still at large as a result of the Government's policy, and will they now be arrested?

Mr. Rees

Over 650 people have been arrested. I can arrest only those who have broken the law. If the hon. Gentleman knows of any people who have broken the law, and where they are, we shall arrest them. The law must be carried out. If the Provisional Sinn Fein want political aims with which the Government disagree, I have no complaints. The only complaint concerns political aims for which men kill. The more those political aims are discussed, the better it is for Northern Ireland. What matters in Northern Ireland is that the people of Northern Ireland should explain whether they agree or disagree with those aims. The hon. Gentleman will find that whether he or I disagree with them does not matter much in Northern Ireland.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that people will generally welcome his statement not to be deflected from the policy which he has pursued up to now with such marked success both for the people in Northern Ireland and to the contentment of this nation? Is he aware that the people in this country support him in all his actions in bringing before the courts those people who are responsible for terrorist outrages and breaking the peace, from whatever side of the community in Northern Ireland they come?

Mr. Rees

Over 600 people were brought before the courts this year. They break about 50 per cent. either way, from either community. The security forces act against those who break the law, from whatever part of the community they come. The best way to act is through the courts. Both communities in Northern Ireland support action through the courts. If we have to resume detention—which may well be for other reasons—we divide the communities. The Government want to act through the courts.

Mr. McCusker

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is not much point in his acting sincerely towards a phoney cease-fire which is controlled by people who are patently insincere? Will he concede that this brutal and disgusting murder scatters the last vestige of this so-called cease-fire? He must be conscious that there are people in Northern Ireland, and I am sure throughout the United Kingdom, who find it extremely hard to understand that this Government can continue to talk with people who are accomplices, in fact, of these murderers.

Mr. Rees

I could not with my hand on my heart say that I do not speak with many people in Northern Ireland who are accomplices of a lot of funny people in Northern Ireland. I do not say that of the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect. I should not want anyone to think that I am referring to him, as I respect him and the stand which he takes against violence in Northern Ireland. He knows Crossmaglen. The problem of Crossmaglen has not existed only since 1969. I can speak only for our side of the border, but it is an area which has been curious in this respect for very many years. The cease-fire is not phoney. In fact there has been a great fall in the level of violence since the turn of the year. The cease-fire is not complete. But every day that goes by in which fewer and fewer people are killed, I am sure, is to the advantage of the long-term future of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dalyell

Is the Secretary of State aware that even in the aftermath of such a lamentable incident, there are many of us who support him on the question of detention without trial? But could he say what evidence there is that those who have been released have subsequently indulged in criminal activities?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. I am sure that it is right to proceed through the courts. I am sure that it is right to proceed in Northern Ireland as we would in the rest of the United Kingdom. There may be times when this is not possible, but there has been a great break through in this respect in the past six months. I have no evidence, from the nature of the violence, and nor have the security forces of a return to violence by those who have been released.

We have to take into account what happens in certain circumstances to those who have been released, not only from detention but from prison. In certain circumstances in both parts of the community—whether or not people have been in gaol and have been properly sentenced—there is every chance of a return to violence. I am informed, however, that the families of a number of those detained are getting them to leave the country. Wives, mothers and fathers are having an effect. Good is coming out of this. That is not to say that at the fringes there may not be people who may return to violence in the longer run, although I have no evidence of this as yet.

Mr. Beith

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that we share his abhorrence of these foul murders at Forkhill and the sympathy expressed for the relatives of those involved? Has he noted the speculation that this was some kind of curtain raiser for a new campaign of violence that will extend into England and Scotland? Does he not agree that it would be right to assume that such a campaign would profit those involved not at all, that this House is not prepared to be deflected and will listen only to those who want to talk and not to those who throw bombs?

Mr. Rees

I agree that this House would want to listen to those who want to talk. I have no evidence in the way the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Over the centuries in Ireland people have been bred on both sides of the community who will kill first and talk after. It would be wrong not to speculate at least about what might happen in the longer run. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that those who believe, in the face of many years of history, that we can be bombed and killed into changing our minds ought firmly to be told that they are wrong.

Mr. Burden

Does not the right hon. Gentleman consider that the most disquieting feature of the incident in which four soldiers were killed is the fact that three or four days passed during which this device was observed in apparently open country? It has come to light since that it was detonated from some considerable distance. What examination of the area around was carried out in order to find the control post and the mechanism that detonated the bomb?

Mr. Rees

The security forces and the GOC in charge of them are fully aware of what happens in cases such as this. The trip wires and long-distance wires are carefully hidden. However, this is the hazard that men who deal with this sort of thing have to face. It would be wrong at this stage to believe that there was an error. The situation needs to be investigated. I am afraid—as I know from talking to the men—that this is a hazard of life that the men undertake when doing this sort of work. I am sure that the security forces knew what they were doing and they were right to leave the bomb to give it a chance to blow up of its own accord.