HC Deb 29 April 1976 vol 910 cc532-7
2. Mr. Gow

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about the level of violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland during the first three months of 1976, as compared with the first three months of 1975.

3. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about the latest security situation in the Province.

9. Mr. Stonehouse

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many sectarian and political murders have taken place in 1976; and what measures he is taking to reduce the level of this terrorism.

14. Mr. McCusker

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many people have been killed as a result of terrorist activity in County Armagh since 1st January 1976.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

So far this year 111 persons have been killed as a result of terrorism. Of these, 92 were killed in the first three months, 45 of whom were the victims of sectarian or interfactional assassinations. Thirty people have been killed in County Armagh. Between 1st January and 31st March 1975 a total of 40 people were killed. There has been in 1976 some increase in the number of serious attacks against the security forces. There have also been attacks on prison officers, two of them fatal.

In the first three months of this year 294 persons were charged with serious terrorist-type offences, including 40 for murder and 63 for explosives offences. This compares with 266 persons charged with terrorist crimes in the same period in 1975, including 36 for murder and 21 for explosives offences. So far this yeas the total number of persons charged with murder is 44; with attempted murder 21; and for firearms offences 116. Up to 26th April this year, 8.9 tons of explosives have been neutralised or recovered, compared with 9.9 tons for the whole of 1975. Co-operation with the Irish security forces continues to be good.

For the longer term, as I said to the House on 25th March, I and ministerial colleagues in other Departments are examining the action and resources required over the next few years to maintain law and order, how best to achieve the primacy of the police, the size and role of locally recruited forces, and the progressive reduction of the armed forces as soon as is safely practical. The examination continues, but I do not exclude the possibility of taking at least some modest steps in these directions in the foreseeable future.

It is of course for the GOC to decide how to deploy his troops, and it has never been my practice to make public statements on the details. But I can assure the House that force levels and security force activity will continue to reflect operational needs in each part of the Province, and in particular that there will be no change in force levels in and around the South Armagh area so long as the present high threat of violence there persists.

Mr. Gow

We are grateful to the Secretary of State for that detailed statement. Is he aware of the widespread concern in Northern Ireland about two figures he gave, the 92 people killed in the first three months of this year compared with the 40 killed in the first three months of last year? Is the Secretary of State able to give the people of Northern Ireland reassurance that the prospective rate of assassination and violence in the coming months will be lower than it has been in the past three months?

Mr. Rees

I thought that the House would like the details to appear in the Official Report. Of those killed, 45 were victims of sectarian or interfactional assassination, and that is a sizeable proportion. Yesterday afternoon when I drove past Shaw's Bridge in Belfast I learned that someone had placed a bomb underneath a table at which both Protestant and Catholic workmen were sitting. That bomb was put there to kill. I looked at the scene with the police. What on earth can one do to protect people from that sort of thing? If this is what the para-military groups want to do, it is by far the most difficult thing for the security forces to prevent.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

When will the working party report to the Secretary of State and in what form will the report be communicated to the House? Has the working party considered the closer coordination of security functions between the RUC and the Regular Army and the UDR? In view of reports in the Sunday Times and elsewhere of troop withdrawals on a considerable scale after the marching season, can the Secretary of State inform us of the Government's intentions in this matter?

Mr. Rees

I have had a preliminary report from civil servants who report to me and a ministerial group. A great deal of it is the sort of information I should not like to see published. It would certainly be read with great interest by the Provisional IRA. I do not reject the possibility of publishing the report, but, on the basis of the preliminary report, it would be foolish of me to publish it unless there were further parts, which I have not seen, of general interest. Co-operation between the security forces and the police is a matter to be further considered. That is how to obtain the primacy of the police. I have seen many reports that the Army will be out of West Belfast by the end of the month. Like me, the Army and police feel it is hard to read this sort of article, often written by people who get information that a unit is moving out of West Belfast when it is doing so quite properly as part of a tactical redistribution of forces. I sometimes feel that the people who print this stuff are setting out more to help the Provisional IRA than anything else. The movement of forces is not information which should be bandied about, but I can assure the hon. Member that there is no question of pulling the Army out of West Belfast.

Mr. Flannery

Would riot my right hon. Friend agree that no matter what security measures and precautions are taken—and I understand the terrible problems he faces—the situation in Northern Ireland does not seem to get any better? Would he not agree that a new political initiative is now absolutely necessary? Would he, for instance, consider calling a conference devoted exclusively to the problems of Northern Ireland and invite whatever forces he feels should be present?

Mr. Rees

I cannot use the word "better" in relation to the security situation, whose nature has changed considerably. The pure thuggery which is now going on would not be stopped if I found a political initiative. It is endemic and I do not believe that calling a conference would do anything to stop it. The Convention demonstrated the inability of the politicians in Northern Ireland to get together and our next steps must be slow but sure. There is no initiative to solve the Irish question waiting to be pulled out of a drawer in my Department. It is bad for Northern Ireland if we even give the idea that there is an initiative which the Secretary of State is not willing to pull out.

Mr. McCusker

In view of the appalling statistics, which indicate that more than a quarter of the people murdered in Northern Ireland have been killed in my constituency, does the Secretary of State still consider that County Armagh is a special emergency area, as defined by the Prime Minister on 12th January? Can he give us a report on the effectiveness or otherwise of the seven steps announced on that date and say whether he thinks the withdrawal of Army vehicles to 10 miles north of the border in my constituency is likely to help?

Mr. Rees

I know nothing of the withdrawal of Army vehicles to 10 miles north of the border. When I was in the border area the other day, there were vehicles around. What the officer commanding that area decides to do is done in the full knowledge of the problems of the area. The two colonels of the regiments there are excellent. They know what they are doing. County Armagh is a special emergency area. I do not want to talk too much about the movement of soldiers, but the fact that I said in my statement that we are keeping the same number of troops in the area is an indication of our special concern for it.

Mr. Neave

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his reply, but do not the statistics show that this is likely to be a very bad year for explosions and explosive offences? Will he condemn the increase in UVF activity in regard to explosives? Does not the whole security picture show the futility of continuing talks with para-military organisations, which the Irish Minister of Justice so roundly and rightly condemned yesterday?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Member has a point about explosives. We have seized almost as much explosives this year as in the whole of last year, yet the explosions still continue. That shows how much of the stuff there is still around. However, the Army is doing very well.

As for talks with para-military groups, I believe that I am right to stay where I have been for the past year on this matter. There can be no negotiations with people engaged in violence. I have no doubt—and it is very rarely I can say that about anything in Northern Ireland—that there is revulsion against the men of violence on both sides of the community, and this shows itself in the increasing amount of information the police are receiving every day. The basic reason for this in the minority community is that when people are locked up, it is by the due process of law and not by me or any other Secretary of State.

Mr. Fernyhough

When my right hon. Friend says there is no intention even to consider withdrawal from Northern Ireland, can he say whether that view, which he put forward so emphatically, is shared by all the Ministers in his Department?

Mr. Rees

Yes. It is shared emphatically by all the Ministers in my Department and in the Government. I have no doubt about that. If my right hon. Friend is talking about the withdrawal of the Army in the political sense of the term, I believe that that would be a recipe for disaster. However, the withdrawal of the Army is what I am about —though my aim of the past year or 18 months is best expressed as the primacy of the police. I look forward to the day when I can tell the House that there are fewer soldiers and more policemen in Northern Ireland and that the police are accepted throughout the Province.

Mr. Speaker

Order. In view of the grave issues involved in this Question, I allowed very much longer questions and answers than is usual at Question Time. I hope we can now return to reasonable brevity.