HC Deb 02 December 1976 vol 921 cc1135-40
1. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about the public relations of the security forces.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Roy Mason)

Public relations for the Army are handled by Army information services at Headquarters Northern Ireland and are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. Public relations for the RUC are a matter for the Chief Constable. I know that he attaches great importance to this work, and the force is engaged in an extensive programme with a view to increasing public support for the maintenance of law and order.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition applaud the fillip that the right hon. Gentleman has personally given to the Ulster Defence Regiment at a time when it has been bearing terrible casualties, coincident with vile slanders from certain politicians? Should not all who hold or aspire to responsibility in Northern Ireland back the security forces and encourage recruitment from across the community instead of exaggerating the faults of a few?

Mr. Mason

I am much obliged for what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is tragic that in recent months the UDR has been coming under attack, especially in off-duty hours. This is the most callous and most discriminate form of killing that the Provisional IRA in particular has embarked upon in recent weeks. It is up to us all, on both sides of the House and on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, to give the UDR all the support and recognition it requires.

Mr. Powell

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in conjunction with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, urgently correct the unfortunate false report in the Press in Northern Ireland which attributed offences committed on duty to members of the UDR—a most damaging and false statement?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. It should be quickly rectified. I felt some sympathy for the operations of the UDR in recent weeks and I went out on patrol with its members one night in order to give them some recognition of the difficult task they are having to perform. There are thousands of members now. Though, occasionally, one may slip through the screening process, by far the majority are good, honest men, who are doing their best for the security of Northern Ireland.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

On the subject of publicising the names of individual officers and men who render safe bombs and explosives in Northern Ireland, did the Secretary of State for Defence discuss this with the right hon. Gentleman, as he promised me he would? If so, what was decided?

Mr. Mason

From my previous responsibility, I am aware of the difficulties here as, I am sure, is the hon. and gallant Gentleman. It would be difficult quickly to name those members, especially of the ATO force, which is responsible for bomb disposal, even when they get gallantry awards, because of the risk of those names being listed and earmarked for assassination in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Carson

Is the Secretary of State aware that certain members of the SDLP have made a vicious and wicked propaganda campaign against the UDR? Will he agree that a good Government public relations exercise is essential to counteract such statements? Is the Secretary of of State also aware that political maggots, namely Canavan, Mallon and Cooper, are responsible for the deaths of UDR men in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mason

Public information and propaganda are extremely important in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise. Very often, of course, the propaganda war takes higher priority than some of the killings that take place there. But I hope that the hon. Member will not start chastising members of political parties on that score. He will recognise, I am sure, that in the Press on Monday my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast. West (Mr. Fitt), very courageously, viciously attacked the Provisional IRA for its killings against its own Catholic people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Fitt

Will my right hon. Friend deprecate the outlandish and slanderous language that has just been used by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson), in which he sought to lay the blame and the responsibility for the deaths of the UDR men on the shoulders of the SDLP? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the full responsibility for those deaths can be laid at the feet of the Provisional IRA, and that every member of the SDLP, including those mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast, North, has openly condemned the IRA for every one of those killings? Does my right hon. Friend also agree—this is most important—that over a number of years certain factions, namely the UVF and other Loyalist para-military organisations, have been able to infiltrate the UDR, bringing no praise on that regiment?

Mr. Mason

I would not want to start, in this House, an argument along the political front and the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. Suffice it for me to say that the Provisional IRA has itself been responsible for many bombings, assassinations and, I believe, sectarian killings. But I believe that the UVF assassination squads are equally guilty. Most of the senior and responsible politicians in Northern Ireland, however, are keeping well away from both of them.

Mr. Speaker

I allowed longer on that Question than will be possible for others.

8. Mr. Goodhart

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the security situation.

Mr. Mason

The main features of the security situation since last reported to the House have been some particularly brutal sectarian murders, a number of attacks on the security forces, a high success rate in bringing the gunmen and criminals to justice, and the further decline in popular support for the Provisional IRA.

The fact that already this year a total of 1,183 people have been charged with terrorist crimes, including 116 with murder and 103 with attempted murder, is a measure of the inroads now being made into the ranks of the terrorists. In the same period, 119 people have been murdered as a result of sectarian and inter-factional assassination.

Mr. Goodhart

I welcome the robust tribute that the Secretary of State paid earlier to the Ulster Defence Regiment, but does he recall that his predecessor told us on 2nd July that there would be a substantial increase in the full-time element of the regiment? Can he now tell us how many new full-time UDR men are being recruited?

Mr. Mason

No. I am sorry, but I cannot oblige the hon. Gentleman and the House at this moment. The increase of "conrates"—that is, the full-time UDR—is certainly under urgent consideration, and I hope that when I ask the House for the renewal of the emergency provisions I shall be able to say something useful.

Mr. Powell

When the right hon. Gentleman use the word "sectarian" in the technical and specialised sense in which we in this House understand that he is using it in that kind of answer, will he make clear to the general public that there is no question of great masses of people in Northern Ireland, whose religions differ, being hostile to one another or clashing with one another, but that both lie under the terror of a small number of gunmen and that of the two religious communities, the Roman Catholics suffer more from the terror?

Mr. Mason

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman is correct. I concur with what he says. There are a few gangsters—callous murderers—in the ranks of the UVF, the UFF and the Provisional IRA who are responsible for these sectarian killings. The vast majority of Northern Ireland people are not involved and do not have that hatred and emnity for each other.

Furthermore, I notice that in Great Britain, as the Northern Irelanders would term it—namely, England, Scotland and Wales—we are boasting that we have got rid of the "English disease" and that we have the best industrial record of the past 25 years. In industry in Northern Ireland it is twice as good as that. To the workers themselves when they cross the threshold of their factory gates there is no sectarian divide.

Ms. Colquhoun

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the Government's policies in Northern Ireland have failed abysmally and that they fail every day that people hear on the news that someone has been murdered or is in trouble? Will he not seek help from the United Nations in solving the problems of Northern Ireland? Is he aware that as long as he keeps British troops in Northern Ireland there will be no solving the problems there, and that he may as well admit it sooner rather than later and not allow the situation constantly to deteriorate as he, the Government and the appalling consensus in this British House of Commons do at present?

Mr. Mason

I am sorry, but I absolutely and fundamentally disagree with my hon. Friends analysis of the Northern Ireland situation. Now that we have ended detention, every assassin who is caught and charged for murder, attempted murder or the handling of explosives is going behind bars. He is going into gaol and being taken out of society for a long time. I have given the figures this afternoon to prove that this policy is working.

The RUC is now more effective, morale is high, recruiting is good, and the regional crime squads are really tackling the assassins. The Provisional IRA knows this, and so do the UVF and the UFF, and they are now struggling to find propaganda weapons against Her Majesty's Government. One of the problems is, of course, that they are now trying to operate with sniping tactics against the UDR when they are off duty, and the RUC and other security forces when they are on patrol. This is a British Government responsibility, and not one for the United Nations.