HC Deb 07 June 1976 vol 912 cc927-32
Mr. Neave (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ire-land whether he will make a statement about the violence in Belfast during the weekend when 10 people were reported killed.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

In the 72 hours ending at 8 a.m. today 10 people were killed in acts of violence in Northern Ireland and 85 people were injured, a number seriously. All but one of the victims were civilians. The incidents occurred primarily in Belfast and took the form of a series of retaliatory attacks on individuals and public houses mounted by small groups in both communities. There were in all nine bomb attacks and 28 shooting incidents.

The security forces have responded by concentrating on intensive checking and patrolling, especially in Belfast. A full-scale operation has been in progress, involving strong forces of troops and police. The necessary forces are available for this actvity, which is planned and implemented through close co-operation and co-ordination at all levels of the Army and the RUC. I want to make it clear again that the Army force level in Northern Ireland is the same as at the end of last year, and no reduction is contemplated.

The police will continue, with increasing resources, to seek out those responsible and bring them before the courts. Already over 500 people have been charged with serious offences this year.

Mr. Neave

While I condemn this sickening and cowardly violence and those responsible and those who fermented it in some cases, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can still hold out no hope to the suffering people of Northern Ireland of more effective security measures after his ministerial Committee has been sitting for more than five and a half months? Is he also aware that there is another step open to him to restore morale, namely, to stop his reckless, dangerous and misguided dealings with the political spokesmen of the IRA?

Mr. Rees

I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the ministerial Committee is not meant to come up with some magic formula for dealing with the violence. It must look at long-term needs concerning the size of the forces and the weapons they require. If there were a magic panacea it would have been used by successive Governments in the past five years. There is no such panacea to solve the problem of violence in Northern Ireland. As for talks, all over Northern Ireland the security forces meet people in clubs and so on. I am not engaged in talks with anyone. I am engaged, quite correctly, in testing the views in the community of Northern Ireland. This is of great value to the security forces, and has been so in recent weeks.

Since I left Northern Ireland at 1 o'clock today I have heard that 20 people are assisting the police with their inquiries into the weekend's violence, two people have been charged, and police inquiries are continuing. Further arrests may follow.

On Saturday night and Sunday I was more than ever impressed by the work of the Army and the police, and the cooperation at all levels in Belfast. They behaved extraordinarily well. If they had not been there the retaliatory killing, from pub to pub, by small groups of people, would have led to far greater casualties than those I have reported today.

Mr. Neave

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has not answered my second question? I was not talking about talks in clubs. I was talking about his official dealings with the Provisional Sinn Fein.

Mr. Rees

I have made it clear time and again to the hon. Gentleman that in the course of the past year it was valuable to have such talks. They have not been nearly so great as the Press has made out. I reserve the right to hold such talks if they are necessary in the future. In the penumbra of Northern Ireland, where large numbers of people are Republicans, it is valuable for me to do so, but I am not in business to negotiate with murderers on either side. I give full support to the security forces, who have done extraordinarily well.

Mr. Powell

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in the face of events such as these, any action, however well-intention and however understandable, by private persons or groups of persons can contribute nothing to security, and can only endanger it? Does the Secretary of State accept that my hon. Friends and myself wholly and exclusively support the security forces of the Crown, which alone in the long run can prove to all concerned that there will be no practical result from actions such as took place over the weekend?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about supporting the security forces. Given the wide penumbra in Northern Ireland of people who call themselves Loyalists, I agree with him. There are, perhaps, those who do not understand that there are many brands of Loyalists and many brands of Republicans in Northern Ireland. With regard to private armies, the right hon. Gentleman is correct. I can only regret that the words of a few people are sometimes dressed up so that when it is said by the media that groups are out searching and using road blocks, in the end there are more members of the Press out than anyone else.

Mr. Corbett

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the answer to this senseless sectarian round of slaughter in Northern Ireland lies not in this House but among the people of that Province? Will he make it clear that he would welcome an initiative by the parties represented in this House, by the Churches and the trade unions, irrespective of political divisions, in the form of an appeal to the people of Northern Ireland to back my right hon. Friend's attempt to re-establish the rule of law?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. What he has said is quite true. I was in Northern Ireland over the weekend, and for me one of the astonishing things was that this ghastly thing can happen in one small part of Belfast while in the rest of Belfast it is not known about. The people there watch it on television, the same as everyone else. There is a fungus abroad in Northern Ireland. What is required is for the political leaders to tackle it and not to respond as some have with quick and simple answers, believing that we can go back to the past to solve the problems of Northern Ireland. There is no going back. It is to the future that we must look. No one knows in what form the solution will be, but it will come about only when the two communities in Northern Ireland can work together.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that as we move from one bloodstained weekend to another there must be a sense of hopelessness about the security situation? Can he say how successful the A Squad, set up by the RUC, has been? Are there adequate police? Has the right hon. Gentleman considered reinforcing the security forces in Northern Ireland to allow more police to join that sort of squad which was set up with the specific intention of trying to sort out sectarian violence?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for the way the hon. Gentleman put that. There are sufficient troops in Northern Ireland. From time to time there may be a need to use Spearhead for a particular problem, but in general there is no shortage of soldiers. If one dealt with the situation in terms of numbers of soldiers the result would be a never-ending spiral. We need the Army in Northern Ireland, as was witnessed by the events at the weekend, but in the long term it will be the police who have to tackle the situation—and I do not just mean the A Squad. There are other changes which the Police Commissioner is making in relation to regional crime squads, and so on. That sort of thing is taking place all the time. Developments have been taking place in the course of the last month.

I am involved in seeing the reports now because of my responsibility under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The quality of information provided by the police is geared to getting people before the courts, and this is incomparably better than the situation when I detained 400 people on my fiat alone.

But this whole thing is a slow job. We have ignored Northern Ireland for 50 years. Therefore, one cannot expect to find the solution in only seven years. It is a long-term problem, and the best thing is for us to tell the Provisional IRA that it will not win. All this killing and murder which leads to a response by the Protestant para-militaries is caused by the Provisional IRA, and as a result more Catholics than Protestants have died in recent weeks.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

One of the most puzzling things to many of us is the fact that there are increasing reports that these vicious crimes are perpetrated by people who hijack motor cars. Is there nothing that can be done to make it more difficult for people to steal motorcars? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the Regulations which came into force in January are strong enough? Could he find some greater deterrent by providing greater penalties for people who leave their cars out to be hijacked?

Mr. Rees

The law has been strengthened, but cars are still hijacked in all parts of the Province, particularly in certain parts of Belfast. For this reason the road blocks are set up. The hon. Member must remember that very often these are not cases of true hijacking. People do know that their cars are being used for these purposes. When people inform the police that their cars have been stolen and they co-operate, the matter can be dealt with. But this is the only way of dealing with it. We are dealing here with a part of the United Kingdom which is basically sorely divided. There are many people who genuinely have a gut feeling about Loyal-ism or Republicanism, who do not get involved with killing or murdering, but who nevertheless feel that they have to give some support, out of fear.

Mr. Urwin

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in the desperate search for peace in Northern Ireland, a large number of people and a large number of organisations are applying themselves in whatever way they can to help achieve a solution? What measure of success has been achieved by the efforts of the Northern Ireland TUC which initiated the "Better Life for All" campaign in the Province?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the efforts being made by various organisations. With regard to the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions I commend their pamphlets and their meetings and the growing strength they have achieved with trades councils in some industrial areas. What they need is the support of all their members, and that is what they are trying to get.