HC Deb 27 May 1976 vol 912 cc606-9
1. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the general conclusions of the working party on security.

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

I will report the conclusions of the Ministerial Committee to the House in an appropriate way.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

This clearly must not be a rush job, but does not the Secretary of State think it is about time that some results came out of this working party? Is he aware of the intense dissatisfaction—indeed, it has been expressed to him—on the Opposition side of the House at what appears to us to be a lack of co-ordination between the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Regular Army and the Ulster Defence Regiment?

Will he say whether the working party's work will result in finding an answer to the problem—we are with him on this—of laying by the heels the godfathers and not merely the small fry of thuggery and terrorism?

Mr. Rees

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of the Working Party on Security, which I instituted at the turn of the year, was to look at the long-term problem of security in the Province. I felt it was time we looked at the long-term problem instead of living from day to day, as we have since the first time soldiers went there in an ad hoc way in 1969.

There will be no immediate results from the working party. It might be that more money or more men will be required. It is a long-term study. I make that clear, because there is a tendency in Northern Ireland to believe that something will happen overnight.

Anything that needs changing in the way of security, co-operation or otherwise, is a matter for the GOC, who is the director of military operations. I have discussed with him the question of co-operation between all arms. He believes that this is good and right, and that changes of a structural nature are needed in certain fields. These are taking place at the moment. But nowhere in any of our thinking is there any thought of a return of the RUC as a para-military force, as it was in 1969.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that recent statements from Opposition spokesmen, describing the security policy as being one of weakness, can only encourage the Provisional IRA? Is he further aware that some of these statements, asking for special forces, can only strike horror into the minds of the minority arid encourage overall the paramilitary forces on the Protestant side, as well as weakening the morale of the security forces as a whole?.

Mr. Rees

I think it is important that whatever we say is understood by the people of Northern Ireland. It is a place—given the emotions arising from the killings that go on—where many of the things that we say are misunderstood.

I have made it abundantly clear, and I say again—it is worth saying—that when I talk about the primacy of the police I am not talking about a return to the past. I want to supply the resources for the police to be an efficient police force. That is what it is about. That may take time, because of the provision of money, training, and so on.

Mr. Goodhart

When will the Secretary of State reach a decision about increasing the size of the Regular element in the Ulster Defence Regiment by about 800 men—a proposal that has received very wide support from those with great knowledge of the security situation in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Rees

The question of con rates is a matter for my right hon. Friend, the Defence Secretary, and is being looked at. What is not wanted by my security officers is a Regular battalion, or battalions. They are firmly against that. I shall work within the law with the UDR. I give it my full support. I see it at work in all parts of the Province. We have to take into account, whether we like it or not, that in certain parts of the Province, parts of our security forces are seen and are not supported. What I have to do with the UDR is to help it to be accepted. That is far more important than changes within it.

Mr. Farr

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in that long-term review, consider the establishment of a small, highly-trained and very well equipped light mobile force, drawn from volunteers from the Army, the police and the Ulster Defence Regiment, as a special measure to seek out and destroy those who are engaged in trying to bring about the destruction of law and order in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Rees

Certainly, in the rural areas one needs mobility, which, on the whole, is what the Army has provided, together with the police patrol groups. I would not deny that mobility is necessary. But it is sometimes forgotten that what is required is not so much a question of mobility as of knowledge. That point was brought home to me again in examining a case of murder that took place last week. Although such cases are for the police to deal with, I look at these things myself. It is a question of knowledge—of knowing who was involved. The nature of the violence has changed from the large-scale violence on the streets that was happening six years ago. If there is need for mobility with regard to crime detection, I shall do what I can to provide it.

Mr. Fitt

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, allied with the security problem, there is also the problem of making political progress in Northern Ireland, and that the one cannot be settled without the other? In that respect, is he aware of the statements now being made in Northern Ireland by the leader of the Official Unionist Party, calling upon his supporters in Northern Ireland not to co-operate with my right hon. Friend, on the spurious ground that they do not agree with his security attitude?

Mr. Rees

I am not really worried about that. I do not attend many social functions in Northern Ireland, but I do attend daily meetings with bodies for which I am responsible to this House, and I know that they will not be sympathetic to silly statements of that kind. On the political aspect, we cannot force the politicians of Northern Ireland to agree, as my hon. Friend knows. Agreement has to emerge there. We tried before from this House; we got agreement here and then found that it did not stand up in Northern Ireland. We must not do that again.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition will not be deterred from doing their duty and making responsible criticism where necessary by unworthy suggestions that that is helpful to the Provisional IRA? Does he agree that what is needed is to restore and improve confidence? We support him in the policy of re-establishing the primacy of the police, but while the RUC are in the front line and policemen and police women are suffering terrible casualties, is there not a case for their having the equipment and techniques to protect themselves?

Mr. Rees

I accept that. I was not denying it. I was making the point that we have to be careful that we are not misunderstood in Northern Ireland, where it is rather easy to be misunderstood.