HC Deb 13 January 1977 vol 923 cc1626-9
7. Mr. Jessel

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

9. Mr. Biggs-Davison

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

11. Mr. Goodhart

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

Mr. Mason

I explained to the House in detail the Government's policy for dealing with violence during the debate on 17th December. Since then there have been a number of attacks against members of the security forces resulting in the deaths of one policeman and three soldiers. In the same period five civilians have been killed. I can assure the House that the security forces will continue to deal firmly with violence from whatever quarter it arises during 1977. In the year that has just ended the security forces achieved very real success in bringing the terrorists and gangsters before the courts. 1,276 people were charged with terrorist offences—241 of them for murder or attempted murder.

Mr. Jessel

What value does the right hon. Gentleman attach to the peace movement? Will he back the movement more by stepping up measures to catch top terrorists?

Mr. Mason

No one could ask the peace movement people to become involved in capturing the terrorists. Her Majesty's Government have not stepped in either to discourage or to encourage what the peace movement has done. Any official intervention would merely give succour and aid to the extremists who would like to see the peace people denounced. I see no necessity to give them that sort of propaganda weapon. But since the peace movement began it has certainly helped the community of Northern Ireland to feel safer and to co-operate with the police. Since it began there has been an increase of at least 12 per cent. in the use of the confidential telephone in assisting the police with their inquiries.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my hon. Friend's reference to the apprehension of top terrorists was addressed to him rather than to the peace movement? We are glad that our point of view has been accepted to the extent of the prospect of five conrate platoons for the UDF, but when will they be ready for action? Are not these 200 full-timers insufficient for the UDR to have an effective operational capacity by day? Is it the Government's policy to match withdrawals of Regular troops with increases in the combatant strength of the UDR?

Mr. Mason

It is not for me to determine what the Secretary of State for Defence will do as he gradually thinks about the redeployment of units, and I do not think that he would necessarily match the rundown of the British Army to the increase in conrates. I do not know when they will be ready. It will take time to recruit them and screen them. After all, these will be professional UDR men. As for the organisers of violence, on 17th December I said that of those terrorists charged, 18, in our opinion, were organisers of violence. I am glad to say that another two in that range were charged last week.

Mr. Goodhart

As the right hon. Gentleman recently had intimate knowledge of the Ministry of Defence, will he assure us that the recent spate of defence cuts will not lead to an increase in the frequency of emergency tours for British soldiers in Northern Ireland and that there will normally be a 12-month gap between such tours unless the security situation sharply deteriorates?

Mr. Mason

I cannot give the categorical assurance that the hon. Member seeks, but he will recognise that running down the force strength in Northern Ireland by another 500—equivalent to a unit—means that there will be a slower turn-round of the use of forces from BAOR and the United Kingdom land forces, and that therefore they will remain away from Northern Ireland a little longer than in the past before going on tour.

Mr. Flannery

Will my right hon. Friend accept that, important as the security measures are—both sides of the House regard them as very important—they are not so much a measure of success as a measure of the intractability of the problem we are facing together? Difficult as are new initiatives, as my right hon. Friend said, the continuing slaughter is a measure of the problem that we are failing to solve. Does my right hon. Friend agree that individual initiatives such as those taken recently by Opposition Members are increasingly important, and that all the groupings concerned with the problem should be brought together so that they can talk to one another across the table and put forward their initiatives to my right hon. Friend?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend has uttered my sentiments in better words than I could have used. There are seven political parties in Northern Ireland which share responsibility for the absence of devolved government there. The tide of devolved government will leave Northern Ireland behind as Scotland and Wales get their Administrations. Those parties have the opportunity—I hope they will take it—to cross the sectarian divide, shake hands and come to an agreement on the type of devolved government they want. I am prepared to step in, but I want first to see widespread acceptance by the parties concerned.

Mr. Neave

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State's attitude to firmer security policy in Northern Ireland, but will he recollect what I said on 17th December about the need for countering propaganda from terrorist sources and for a concerted campaign against it? Will he say whether he had useful talks recently with the broadcasting authorities on these matters?

Mr. Mason

I am fully aware of the propaganda war between the security forces and the Provisional IRA, the UVF and the UFF. I had an interesting and fascinating conversation after dinner. I hope that the BBC enjoyed it as much as I did.