HC Deb 03 March 1977 vol 927 cc609-11

Mr. Neave(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in view of the latest series of assassinations in Northern Ireland during the past few days, constituting new developments, whether he will make a statement.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James A. Dunn)

I have been asked to reply. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] If hon. Members will wait for the second part of my answer, they will know why, without having to get excited. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is on his way back to Northern Ireland to undertake serious discussions on the problems associated with this Question.

There has been a greater concentration in the last few days of violence against people in the business community. This is, sadly, not a new development, as there have been series of attacks on business people in the past.

Her Majesty's Government regret the deaths and I can assure the House that security measures are kept under constant review and are adjusted to deal with the changing patterns of violence.

Mr. Neave

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that statement. Would he not agree that the community is now at war with terrorism in Northern Ireland and it is action which is required by the Government, not only the strong statements which his right hon. Friend has been making? Would he also agree that we now need to speed up the arming of the RUC, who suffered terrible casualties over the last week, and also that we need more Special Air Service troops in Northern Ireland?

Finally, would the hon. Gentleman also agree to invite the BBC in future to await inquiries by the Chief Constable before televising uncorroborated allega- tions against the police as they did for a whole hour last night on the "Tonight" programme, when the police had no opportunity to reply?

Mr. Dunn

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not respond to the associated matters which he has raised in his supplementary question. I prefer at the moment to deal with the very serious problem of assassinations. I am sure that the House will agree that that in itself places a burden on us all.

It is my view and the view of my right hon. Friend that the problems relating to security must be left in the first instance to those who are well qualified to deal with the operational side of security matters. I am aware that there have been claims for specialised troops to be brought into the Province to undertake specific tasks, but my right hon. Friend, the Chief Constable and the GOC are at present discussing these matters and I do not wish to make a statement in advance of their decisions.

Mr. Powell

In view of the presence of the Prime Minister in the House, would the Minister convey to him the great importance for all concerned in Northern Ireland that the Prime Minister makes clear the personal concern which he undoubtedly feels for the Province, which is now under a new and ugly phase of attack, and that one of the ways in which he could show this is by rendering himself available for discussion of this matter with hon. Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Dunn

My right hon. Friend has heard that supplementary question and I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will very soon be hearing from my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Craig

Would the Minister agree that this trend of assassinations has been expected for about six months and that the powers-that-be appear impotent to deal with such a threat unless the law is considerably strengthened?

Mr. Dunn

Every effort to deal with these great tragedies has been made by my right hon. Friend and all concerned in the Province. The right hon. Gentleman will know, from the time when he was responsible for these matters, that the problem is complex. There is no simple and immediate answer. There is a war, there has been a war and there still is a war. We have to deal with it on that basis.

Mr. Kilfedder

Since the Ulster people are suffering grievously from the complacent and gutless policy of this Government, will the Government stop deceiving them by tough words and introduce instead tough measures, including the restoration of capital punishment, to deal with a murderous situation?

Mr. Dunn

The hon. Member can always be relied on to use emotive language in these circumstances, but that is not the answer to this problem. The law is there. All we need is the co-operation of the community to apply the law with vigour and with the certainty that we can detect those who perpetrate these offences. Once that happens, law and order will return to Northern Ireland.

Several hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

I will call one more hon. Member to put a supplementary question on this matter before I call the Business Question.

Mr. Mates

While the hon. Gentleman has rightly said that a war is being fought, the nature of that war seems to be changing considerably and this regrettable series of murders is merely a further indication of that chance. Is the Minister aware that many people think that the IRA no longer needs to shoot at soldiers and policeman to achieve its ends when it can achieve them by bringing total economic ruin to the Province? Would he therefore take a new look at the security situation in the light of this potentially complete change and try to advise us what is the best thing to do?

Mr. Dunn

I agree entirely, and I hope that the House will take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said. Guerrilla warfare does change its pattern because in doing so it becomes more successful. No military presence, no matter how strong, can deal with that problem. Only the community itself can deal with it.