HC Deb 02 May 1977 vol 931 cc32-7
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Roy Mason)

I will, with permission, make a statement.

A body calling itself the United Ulster Action Council seeks to bring Northern Ireland to a standstill by calling for a stoppage of work from midnight tonight. Most of the militant Loyalist paramilitary organisations are associated with the Council whose membership includes the Ulster Workers Council, the newly formed United Ulster Unionist Party led by Mr. Baird, and the Democratic Unionist Party led by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). The Action Council is asking for the implementation of the majority report of the Constitutional Convention, which was rejected by this House a year ago. It is seeking confrontation with the Government and with Parliament. It is also asking for a different security policy.

I believe the proposed action would be economically disastrous for Northern Ireland, especially at a time when the Government have been giving special attention to the needs of the Province, where much has been done to help restore confidence. Such confidence is, of course, essential if much-needed foreign investment is to come to Northern Ireland. Only last week I was able to announce new orders worth £60 million to £70 million for Harland and Wolff.

The House must also remember that the disruption of the Northern Ireland economy is also the major aim of the Provisional IRA.

I am not in the least complacent about the present security situation. I can well appreciate the feelings of frustration in Northern Ireland that the community there has had to suffer so much for so long. But equally I am convinced that what the United Ulster Action Council is doing and proposes to do is not the way to improve matters. Indeed, a stoppage would distract the security forces from their efforts against the Provisional IRA, which has recently suffered reverses.

The Government will not be coerced. They will help the community to resist bullying tactics. The Government are supported in this by all the other political parties in Northern Ireland and by the trade unions and employers' organisations, all of which have condemned the proposed stoppage.

The Government will deal firmly with any disruptive action that may be taken and will give full support to all efforts to keep industry and commerce in operation. There may be attempts by intimidation to prevent people from getting to work. This activity is clearly illegal and a matter for the police. The Chief Constable has informed me that the RUC will act against this and all other forms of illegal activity, invoking support from the Army if necessary. The GOC has called up all the Ulster Defence Regiment for full-time service in order to assist the Regular troops. The Spearhead Battalion and further reinforcements have arrived in the Province.

If there is disruption of public utilities, the Government will do everything possible to mitigate the hardship and inconvenience. As a last resort, specialist Service men are available to maintain minimum services essential to the life of the community and of individual citizens.

I hope, however, that common sense will prevail and that a small section in Northern Ireland will not try to inflict this pain and distress upon themselves and their fellow citizens. The House will, I know, join me and the majority of people in Northern Ireland in condemning those who seek to foment the proposed disruption.

Mr. Neave

Is the Secretary of State aware of our full support for the firm measures outlined in his statement? Will he keep the House informed of any new development and any other steps he may need to take to uphold the law in Northern Ireland?

Is he aware that we agree that this proposed action could bring ruin to the Northern Ireland economy, which is a major objective of the Provisional IRA? Would it not also hamper the security forces in stepping up their anti-terrorist operations?

Is the Secretary of State also aware that we share his hopes that this dreadful catastrophe will not fall on the Province? Does he appreciate that we shall be behind him if he takes strong action to prevent the bullying and intimidation of those who want to get to work?

Mr. Mason

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) for his support and that of his party. I will try to keep the House informed as matters progress.

What the hon. Gentleman says is true. The mere fact that this cloud is hanging over Northern Ireland's economy is bound to besmirch it once again in the eyes of the world and to make it difficult to attract investment to Northern Ireland.

The major point made by the hon. Gentleman concerned the diversion of the security forces from their main task. Because of this disruption they are being diverted from that task and their antiterrorist rôle will, to some extent, be affected.

Mr. Molyneaux

Does the Secretary of State agree that, even if 100 per cent. disruption resulted, the alleged objectives of the operation could in no way be achieved by such methods? Will he use every means at his disposal to alert the general public in Northern Ireland to the trap of being drawn into deliberately-organised confrontations with the security forces?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. The public information services of the Northern Ireland Office are doing their utmost to inform the people that we shall do our utmost to keep the roads open and to encourage the people to go to work.

We have had encouraging support from every member of the major trade unions in Northern Ireland. All the trades councils have opposed the strike, as has the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The shipyard workers intend to carry on. The power station workers have indicated that they intend to work normally as long as industries are carrying on and there is a need for generating capacity. We have given the people plenty of encouragement to go to work and to ignore the demands of the hon. Member's hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North and his cohorts.

Mr. Mellish

Will my right hon. Friend express a view about the absence today from the House of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who seems to be taking a leading part in urging these men to strike in this most disgraceful way? Is it not his duty, as a Member of the House, to come here and explain the reasons for this action? Would my hon. Friend comment on that? Could he also find out whether this man, who is urging other people to strike, will draw his parliamentary salary during the process?

Mr. Mason

I make no comment on the latter point but, dealing with the former points, it is true that the hon. Member for Antrim, North is abdicating his responsibilities. He has said publicly in Northern Ireland that he does not want to come to the House of Commons any more and feels that, for him, and some of his hon Friends, it would be a charade if he attended.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Antrim, North is embarking upon this operation. I think he is now feeling that he is being held in the grip of the paramilitaries who are tending to build up the atmosphere and to take over the rôles that Mr. Baird and the hon. Member for Antrim, North began.

Mr. Freud

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends welcome the Secretary of State's statement, support his proposals and echo his wish that common sense may yet prevail in Northern Ireland? Will the Secretary of State accept that if this is a manifestation of loyalism, it would be interesting to know what would be the action of a traitor?

Mr. Mason

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take that too far. He will recognise that there are many Loyalist leaders, especially the leaders of every major Loyalist party in Northern Ireland, who have courageously stood up to and opposed this type of civil disruption and strike. It is true that one of the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party himself has embarked on this. That is to his shame.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the two hon. Members who have been attempting to catch my eye throughout.

Mr. Fitt

The presence in the House this afternoon of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition should give an indication of the serious situation which exists in Northern Ireland. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tell the House whether, in his discussions this morning, he advised the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and Mr. Ernest Baird of the serious economic consequences of their present action, if pursued. Has he undertaken that, in the chaotic developments which must automatically follow, there will be no repetition of what happened in 1974, when social security benefits were paid to those who were on strike to bring about the downfall of the legally elected constitution? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] This is a political strike. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what happened in 1974 was a political strike and that a political strike is planned now—against the wishes of this Parliament? Will my right hon. Friend also say whether a law is being broken at present in Northern Ireland? Is it a fact that some of those engaged in this strike are engaged in treasonable activities? Did the Secretary of State tell the hon. Member for Antrim, North that if he pursues his present course he is liable to be brought before the courts on criminal charges?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend raises three points. I did warn Mr. Baird and the hon. Member for Antrim, North that if this civil disruption begins at midnight tonight there would be serious economic consequences. I pointed out that today is not like 1974. The economy is in a weaker position. I said that it would be a blow which would make it very difficult for the economy to recover. I told them of the many things that Her Majesty's Government have done in recent months to support the economy of Northern Ireland, all of which would be in jeopardy.

The question of benefits is not of immediate concern. People will receive their benefits for this week. We shall have to consider, during the course of the week, to what extent we might pay—whether it might be an emergency benefit or whether we continue with the benefits as at the present time. That is under consideration.

Finally, I warned the hon. Member for Antrim, North that peaceful picketing is, of course, all right, but that picketing with the intention to intimidate would be an illegal act.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Following from the Secretary of State's last answer referring to intimidation—which, as he knows as well as anybody, can be exceedingly vicious in Northern Ireland—may I ask him to pay particular attention, without of course disclosing details, to certain groups of workers in Northern Ireland who, by necessity, work in small groups, sometimes individually, and who should be supported and helped at a time of intimidation because their continuing operation could be quite vital to his success in overcoming this threat?

Mr. Mason

Yes. I am fully aware of those to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. This problem of intimidation is extremely serious. It is evil and it can be penetrating. Many people—the leaders of religion, the Orange Order, trade unions, the CBI and political leaders—have all courageously stood up against the civil strife that may be upon them tomorrow. Because of intimidation that may be taking place, no one knows how things may develop. I thought it right to give the warning that if people are to picket with the intention of intimidation, that is an illegal act.

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