HC Deb 09 February 1978 vol 943 cc1643-7
1. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on terrorism in the new year to date.

5. Mr. Molyneaux

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the resurgence of anarchist and revolutionary activities in Northern Ireland.

6. Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

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

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Roy Mason)

Terrorist activity has recently concentrated on the use of blast incendiary devices and on attacks on the security forces. In the last few days the terrorists have murdered not only two part-time members of the Ulster Defence Regiment but also an elderly lady and a young schoolgirl. I am sure the House will share my own anger and deep regret at these tragic events.

The present upturn in activity started towards the end of the year, though the current level of violence is significantly lower than in the corresponding period in 1977 or previous years.

The security forces continue to concentrate on the prevention of violence and the apprehension of criminals. This year, 75 have been charged with serious terrorist type offences, including five with murder, eight with attempted murder, and 17 with explosive offences. The police and Army are alert to any shift in tactics.

Terrorists of all kinds are anxious to demonstrate that they can still inflict injury and damage; but they will win no encouragement from responsible politicians anywhere.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

In view of the introduction of the M60 machine-gun, the recent atrocities by terrorists, who must have been emboldened by the irresponsible talk of an amnesty which has been denounced by both sides of the House, and something of a repudiation by Irish Ministers of Dublin's Sunningdale commitments, is the Secretary of State satisfied with the cross-border co-operation at present and with NATO vigilance, especially in the light of the appearance of the machine-gun?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman is right. The M60 machine-gun has introduced a new dimension, and the security forces are very alert to it. They have recently found three belts each containing 100 rounds of the type of ammunition used for the machine-gun.

Since the change of Government in the South, there has been no lessening of cross-border co-operation. Indeed, during the recent Forkhill incident the Garda set up vehicle check points in the South to help us.

Mr. Molyneaux

Is the Secretary of State aware that the objectives of these murderers are vocally supported by public figures, some of whom are threatening to organise street violence if decisions of this Parliament are not to their liking?

Mr. Mason

I would be very sorry if that happened in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member is aware that, when a highly emotive incident occurs and there is a dastardly and cowardly attack which kills innocent women and children, it sends a wave of revulsion through the Province. I appeal to Church and political leaders to calm the emotion. I respect their feelings, but we do not want sectarian violence breaking out again.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

In December's debate on the emergency provisions, the Secretary of State said that the strength of the security forces would be related to the level of violence. Is it still his intention to reduce the number of major operational units in Northern Ireland from 14 to 13, in view of the upturn in violence?

Mr. Mason

I have already reduced the number to 13. One unit moved out over the Christmas period. I warn the House that we still have 13,500 British troops in the Province. We still have an Ulster Defence Regiment of 7,850 and my recruiting for the professional element has been going ahead, so that we now have 2,050 professionals in the UDR. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the RUC Reserve have a strength of 10,381. The total forces amount to 31,731 people in Northern Ireland for the purpose of law and order. That means one for every 45 persons in the Province.

Mr. Fitt

Does not the Secretary of State agree that the level of violence perpetuated by the IRA in Northern Ireland in no way relates to the opinions of the Dublin Government? With reference to what Opposition Members have just said, there were 22 points of agreement in the Sunningdale Agreement and 21 of these were overthrown by the Northern Ireland loyalists in their strike of May 1974. How can the Secretary of State expect the other party to that agreement to stand solidly by its commitment of that time?

Mr. Mason

I hope that my hon. Friend and others with responsibilities in Northern Ireland will recognise that any utterance that gives aid and succour to any terrorist organisation in Northern Ireland makes my job and that of the Government much more difficult. I only regret that the floating of the amnesty call came through. That did not do us any good whatsoever. I am pleased that later the Taoiseach tried to withdraw it.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the Minister aware that on the Shankill Road part of the Springfield Road there is great concern about the incursion of the IRA into that area? Is he aware that, at a recent security conference held at the RUC headquarters in Belfast, the people of that area were told that there was only one police Land Rover for more than 30,000 of the population and that the UDR was not permitted to act on the Springfield Road? Is he now prepared to release the UDR on the Springfield Road?

Mr. Mason

I should be sorry if those facts were absolutely correct. I shall have them checked and see whether there is sufficient security in the area. The Ulster Defence Regiment is now being used more often by the British Army. I decided, because of the problem in South Londonderry, that two companies would be called out and put on station for as long as the security forces required them. I shall see how far we can deploy particularly the professional element of the UDR as the security situation develops.

Mr. Freud

Will the Secretary of State comment on how useful to the security situation in Northern Ireland has been the recent speech by the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) about the breakdown in power sharing?

Mr. Mason

What the hon. Gentleman said about power sharing no longer being practical politics, if I may quote the phrase, certainly upset some of the minority parties of Northern Ireland. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's problem. The Opposition, the Liberal Party and ourselves try to work amicably together so that we do not bestir the emotions, especially among the political parties.

Mr. Neave

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we agree with what he said on 3rd February at Doncaster that politicians and commentators should not be hung up on the term "power sharing" and that he was not creating a power-sharing Executive on the 1974 model? Therefore, we were saying exactly the same thing—that bipartisanship should remain.

Mr. Mason

I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the bipartisan policy of Northern Ireland should remain firm. I am pleased that he has reiterated that point. It is quite true that in Northern Ireland people get hung up on emotive phrases. That is why I have purposely never used the words "power sharing".

Mr. McNamara

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is still the policy of the Labour Party to try to ensure that we have within the Six Counties a system of devolved government which has the overwhelming support of the majority of the population and with which both communities agree? Does he agree that, whatever rose it is, it has still to smell as sweet as power sharing?

Mr. Mason

Yes, my hon. Friend is on exactly the point. I have tried to explain to the House that we sincerely believe that the ultimate objective for devolution in Northern Ireland shall be a legislative Assembly with all the transferred powers going back. From our past experience, however, the House knows that it must be a partnership Administration and that the rights of the minority must be safeguarded.