HC Deb 20 February 1978 vol 944 cc1007-21
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Roy Mason)

At 9 p.m. last Friday evening, a bomb exploded at the La Mon House restaurant near Gransha in County Down. Some 500 people were in the building, most of them attending two social functions which had no political or sectarian connections whatsoever. The explosion immediately caused an intense fire, which swept through the building and gutted it. Twelve people were killed, their bodies charred almost beyond recognition, and a further 23 people were injured, of whom 11 had to be detained in hospital.

Subsequent investigations showed that an explosive device, with cans of petrol attached to it, had been placed outside the building in an alcove opposite one of the windows of the smaller of the function rooms. The detonation therefore had the effect of hurling burning petrol straight into that room, where most of the casualties occurred.

No effective warning was given. The Provisional IRA has now admitted its guilt for this attack.

I am sure I speak for the whole House in expressing the utmost horror and disgust at this callous and senseless slaughter of innocent people and in extending our heartfelt sympathy to their families and to those who were injured. By its very nature this murderous attack was likely to cause extensive casualties, and those who planned it and carried it out cannot now pretend that they could not foresee the carnage that it would cause. They have been rightly condemned from every quarter.

The Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding assured me on Saturday morning that the maximum available resources of the security forces were involved in urgent and intensive efforts to track down those responsible for this terrible crime. I am satisfied that there will be no relaxation of this effort.

I shall be having a further discussion with the Chief Constable and the GOC later today. We are unanimous in pursuing a clear policy of dealing with violence by the enforcement of the rule of law by the police supported by the Army. It is fundamental to the maintenance of the rule of law that the whole community should unite behind the security forces.

As a consequence of our policy, very real progress has been made in curtailing violence in Northern Ireland. I have made it clear, however, in this House and elsewhere, that the Provisional IRA retain the capacity to perpetrate outrages of this kind. It wants to stimulate a violent reaction. I have no intention of playing into its hands. I realise the deep emotions which have been aroused but what is needed is restraint plus the maximum support of the security forces from the whole community.

All responsible political leaders involved in the affairs of the Province have a major interest and a real part to play in facing our common problem of security. I propose to carry further my efforts to involve them in our common cause to eradicate violence and will be seeking talks with them in the near future.

The House will also have heard, with regret, of the death in a helicopter crash of the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Greenjackets. It is not yet possible to say what caused the crash.

Mr. Neave

On this side of the House we join the Secretary of State in expressing deep sympathy with the bereaved and suffering and expressing our total disgust and horror at this most cowardly crime—perhaps the worst of its kind in many years of futile murder and destruction by the IRA in Northern Ireland.

Will he convey to the House, to the people of Northern Ireland, and particularly to the murderers that there will be no kind of amnesty from this Government for any convicted terrorists? Is he also aware that we feel deeply the loss of Colonel Iain Cordon-Lloyd, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Greenjackets, in a helicopter crash in circumstances which seem to have serious implications for the security forces?

The Secretary of State mentioned the enforcement of the rule of law in future by the police, supported by the Army. Would it not be better to revise that policy and increase the activity of the Army, particularly the Special Air Services?

Leaving aside what seems to be at best a miscalculation by the Government of the IRA's capability and weapons, will the Secretary of State seek a meeting with Mr. Lynch to discuss cross-border security, as unfortunately Mr. Lynch appears to have changed his attitude on this since he visited London last September?

Mr. Mason

I give an absolute assurance that as far as I am concerned there will be no amnesty whatever for those who are guilty of criminal acts. They will be treated as criminals and processed through the courts of law. They will serve their sentences, and there will be no amnesty.

I was sorry to hear of the death of Colonel Iain Cordon-Lloyd, who was an outstanding officer with a great deal of experience in Northern Ireland. As yet we have not been able to ascertain whether his death was the result of violence. The tests have not shown any signs of bullet wounds in the bodies or any bullet marks on the helicopter.

I hope that the hon. Member for Abington (Mr. Neave) will not talk about miscalculations in policies, because in the security debate in December, which I answered, he hinted at no such criticism. Indeed, he even boasted that because we had adopted some measures that he had suggested we were succeeding. The hon. Member talked about winning, losing and success. I have never talked in these terms. I talk about making progress, and undoubtedly we are making progress.

On cross-border co-operation, I assure the hon. Member that, from a practical point of view, since the return of Mr. Lynch to government in the South there has been no lessening of cross-border active co-operation.

Mr. Kilfedder

I join with other hon. Members in expressing sympathy to the bereaved and those mutilated. This extension of terrorism has shattered the heart of my constituency, but it has not destroyed the spirit of my constituents or that of the Ulster people generally.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the widespread feeling among people in Northern Ireland and among the terrorists themselves that, despite what the Secretary of State has said, and no matter how large the number of innocent people needlessly slaughtered, the terrorists will, one day get an amnesty? This is a feeling to which Mr. Lynch has, unfortunately, given credence. Will the Secretary of State show his determination to end terrorism by introducing the death penalty, because a dead martyr is far preferable to dead innocent people?

On the day of the atrocity the Secretary of State was boasting that the number of terrorist victims in Northern Ireland in the first six weeks of this year was 10 short of the total of 18 for the same period last year. Since he has taken the credit for the alleged success of Government security policy, both he and the Government must now stand condemned as guilty men for stimulating—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] It is all very well for hon. Members to say that, but I represent these people. The Secretary of State and the Government must stand condemned for stimulating the slaughter of innocent people. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many regular troops were deployed in my constituency on the night of the atrocity or in the previous week, because no one has seen any there in the past few weeks? Would he come clean about the number of regular troops that are actually operational—it is not the 13,500 that he has suddenly mentioned but nearer 6,000? He has miscalculated the situation in the Province.

Mr. Mason

I can understand the hon. Gentleman's emotions in the circumstances because this outrage happened in his constituency. I appreciate his sorrow. However, I repeat that there will be no amnesty. Her Majesty's Government have placed that on record, and it has been backed by the official Opposition and by the Liberal Party.

In regard to the death penalty, that practice was abolished by a free vote of the House. I believe that if we were to go back to the death penalty for terrorists in Northern Ireland, it would not deter those callous fanatics who were responsible for last Friday's carnage. It would give the terrorists the glamour of martyrdom. At this stage they know that the greatest deterrent is for them to be brought to justice in a court of law, for it to be established that they are criminals in the eyes of their friends, that they will go to gaol, and that there will be no amnesty at the end.

Mr. John Mendelson

In view of the general condemnation of this outrageous crime, does my right hon. Friend agree that if the condemnation extended by the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic is to have real meaning, the Foreign Secretary should now make representations in Dublin so that there may be a firm agreement on the part of the Irish Government that if the criminals concerned escape to the South they will be returned and brought to full justice?

Mr. Mason

I shall bear in mind the point regarding representations to my right hon. Friend. The House is fully aware that we have rightly complained because the Republic has not yet ratified the suppression of terrorism convention. We wish to bring all pressure to bear on those concerned to recognise that when criminals escape to the South, it is incumbent on the Republic that they should be returned to the North, and to realise that the whole situation in respect of terrorism should be tightened up.

Mr. Molyneaux

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the view widely held at varying levels in the security forces that they are being inhibited by political considerations? Will he give an absolute assurance to the general public that in future the security forces will not be restrained or prevented in any way from taking measures which they consider necessary to defeat terrorism?

Mr. Mason

There are no political restraints on members of the security forces in Northern Ireland. But the hon. Gentleman must bear in mind that members of the RUC and Army personnel must act within the law. They are not above it or beyond it. I undertake to watch that aspect carefully.

Mr. Whitehead

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the whole House wants to see those who were responsible for this appalling subhuman outrage brought to book as soon as possible? Does he also agree that if the security measures which he has discussed are to be effective, they must be taken in the context of a continuation of the attempts to find an honourable settlement, aimed at power sharing between the majority and minority communities along the lines laid down by the Conservative Government under the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) and continued by the present Government?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend is right. Apart from the security dimension, I would point out that there is a political dimension, too, in the Province. I had begun a whole series of talks with all political parties. I had hoped that those talks would resume, but we shall have to wait until this wave of emotion throughout the Province has evaporated.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I wish to associate myself with the expressions of deep sympathy to sufferers and bereaved in this awful tragedy which overshadows our Province and which has left us numb in the past few days. I ask the Protestant people in Northern Ireland to restrain themselves at this time and not to retaliate in any way, because that is exactly what the Irish Republican Army and these diabolical murderers wish to bring about.

Is the Secretary of State aware that those who are responsible for bringing into custody the godfathers of violence have issued a statement to the Belfast Newsletter which has been given great publicity today? They have been put at risk by what they call a whitewashing operation, because in a few days those godfathers of terrorism will be released and let loose on the public. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the statement made in this House recently by his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on guerrilla activity in Rhodesia, in which those who are guilty of terrorism have been referred to as "freedom fighters", has been the subject of strong comment in Northern Ireland? Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman declare that this is a fight to the finish and that there will be no let-up in the war against these fiendish murderers? Furthermore, will he give an undertaking that the UDR will operate in all parts of our Province?

Mr. Mason

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for issuing that statement to the people of the Province, irrespective of which side of the sectarian divide, in asking for restraint. It was a highly commendable statement.

In regard to the actions of the so-called godfathers, some senior people in the Provisional Sinn Fein were arrested and picked up on Saturday morning. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it was the intention of the police in that pick-up to try to obtain leads and information as quickly as possible in trying to root out those responsible for this incident. I also assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no let-up in that respect.

We have within the Province 31,000 people who are officers of law and order. That is one officer for every 45 people. If that were translated into the situation in Great Britain—in England, Scotland and Wales—it would mean our having a total of 1,200,000 members of the Armed Forces and police in Great Britain. That is the measure of the intensity of our effort.

Mr. Goodhart

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will continue the pressure on the godfathers who up to this moment in time have been walking free in the streets of Belfast and Londonderry? Even if we do not have enough firm evidence to secure conviction, would it not have a good effect in undermining the morale of the hooligans who plant bombs if they were to see their leaders in court denying membership of the illegal organisation they run?

Mr. Mason

I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more. But if we are to stick rigidly to our policy of regarding these people as criminals, evidence must be gained before charges are laid, and this must be the case in respect of the godfathers, too. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that a few weeks ago we picked up 17 senior Provisional Sinn Fein members together with records, documents and machines, so that we shall be able to sift the evidence to see to what extent they are involved. I assure the hon. Gentleman that this effort is taking place.

Mr. Molloy

Is my right hon. Friend aware that when he made his original statement on this appalling crime he said that it was rightly condemned in every quarter? However, does he not agree that condemnation by itself on either side of the border in Ireland is not enough, and that the time has now come for Church leaders and political figures on either side of the border—including Church and political leaders in this country—to show an absolutely united front to restore civilised behaviour and to give the impression to ordinary people that such vulgar and appalling behaviour is utterly condemned?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend is right. I have been urging Church and political leaders to stand together in common cause with the Government in seeking to eradicate terrorism from the Province. It has taken an act of this dimension to rally everybody together, whether from the North or South. I only hope that we shall now obtain full co-operation from Church leaders as well as from other people in the Province.

Mr. Freud

The Liberal Party associates itself with the expressions of sympathy for the bereaved and injured in this abhorrent crime. We also wish to support the remarks of the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), and we are satisfied with the reply given by the Secretary of State. Has the right hon. Gentleman considered whether enough encouragement has been given to hotel and restaurant managements in the Province to take up the financial assistance that is available for the provision of fire watchers and security men? I feel that if that activity had received more publicity, this kind of crime might well have been avoided.

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to the hon. Member. We have a security staff grant scheme in Northern Ireland whereby the Government are prepared to pay up to £45 per person per week for a fire watcher or security guard. If many more business premises, factories, establishments, hotels and restaurants will avail themselves of this, they can employ fire watchers within their business premises and also manage to have security guards on the outside. On this occasion, although at the La Mon House restaurant they had some border blocks in the car park to keep cars away from the restaurant itself—they were installed in the old days when there used to be car bombers—and there were two people, a man and a woman, carrying out cursory searches as people went in, it is quite evident that people were able to get round the side of the building during the course of the night. Therefore, I am encouraging more people to take up this security staff grant scheme, and we shall pay them accordingly.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Before we conclude this matter, I shall call all four right hon. and hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye throughout, and the Opposition Front Bench spokesman if he wishes.

Mr. Craig

I find it very difficult to keep my cool and to show restraint this afternoon. At least three of the dead were constituents of mine. One of them was the son of a valued election worker. I know that it is my duty to try to keep my cool, but regretfully I have to say that I do not find the statement by the Secretary of State today reassuring or helpful in present circumstances.

There is a new terrorist situation in Northern Ireland. We are now dealing with a cornered rat. The security forces have achieved that much. But we all know that a cornered rat can be a very vicious animal. Anyone who goes in to deal with it should have the proper weapon in his hand.

I should like the Secretary of State to look at the power which the security forces have now and to reconsider the power of detention. I should also like him to reconsider the position of Provisional Sinn Fein, the propaganda and publicity organisation for the IRA. Why is it not banned? Why is the IRA allowed to hide under its cloak? This is the sort of action that we want to see.

Mr. Mason

Again I can understand the right hon. Member's concern if he has lost constituents as a result of this incident. But I must warn him that, although I may still have reserve power for executive detention, if we went back to detention without charge it would set us back many years in the Province. These terrorists are now regarded as criminals, and we have to process them through a court of law and to make sure that in the eyes of everyone in the Province they are regarded as criminals and not as freedom fighters. If we decided to go back to detention, we have to remember that there would be the image of political recognition. We would have said that they had a political cause and that there may have been a political status attached to it. We do not want to give back that benefit.

Mr. McCusker

Is the Secretary of State aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I wish to be associated also with the expressions of sympathy to the wife and three young sons of the gallant soldier killed in my constituency last Friday? Will the Secretary of State now take this opportunity to deny the weekend assertion of Mr. Jack Lynch that only 2 per cent. of the violence in Northern Ireland emanates from the Republic? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that almost all the rural violence, except that around Belfast, is conceived in and emanates from the Republic of Ireland? Does he accept that the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) and I had pointed out to us by the now dead Commanding Officer of the Greenjackets the locations of a number of active-service units lurking in the Irish Republic? Will the right hon. Gentleman insist that Jack Lynch now takes action against them?

Mr. Mason

I can certainly tell the hon. Member that I disagree absolutely and fundamentally with the statement that only 2 per cent. of incidents affect the border. The border is much more important now than it was some time ago. That becomes apparent when one recognises that in 1977 we charged 1,308 people with terrorist offences and that we also brought down the death level from 296 in 1976 to 112 in 1977. The level of violence had been reduced. The attrition rate had been high, and now, of course, people are using the border both to operate from the Republic of Ireland and to escape to it. There is no doubt that there is increasing use of the border and that 2 per cent. is a paltry figure.

Mr. Bradford

Will the Secretary of State accept that it is of no consequence whether capital punishment is or is not a deterrent but that the concept of punishment is an essential factor in any civilised society? Will he accept, secondly, that this is decision day for the minority community among whom many of these murderers live—indeed, they suffer from them—and that that minority community must use the telephone and then close the door and allow the security forces to apprehend these people uninhibited? Will he accept finally that it is decision day for the Government and that, despite what he says, senior officers of the Ulster Defence Regiment are inhibited in the pursuit of their duty and admit that they are not allowed to operate in areas in Belfast lest somehow there is a reaction from the Republican community?

Mr. Mason

I informed the House only two or three weeks ago that a company of the Ulster Defence Regiment had been called out and had operated in Belfast only recently. Therefore, as the hon. Gentleman knows and as the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) knows, although the UDR is not operating yet in every area of the Province, it is not inhibited from operating against the terrorists. However, there are still certain areas in the Province in which the UDR has not operated. Secondly, because of the shock circular that the RUC distributed throughout the Province following the deed on Friday night, there has been quite a considerable response from the public with information flowing in. We hope that that will prove successful.

Mr. Carson

The tragedy of La Mon House restaurant has also affected my constituency. Four of my constituents are dead and four of them are injured, two very seriously. Is the Secretary of State aware that in a Belfast morning newspaper senior police officers expressed their dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of existing laws to deal with terrorists? Is he also aware that recently the police have been finding it more difficult to get the back-up guaranteed by the security forces and the Army to deal with terrorists, that very often they have called for help and that help has not come?

I want to contradict what the right hon. Gentleman said, since the UDR does not operate in all Belfast. I could take any hon. Member to my constituency and show him areas where the Army is very light on the ground, and yet the UDR is not allowed in. In view of the tragedy and in view of the fear and anger of the people of Northern Ireland, especially of people in Belfast, will the Secretary of State assure the House that no area in Belfast, if not in the whole of Northern Ireland, will be closed to UDR men in carrying out their duties as members of the British Army?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Member knows that there are no "no go" areas in the Province for the Army and, therefore, that the Army can penetrate any part of the Province. As I explained—obviously the hon. Gentleman was not listening to me—the UDR has operated in Belfast but not in every part of Belfast.

Mr. Carson

Not in my constituency.

Mr. Mason

I concede that. I want finally to say that I have been very much aware—I have explained this to the official Unionist Party, I explained it to the Alliance Party last week, and I explained it in answer to Questions in the House last Thursday—there was always the possibility after a long lull, with people feeling relatively secure and safe, that there could be an outbreak of this kind. I am sorry that it has happenned. Only 33 people were killed in the Province in the last six months of 1977, and only two people in January. Therefore, I was worried that there might be this sort of outrage. I hope, therefore, that the Province will not panic. I hope that we can keep on course. I do not want to see any of the backlash that we feared from this sort of outrage. I hope that all political leaders and Members of Parliament in common cause will help us to keep the Province calm.

Mr. Kilfedder

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the terrorist explosion at La Mon House Restaurant on Friday 17th February, as a result of which 12 persons were killed or burned alive and 30 injured, many of them badly mutilated, the need to refute in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and of their safety and security the allegations persistently made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that the security forces are taking all possible measures against the terrorists, and the urgent need for full and effective measures to bring the Provisional IRA campaign of terrorism to a speedy end. I am sure that the House, with its customary concern for the inhabitants of Great Britain and places thousands of miles away, would want to discuss the fearful implications of this latest slaughter of innocent people by the IRA, to give the Ulster people the opportunity of expressing their poignant grief over this latest atrocity, of demanding that it should not be forgotten among further outrages, and of expressing their anger at the ineptitude of the Government, who have tried everything to meet the IRA campaign of terror, including parlying with the IRA, but have so far excluded the measures that are necessary—a ruthless all-out war to destroy and eliminate the evil men from Northern Ireland and the introduction of the death penalty.

The debate is vital and urgent because innocent people in the Province are daily and hourly at risk and facing death, such as the tearing apart and burning alive that occurred in the Lamon House Restaurant explosion. I was shown a piece of skull with hair attached to it, one of the remnants of the human remains that were found in the debris of the explosion. That is an example of what should be shown to people throughout the country to make them aware of how the Ulster people are suffering.

The feeling of anger, revulsion and frustration throughout Northern Ireland must be chanelled through the House so that an effective safety valve is provided at once so as to ensure the continuation of the admirable restraint that has been shown by the Ulster people for so many years in the face of terror.

I briefly urge you, Mr. Speaker, to grant an emergency debate on two other grounds. First, the Ulster people will not find confidence in the statement that has been made this afternoon by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Ulster people feel that the Government's security policy up to now is a sick joke. The security policy pursued up to the moment has failed. This is the ninth year of the IRA campaign of terrorism. There is no evidence that the IRA is defeated, despite the remark made last Friday by the Secretary of State that only a remnant of the IRA was left. The Government must terrorists.

Finally, what the Government say about the success of their present policies and security measures is not true. They delude the people of Northern Ireland with a smokescreen of the figures of those arrested and the number of soldiers deployed in operations in Northern Ireland.

A debate is vital to enable what happened in the House during the last war—a means for the people of Northern Ireland, who are demanding their right to live and not to be mutiliated, the opportunity through their Members of Parliament to attack and criticise Government policy after such a catastrophic and terrible reversal.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) gave me notice this morning that he would seek to move the Adjournment, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and urgent matter of public importance, namely, the terrorist explosion at the La Mon House Restaurant on Friday 17th February, as a result of which 12 persons were killed or burned alive and 30 injured, many of them badly mutilated, the need to refute in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and of their safety and security the allegations persistently made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that the security forces are taking all possible measures against the terrorists, and the urgent need for full and effective measures to bring the Provisional IRA campaign of terrorism to a speedy end. I listened carefully to the exchanges this afternoon and to the statement made by the hon. Gentleman. As the House knows, there are many factors that I have to take into account, and the House has specifically advised me that I am not to give my reasons. I cannot agree to the application that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Rev. Ian Paisley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you realise, Mr. Speaker, the feelings today of the representatives of the Northern Ireland people in this House. Among the business of the House on Thursday there will come before us an order under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act, which is a consolidation measure. Will you tell us today, Mr. Speaker, whether you will be prepared not to rule to the letter of the law but to give us an opportunity in that debate to deal with this matter, which is upon the minds of the Ulster people? My right hon. and hon. Friends and I feel that we would be failing those whom we represent if we did not express in the House the feelings of the Northern Ireland people.

Mr. Speaker

I am only too deeply aware of the emotion that has been expressed, which the whole House has shared. However, I can make no commitment about Thursday. The House will have before it a consolidation measure. I advise the hon. Gentleman to pursue the matter through the usual channels. It may be that some opportunity will there be created. I have to observe the rules of the House, and it is impossible for me to commit myself in advance.