HC Deb 21 February 1978 vol 944 cc1191-4
4. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a statement on operations in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

The Armed Forces continue to operate with success in support of the police in Northern Ireland. With them they have responded promptly and firmly to the recent upturn in violence, adapting their tactics as necessary to meet the threat posed by the terrorists. We are keeping a close watch on the situation, and the level of operations will be stepped up further in any area where this may become necessary.

The House will have heard of the death of Lt. Col. Iain Corden-Lloyd at Jonesborough last Friday. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to Mrs. Corden-Lloyd and her family, and, indeed, to the Second Battalion, the Royal Green Jackets, which has also suffered a grievous loss.

It was my privilege and pleasure to know Iain as a superb commanding officer, a very great and gallant soldier. The Army and the nation are much the poorer with his untimely passing.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I appreciate that at Question Time yesterday the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland acknowledged the value of the security measures suggested by the Opposition and accepted by the Government, but did not the right hon. Gentleman mislead the House by asserting that my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) shared his previous complacency about the tide having turned against the terrorist? Will the Minister go further than the remarks he has just made and say that he will increase Army, and particularly SAS, activity in the Province? [HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] I welcome what the Minister said about the grievous loss suffered by the nation in the helicopter crash. May I ask whether any conclusions have now been formed about the reasons for that crash?

Mr. Brown

A board of inquiry has been set up to investigate last Friday's helicopter crash. The cause has not yet been determined. Nevertheless, I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said yesterday—namely, that none of the casualties had gunshot wounds and that there is no evidence of damage to the helicopter by gunfire.

The remaining matters mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure he will agree, fall to be dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

When the hon. Gentleman suggests that we should increase the number of units in Northern Ireland, I think that he falls into the trap of believing that weight of numbers is the way to defeat terrorism. I am satisfied that there are sufficient troops to deal with the threat and that we have the necessary degree of specialisation to counter terrorist activity.

Mr. Speaker

To be fair to the House, we must have shorter supplementary questions and answers.

Mr. Powell

Does the Minister agree that the recent atrocity would have been neither more nor less likely to occur if there had been 500 more or 500 fewer troops in Northern Ireland? Will the Administration continue with their policy and increasingly apply short-term troops in Northern Ireland to undertake those tasks for which they are indispensable, so that the main functions may increasingly be performed by the RUC, the UDR and the reserves?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It underlines the point I recently made to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) that if we had had a thousand more troops in the Province last Friday it would have made no difference to the situation.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I did not say that.

Mr. Brown

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the way to deal with these murderers is to get them into a court on criminal charges, and we can achieve that objective by obtaining the supremacy of the RUC.

Sir Ian Gilmour

In view of the Minister's reply to the supplementary question by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), should it not be made clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) spoke of greater activity rather than more units?

Mr. Brown

The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gil- mour) has occupied my position on the Front Bench, and he knows full well that the activity of the Army is decided by the General Officer Commanding.