HC Deb 01 February 1979 vol 961 cc1658-62
9. Mr. Townsend

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the war against terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mason

In the period since I last addressed the House on 6 December, the increased level of terrorist activity, which had commenced in the middle of November, continued during the remainder of December.

Four soldiers and a prison officer have met their deaths; three of the soldiers were killed in a gun attack on a patrol in Crossmaglen on 21 December.

Since the end of December, two members of the Provisional IRA have died in an explosion, possibly caused by the premature detonation of bombs which they were carrying. There have been fewer terrorist attacks on commercial premises in January.

In 1978 the RUC charged 843 persons with terrorist offences.

Mr. Townsend

Following the death of deputy governor Albert Miles, and bearing in mind the current callous campaign against prison staff, what new proposals is the Secretary of State putting forward to protect prison officers who have an essential duty to perform on behalf of us all?

Mr. Mason

Prior to Christmas, a special attempt was made to frighten, intimidate and possibly kill prison officers. Unfortunately, those responsible succeeded with the deputy governor. There was an attempt by the Provisional IRA to change the policy of Her Majesty's Government over the Maze protest. It did not succeed by Christmas, and it will not succeed in future. The prison officers have all been given an assurance by the RUC that they may have a personal weapon if they wish and that if they think they are being threatened they will be given a special guard.

Mr. McCusker

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, despite some of the favourable trends that have been seen in the war against terrorists, seven young uniformed soldiers were killed in South Armagh last year, as against two in 1977? What is being done by the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence to lessen the risk that young men have to face in South Armagh while maintaining a security presence?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman represents that area. There is a great deal of hostility towards Her Majesty's Forces in the areas of South Armagh and Crossmaglen. I am sorry to say that the death rate increased in those areas, but throughout the Province there was a noticeable decline in deaths in 1978 among the UDR, the police, the Army and civilians.

Mr. Fitt

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all elected representatives from Northern Ireland deeply deplore and deprecate the murder of young British soldiers and members of the security forces in Northern Ireland? Is he satisfied with the instructions that are given on the yellow card to the British Army and with the steps that are taken to save innocent persons' lives? Is he aware that allegations have been made in Northern Ireland, founded or unfounded, and believed by many, that at least 10 innocent persons have been killed by members of the British Army who have not carried out the instructions on the yellow card? Is he satisfied that the yellow card does not have to be brought up to date to ensure the protection of young innocent lives?

Mr. Mason

I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend said about himself and many hon. Members—indeed, I hope all hon. Members—being impressed by the courage and dedication of the British soldier in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will not be responsible for the beginning of rumours that 10 innocent people have lost their lives in the Province because of the soldiers. The soldiers operate under the rules on the card. It is difficult for these young men to carry out their exercises and operations if they feel that they do not have the support of the local community, and especially of the political leaders. I hope that my hon. Friend will give them the lead that they require.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

In view of both British and Spanish reports that members of the Provisional IRA have operated with terrorists of the Basque separatist organisation ETA, and that members of that organisation have taken part in activities in the United Kingdom, are the Government satisfied with the co-operation between European and other western countries against the common enemy of Western civilisation?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman may know that at the Provisional Sinn Fein ardheis that was held recently in the Republic of Ireland representatives of the Basque terrorists were present. Undoubtedly, there is a tenuous link. We keep in touch with our embassies and consulates abroad and warn them if we think that there is anything developing from that link.

Sir Geoffrey de Freitas

Do not the murder figures as a whole in Northern Ireland show a reduction? Is not that a fact that we should regard as encouraging?

Mr. Mason

My right hon. Friend is right. In 1976, 296 people died in Northern Ireland. In 1977 the number fell to 112, and last year, in spite of the La Mon House restaurant incident, it fell to 81. Progress is being made in that respect. There are fewer deaths, fewer woundings and fewer shooting incidents. We never talk about success, but we talk about progress, and progress is definitely being made in that regard.


Rev. Ian Paisley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hasten to assure you that this point of order has nothing to do with gas and gaiters—or your gaiters, Mr. Speaker. This is a serious point that I should like to bring to your attention.

Today, on question No. 9, in answer to a supplementary question to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), the right hon. Gentleman implied that all those who had been shot by the British Army and killed in Ulster were in some way guilty. I rise to defend, and ask your ruling on, two men. I hasten to say that neither question is at present before a court.

One case concerns John Boyle, a Roman Catholic constituent of mine. The other concerns Jim Taylor, a Protestant constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop). Both men were shot and killed by the British Army many months ago. No action has yet been taken, although the pathologist's report made it perfectly clear that John Boyle was shot three times in the back.

Mr. Speaker

Would the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to indicate the point of order on which he wishes me to rule?

Rev. Ian Paisley

I wish you, Mr. Speaker, to rule on whether it is right for the Secretary of State to give an answer which indicts two innocent men.

Mr. Speaker

That is a question for the Minister. I cannot rule on what a Minister should say.

Mr. Fitt

Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), and in support of what he said about the response that I received from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to my supplementary question, is it not your opinion, Mr. Speaker, that the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, namely, the life and death of his constituents, is far more important than what we have listened to for the past hour? Would you reconsider your decision, in view of the fact that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that those who were shot by the British Army were guilty of a crime, when the facts are completely contrary? I could name people in addition to those named by the hon. Gentleman.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


The Attorney-General (Mr. S. C. Silkin)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As for the person Boyle, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), directions for a prosecution have now been given by the Director of Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. I suggest that it would be better if the matter were left there.

Mr. Speaker

I was about to say to the House that the Minister is responsible for whatever statement he has made. He carries that responsibility. It is for the Minister to decide whether he wishes to come to the House to deal with the matter. There is nothing that I can do, especially as the matter is sub judice in one instance.