HC Deb 08 March 1979 vol 963 cc1460-2
1. Mr. Cryer

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the long-term retention of troops in Northern Ireland.

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

The role of the Army in Northern Ireland is to provide necessary support for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The troops will be maintained at a level appropriate to the terrorist threat.

Mr. Cryer

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is recognised that the troops do a difficult and often dangerous job but that it is essentially a policing role which sometimes sits uneasily on their shoulders? Can he give any indication of when he sees the possibility of some diminution of the role of the Army—by partial or complete withdrawal in, for example, five years? What move is the Secretary of State making to facilitate that sort of move?

Mr. Mason

I have often said to the House that force levels will be maintained in Northern Ireland according to the security threat within the Province. We are making good progress. We now have six garrison units in Northern Ireland which are on 18-month tours. That means that about 6,000 or 7,000 personnel now serve four-month tours, and therefore that role is lessening as the garrison strength is reinforced. That is a noticeable step towards normality.

Last year we withdrew 1,000 troops because we thought that the threat had lessened sufficiently to allow such a reduction, and that is how I shall have to treat the matter in the future.

Mr. Craig

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Army has a role in Northern Ireland other than that of supporting the RUC? The Army has the role of garrisoning that part of the United Kingdom as part of the military strategy of the country?

Mr. Mason

Yes. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right, I think that many people in Great Britain tend to forget that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and therefore must have its garrison strength in the same way as Scotland, Wales and England.

Mr. Madden

In view of recent tragic events, has my right hon. Friend reviewed the suitability of young soldiers serving up to a maximum of three tours in Northern Ireland? Has he any intention of reviewing this matter, perhaps to impose a limit of two tours on such young soldiers?

Mr. Mason

That is not a matter for me specifically. It is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I have visited Northern Ireland for the past five years both as Secretary of State for Defence and as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I have met the troops in all their roles—whether in Belfast, Londonderry or in the country—on many occasions. I have always found that their morale is very high. If they do go back on more than one tour, and it is to a different location within the Province, they find it interesting and regard it as part of their task as members of Her Majesty's Forces.

The tragic events to which my hon. Friend referred might or might not have occurred because of stress and strain. That has not yet been judged. I am not aware that that is prevalent among Her Majesty's Forces in the Province.

Mr. Goodhart

Is it not plain that the emotional call by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) for a premature withdrawal of troops merely encourages the IRA to throw bombs and commit other acts in the hope that our nerve will break?

Mr. Mason

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) was pressing hard for immediate or rapid withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland. However, people who involve themselves in what is called the "troops out" movement are certainly giving succour and solace to the Provisional IRA—they get the joy, but the people of the Province do not want the troops to withdraw.

Mr. Fitt

Is not it a fact that throughout the five years that my right hon. Friend has been going to Northern Ireland he has found no comparison between the garrison in that part of the United Kingdom and garrisons in other parts of the United Kingdom where the troops do not roar round the streets armed to the teeth? Is it not a fact that at one time during the five years that my right hon Friend has been going to Northern Ireland, when he was Secretary of State for Defence, he made a speech in which he suggested that the Army might be withdrawn from Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend fully realises that the reason why the troops do not run about with guns in their hands in England, Scotland and Wales is that they do not have to.