HC Deb 24 May 1979 vol 967 cc1202-9
1. Mr. Stephen Ross

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he is satisfied as to the efficiency of the security arrangements within his own Department.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Humphrey Atkins)

Yes, Sir, but I intend to continue reviewing them so that if any means of improving them can be found, those improvements can be made immediately.

Mr. Ross

I am very grateful for that assurance. As I happen to have the first question today, may I apologise to Members representing Irish constituencies? I welcome the Secretary of State and the other Northern Ireland Ministers to their appointments and wish them well.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the unrest felt at the loss of an important document which was stolen in the post recently. Will he assure us that that method of sending communications which can be of interest to an enemy of this country, as is the IRA, will not be used by his Department in the future—if his answer would not be a breach of security?

Mr. Atkins

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks.

I can give the hon. Member the assurance for which he asks. There are secure means for the transmission of documents of which my Department makes full use. I assure him that secret documents are not sent through the post.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Will the Secretary of State ensure the observance of a rule whereby, when cases are raised with him or his colleagues by hon. Members, the first knowledge of a decision taken upon them is communicated to the hon. Member concerned and not otherwise or to the press?

Mr. Atkins

Certainly, Sir. This is a common courtesy of this House which I hope to continue.

3. Mr. Molyneaux

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on security developments over the past two months.

7. Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

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

8. Mr. Michael Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the security situation.

9. Mr. Wm. Ross

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he is satisfied with the present security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

11. Rev. Ian Paisley

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland.

14. Mr. Townsend

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

Mr. Humphrey Atkins

Thirty-two people were killed this year as a result of terrorist activity, including 15 in April and a further six this month. Thirty-five people were killed in the same period last year. The number of bomb attacks—234—is similar to last year but a larger quantity of explosives was used. Since the beginning of the year, 271 persons have been charged with terrorist-type offences, 15 of these with murder and 14 with attempted murder.

We are faced in Northern Ireland with an evil terrorist campaign which cannot attain its objectives. The Government will continue to take determined action against terrorists.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I propose to call first those hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Mr. Molyneaux

May I be permitted to reiterate the good wishes which I extended in the House two days ago on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues?

As the pattern of terrorism over the period to which the Secretary of State referred indicates that the attacks were launched mostly from the Irish Republic, does he agree that the Dublin Government have a clear responsibility to prevent their territory being used as a safe haven and a secure base for terrorists?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks.

There is no doubt that we must always seek to improve arrangements between the Government of the Republic and Her Majesty's Government regarding operations over the border. The discussions and arrangements continue. I shall seek to do what I can to make them more effective. I realise that, although not all the incidents to which I referred in my main answer are carried out by people from across the border, there are some which are and there should be none.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said in his statement on 8 May regarding his determination to bring men of violence to justice. However, may I press my right hon. Friend on the need for more co-operation between the RUC and the Garda and ask him whether he intends to make any representations to the Minister in Dublin concerned with security to ensure that the border becomes a true barrier to those who seek to commit crime in the North and then flee South for refuge?

Mr. Atkins

That, of course, is my object. As my hon. Friend will understand, I have not had time to discuss this with the Government of the Republic. It seems to me that it would be desirable to do so, and I shall take an opportunity of doing so when I can.

Mr. Latham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in Britain who wish the Province well are nevertheless depressed at the continued daily atrocities? Despite the tremendous efforts and sacrifices of the security forces, the violence has continued for 10 years. Does my right hon. Friend have any new political initiatives in mind which might assist the achievement of a more secure situation?

Mr. Atkins

No Minister at this Dispatch Box can be satisfied with a situation in which lives continue to be lost. That is why I re-emphasised our determination, following our predecessor's, to do everything we can to defeat the terrorist campaign. As regards political initiatives, while I recognise that the security and political situations are closely interlinked, I do not think that it would be right for me to take any immediate precipitate action. As my hon. Friend perhaps knows, I have already embarked on a round of discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland. Until those are completed, and I have had time to consider the whole situation, it would be wrong for me to suggest solutions to a very difficult problem.

Mr. Ross

When a security assessment falls into the hands of the IRA, it can no longer be considered a secret. Will the Secretary of State speak to his right hon. Friend to see whether there is any possibility of publishing such a document so that hon. Members may pass their views on it?

Mr. Atkins

That is not a matter for me, but I shall certainly talk about it to my right hon. Friend.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on their appointments; I wish them well.

Have representations been made by the right hon. Gentleman to the Dublin Government concerning the brutal murder in Garrison, when two armed men came across the border and, after killing a former member of the UDR, escaped across the border on a motor cycle? Does he not feel that in such cases urgent and immediate representations should be made to the Dublin Government? Can he also make a statement upon the damage done in my constituency on Friday last, when £2 million worth of damage was done? Can he further give an assurance to the business men of Ballymena that interim payments to get them back into business will be forthcoming? Will he also convey to the police the thanks of the citizens of Ballymena for the able way in which the police cleared Church Street? Is he aware that if that street had not been cleared perhaps 20 or 30 lives would have been lost?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about me. I am also grateful to him for his remarks regarding the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Ballymena. I shall ensure that his views are made known to the officers concerned.

I am not aware that there was any delay in the payment of compensation. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case in mind, perhaps he will let me know and I shall look into it immediately. On cross-border co-operation, I do not think that at the moment I can go further than I have done. I am aware of the difficulties. As I have said, it is something that I wish to take up with the Government of the Republic. I have spent the last two and a half weeks familiarising myself with the Province rather than the Republic, but I shall do the latter very soon.

Mr. Townsend

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will continue the policy of making the RUC primarily responsible for maintaining law and order in the Province so that British troops can be kept in reserve? Second, in the light of recent events, will he carefully review all the plans for the security of prison officers?

Mr. Atkins

Yes, Sir. I shall certainly do both. The objective of all of us must be to bring about a state of affairs where the policing of the Province is done by policemen as opposed to soldiers, as in the rest of the United Kingdom. It will be my objective to do this. I am sorry that it is not possible at this stage to say that the presence of the Army is unnecessary.

Mr. Mason

May I take this first opportunity to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on becoming Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? I only hope that he will get the understanding and sympathy of the House in the same measure as was received by me and my ministerial team. That will, of course, depend upon the policies that he pursues. We shall watch very carefully for any diversions. It would be right at this stage to place on record the appreciation of the House for the efforts of the security forces during the general election, both in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. Those who wished to prevent us from using the ballot boxes failed, and we were, with a little restraint, able to participate and poll.

May I also register the concerns of hon. Members about the use of the border? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that border incidents are increasing and that he must make the Republic fully aware of our concern and keep it up to its commitment to increase border co-operation between the Garda and the RUC? We must let the Republic know that we cannot allow our efforts in the North to be dissipated through border incidents.

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said, In particular, I am grateful to him for his good wishes and his assurance that, provided we do not do anything that causes difficulty, he will give us the support that I hope my predecessors gave him when in opposition.

I certainly take on board the right hon. Gentleman's point about co-operation with the Republic. What he has said has reinforced my determination to discuss this matter with the Government of the Republic at an early date. I also wholly endorse the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the activities of the RUC during the election campaign. I am sure that there were those who wished to ensure that democracy could not function in Northern Ireland during the election campaign. They failed, and we are all delighted that that was so.

Mr. Fitt

I also welcome the Secretary of State to Northern Ireland. In his quest for a political advance on solving the problem of Northern Ireland, may I assure him that he will meet with the full support of my own party? Is he aware that it is now almost 10 years since the British troops arrived in Northern Ireland—in August 1969? Within the past six weeks, 21 people have been brutally murdered, which would seem to indicate that there is no total military solution to the problem of Northern Ireland and that there must be political advance. The search for political advance and progress must begin immediately. The task is urgent, and there must be no further delay.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept my assurance that I, my party and all those of good will in Northern Ireland will do everything we possibly can to seek a double solution—military and political—to the problems of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Atkins

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that I shall continue to agree with him, and he with me. There is no military solution by itself. The military and political situations go hand in hand. I am very much aware of that. I shall do all I can on the political side. At the same time, I must repeat that terrorism, under whatever cloak or guise, is something that we all deplore, and is something which every hon. Member will want to do his utmost to stamp out. I shall not relinquish any efforts to stop cowardly, terrorist attacks which occur far too frequently. I hope that both the success against terrorism and the search for a political solution can move ahead.

Mr. McCusker

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that 12 out of the 32 people murdered in Northern Ireland were murdered in County Armagh, and that 10 of them had their deaths perpetrated, planned and organised from the Irish Republic, to which place their murderers retreated? Will he consider, as a matter of absolute urgency, the necessity not only of himself talking to the Dublin Government but also of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister having such discussions? Is he aware that at their next meeting his right hon. Friends should not have friendly talks with Mr. Lynch, but should tell him that by the next time they meet he should have done something to stop this?

Mr. Atkins

I shall pass on to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the hon. Gentleman's suggestion of what she should say to Mr. Lynch. I repeat that I want to discuss this matter with the Government of the Republic. I think that the Government of the Republic have just as much an interest—I know they have, and they know that they have—in stamping out terrorism as we have. No Government likes to have terrorists operating in its country. I hope to get indications that the Dublin Government are just as keen as we are to stop the cross-border operations which cause so much anguish in this House.

Mr. Stanbrook

Would it not assist the campaign against terrorists if the Republic were induced to become party to the European Convention on the suppression of terrorism, since in the present position terrorists are entitled to claim exemption from extradition by saying that their crimes are political offences? Is not this wholly undesirable if there is to be real co-operation against terrorism?

Mr. Atkins

That is certainly one of the points that I shall keep in mind when I have discussions with the Government of the Republic.