HC Deb 11 June 1980 vol 986 cc558-63
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Blaker)

With your permission Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the New Hebrides.

As hon. Members will recall, I made a statement to the House on 3 June on current problems in the New Hebrides. I said that if no progress was made towards reconciliation, Britain and France would decide jointly on what further action to take. My right hon. and noble Friend and I met M. Dijoud, the French Minister responsible for Overseas Territories, on 9 June as part of our continuing consultations on the situation in the condominium.

The House will be aware that within the last 24 hours the security situation in the New Hebrides has deteriorated. I regret that last night, on the island of Tanna, Alexis Yolu, an Opposition political leader, was killed. The exact circumstances of his death are not yet clear. In order to maintain the joint commitments of the British and French Governments to preserve law and order and territorial integrity in the New Hebrides, the French Government today sent a contingent of gendarmes from Noumea, in New Caledonia, to the New Hebrides. Her Majesty's Government are despatching to Vila one company of Royal Marines, with a headquarters element and logistic support.

This action by both Governments does not reflect any change in our determination to work jointly for a peaceful solution to the present problems.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Does this statement not show clearly that the appalling in-decisiveness of the approach of Her Majesty's Government has resulted not only in not solving one revolution but fomenting, at the same time, another insurrection? Will the Minister come clean about his relationships with the French Government? At the same time as a joint statement was apparently being made that no action was to be taken, using the gendarmerie or any other form of police action, Mr. Jean-Jaques Robert was reported in the French press as being received by a guard of honour and having to explain to 250 of his own citizens why the French Government were not taking unilateral action to support Mr. Jimmy Stevens. Will the Minister say what is to happen? How much longer shall we have to wait before he gives real support to what is a freely elected, democratic Government?

Mr. Blaker

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that the situation on Tanna is now peaceful. Two platoons of police mobile units—one French and one British—are there. We are co-operating on Tanna. As for our relations with the French, I understood the statement made by M. Dijoud last week, about not taking military action, to refer to not taking military action at that time. I agreed with him then. Circumstances have now changed. We were right last week to rely on negotiation.

An attempt at negotiation has been made. It has not so far succeeded. We intend to encourage both parties to resume negotiations. The French have considerable influence on the island of Santo. We shall exercise our influence with them to get both parties to cooperate.

Mrs. Dunwoody

May I remind the Minister that Father Lini had detailed talks in London and elsewhere with the secessionists in Esperitu-Santo? It is not his Government who are at fault. When the Minister says that both sides should come to the table, should he not point out that the elected Government went through a general election and obtained a good result, with a large majority ?

Mr. Blaker

That is true. I have reaffirmed it many times. What the hon. Lady may not be accepting is that to move precipitately into military action will not necessarily solve the problems. The people of the New Hebrides have to live together in the future. We want to create a situation in which the basic problems are resolved.

Mr. Kershaw

Is it not strange that the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is so much opposed to gunboats, should now demand their presence in ever-increasing numbers? Would it not be better to proceed slowly in this matter? The people in that part of the world are motivated in ways different from ours. We should not plunge in with armed force before we know how much progress can be made through negotiation.

Mr. Blaker

My hon. Friend is right in pointing out the bizarre attitude adopted by the hon. Lady last week. One recalls her militaristic tones. It was her party that insisted on leaving us with very few forces east of Suez. The demand for military action last week came oddly from her. I agree with my hon. Friend that the right posture for us to adopt is one of caution but resolution. The dispatch of the troops to which I have referred shows our resolution.

Mr. Dalyell

Bearing in mind that it is always more difficult to take troops out than to put them in, will the Minister say in what circumstances—granted that one builds up certain relationships—it will be possible easily to withdraw the gendarmerie and the Marines once they have moved in? Many hon. Members who have seen Jimmy Stevens on television—we claim no further information—have grave doubts about putting in the gendarmerie and the Marines.

Mr. Blaker

I note that the Opposition are divided on the matter. The object of sending in the gendarmerie and the Marines is to provide stability in the islands, so that negotiations can better be resumed.

Mr. Paul Dean

I welcome my hon. Friend"s statement and accept the regrettable necessity to have troops available in present circumstances. Will he emphasise that as soon as law and order is restored the basic necessity for peaceful negotiations will remain, so that the New Hebrides can proceed to independence, if possible, on the due date?

Mr. Blaker

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I hope that the presence of the troops in the New Hebrides will not necessarily be for long. Our object must be to leave the New Hebrides in a condition in which its people are prepared to five together with one another in peace.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that the specific words that he used in his statement, and has since repeated, namely, to send in the gendarmerie and the Marines to quell the rebellion and to restore law and order, are almost identical to the words used by the Russians when they invaded Afghanistan?

Mr. Blaker

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has risen to his usual form. In any case, he misquoted what I said. No doubt he will look it up in Hansard tomorrow. I said that the sending in of troops is intended to create stability in the islands, so that negotiations can better be resumed.

Mr. Cormaek

Is not it a trifle odd that the Opposition have not yet suggested sending in a United Nations peacekeeping force?

Mr. Blaker

I notice that the Opposition seem to be entirely devoid of any ideas or understanding of this problem. The only thing for which they were able to call last week was the sending in of troops, without any further reflection about what that might mean.

Mr. English

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the poetry of one of our former Members who represented Hull. Is it the case that he is not describing these events as treason because they are prospering?

Mr. Blaker

I am afraid that I do not follow the allusion to the former Labour Member for Hull. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman's question indicates that he has not followed the answers that I have given.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Is the Minister aware that it is very unfair of him to castigate the Opposition for not having ideas on this matter? The plain fact is that this rather tragic business reflects a considerable lack of foresight on the part of the Foreign Office.

Mr. Blaker

I do not accept that in any way whatever. The trouble results from the failure of Jimmy Stevens and his followers to win the local elections in Santo, and the failure of the Opposition groups—those who are now causing the trouble—in Tanna to win the elections for the regional council on that Island.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Can my non. Friend say who will command the Marines and the gendarmerie? Will they act in concert, and under whose command do they come? Can he say whether the possibility of independence being delayed is now being considered?

Mr. Blaker

We believe that it is right to stick to the date of 30 July for independence. That is agreed between the French and ourselves and the New Hebrides Government. We shall be working towards that end. The gendarmerie and the Marines will work in co-operation. In the last resort, they will come under the command of the resident commissioner.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising.

Mr. Kilfedder

Have the Government delivered a protest to the United States Government with regard to the activities of an American organisation that has been fomenting the rebellion in this unhappy island?

Mr. Blaker

The hon. Gentleman may not have been in the House the other day when I answered a question on that subject. I said that we had been in touch with the United States Government, who said that if they could obtain the necessary evidence they would prosecute the individuals to whom he has referred. However, I do not think that the House should assume that if such a prosecution took place, and the influence of the Phoenix Foundation were removed from the New Hebrides, the problem would necessarily be solved.

Mr. Newens

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the French settlers bear a considerable responsibility for the revolt that has taken place? In those circumstances—putting on one side the question of troops, about which a number of us are not too keen—can he say what proposals there are, in the long run, aimed at settling the problem in order that the democratic forces can take over in that area?

Mr. Blaker

It is true that some of the French settlers have been co-operating with Jimmy Stevens on the island of Santo. The French Government have said that they are resolved to restore the integrity of the New Hebrides and to solve the problem of Santo. The position of the settlers will be discussed between the French and New Hebrides Governments. The French Government have a large aid programme for the New Hebrides. That may be relevant to the position of the settlers, and it is important that everything should be done to encourage the French Government to continue with that aid programme.

Mr. Spriggs

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is far too easy to put the blame for the present disturbance on Jimmy Stevens and the failure of his party to win the general election? Does he agrees that it takes far more than that to cause what is tantamount to a revolution in the New Hebrides? Will he consider this matter again and give the House the full and true facts?

Mr. Blaker

I do not particularly like the insinuation contained in the last few words of the hon. Gentleman's question. I take it that he did not mean to imply that I had been giving false facts to the House. As to the origins of the problems in Santo, there are, of course, other factors. For example, there are different languages in a condominium. There are three different languages in the New Hebrides, which inevitably complicates the situation. There are also several different religions. If those problems did not exist, the situation would be much simpler. But ultimately the cause of the problem in Santo is the resentment of Jimmy Stevens and his followers at having failed to win the election on that island.

Mr. Ron Brown

In view of the Minister's statement, I take it that it is now all right for the British team to go to the Olympic Games—or is it simply the case that the Government represent double standards?

Mr. Blaker

I am afraid that that question is too abstruse for me to follow.

Mr. Hooley

The positive joint intervention by Britain and France to uphold the authority of the lawful Government is clearly welcome. However, will the Minister be a little more explicit about American involvement? Surely the American Government do not have to wait for a prosecution before they can bring some pressure to bear on very unsavoury activities by their nationals in the Pacific.

Mr. Blaker

We have been assured by the American Government that we shall have their full co-operation.

Back to