HC Deb 24 October 1983 vol 47 cc27-30

4 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the situation in Grenada. The House will be aware of the violent events of last week on the independent Commonwealth island of Grenada. Her Majesty's Government join with those in the Caribbean region and elsewhere who have deplored the killings, and we view with grave concern the existing state of unconstitutional government and insecurity on the island.

We are particularly conscious that there are some 200 British citizens on Grenada, including a number of British tourists. The resident representative of the British High Commission has been active in maintaining contact with this community and reports that no British citizens appear to be in immediate danger. The Deputy High Commissioner also visited Grenada from Barbados yesterday to make contact with the new authorities and to speak with the Governor-General. He found the island calm but tense and confirmed that neither the Governor-General nor members of the British community appeared to be in any imminent danger.

None the less, the position remains extremely volatile. It is for this reason that Her Majesty's Government have instructed HMS Antrim to be prepared to evacuate our community should the situation worsen and make this necessary.

Meanwhile, we remain in close touch with the Governments of the other Commonwealth Caribbean countries, whose leaders have been meeting in Trinidad. We shall be discussing with them and with other interested states the best prospects of helping to achieve a restoration of constitutional government, peace and security in Grenada. I shall keep the House informed of developments.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for making the statement. The Opposition fully share his concern at what has happened in Grenada during the last week. Military dictatorships are all too common in that part of the world. I think that I am correct in saying that this is the first time that anything like one has been established in a Commonwealth country in the Caribbean. I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to ensure the evacuation of any British citizens who wish to leave the island and his intention to concert policy with other Commonwealth members in the Caribbean.

Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that there is no question of American military intervention on the island? It could only make the position worse.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I know of no such intention.

Mr. Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend any information about the alleged Cuban presence on Grenada and the role that it has played or is playing? Is he aware of the widespread belief in the Caribbean during the past two or three years that Grenada should be regarded as part of a Soviet game-plan, and the new airports as a jumping-off ground aimed primarily at Trinidad and Venezuela? Should we not, therefore, see the incident as a serious development in the global struggle for power and not just as an isolated seizure of power by a group of the military?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

One must take account of all those factors in considering such a matter. It must be remembered that Prime Minister Bishop, who lost his life in the recent coup d'état, was a close friend and associate of Dr. Castro, that there are several hundred Cuban advisers on the island already, and that the Cuban Government have lamented the death of Prime Minister Bishop and deplored the recent events. It is difficult to conclude—although my hon. Friend is correct to remind us of the facts — that in that respect the matter has changed significantly.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Does the Secretary of State think that, where a group has seized power in a Commonwealth country with a small population, the British Government have any responsibility to do anything?.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The British Government obviously are concerned with such an event in any independent country, particularly one that has only recently secured that independence and freedom as a result of decisions of the House, but Grenada is an independent country. Our concern and what we are prepared to do about it must be determined by recognition of that fact.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

In view of the desirability of avoiding any American intervention to safeguard American citizens, can the Foreign Secretary say whether HMS Antrim would have the appropriate authority to assist also in the removal of any Americans who might be at risk? When will the new airport on Grenada be ready? Is it a fact that the airport would enable Mig27s to overfly Venezuela if the Cubans were to land them there? Will the Foreign Secretary raise the matter at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference and ascertain what is the position when a nasty dictatorship, with no regard for human rights, seeks to retain its membership of the Commonwealth?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not in a position to tell my hon. Friend the date of completion of the airfield on the island. The United States Government have explained that their own naval forces in the area are in that position solely because of the requirement that may arise to rescue their own very sizeable community in Grenada. There is no reason to doubt that their forces would be sufficient to achieve that purpose, but I take account of the point raised by my hon. Friend.

With regard to the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government, plainly there, as everywhere else in the Commonwealth, there must be concern at an incident of this kind, but it is too early to say whether any conclusion would or would not be right at that stage.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

As I represent tens of thousands of West Indians, may I tell the Foreign Secretary of their openly expressed sense of outrage and grief at what has happened in Grenada? Will it be the aim of the Foreign Secretary's policy, in conjunction with his Commonwealth colleagues, to seek not only the restoration of constitutional government but democracy in Grenada, without undue veto or pressure from the United States, Cuba or any other country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I confirm what the hon. Gentleman said about the sense of outrage felt by members of the Caribbean population in Britain, as in the Caribbean itself, at what has taken place. It must be remembered that the Government who have been ousted came to power in 1979 as a result of a military coup. I am sure that it would be right for us to take counsel with the Caribbean Commonwealth Governments to see whether there are any steps which can be taken to help promote the prospects of the return of democratic government in the island of Grenada.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Has the Foreign Secretary been told that last year members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs visited Havana and Grenada and produced a report with recommendations? Is he aware that among those recommendations in respect of Grenada was a recommendation that Her Majesty's Government should strengthen diplomatic presence there, and that they should initiate talks with a view to starting a bilateral aid programme? Has he been told that in Cmnd. 8819 those recommendations were turned down? Does he agree that the Select Committee might have been right?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am, of course, aware of the recommendations of that Select Committee. The decisions taken in respect of them have been explained in the White Paper to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, I do not believe that an event of this kind would have been significantly influenced by acting on those recommendations.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that all those, including myself, who recently visited Grenada, and met some of the Ministers who have since been murdered, will condemn the actions of the military in Grenada? But have not the Government some responsibility for the event, having not only turned down the recommendations of the Select Committee but, along with United States of America, undermined the economy of Grenada since the moderate regime, led by Bishop, took over? The Stalinists who are now in control, having executed moderate Socialists who wanted to keep their links with Great Britain, are there as a direct result of some of our Government's policies. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the only reason why the Cubans are in Grenada building the airport is that, when Bishop came to Britain and America for help to build a long-planned airport, we turned him down?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot subscribe to the hon. Gentleman's view. No doubt he is better qualified than I to make judgments about moderation between Socialists and Communists.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) is better qualified than the Foreign Secretary to make judgments on anything.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and. Doon Valley)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) about possible American intervention was not at all reassuring? Will he and the British Government advise the American Government than any intervention by the United States would be unhelpful? Is he aware that progess towards democracy such as my right hon. and hon. Friends have spoken of will not be achieved by any form of external military intervention?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are keeping in the closest possible touch with the United States Government and the Caribbean Governments to which I have referred. I have no reason to think that American military intervention is likely. The United States Government have explained that the movement and presence of their naval vessels in the area is prompted solely by the same reasoning which Led us to consider the positioning of HMS Antrim—to rescue a sizeable American community in Grenada if circumstances deteriorate and evacuation is necessary.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Is the Foreign Secretary making representations to the United States Government to withdraw their fleet, which is anchored off Grenada? Its presence can only exacerbate the situation and be a prelude to a possible landing on Grenada by American forces?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have already explained twice that the presence of the United States naval vessels is not prompted by the consideration that the hon. Gentleman has in mind. The vessels are there for the reason that the United States Government and we have given. There are more than 1,000 United States citizens and several hundred British citizens on Grenada. It is only prudent that when Governments of democratic countries are faced with such circumstances they take steps to provide for the rescue of their citizens if necessary. That is the reason for the presence of the naval vessels.

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