HC Deb 12 March 1984 vol 56 cc169-84 2.22 am
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

We have just had what I might call a post mortem which was introduced by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). It was animated at times, but some might think that it was unsatisfactory. Turning from the disposal of one piece of property, I want to draw the attention of the House to the possible change of use of another property. I trust that when the Minister replies to the debate his prognosis will be a little more hopeful, in particular in connection with the subject of the training depot of the Royal Irish Rangers, currently situated at St. Patrick's barracks in Ballymena.

I understand that the future of that depot is under threat as a result of General Groom's report on how savings are to be made in the training schemes of the Army. We thought last year, when there was a suspicion that things might be moving, that we had understandings that the future of the depot would be secure, but it appears that that decision has not yet been taken. I understand that General Groom concluded that all regular infantry training should be contained in three or four places—one in Scotland, one for the King's division in Yorkshire, and one elsewhere. Therefore, the adult recruits of the Royal Irish Rangers should be trained in Yorkshire while the juniors might be trained at one of the three places in England, Pirbright being a possible site. I speak with some feeling on the matter, not only because in another sphere did I succeed a gallant colonel, the late R. H. Wallace of South Down milita fame, but my father on his death was president of the 10th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles Old Comrades' Association. Other family members have served, and suffered, in the forces, and I had the privilege of serving as a member of the Royal Ulster Rifles army cadet force.

While it may be argued that there will be financial savings in such moves, I believe that they would never compensate for the incalcuable loss of regimental loyalty and tradition. If the House considered in an earlier debate that property was sold at too low a price, I have a suspicion that to change the use of the training depot in Ballymena from the regimental headquarters and training depot for the Royal Irish Rangers would be too high a price to pay.

As the recruits are removed from St. Patrick's, for example, the regimental presence would be undermined, destroying the very concept of a regimental headquarters, and its infrastructure. Because of the decision of successive Governments, in my opinion unwisely taken, the two regular battalions no longer serve in Northern Ireland, and I believe are presently stationed at Dover and Chester. There is every prospect, therefore, if the training of the recruits and the juniors is moved, of the regiment becoming Irish in name only, just as the dragoons and the hussars were subsumed in the cavalry. To allow the groom to lead us that way would be to miss the track, and to stable the horse in the wrong place.

The regiment comprises not only the two regular battalions but also two territorial army battalions in Portadown and Armagh, with units in some nine other locations. There are 37 detachments of the cadet force, and two combined cadet units. They have a chapel in Belfast cathedral, and three museums. In addition—something that is sometimes overlooked—they discharge responsibilities for the old Irish regiments, such regiments as the 18th regiment from Clonmel, a responsibility that has been placed upon the army since 1921. To claim that there would still be a regimental presence with a regimental headquarters would be to trade in mythology. A regimental headquarters in such circumstances would probably involve a retired officer with some clerical assistance.

To lose regimental traditions, morale and esprit de corps would be something that finance could not recoup. Let us look at the financial side, since it is suggested that, by moving the Rangers elsewhere, savings will be made. If it were questionable in the previous debate what value might have accrued by other methods of disposal, I believe that it is debatable that finance will be saved by moving the training depot from Ballymena. I believe that the exact figures are unknown. However, it is suggested that it will take several million pounds to build suitable accommodation at Strensall in Yorkshire.

At the same time it is intended to keep Ballymena as a TA training establishment with the Royal Irish Rangers headquarters. Therefore, it appears that the overheads will remain the same and training staff to some extent will have to be kept there if we are to have an efficient service for the TA. Currently, however, about 300 recruits and 400 juniors are trained in Ballymena each year. Therefore, the object should be to make the training of adults and juniors more cost-effective. A move to Yorkshire would merely be an exercise in academic or accounting dogma.

There is an option to be considered. I believe that the Rangers would welcome the use of the depot as a training centre for all arms. Sending 45 men on a series of courses could cover 1,000 people a year. That could be superimposed on what already exists there for the Royal Irish Rangers. While some specialist units might still prefer their TA groups to be trained in traditional centres, basic training could be given at St. Patrick's and the travel costs and extra expenses incurred in sending them to main depots could be saved. That is one way of making legitimate savings.

It is also important to remember that 80 per cent. of the Rangers are Ulster-born. The remainder are from England, from what are known, for example, as the Lancashire Irish, with a trickle from the Republic of Ireland. To take those 80 per cent. straight from Ulster could accelerate the outflow of young men from the Province which w e see in the academic world. They would be isolated, and that would make it more difficult for them to return to their families during training. The result might even be to impair the rate of recruiting, as parents discouraged their children from such a course.

I turn to the political considerations, which we all recognise. If the depot is to be removed, the link will be broken between the homeland of the last remaining infantry regiment of the line associated with Ireland. The focus of attention would then move from our own regiment, with its headquarters and training depot in Ballymena, to the intinerants in Lisburn, with all the attendant pressures for the withdrawal of the British Army. The move of the Rangers from Ballymena would be seen as the beginning of a series of withdrawals. It could, and I believe would, be paralleled by the signal given to the Argentine junta by the withdrawal of HMS Endeavour from the Falklands. They concluded that the British were on the way out. Perhaps that is the signal which some wish to give to the Government of the Irish Republic; I hope that it is not the signal which anyone wants to send to the IRA.

Not only would keeping the Rangers in Ballymena save money. More fundamentally, it would keep the fighting traditions of an important unit of the British Army within its own habitat. Scotland still has its regimental headquarters and traditions. England undoubtedly has its fine traditions and regiments. Even Wales has its headquarters in Lichfield, only an hour's drive away. But to remove this depot from Ballymena is to remove any regimental tradition from the Province.

The depot would not be just an hour's drive away. It would lie across the most costly stretch of water in the world—hours away, even from the port in Scotland or England, with all the resulting inconvenience for recruits. Most important, it strikes a blow at traditions of which we are justly proud.

I am reminded of an old song which, so far as I remember, goes like this: You may talk about your King's Guards, Scots Greys and all; You may talk about your Kilties and your gallant Forty-twa; But of all the regiments under the King's command, The South Down Militia is the terror of them all.

2.37 am
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

This matter is of the greatest concern to the Province of Ulster and the people of Ballymena. Representing Ballymena in the House, I want to put on record a resolution passed by the Ballymena borough council on 5 March: That this council is alarmed at reports that the Training element of the Royal Irish Rangers, will be moved to Strensall in Yorkshire. Realising the serious implications of such a decision, Ballymena Borough Council calls upon Her Majesty's Government to take steps to stop such action. We are tonight considering the future of St. Patrick's barracks in Ballymena as the headquarters and training depot of the Royal Irish Rangers. The regiment was formed in 1968 — I almost said, 1690 — from the regiments which previously constituted the North Irish Brigade — the Royal Inniskillin Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria's). The history of those regiments goes back over 200 years. The fact that they are called "fusiliers" shows that, because the name came from an improved type of musket which was used only by special units and officers and was known by its French name "fusil". The escorts for the guns were the first troops to be armed with flintlock muskets, because sparks drifting from the match of the old matchlock muskets often caused the open powder barrels standing beside the guns to explode.

We are going back into history. A pope handed Ireland to England and instructed the English monarch to bring Ireland into subjection. Since those days, the British Army has recruited in Ireland. As the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) said, this is the last link of a regiment with Ireland. The present Clerk of the House of Commons had a distinguished career as a member of the Royal Ulster Rifles. This matter runs deeply into the past and present.

What do the Government intend to do about meeting deputations interested in this matter? Many people in Northern Ireland are anxious to put their views on this important topic.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South commented on the financial aspect. Better financial ceilings could be achieved by keeping this training centre in the Province. The largest percentage of recruits come from the Province. Why should they not be trained there? The Government should comment on that important matter.

Political considerations cause great worry. The House has taken decisions on other institutions and establishments connected with the armed forces. A naval depot was shifted from the Randaldstown area, and that was the last such establishment in Northern Ireland. With those actions, the British connection and the link of the armed forces with Northern Ireland is being withdrawn. That is alarming, especially when there is strong political and terrorist pressure about these matters from the Irish Republic. We from Northern Ireland have a right to be greatly worried about how these matters are proceeding.

The connection between Ballymena and the Army has been long standing and good. The town has benefited from the training depot, and the depot has benefited from its connection with the town. I am anxious about the employment position, in the town, because about 200 jobs will be in jeopardy if this action proceeds. The Minister should bear in mind the Northern Ireland unemployment situation.

I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will tell us when the decision will be made, because 12 to 18 months ago we thought that the matter had been resolved, that the assurance given then could be relied upon, and that the training centre would continue.

It is unsatisfactory to say that the headquarters will remain in Ballymena, because that means only an office, a retired Army officer and perhaps a clerk to answer the telephone. That is not what we want for the St. Patrick's barracks. We want the full training facilities to continue. I press the Minister to tell us when he believes that the Government will make that important decision.

I should like to ask the Minister what on the spot inquiries and investigations have been made. Have all the relevant factors—I have put some to the Minister, many have been put in the debate and others will be put—been considered carefully? Does the Minister realise that the factors governing the decision about Ballymena are different from those that might be taken about a similar matter on the mainland? The position is different.

When the Government make their decision, they must take many serious considerations into account. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind, because if the training centre is to be closed it will be a symbolic break which will have many serious political repercussions. I trust that the Minister will realise how serious the matter is. When he reaches a decision, I hope that he will come down firmly on the side of keeping the link and sustaining the training centre, jobs and this important tie with Ulster.

2.47 am
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

In rising to support my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), I have to say that I recall my maiden speech during the defence Estimates when I drew attention to the fact that almost every family in Northern Ireland has close links with the British Army, and especially with the Royal Irish Rangers.

Going back 300 years, one finds that each county, not just in Northern Ireland as it is today, but throughout Ireland, produced its regiments and soldiers. In 1921 when the 26 counties seceded from the Union it was left to Northern Ireland to maintain the link. That link went back through the three regiments that have been named—the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Ulster Rifles.

The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was initially the 27th Inniskilling Regiment, raised, we are told, on 20 June 1689, from three regiments of foot of the Enniskillen forces that defended the town of Enniskillen in my constituency for William III. The Royal Irish Fusiliers was initially raised as the 87th (Prince of Wales Irish) Regiment of foot on 18 September 1793. The regiment became known as the Faugh-a-Ballaghs from its battle cry of "Faugh-a-Ballagh" or, "Clear the way", which it used during the Peninsula war.

The Royal Ulster Rifles was raised as the 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment of foot in 1793. It was later to become known as the Royal Irish Rifles and, after 1920, as the Royal Ulster Rifles.

Therefore, we have a great history, in Ireland before 1920, and in Northern Ireland since that time, of volunteering to serve the Crown. It is a link that I should not like to see broken. It is not just in Northern Ireland that we have to worry and concern ourselves with the Groom examination of army training, but throughout the entire British Army, because it is the regimental system that has made the British Army different from any other army throughout the world. There is an affinity between members of a British regiment that makes them not braver than other armies, but braver for longer.

I understand that the argument is being put forward that adult Regular soldiers and junior soldiers should be trained on the mainland, and that the Territorial Army element in Northern Ireland would then be trained at Ballymena. If it is purely for administrative reasons, that does not appear to be a sensible proposal. Even if it were for financial reasons, one would consider it unwise. Because our Territorial Army element may have to be called into action at some time, these soldiers must be trained to a high standard. That would be extremely difficult if we removed the Regular element from the Province.

At present the Regular element is trained by the best officers, warrant officers and senior NCOs who are available in the regiment. If we remove them, we shall deny to the Territorial element the best training staff, who should be available. It seems far more reasonable and sensible to overlay Regular Army training at the Ballymena depot with the training of the Territorial element.

In addition, we must consider the effect on the Royal Irish Rangers if they were taken out of the Province. The Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards is now an Irish regiment in name only. I believe that the same would happen to the Royal Irish Rangers. The 80 per cent. Northern Irish proportion would slowly but surely dwindle.

Family life in Northern Ireland is close. Mothers seeing their 16-year-old sons going off to Ballymena as junior soldiers are less concerned than if they were breaking the link and going to a camp across the water. Parents would not be able to keep watch on their families in the same way if their boys went off to England. There would not be the opportunity to see them passing out after their training and to realise that the lads who went off as boys had become young men and that the Army was prepared to treat and look after them well. Once that recruitment is lost, the Northern Irish element will fall away and we shall have lost the Royal Irish Rangers as the last Irish regiment of the line.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South referred to the political implications. Although I am especially concerned at the idea of losing a regiment, I, too, am concerned about the political implications. What will our enemies say if we lose the Royal Irish Rangers, our resident regiment? Every garrison battalion coming to Northern Ireland will then be labelled by our enemies as the army of occupation. I make it clear that the majority do not think in that way, but an insidious, evil, message goes out from members and supporters of the Irish Republican Army that every English soldier serving in Northern Ireland is part of an army of occupation. Today we can point to our regiment, made up by and large of men from Northern Ireland, which is part of the British Army. That is something that we would lose. The loss of the Royal Irish Rangers would be a great encouragement to

I also wonder what view our friends in NATO would take if they saw that for some strange and inexplicable reason Britain was not prepared to maintain a Northern Ireland regiment. The change would cause grave disquiet. In these difficult times, when the world faces the threat of Communism, our NATO allies need to be assured that NATO has a viable foothold in Ireland—on that part of the island that is prepared to stand up and be counted, and, if necessary, to engage in the fight to maintain the British democratic way of life. The other part of the island is not prepared to give any commitment to maintain the world's freedom. For that reason, too, I believe that we should endeavour to maintain our depot in Northern Ireland.

On 21 February I asked the Secretary of State for Defence about his plans for the future of the Royal Irish Rangers. In his written answer, he said: I am well aware of the arguments both for and against any move of training from Ballymena, and these will be taken fully into account before decisions are made."—[Official Report, 21 February 1984; Vol. 54, c. 502.] I hope that we have impressed upon the Secretary of State, and the Minister who will reply, our great concern that matters of finance, which are not proven, should not override more important issues which concern Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

3.3 am

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

I support the retention of both the regimental headquarters and recruit training depot for the Royal Irish Rangers in their present accommodation at St. Patrick's barracks. I urge the House and the Government not to encourage further slaughter of innocents and more violence in Northern Ireland by retreating further from Ulster. Sinn Fein and Republican terrorists will be spurred to greater depravity than ever by a decision to terminate recruit training at St. Patrick's barracks in Ballymena. They could even claim that the Brits were on the run. I am conscious of the fact that the Ministry of Defence is currently examining the Army's whole initial training organisation within the United Kingdom and that the training function for the Royal. Irish Rangers regimental headquarters and depot at Ballymena falls within the scope of the review.

I speak as a former vice-principal and careers master who has had close personal contacts with the Ballymena depot for many years. I have often been privileged to accompany a busload of pupils whose first contact with the Army has been a conducted tour of inspection of the facilities at Ballymena, including the excellent music depot there. The opportunity to experience a day in the life of the recruit in the gymnasium, the lecture theatre, on the range or over the assualt course greatly helped those young people to decide whether to pursue a career in the armed services after leaving school. It was always a valuable educational visit.

I was recently privileged to visit the barracks with my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe). We were greatly impressed by the excellent facilities and the scope for training and instruction to be expanded. The decision to terminate training would deny the young people of Northern Ireland easy access to the Army, especially the Royal Irish Rangers. The regiment could become Irish in name only or perhaps disappear. Is that the desire or intention of the Government or the Ministry of Defence? Do they intend to withdraw from Northern Ireland, cut the links and ultimately erase from memory the record of distinguished service and achievements of former members of the regiment?

One of the great difficulties facing Northern Ireland is that of severing family ties. The family is still—long may it continue—an important aspect of life in Ulster. The existence of the regimental headquarters and training depot in Ballymena makes it much easier for young recruits to join the Army. They are able to go home at weekends. Home for most recruits is little more than one and a half hours' journey away. Parental contact with the staff in the depot is excellent and parents are supportive of young recruits during training. Closure of the barracks and the transfer of training to the mainland would remove the valuable contracts that the Rangers have with four combined cadet force units and 39 Army cadet force units.

It is sometimes overlooked that the existence of St. Patrick's barracks in Ballymena helps to resettle soldiers into the Province after many years' service abroad. Ballymena town would be adversely affected if a decision to close were taken. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned the good relationship between citizens there and people at the depot. I understand that, acknowledging those good relations, the freedom of the borough of Ballymena was granted to and accepted by the regiment. The local economy is dependent on the jobs created in the depot for civilian contractors and on the spending power of staff and recruits. It has been estimated that about one third of the trade in smaller shops is generated by the depot.

I urge hon. Members to support the maintenance of the Royal Irish Rangers depot and regimental headquarters at Ballymena, and the provision for Territorial Army training there in addition to the regular recruit training provided at present. The people of Northern Ireland would view the closure of the training function as evidence of success for the advocates of the "Brits out" campaign—that small minority of evil troublemakers for us all, who would react with further murders and bombings, thus creating unnecessary suffering. They would consider withdrawal as a massive step towards ultimate British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. All loyal citizens and British subjects in Northern Ireland irrespective of their religious beliefs, call upon the Government and the Ministry of Defence to demonstrate their commitment to the law-abiding and often silent majority of citizens by maintaining not only the regimental headquarters, but the recruit training facilities.

I can think of no more appropriate way in which to conclude my remarks than by using the motto of the Royal Ulster Rifles, part of the Rangers, "Quis separa bit?" which means, "Who shall separate us?" I trust that the House will answer clearly: we shall not cause separation; we shall support the retention of the Royal Irish Rangers, the depot and the regimental headquarters in Ballymena.

3.11 am
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)

I support hon. Members in their desire to retain the Royal Irish Rangers depot in Ballymena. It is almost unbelievable, if not impossible, that, having combined three famous and gallant regiments—the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Ulster Rifles—into the Royal Irish Rangers, anyone should now contemplate closing the Ballymena training depot. One must live in the Antrim area, or in Northern Ireland as a whole, to realise the pride felt by the people in the Royal Irish Rangers and the fact that the depot is there in Northern Ireland.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) said, I recently had the pleasure and honour to visit the depot. It is a 35½-acre site in spick and span condition, where everyone's morale is high, there is excellent discipline, and things are going extremely well. The pride of the staff and of the recruits in the depot was obvious, and when one walked through the dining room and saw the list of members of the regiment who had received the Victoria Cross, it brought home to one the tradition that the Royal Irish Rangers represent.

By moving away from the present site to another part of the United Kingdom, there will be a great danger that the parents of young boys wishing to join the Army will not want them to travel so far away, and we could lose the Irish flavour that is essential to the Royal Irish Rangers. The regiment could end as Irish in name only. If there had been anything unsuccessful about the depot, one could have toned down one's criticisms, but there has been no criticism of the depot, and it has been praised on numerous occasions.

Some of the factors that will be involved in the moving of the depot have not been mentioned. For example, there will be no local place in Northern Ireland for those in the Army reservists to use as a reporting centre. Members of the regiment getting near the end of their term within the regiment can go back to the depot and gradually work back towards civvy street, but we will lost that if there is no depot in Ballymena.

The only apparent reason for this change is that of finance, but I assume that all the services that are now used in Ballymena will be used if the depot goes to another centre. The same staff would be needed, and the same number of recruits, even if they do not come from Northern Ireland, and I assume that they would have the same sort of training, and require the same sort of equipment. In practice, the move would mean transferring the employment that has been made in the Ballymena area at the moment to another part of the United Kingdom. The transfer will be from one part of the United Kingdom which desperately needs more employment to another part, which might not need the employment quite as much.

What are the figures of staff that would be lost in the North Antrim area? There are about 130 staff, about 120 recruits, about 80 junior soldiers, a civilian staff of about 50, and the ancillary workers of the Department of the Environment, both the permanent and the outside contractors—about 30 in all. There is also a NAAFI there, and if that went the area would lose between another 15 and 20 jobs. There is an estimate that perhaps the military income generated is about £800,000 a week. As has already been said, about one third of the income of the local small shops will be lost.

For all the reasons that have been stated by my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, it would be unthinkable that the depot should be moved from Ballymena. It must not be moved. We owe it to all those who have died in the service of these fine regiments to ensure that this centre, which has trained many fine soldiers, should remain as it is and where it is. It is no good talking about the fact that the Royal Irish Rangers regimental headquarters will remain in Ballymena. We sometimes talk about one man and a dog, but this would be one man and a secretary looking after the regimental headquarters.

It is essential that the Royal Irish Rangers training centre should remain where it is.

3.19 am
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I wish to say one thing to the Minister, and through him to the two Secretaries of State upon whom primarily the responsibility for the future of the Royal Irish Rangers will lie. The plea that has been made by my hon. Friends tonight is unique.

Every regiment resents amalgamation of any kind and anything which could even be mistaken for separating it from its past and its place. The Ministry of Defence, in organisation and reorganisation, and in its concern for administration and finance, is constantly met with resistance offered by the regimental structure, which is of the very nature of the British Army.

I do not want the Minister to imagine that what he has been listening to tonight is yet another example of that same, natural and proper, reaction which takes place from one end of the Army to the other. It is something which is unique, for no similar decision about a training centre could represent the political and military disaster which would be represented by the transfer of the Royal Irish Rangers' depot and training centre from Northern Ireland to the mainland. It would represent a military disaster equal to a serious defeat, as it would be seen by the enemies of this country, by the enemies of the Union and by all who desire to bring about the separation of Ulster from Great Britain as a major success.

Understand it or not, misrepresent it or not, all of them would be saying, "Yet another stage has beeen passed. The last unit raised and located in Ulster has been removed. We are on our way, for another victory has been won." That would be the military effect. The political effect would be unmistakable. Politics is a matter of practicalities as well as symbolism, and my hon. Friends have well illustrated the practical considerations which argue for the retention of this depot and training centre in Ballymena.

Symbolism is enormously important, and Her Majesty's Government have in recent months been careful to ensure, with some lapses, that the message that they have sent to the outside world is the message of determination, of maintenance of the Union and of defence of the right of the people of that part of the United Kingdom to choose to remain part of this nation for so long as that is their will.

We should be seen to be contradicting all those assertions and assurances by the simple act of the removal of this unit. It would be a political and military disaster.

There is no single decision which could be taken anywhere else in the dispositions and organisation of the Army which would have so incalculable an effect as the decision which we fear may be in contemplation about the Royal Irish Rifles.

Let the Government be in no doubt that weighty matters are at stake in the decision that they have to take. Let them not be afraid of creating precedents or of lending strength to the arguments of other regiments to which they know they will, in the end, have to remain deaf. This is different, this is unique, this is special and this is vital. I hope that this hour and a half in this Consolidated Fund debate will have brought that message clearly and definitely to those in the Ministry of Defence on whom this responsibility rests.

3.24 am
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

This has been an interesting debate containing a great deal of passion, and there have been some interesting asides, including the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) calling in aid a pope's gift of Ireland to an English King as a justification for Britain recruiting troops there. I thought that at least he might have gone on to mention the Te Deum in St. Peter's after the battle of the Boyne, but perhaps that was too much to hope from the hon. Gentleman in his praise of papacy.

I feel that some of those who have contributed to the debate have over-egged their pudding. In some respects they have offered a reasonable case, but by exaggerating the political side of it they will have lost a great deal of the sympathy of members of the Labour party. The policy of the official Opposition is to work for a united Ireland and the future raising of British regiments of the line in the Six Counties is not something——

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Northern Ireland.

Mr. McNamara

The raising of British regiments of the line in the six counties of Northern Ireland is not something that the official Opposition are likely to get excited over. However, a British regiment of the line raised there is in need of training, and it is necessary to consider the response that the Government will make to Major-General Groom's report. In the first paragraph of the abridged recommendations he refers to a 'Radical and Fundamental Review of Training in the British Army', with a view to arriving at a structure and hardcore of essential training which would serve the needs of the Army from 1985 to the end of the century and beyond; while making both manpower and financial savings. Do the major-general's proposals mark a considerable weakening of the regimental tradition within the British Army? That is something that we all regard whatever happens to the Royal Irish Rangers, as important to infantry and all regiments of the British Army. If there were to be a weakening of that tradition in the Army as a whole, we think that there would be reason for concern, but that does not necessarily follow from what the major-general has recommended.

There is a second problem that we must consider—costing. Many of those who have spoken in the debate and who represent Northern Ireland constituencies have said that the financial position has not been revealed to them and that it has not been possible sensibly to judge whether the criteria laid down by or for the major-general have been properly met. For the moment we shall have to place our trust in the guesstimate of the Select Committee on Defence whether the Government's savings will be as great as they have suggested. That is something that the Minister will have to justify to the people of the Six Counties and to those who are maintaining the training facility at Ballymena. That will have to be justified to the country as a whole in the face of whatever changes are to be made.

I have considerable sympathy with the argument against the closing of a facility at the Ministry of Defence or the closing of a pit where there has been a great input of public finance which has generated community prosperity. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) said that if the facility is removed, there will be immediate job losses. It has been said that £800,000 a week, which is rather a lot of money, is being put into the local community. If that is correct, I should like to know what the Ministry of Defence plans to do to compensate for the loss. What will happen if the hon. Gentleman's worst fears come to pass?

Once Northern Ireland Members start to treat the Royal Irish Rangers as separate, distinct and apart from the rest of the British Army, they are conceding part of their case to others, such as members of the Labour party, who believe that Northern Ireland — the Six Counties — is different from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in presenting my case I criticised the Government's decision not to allow the Rangers to operate with other regiments in Northern Ireland?

Mr. McNamara

I was coming to that.

If the Rangers are to be trained separately from other infantry battalions in the British Army that will demonstrate the difference that many of us think existed in the first place.

If the Government do not make out a good case, in accordance with Major-General Groom's recommendations, for the Royal Irish Rangers to remain and be trained in the Six Counties, we should not object, provided that the continuing policy of no deployment in the streets and fields of Ulster in the current operations is maintained. In other words, we do not want them actively to serve in the Six Counties. We believe that the Government have to make their case, but in our view there should be no alteration in the policy of deployment.

3.30 am
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Geoffrey Pattie)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) for raising this important matter. It is a vindication of the processes of the Consolidated Fund Bill that, instead of having a cosy one-to-one debate, we have had a full turnout — [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] — and some excellent speeches. Having listened to the hon. Member for Belfast, South deploy the case, we heard from all the Antrim Members—the hon. Members for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs), Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe)—and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), and the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). I assure the House that this debate will be carefully read in the Ministry of Defence, where great attention is paid to these debates — more attention than one might assume from the attendance in the Strangers' Gallery at this hour.

The arguments were well put. As the right hon. Member for Down, South said, any reorganisation is always resisted. All of us who have been involved in military formations — as I have — have also been involved—almost by definition—in amalgamations. We are asked to amalgamate with people whom we find totally unacceptable, even though they may be of a very similar species to ourselves. Nevertheless, if our cap badges are at a slightly different angle, or something of that sort, we fight almost to the last ditch to prevent that amalgamation.

I accept, too, that it would be foolish to pretend that there are not other considerations, as the right hon. Gentleman said. Clearly, all those factors will be taken into careful account. I say, particularly to the hon. Member for Antrim, North, that such factors need to be looked at carefully in a decision of this nature.

Before I respond to the debate in detail, I want to make some general comments. Any debate about the Army and Ulster has to take note, first, of the continuing substantial contribution that is made towards helping the Royal Ulster Constabulary to combat terrorist crime. Success, in the shape of reducing military commitments and a lower number of incidents, comes slowly, but it does come. The RUC's need for active military support is declining, so the requirement for emergency reinforcement units has fallen. Increasingly, therefore, the military support required is found from the resident garrison.

That is encouraging, because the resident battalions have time to spare to do more than patrol. I know how quickly a battalion can settle into its barracks in Northern Ireland, just as it would elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The very determination to enjoy the same quality of life in Northern Ireland as is to be enjoyed in Great Britain is a particular Army contribution to restoring normality to the Province, and shows the determination that the terrorist knows he has to face. But in that relatively small part of the Province where military support is needed the scale is large — six resident units, two roulement, supporting arms and services, elements of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, the whole of the UDR. The contribution is substantial, but it is not so much naked force. Soldiers must act within the law and that requires discipline and a sense of humour to help deal with the provocation. I have found all those things in generous measure in my many visits to Northern Ireland.

Much training is carried out in Northern Ireland, despite the problems caused by the terrorists. All basic UDR training is done in the Province. If the resident garrison cannot do much towards training for their own roles, this is more than made up for by an energetic and enthusiastic Territorial Army. And, of course, there is Ballymena, the root of this morning's debate.

As the hon. Member for Belfast, South will be aware, I and my hon. Friends have promised to take full cognisance of the arguments both for and against any transfer of functions from Ballymena before any final decisions are made. The hon. Member for Antrim, North asked how long it would be before such decisions would be made. I am afraid that I cannot tell him that, not because I am being deliberately evasive, but because I simply do not know precisely when the decision will be made, but it is likely to be some months before the decision is made because Ballymena is not being singled out.

The House, and hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, will have looked at the portions of the Groom report that have been put into the Library and they will be aware that General Groom has made a series of recommendations which have to be carefully looked at before any decision can be made.

At the heart of the Army's expertise and experience is a tradition developed through the regimental system—I accept what various hon. Members have said about the importance of the regimental system and if any of us felt that this was a move away from that we would seek to resist it—which can trace its origins and geographical associations back through the centuries. Yet the Army has never drawn back from change. On the contrary, it has always shown itself ready to adapt to meet changing circumstances, to take advantage of new technologies, to organise and train to meet today's needs. Each of those characteristics has been fundamental to the development of today's Army and each is essential for its continuing vitality.

The Royal Irish Rangers can count themselves as being as successful as any in holding true to those two principles. Although only constituted under its present name since 1968, the regiment can trace its origins and associations with Ireland back through one of its lineal predecessors, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, to 1689, while its other forebears, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, both claim an ancestry going back nearly 200 years. I need not emphasise the benefits which such tradition and continuity have brought to today's Royal Irish Rangers.

Despite their long connection with Ireland, these troops have never been mere stay-at-homes. In their history they have served with great distinction in campaigns around the globe, turning their hand in action so diverse as stamping out human sacrifice in Ceylon in 1817 to gliding in the second world war. At home they have shown themselves similarly adaptable, being based in many locations in England as well as in Ireland, and in their NATO role the two Royal Irish Rangers battalions are currently based at Dover and Chester.

Ballymena's links with the regiment are relatively recent in origin, dating only from the second world war when it became the home of the Royal Ulster Rifles, while its connection with the Royal Irish Rangers as currently constituted dates from the regiment's formation in 1968.

I am glad to be able to give hon. Members an assurance that there are no plans to move the regimental headquarters of the Royal Irish Rangers from Ballymena. That is unaffected by the arrangments for future Army training, which I shall now describe in more detail. Before I do so, some hon. Members were a bit hard in their reference to a man and his dog or a secretary. Should the proposal be accepted—I emphasise the word "should" because no decision has been taken—there are no plans to move not only the regimental headquarters but also the Territorial Army, the recruiting team and all the cadets who are currently stationed there.

One of the most important formative elements in the Army's expertise is its training regime. It is, I believe, generally acknowedged that the primary role of an army in peace time is to train for war. Perhaps the old Chinese proverb puts it more succinctly: The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. The outstanding success of our training programme is fully illustrated in Army operations world-wide. British Army training is among the best in the world. It is recognised as such by our many friends overseas who send their personnel to be trained in this country.

While we have every right to be proud of our achievement in this field, there is no room for complacency. Training is sterile unless it adapts with the times, seeking to anticipate, wherever possible, rather than simply following past trends. We must also take account of the fact that it is a very expensive business. It absorbs something like 10 per cent. of the total Army budget, and involves some 25,000 staff, military and civilian. We have a clear responsibility, therefore, to keep training under the most careful scrutiny to ensure that all our programmes are effective and relevant to today's needs, and to ensure that we are getting the best possible value for money. Since coming to office, the Government have pursued a vigorous campaign to eradicate fat in all areas of defence activity, and we have sought, wherever possible, to ensure that the maximum resources are thus made available for the front line.

Rev. Martin Smyth

In the light of the Minister's argument about the importance of training, would he accept that the integrated concept that I put forwards one to be borne in mind? I accept the Minister's point about the importance of training in territorial service. I have a poignant memory of my last sight of an uncle who trained in the "Terriers", and who was last seen in Calais. Would the Minister accept the concept of integration of the Territorial Army in the training scheme at Ballymena?

Mr. Pattie

I understand the point that hon. Gentleman makes. All these things have to be taken in the round, and all the considerations have to be carefully weighed. As a former territorial soldier myself, having served in a battalion that did not have a regular battalion on the same site, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is possible to be effective, if one has the hard-core of the permanent staff present. I understand his point, but I do not think it is one of the more powerful and persuasive parts of his argument.

The Groom report was commissioned in 1982, when General Groom was asked to undertake a radical and fundamental review of British Army training, with a view to arriving at a structure and hard-core of essential training that would serve the needs of the Army from 1986 to the end of the century, and beyond. There are some important pillars in the report—three key elements. I would like to share these with the House to make certain that hon. Members are fully aware of what General Groom was driving at.

The three central pillars of the report are as follows. The first was called the functional approach, whereby he sought to relate training to the structure of the Army, based on seven groups of arms and services. He scrutinised the Army from front line to rear, identified the basic blocks, and suggested how they might come together for training. This would involve functional schools, providing common basic training for all recruits to the group, and specialist schools at a higher level, offering their particular expertise to train students from all arms and services. The second pillar was the need to tailor the level and type of training precisely to the needs of the individual. It has been suggested from time to time that the Army over-trains its men.

I happen not to share that view, but I recognise that the timing of this training, and its place in a soldier's career, needs to be most carefully planned.

To help this process General Groom suggested that training should fall into three phases. Phase one would be basic recruit training, undertaken where possible on a functional group basis. Phase two, or "special to arm" training should, in General Groom's words, provide the minimum training needed to enable a man to take his place in a unit of the field army. After that it was suggested that he should have regimental experience before he and the Army decided whether he should have additional career training. In that event, he would commence phase three advanced rank and trade training, which would, in effect span his remaining career in graduated steps, interspersed with planned periods of regimental duties.

The third and final pillar of the Groom report concerned junior training. The general saw this as a fundamental requirement, pointing out that 50 per cent. of the Army's warrant officers and senior NCOs began their military life in junior schools. However, he also recognised that junior training is particularly expensive and he considered, having established the need to recruit about 8,000 juniors each year, and having provided the necessary training facilities for them, that they should become the bedrock of recruiting. He suggested that we should recruit the optimum number each year, train them in large and efficient schools of about 800, phase their intake to compensate for wastage and finally adjust the level of adult training and recruitment year by year to meet the varying total requirement.

That is not to say that we are unaware of the important points made on the subject of junior soldiers. The hon. Member for Antrim, East highlighted the importance of such soldiers and the relationship of their families to the depot. We understand that. This was also dealt with by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

I hope that the House will accept that a report as significant and lengthy as General Groom's will take a considerable amount of time to study. It is a substantial document, containing a wealth of radical ideas and running to three volumes. Although it is fascinating, it is taking a great deal of time to study.

General Groom was adamant—and we agree with him—that his recommendations have to be seen as an entity. He was not producing a shopping list, to which we could say yes or no, running down and putting ticks or crosses against certain items. He has offered a new rationale for Army training embodying a variety of new principles. It is our task, as the responsible Ministers, to weigh all of the implications before, if appropriate, working out in practical terms how to proceed to implementation.

The radical proposals in General Groom's thorough and wide-ranging report inevitably touch on rather sensitive issues and will undoubtedly disturb many settled perceptions within and outside the Army. It is for this reason that I and my colleagues have undertaken to weigh carefully all the relevant factors, including the concern that has been expressed in the debate about the future of the Ballymena base.

The Army's current excellence and continued development depends on a vital balance between continuity and adaptability. It is this balance that we shall be keeping in the forefront of our minds while we examine the proposals in the coming months. The task is being undertaken as vigorously as possible but it is a major exercise and will take some time to complete. I have tried to give the hon. Member for Antrim, North some idea of the time involved. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone received a letter from my right hon. Friend to which he referred. I have a similar letter, from my right hon. Friend, to another hon. Member, in front of me in which my right hon. Friend expresses a similar sentiment. It is probably the most fitting sentiment on which to close the debate—while thanking again the hon. Member for Belfast, South for initiating it, and all those who have taken part in it. In the letter my right hon. Friend says that he fully recognises the strength of the arguments against moving training from Ballymena and he therefore promises that all of these arguments will be taken fully into account before any final decisions are made.