HC Deb 04 March 1985 vol 74 cc666-74

4.9 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

I shall with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on last Thursday's attack by the Provisional IRA on Newry police station and on later incidents in which two members of the security forces died.

At about 6.40 on the evening of 28 February, nine mortar bombs were fired at Newry police station from a lorry parked about 200 m away. The lorry had earlier been stolen near Crossmaglen. Seven mortar bombs exploded. One of them hit the prefabricated canteen at the back of the police station. Three exploded at the front of the police station, two more exploded on derelict property opposite, and the seventh exploded in the garden of the rear of this property. The two mortar bombs which did not explode landed in a street near the police station. Nine police officers, including two policewomen, were killed. Seven other officers were taken to hospital, one of whom is still detained, and 23 civilians also received treatment.

Later that evening at about 10.30, a device beside a telegraph pole in Pomeroy, County Tyrone, exploded as an Ulster Defence Regiment foot patrol passed. One soldier, a part-time private in the regiment, was killed and another soldier was injured. Yesterday morning outside St. Gabriel's Roman Catholic church in Enniskillen, two terrorists shot dead an off-duty RUC officer in front of his wife and children. The terrorists escaped in a stolen car towards the border, and abandoned the vehicle at Belcoo. The Provisional IRA has claimed responsibility for all those brutal murders.

I reviewed security arrangements with the deputy chief constable and the general officer commanding on Friday and they are now being urgently re-examined. So far as the attack at Newry is concerned, no building can be made impregnable, and the risks faced by the security forces in Northern Ireland are well understood. But I have already approved a capital expenditure programme for police building of between £20 million and £25 million in the next three years, including a new police station in Newry. We shall now look carefully and urgently at possible further physical measures for the protection of buildings and at all the procedures designed to forestall attacks of this sort.

These attacks on Protestant and Catholic members of the security forces show once again the callous savagery of the terrorists. I know that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the families of the dead and injured, and our appreciation of the courage and steadiness of the security forces. I believe that this House will want to send out another message: we must not and will not bow to terrorists—the terrorists will not win.

Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)

We in the official Opposition unreservedly join the Secretary of State in his expression of sympathy for the families of those who lost their lives, and with members of the RUC, the UDR and the civilian canteen workers who suffered injury. We echo his tribute to those in the security forces who are continually subjected to such appalling risks. We condemn, as he does, the cold-blooded use of murder for any political objective, and we believe that any cause is degraded and disgraced when it is pursued at the expense of broken bodies and broken families. We hope that the Secretary of State will welcome the forthright condemnation by the Taoiseach of these atrocities.

While we endorse the proposals of the Police Federation for a programme to reinforce and protect police buildings — I thank the right hon. Gentleman for confirming that that will be implemented as a matter of urgency—does the Secretary of State appreciate that inevitably and understandably there will be calls for less restrained responses, which may be as likely to penalise the innocent as to punish the guilty? Will he examine any new security measure which may be suggested to ensure that it is not counter-productive and precisely the sort of action for which the terrorists must have hoped? Does he agree that solutions proposed in the immediate aftermath of such a series of outrages may be better considered when the judgment of us all is somewhat calmer? Does he further agree that there can be no end to the bitterness and bloodshed until a stable political settlement is achieved, on which a substantial majority of decent, law-abiding people in both traditions can reach agreement, and forget their differences? Will he do all he can to ensure that acts of mindless terrorism do not impede that objective?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his opening remarks. I endorse what he said about the forthright condemnation by the Taoiseach of what happened at Newry, and of the specific offer of help which Dr. FitzGerald made in the same statement. We must consider calmly all measures, and adopt measures which, on consideration, will have the effect of helping us to destroy terrorism. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, political progress is certainly essential. He would not regard, or wish the House to regard, it as a substitute for robust security policy because those with whom we are dealing in the struggle against terrorism are not interested in and would not be appeased by discussions or political concessions made in their direction.

Mr. James Nicholson (Newry and Armagh)

I thank the Secretary of State for his expression of sympathy to all those who were bereaved in my constituency last Thursday night. Will he ensure that a full inquiry is conducted into this brutal and callous attack, that the inquiry examines all ways in which such attacks can be prevented in future and how perimeter surveillance can be improved to ensure that no repetition of Thursday's attack can ever occur again? Finally, will he assure the House that financial restrictions will not be a consideration in the strengthening of border RUC stations?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he phrased his questions and, indeed, for the line which he has been taking throughout the tragic period since Thursday night. I agree that the investigation policy that I have announced should cover the whole question of the protection of buildings and also the procedures, such as patrolling, which, as he knows, takes place around the perimeter of a police station when it is within the range of a mortar bomb. I agree with his points and also that financial restraints should not play a part in the consideration of these matters. There is just one point which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will corroborate from his local knowledge. It is that when a police station is in the centre of a town, as it is in Newry — all hon. Members will agree that the town centre is a desirable place for a police station—the task of making absolutely sure that it is protected against such assaults becomes extremely difficult.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

I join right hon. and hon. Members in condemning the merciless butchery and the cold-blooded murder of eight gallant RUC men, two RUC women and one gallant member of the UDR. I express my deepest sympathy, and trust that those whose homes and hearts have been broken will know that there are many good people in Ulster who support them, even in prayer. Is the Secretary of State aware that two of those gallant members were from my constituency? Mrs. Ivy Kelly was an honourable young policewoman who served her company with distinction. Mr. Trevor Harkness was a gallant young UDR member with five young children. He had the same size of family as I have. His eldest child is nine and the youngest only two. Yesterday I stood at the side of a grave when the rain was pouring down from the heavens and saw a young woman kneel beside the coffin and kiss it before it was laid in mother earth. To see that, even a heart of stone could turn into one of suffering.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, after 16 long years of terror, Ulster people have the right to ask the Government when they intend to fulfil their promise to eradicate terrorism? Does the Secretary of State believe that any Government can eradicate guerrilla IRA murder activities without strong military measures? Will the Secretary of State explain why the surveillance at Newry was cut? Should a disused building not have been under constant surveillance as a potential launching pad for mortar bombs? In the name of all decent, law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland, I call on the Secretary of State to embark on a relentless offensive against the provisional IRA and all terrorism until these are wholly eradicated. There will be voices of dissent, but does the Secretary of State not agree that all honourable citizens would thank God for such effective action against cruel, vicious, vile and degenerate murderers.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman speaks with emotion, and he has conveyed it effectively to the House. I felt something very similar when I looked at the remains of the portakabin in Newry on Friday afternoon. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the security forces have achieved substantial successes, not least in the last few weeks and months. I confirm that our aim is not to contain terrorism but to eradicate it. His point about patrolling now falls to be examined. I believe that the aim of eradicating terrorism can be achieved. It will require steadiness of purpose to grind down the sources of recruitment for the IRA as well as the sources of money and guns. It will require co-operation with the Government of the Republic. It will also require full-hearted co-operation from all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. Given that, the aim of eradication—which is the only aim that a responsible Government could propose to this House — can be achieved.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the people of Mourne, who are deeply, and in many cases personally, involved in the casualties of last Thursday, will learn with appreciation of the tribute paid by himself and the way in which it was received by the House? Is he further aware that the only rational hope of eventually seeing an end to a succession of events such as these lies in the firm, public and consistent perseverence in the lines of policy laid down by the Prime Minister last November?

Mr. Hurd

The adjectives that the right hon. Gentleman has just used were well chosen. Success in security policy, as in our other efforts in Northern Ireland, will come through steady adherence to publicly proclaimed objectives. Provided we stick to that, I believe that we shall gradually make progress and finally achieve success.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Is it not a strange confusion that from time to time the security forces should be reviled, even by some of the Catholic clergy, when they shoot dead armed terrorists engaged in murderous operations? Is there not some hope that these events will help to dispel that confusion?

Mr. Hurd

The security forces face not just the terrorists but a series of generalised criticisms—made sometimes in good faith, sometimes in bad, and sometimes even by those whom they are seeking to protect as well as by those whom they are seeking to destroy. They must wrestle with that just as we in Government must wrestle with it. I hope that one side effect of the tragedy at Newry and the others that I have mentioned will be to concentrate people's minds away from such unhelpful, inaccurate generalisations and towards the reality that faces everyone in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I assure the Secretary of State that the alliance parties join him in his expression of sympathy to the relatives and colleagues of those so cruelly struck down in the past few days. Has the time not come to join with the Republic to establish one co-ordinated security force to operate in the border areas? It was obvious from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the lorry was stolen at Crossmaglen and that the people who carried out the shooting went towards the border. Has the time not also come to give greater protection to those brave men who are still serving in the police and prison services? We remember the senior prison officer who was so cruelly shot down outside Armagh cathedral only a fortnight ago. Is it not also time that we gave greater protection to people of the Roman Catholic faith?

Mr. Hurd

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, the Chief Constable is always considering, naturally enough, how he can best protect the officers under his charge, whether they are on or off duty. It is a formidable task. The thought of providing protection for men as they go to and from mass is a formidable business, and few of us would want to be surrounded by that kind of protection when we were at worship. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman is right in that the problem remains and must be constantly reviewed.

As to his first point, we are all in favour of thickening the effectiveness of co-operation north and south of the border. Co-operation between the RUC and the Garda is good, but there are always ways in which it could be improved. That is one of our tasks.

Mr. Richard Needham (Wiltshire, North)

Was not my right hon. Friend as shocked as I was to read press reports that following this ghastly attack there were several times — I am sorry, but coming from that part of the world and having been there many times, this event has left me with as much upset as any other hon. Member. Did not these press reports seem to show that there were examples of many people — I am sorry, but I cannot finish my question.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I strongly support the views expressed in all parts of the House, particularly the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), that too often in this country those who murder and kill in Ireland are somehow regarded as freedom fighters. They are not. I go further. All paramilitaries, whether Loyalists or Republicans, believe in murder as superior to the ballot box, and no-one from any part of the political spectrum who believes in democracy can give them even a modicum of support.

Some of the media reported on Friday that somehow these clever chaps in the provisional IRA had discovered new weapons, but to my knowledge this weapon was used five or six years ago. It is not a new weapon, and the IRA should not be written of as if somehow it has tapped great expertise in other parts of the world.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall, as I do, that when some of my officials met the provisional IRA it said, "Get the troops out of Northern Ireland — not too quickly because we do not want a Lebanon." The troops are now practically out of Northern Ireland. There are very few British troops there. Those who talk of "troops out" do not know what has happened, but the provisional IRA has changed its tack. It now kills fellow Irishmen, whether Catholic or Protestant, and now that the police and those who work with them are bearing the brunt, we should support them.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. His remarks were extremely helpful. The point that he made at the beginning was just. I looked at the lorry with the mortar tubes still on it and I have gone carefully into its origins. The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. This kind of equipment has been used nearly 20 times, with a remarkable lack of success up to this point. I deliberately mentioned in my statement where the different bombs had fallen. That shows that this was an entirely indiscriminate attack. Civilians not connected with the police but who lived in that built-up area might have been killed in large numbers from the same device. This is an old, indiscriminate weapon which on this occasion had the fortune—if that is the right description—to land on the portakabin. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there is nothing new, subtle or clever about this device.

I think I got the gist of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham) was saying. He was referring to press reports about attitudes in Newry. When I was in the town on Friday, my strong impression was that the people of both communities were deeply shocked and angered by what had happened. This is borne out by the reactions that the Royal Ulster Constabulary has received and by the torchlight vigil. I hope that that anger and shock will be translated into active co-operation to forestall anything similar taking place in the future.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

May I join the Secretary of State in expressing my sympathy for those members of the security forces who have been killed during the last fortnight? I had the sad task of visiting several of their homes over the weekend. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity again to clarify the situation in relation to the charge of sectarianism that was made against the Ulster Defence Regiment? Will he tell the House how Roman Catholics have been forced out of the regiment during the past few years just as, over the last fortnight, six Roman Catholics have been killed by the IRA because they were members of the RUC or of the prison service? Will he also accept that, second only to their desire to see a complete end to violence, my constituents want no retaliatory action to be taken against their Roman Catholic neighbours? Finally, will the Secretary of State please grasp the nettle that so far has not been grasped by any Secretary of State and proscribe Sinn Fein, which is the public face of the IRA?

Mr. Hurd

We have often discussed the hon. Gentleman's last suggestion. It is not a matter upon which the mind of the Government should be closed. However, examination of this matter both by my predecessor and by me has led to the conclusion such action would not help the security situation and that it might, indeed, create problems for the Royal Ulster Constabulary in enforcing the new ban that would be substantially greater than the RUC faces at the moment. I share the hon. Gentleman's feelings both about the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment and also about what may be emerging as a deliberate attempt by the terrorists to single out Catholic members of the security forces. It is a strength of the security forces, particularly the RUC, not so much of the UDR, that they are able to recruit in both communities. It is very important that that strength should be maintained. It may be that the terrorists are deliberately aiming at Catholic members of the prison service and the RUC. That, I believe is a sufficient commentary upon their objectives and methods. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman about retaliatory acts by members of the majority community. That would set us on a well-established road to ruin. I am sure that the whole House would join the hon. Gentleman in deploring any such prospect.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

In seeking to combat terrorism in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that a significant proportion of all those who have been convicted of scheduled offences go on, after release, to commit further terrorist offences? Has not the time come, therefore, for a new sentence to be introduced of imprisonment for the duration of the emergency, in addition to the imprisonment that is dealt with at that time, so that such terrorists are not released so long as terrorism continues in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hurd

An important principle which we have tried to follow in recent years is that those who commit murder are murderers and that no special procedure or penalty should be attached to them because they claim that they were acting on a political basis. Once one opens up the distinction between different kinds of murder there are consequences for many other matters — for status in prison, for extradition, and so on. Although we should all the time be examining ways of making sure that terrorists do not return to their old ways when released from prison, I am not at first sight attracted by my hon. Friend's specific proposal.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to point out to hon. Members that a war between Protestants and Roman Catholics is not taking place in Northern Ireland, that such a war has never taken place but that a war is being waged upon the entire community by those who are determined to destroy the democratic process there? Will he share my hope, as I attended this morning the funeral of a Roman Catholic policeman, who was a constituent, in Carrickfergus and whose fiancée was a Protestant, that the grief shared by Protestant and Roman Catholic families ought to unify all right-thinking people in demonstrating clearly their support for the security forces? Will he further appeal to those who hold responsible positions in radio, television and the press that they should cease to interview those volunteer liars who attack our security forces and who attempt to defend the indefensible acts perpetrated by terrorists?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman's opening remarks were particularly well chosen. I agree with the main thrust of his question, namely, that the shock that he has sensed in his constituency in both Catholics and Protestants alike about what has happened needs, before it evaporates, to be transformed into an active determination to work with the security forces who rely upon information and upon all kinds of co-operation if they are effectively to do their job of protecting the community.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Secretary of State accept that when he speaks, as he spoke today, with calm, measured determination about the Government's commitment to rooting out terrorists with the full co-operation of the community in the Province, he speaks not for the Government alone but for the people of this country, and that he enjoys the full support of all hon. Members? Will he also say that in the review of the terrible events of which he spoke he will thoroughly investigate the reports that have subsequently appeared that the lorry from which the shots were fired appeared easily to penetrate the proximity of the police station at Newry? The report appeared yesterday in, among other newspapers, The Observer.

Mr. Hurd

Yes, indeed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. When a police station is in the centre, as this one is, of a quite well populated town, and mortars are fired within a range of 200 or 300 metres, there are bound to be quite a number of places where a lorry can pause for four or five minutes, which is all that is required, without attracting particular concern. However intensive the patrolling may be, there is always that risk. It is better that the House should be clear about that point. Subject to that proviso, the hon. Gentleman is right. This is one of the matters that falls to be examined.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Since the first requirement of security is to provide adequate protection to the police and security forces, will my right hon. Friend consider extending the capital programme that he has announced today, which is very welcome, not only to police stations in exposed areas but to the homes of police officers who are resident in those dangerous places? If he were able to do that, my right hon. Friend would certainly win a great deal of support from the men and women who are daily exposed to the risk of being terribly murdered.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he will readily agree, there are problems about that, but the physical security of our officers in their private homes needs to be considered. On my hon. Friend's first point about police buildings, I point out that a suggestion has been made in the press that the police might be safer in conventional buildings rather than in portakabins. We need to think carefully about that matter. Powerful mortar shells such as these do fearful damage wherever they fall. In the case of conventional buildings, there is the additional problem of people being trapped by falling masonry.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not the case that the Provisional IRA, which glories in these horrifying murders, is most anxious that no political progress should be made between Dublin and the British Government? Therefore, is it not all the more urgent that both the British and Irish Governments should try to reach agreement, look again at the proposals in the Forum report, and, at the end of the day, produce a political solution for Northern Ireland which will be acceptable and fair to both communities there?

Mr. Hurd

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, my predecessor and I have made clear our views on the specific options of the Forum. A solid co-operative working relationship between the Republic of Ireland and ourselves is very much in the interests of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Does not the murder of the RUC officer in front of his wife and teenage daughters show the kind of barbarism that one is up against? Does that not mean that those responsible must be sheltered not just by one but by a people? If one takes the lesson of the second world war one sees that where partisans were supported by local people they survived and where they were informed upon and betrayed by local people they were wiped out. Does it not follow that we should not be calling for more troops or police in Northern Ireland because, however many troops or police there are, the will, wish and cover of local people cannot be overcome? Surely the answer lies in more people not telling us that they are shocked or how awful something is, but doing something about it? The answer to the problem is as much in their hands as it is in those of the police or the armed forces.

Mr. Hurd

The discussion that we have had in the House has been remarkably realistic in tone and it has turned specifically on my hon. Friend's point—the need for all those whom the security forces protect to give them full-hearted co-operation.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

In the light of the most recent threats to sports gatherings and venues in Ulster, what additional security measures will be introduced and what undertakings on security can the right hon. Gentleman give?

Mr. Hurd

Obviously, the RUC pays particular attention to sporting occasions. It has to. But I hope and expect that sporting organisations in the United Kingdom and throughout the world will treat that particular piece of bravado with the contempt that it deserves.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

Will my right hon. Friend today request the Leader of the Opposition formally to dissociate himself from the Republican wing of his party and, in particular, to stop convicted terrorists being invited into this building, which is not only an insult to the dead but encourages terrorists to think that one day they will achieve their aims through the Labour party?

Mr. Hurd

That is not a matter for me, but I hope that everyone with responsibility in these matters will realise the nature of Provisional Sinn Fein and its links.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Let me make it clear to the House, the Secretary of State and the Government, as has been made clear this afternoon by other Labour Members, that we abhor violence of any sort or description. We shall today, tomorrow and always.