HC Deb 08 April 1986 vol 95 cc19-26 3.30 pm
Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the safety of members of the RUC and their families.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tom King)

In the last month there have been 138 attacks on off-duty members of the RUC and the RUC Reserve, and their homes and families. The vast majority have taken place in predominantly Protestant areas. The whole House will wish to join me in condemning utterly these cowardly and disgraceful attacks on the men and women of the RUC who have given such loyal and courageous service to defend the Province against terrorism and to uphold law and order.

The Chief Constable, with the full support of the Police Authority for Northern Ireland and of the Superintendents Association and the Police Federation, has put arrangements in hand to provide quick and effective assistance to police officers and their families who are subject to attack or other forms of intimidation. Extra patrols are being mounted in vulnerable areas, and steps have been taken to provide suitable alternative accommodation for those unfortunate enough to have to move from their homes. In addition, the police are making strenuous efforts to bring the people responsible for this criminal behaviour to justice, and a considerable number have already been charged with serious offences associated with it.

I welcome the fact that the Churches and the more responsible political leaders have condemned without any qualification these outrages.

I look to the whole community to join together to defeat these acts of terrorism against its own police force, and to give every possible support to bring those responsible to justice.

Mr. Archer

Will the Secretary of State accept that we on these Benches join him in extending our sympathy to those officers and their families who have suffered attacks?

In recognising that violence of this kind against police officers and their families is deplorable from whatever political sector it comes, does the Secretary of State agree that it is condemned by the large majority of right-thinking people in the Unionist tradition? Will he invite those Unionist politicians who have not dissociated themselves from these attacks to make clear where they stand? Does he agree that the violence appears to stem from elements who once identified law and order with support for a particular political position, who expected the police to administer the law in a discriminatory way, and whose belief in law and order evaporated when they discovered that they too were subject to the law?

Does the Secretary of State share the view that at least some of those people have been and are involved in unlawful attacks on isolated Catholics? Will he join us in commending the stand taken by the Chief Constable in difficult circumstances in distinguishing between the freedom to march and demonstrate peaceably, and triumphalist marches calculated to provoke a disturbance?

I have two specific questions. First, does the Secretary of State agree that those who warned that plastic bullets were an unpredictable and dangerous method of crowd control and that their use was counter-productive have been shown by the tragic injuries to Mr. Keith White to have given sensible advice?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman consider, with the Home Secretary, the suggestion made from the Opposition Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) during the debates earlier this year on the Public Order Bill that there should be a special scheme for quick and adequate compensation for policemen and others whose jobs involve a special risk of criminal injury and on whom we rely to form a front line in situations not of their own making?

Mr. King

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his remarks. I immediately endorse one thing he said. I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of people in the Province, regardless of their views about the Anglio-Irish agreement, are quite appalled by the attacks on the police. It is regrettable that some political leaders, some of whom sit in the House of Commons, have not yet felt able to condemn, without qualification, these attacks on the Royal Ulster Constabulary. One of the nastiest aspects of these attacks is that they are not just attacks on the police; there have also been nasty sectarian attacks that I know the House will deplore.

I have the greatest admiration for the Chief Constable, his senior officers and the RUC. Hon. Members may have heard that one such police officer who was attacked today, when asked in a radio interview this morning whether what had happened would undermine morale, said that it would only make the RUC stick together more closely as a family in their determination to stand against terrorism. They have stood together bravely for about 17 years and they will not stop now just because terrorism is coming from a different quarter. The whole House will respect them for that.

On the point made about plastic baton rounds, one understands the problems and difficulties involved, but at the same time the police face real problems when they are being stoned, as they were in Portadown. I am not prepared to see the police left quite defenceless against that sort of violence, although I very much regret injuries, even if they were caused to people who knew they were attending an illegal march, because that march had already been banned.

I would like to consider the point about compensation.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Must not all politicians on both sides of the water accept their responsibilities? Was it not forecast from these Benches that the result of the Anglo-Irish agreement would be to place this splendid force, whose families are also suffering so grievously now, between two fires? In the light of experience, will the Prime Minister seek to talk to the Taoiseach and, in view of the threat to the security of the whole of Ireland, seek an appropriate change of policy?

Mr. King

I very much hope that, in his remarks, my hon. Friend was in no way condoning the violence against the police. I am sure he would wish to be associated with any statement of condemnation of the fact that the RUC should be placed in that situation. Obviously, I recognise that many people in the Province, who have the strongest feelings about the Anglo-Irish agreement and who wish to argue about it, discuss it, and see how we can provide alternative approaches, would not dream of indulging in violence of any kind. I trust that we will respect that approach and no approach that espouses violence.

Obviously, we are most anxious—and the Prime Minister has made this clear—to enter into talks with Unionist leaders. We have just received a letter from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) expressing concern, and we shall respond to it shortly. I hope that it will be possible to have sensible talks, because it is by talking and not by violence that these problems must be solved.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

Does the right hon. Gentleman remember that he and the Prime Minister were told in advance of the disastrous consequences that would inevitably ensue if they went ahead and made this agreement? What shall be done to the evil counsellors to whom they listened instead?

Mr. King

I am well aware of the right hon. Gentleman's feelings about this agreement. I had hoped that he would feel able to include in his remarks his condemnation of the violence shown to the RUC. That violence is regrettable, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will feel able even now to say so, even if in another place, and to make that known.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Why did certain elected Unionist Members approve the use of plastic baton rounds when they were directed at Sinn Fein mobs but objected to them when they were used against Loyalist mobs? Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House and to the men and women of the RUC why protection, for which requests were specifically made and which was specifically promised, was not forthcoming until after the petrol bombers had struck? Will my right hon. Friend explain that the arrangements being made now could not have been made when they were promised?

Mr. King

The first point is not a matter for me. It is for the Unionist Members of Parliament, or whoever my hon. Friend has in mind, to respond to that point. I have noted the comments elsewhere on that matter.

On the second point, I think that my hon. Friend is referring to a reply in this debate by an Under-Secretary of State to the effect that, if resources and help were needed and requested, they would be given. That is precisely what we are doing at the request of the Chief Constable. I have set out clearly in my statement ways in which, as soon as the threat emerged, steps were taken to meet it. I hope that I shall have my hon. Friend's full support—he has a particular interest in this matter—in ensuring that these co-operative efforts work as effectively as possible.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, like all his predecessors, he has every reason to praise the RUC for the way in which it has changed itself over the years from a Protestant force for a Protestant people, and I gladly do so?

In my view, the position is getting worse every day. The politicians do not count. Whatever the reason, the politicians dare not put their heads above the political parapet.

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Prime Minister—I offer this as a serious suggestion—to appear on the television and to talk to the people of Northern Ireland as Prime Minister and as leader of the Conservative and Unionist party? Will she explain to them that the people over there can take any view they like about the Anglo-Irish agreement—it is a political agreement—but that the RUC has become a British police force which is there for one reason—to uphold the laws on violence, which is what it is doing?

Mr. King

I have noted those comments, as has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, especially in view of the right hon. Gentleman's experience and his years of service in the Province. Obviously we take those points seriously.

During the terms of office of the right hon. Gentleman and of other right hon. Members who have shared the post which I now have the honour to hold, more than 200 members of the RUC have laid down their lives in defence of the Province and of Protestants and Catholics against terrorism. They are entitled to the support of everyone in the Province and in the United Kingdom. If, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the politicians do not count any more, it is perhaps because it has not yet been possible to get talks or discussions going. This is a political matter and it is essential that it is discussed by politicians and is not tackled by men of violence, as is happening at present. That is why it is so important that we have early discussions.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those Conservative Members who support him and those who opposed the Anglo-Irish agreement join him in condemning totally attacks on members of the RUC? Is he aware that, but for the Anglo-Irish agreement, this afternoon's statement would not have been made?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his clear and unequivocal support of the condemnation of acts of violence. I hope that, in his last sentence, he did not imply that violence against the RUC could be justified. The RUC is seeking impartially to uphold the law and it is in the vital interests of every person in the Province that it should be able to continue to discharge that function. The community owes it to the RUC to give it support at this difficult time.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

We would like to add our congratulations to the RUC. We recognise the courage which it is showing at this time. We also recognise the courage shown by the Secretary of State. We on these Benches much admire his responses and we hope that he will see the Anglo-Irish agreement through to its fulfilment because it is the only sane way forward in Northern Ireland.

Is protected accommodation being made available to members of the RUC who have not yet suffered any attacks? Can they move into such accommodation with their families if they so wish?

Mr. Tom King

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I would rather not go into detail on the question of the arrangements that are being made for the RUC. There is close co-operation between the Chief Constable and the Superintendents Association and the Police Federation in this respect. They will certainly receive the fullest support from my office, and from the other security forces with anything that can be done to help.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

Further to the events in Portadown, and in view of the fact that the marching season has now begun in the Province and this year is likely to be more contentious than usual, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the RUC has sufficient forces to cope with the parades? Will my right hon. Friend give due consideration to the Chief Constable's suggestion for an independent public tribunal to look into the routes of the parades? I beg my right hon. Friend not to put the RUC in a position where it is alienated from the support of either the majority or the minority.

Mr. King

My hon. Friend will be aware that the march which took place in Portadown was a non-traditional march. He will recall that last year, even before the Anglo-Irish agreement, violence had unfortunately taken place at Portadown when there was an attempt to reroute the march. When my hon. Friend makes such comments, I hope he will recognise the responsibility on others who wish to carry out the traditional and respected rights of marching and that they should not seek to do it deliberately in the most provocative and aggressive way through nationalist areas.

That has been part of the problem which has obviously concerned people in the past. I am very anxious that the marching season should be conducted without the strains that my hon. Friend has mentioned. Obviously responsibility falls on others to seek to arrange their business in the most appropriate way.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley, Central)

Is the Secretary of State aware that much of this violence must weigh heavily on the shoulders of the Unionist leaders, especially when hard-liners from their own ranks are turning against their own people? Is the Secretary of State further aware that firm leadership should now be given to stop this mass intimidation of the RUC and their families? It is about time that the Unionist leaders spoke out alongside the Secretary of State and his Ministers.

Mr. King

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He is held in respect for the firm leadership he has given on previous occasions. We shall give the RUC our fullest support. I certainly hope that the message which he has just delivered will be heard by others and that they recognise their clear responsibility.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Every responsible person, including every Member of this House, condemns violence, so do not let us waste any more time on that. When the Government decided to sign the Anglo-Irish agreement, was any assessment made of the scale and violence of the likely reaction among the majority population of Northern Ireland? If so, is my right hon. Friend really surprised at what has happened? If not, why not?

Mr. King

I am sure that my hon. Friend does not seek in any way to imply that violence can be justified. I hope that I will get his support about the need for discussions to take place. I understand his views on these difficult issues and I have made my own position absolutely clear in the past and my concern about the strength of the reaction. I hope that we can have talks, because that is the way to find a sensible and law-abiding way of resolving these difficulties.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the policemen in Northern Ireland who so clearly and in such difficult circumstances impartially upheld the rule of law in Northern Ireland last week deserve not just the support but the appreciation of the entire Northern Ireland community, but that those Loyalist Members who consistently come here to lecture the rest of us on law and order now stand exposed as to what they mean by law and order—they mean their law and their order?

Does the Secretary of State further agree that some hon. Members—I use the adjective "honourable" only because I am supposed to use it—are engaged in organising and encouraging the violence against the police in Northern Ireland in an outright campaign against the democratic process in order to create an atmosphere of fear in Northern Ireland so that decent people will not speak against it?

Finally, does the Secretary of State agree that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) has presented himself for most of this century in the House as the upholder of the sovereignty of Parliament but that he abandoned that today, abjectly, and in so doing abandoned the rule of law?

Mr. King

Some hon. Members and some Unionist Members have stood up bravely and have unequivocally condemned the violence against the RUC, not without some risk to themselves, and I hope that the House respects them for that, but others have not felt able to do so. I note the hon. Gentleman's further comments about those who may be involved in organising or abetting. I shall not comment on that today, but the House will have noted the Chief Constable's remarks.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who currently advocate an increase in the number of troops in Northern Ireland should listen carefully to the views of the Chief Constable who has made it clear that more troops should not be moved there at the moment?

Mr. King

The House will have noted the Chief Constable's comments, and I know that hon. Members will recognise, as did the right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason), the professionalism, competence and all-round ability of the RUC. It is an impressive police force. There is a real determination on the part of the Chief Constable and throughout the RUC to meet the challenge to prove that they can command and deal with this serious situation. Having said that, I make it clear that should additional resources be needed we would obviously seek to meet that, but, as my hon. Friend makes clear, that is not the Chief Constable's request at this time.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What is the Secretary of State's reflection on the important question asked by the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) of the Prime Minister, but unanswered by her, that, if it had not been for the activities of the IRA, would there have been an Anglo-Irish agreement at all?

Mr. King

I think that the hon. Gentleman took part in our debates on the Anglo-Irish agreement in which that point was discussed, along with the problems that have been posed in Northern Ireland over the years and the attempts to find a way to break the stalemate and to establish a form of local administration, or whatever word one uses for it, which could command widespread acceptance. The way in which the particular characteristics of Northern Ireland could be recognised in an effective form has defied solution, and the agreement was an attempt to break that stalemate in the interests of all the people in the Province, not in response to the problems of terrorism.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me, as one of those who voted against the Anglo-Irish agreement, and, indeed, as somebody who has frequently spoken in the House in defence of loyalism, in the proper sense of that word, that I recognise, accept and applaud the views expressed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend about the recent violence, but will he also accept that the patience of those of us who have supported and who will continue to support the Union is wearing thin and that, unless and until the leaders of the Unionist parties decide and express the view that the Union and the rule of law is utmost, the rule of the paramilitaries should be dismissed immediately by them?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. My own views on the value and merit of the Union are clearly on the record, and I am determined to see that the Union is not put at risk. The tragedy is that those who shout loudest against the agreement and in any way associate themselves with the current forms of behaviour are those who represent a real risk to the Union.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Secretary of State agree that those politicians in the Province who seek to present the RUC as supporting a political settlement with which they are in disagreement are uttering a calumny upon the RUC whose sole role is to uphold the rule of law?

Mr. King

That is exactly the position. It is overwhelmingly in the interests of all the people in the Province to realise the need to respect the impartiality of the RUC in enforcing the law, whatever it may be.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

At this testing time for the Government, will my right hon. Friend hear it in mind that he has the support of virtually the whole House? Is he not shocked that today one or two prominent politicians here have not unequivocally condemned the violence? Far from acceding to the ideas of the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees)—in respect to the inference of his question, not of its substance—is it not the duty of Protestant politicians in Northern Ireland not to abdicate, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, but to get out there, condemn the violence and support the Government's policy? In due course, after passing through this testing time, they will then have the courage of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—perhaps even including, dare we guess it, that Jacques Soustelle, the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell).

Mr. King

The community in Northern Ireland at this time desperately needs leadership from every person in any position of responsibility. Everyone has that duty to lead. This is a dangerous and uncertain time; I make no secret of that. I will do what I can, and I feel entitled to look to every responsible person in the Province to play his part, too.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a heavy day before us. We must move on.