HC Deb 25 February 1988 vol 128 cc429-32
5. Mr. Latham

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the security situation.

6. Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what improvements have been made in cross-border co-operation, to deal with the terrorist threat, in the last 12 months.

Mr. Tom King

Since I last answered questions in the House on 28 January, three members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and one civilian have died. The House will be aware that, sadly, two of those were the members who were killed last night close to the centre of Belfast.

The threat remains high, but the courageous and determined efforts of the security forces are continuing to yield results. In particular, they have recovered a number of significant caches of arms and ammunition thought to have belonged to both Loyalist and Republican terrorist organisations.

So far this year 34 people have been charged with serious offences and 222 weapons, 63,000 rounds of ammunition and 3921b of explosives have been recovered in Northern Ireland. In addition, already this year the Garda Siochana has made a number of very significant finds of arms and ammunition. These include some 125 weapons, 80,000 rounds of ammunition and almost 6001b of commercial explosives.

Mr. Latham

Following yet another statement from my right hon. Friend about atrocities and murders, is he aware that some Conservative Members voted for the Anglo-Irish agreement, which we have always supported, and that we have looked to it to improve border security, but that if it does not continue to do so we shall have to think again?

Mr. King

I note what my hon. Friend said. Perhaps he could explain to me how we are likely to do better in border security if we do not co-operate closely with the Government of the Irish Republic, because that defeats me. We face a serious threat in Northern Ireland at the moment which is considerably enhanced because of the involvement of new weapons which it is believed, on good grounds, come from Libya. That threat is clearly not just to Northern Ireland, but to the whole island of Ireland. In those circumstances, the closest co-operation with the Government of the Irish Republic is absolutely essential.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to the remarkable success of the French and Spanish authorities in dealing with the Basque separatist movement through close co-operation? Will he assure the House that the respective heads of police from the North and South will meet shortly to improve coordination? Is he aware that he will have nothing but the full support of Conservative Members if he can achieve coordination between North and South on a far more advanced and sophisticated basis than over the past decade?

Mr. King

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, one can look at some of the figures that I was able to announce to the House about the success of the Garda Siochana. I am afraid that part of that is due to the scale of arms and explosives that may be present in the island of Ireland, but it is also a clear indication of the substantial commitment that it has been making on this matter.

I hope that we shall have an early conference — I think that we shall have a full conference—and, as I have said, I want to include cross-border security matters and to see the closest co-operation between the Chief Constable and the Commissioner. I make no secret of that fact, because it is most important. Because the RUC and the Garda are in the lead, they must co-operate closely in this, which they do.

Mr. John D. Taylor

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that complete confusion has arisen in Northern Ireland from the events of the past four weeks, and does he recognise that we do not know who to believe? Following the meeting in Dublin yesterday the Secretary of State announced that the Commissioner of the Garda Siochana would be meeting the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the next meeting of the Anglo-Irish Conference, but the Dublin Government immediately contradicted that statement. Who are we to believe?

Mr. King

If there is any confusion, I am sure that I can rely on the right hon. Gentleman to try to help us to clear it up. I am sure that he will play a leading part in that.

I made it clear that we had an excellent meeting yesterday. I think that the Tánaiste, Mr. Lenihan, and I found it valuable to discuss a number of issues. On the right hon. Gentleman's particular point, it is agreed—he will see this if he reads the communiqué — that there should be a full meeting of the conference in the near future. I have made it clear that I should like that to involve cross-border security operation. There is clearly some misunderstanding on the question of participation, but I intend to see whether that can be resolved at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Alton

Following the shooting of Aidan McAnespie by a young 19-year-old British soldier, and the release after three years of Private Thain, who himself was a young man when he was involved in the killing of another person, does the Secretary of State agree that the policy of putting young military personnel into sensitive security positions should be looked at again? Will he also accept that we on these Benches strongly believe that the Anglo-Irish Agreement should be consolidated and strengthened, and is the best way to proceed in fighting terrorism?

Mr. King

The House will recognise the heavy obligations and responsibilities that are laid on the security forces, and that is particularly so for young new members of regiments. The mainly outstanding way in which they have discharged those responsibilities is a tribute to the training and calibre of the troops that have served in Northern Ireland over the years. If anyone should ask why that soldier was in that sangar at that time, I would only say that every road block, vehicle checkpoint and watchtower in Northern Ireland exists thanks to the IRA and the terrorist.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Following the brutal murder last night of two members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, have the Government of the Irish Republic informed the Secretary of State whether they have any desire to hold an inquiry into those two deaths? Have the Government of the Irish Republic given any knowledge to the Secretary of State's office that they intend to hold an emergency debate in the Dail over those two deaths? Have the Government of the Irish Republic requested a special meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference as a result of those two deaths? If they have not, does the Secretary of State think that that is indicative of their political bias?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman makes the political point that he wishes to make in that contribution. I would merely add that the Irish Government have at no time suggested holding an inquiry into an affair in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hume

Given the recent decision to release Private Thain, which most reasonable people would believe strains the normal limits of compassion, will the Secretary of State accept from me, and many others who were politically involved in the early 1970s, that in that highly emotive period, when sectarian conflict was at its height and when 60,000 people changed homes in Belfast because of that sectarian conflict—the biggest movement in peacetime Europe—and with all the atrocities committed at that time, such as Bloody Sunday, and so on, it is understandable that young people from both sections of the community were sucked into the terrible violence, for which they are serving long sentences? In the light of the decision relating to Private Thain, would not normal compassion demand that we show the same compassion to all those young people? If the Secretary of State were to do that, it would have a powerful beneficial impact on the security and political situation in Northern Ireland.

Mr. King

The only qualification that I would make is that it would be wrong to equate the position of a soldier serving his country in Northern Ireland in a particular position with that of a young person of the same age who may have been involved in a terrorist purpose. None the less, I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point that young people who may easily be influenced by older people found themselves drawn into a situation which they now bitterly regret. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State looks at these cases carefully, bearing in mind the youth of the person involved. Of course, the very nature of "Secretary of State's pleasure" cases means that a person must have been under 18 when the crime was committed. We do look sympathetically at such cases, but we must obviously take into account the risk of reinvolvement.

Mr. Stanbrook

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, where there is terrorism on both sides of a common frontier, one might well expect the maximum degree of cooperation in dealing with that terrorism, whether or not there is in existence something called the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

Mr. King

I certainly believe that it is in the interests of both our countries. It is significant that, in spite of the recent difficulties and tensions over certain problems, the Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey, has made it clear that, although there may be an impasse on one or two particular issues, there is certainly no impasse on close cross-border security co-operation. That is in the interests of both our countries. Mr. Haughey has spelt that out in the Dail, and I never cease to spell it out in this House.

Mr. Flannery

Does the Secretary of State realise that when double standards are seen to prevail, as in the case of Private Thain—which he appears to dismiss rather too lightly in my opinion—that strengthens the hand of terrorism, because the terrorists see that what happens on one side does not happen on the other? Was not a group of people let out in that case, rather than just one person? Is it not a disgraceful situation, and will it not strengthen the IRA?

Mr. King

I have tried to explain the background in response to the question of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), and I cannot add much to that. I am sympathetic, as is the House, to very young people who find themselves caught up in the web of terrorism early in life, but the House must also have regard—and I should be failing in my responsibilities if I did not take account of this—to the risk of reinvolvement of people who are released. I must consider that carefully, as complaints would soon arise if we took the wrong decisions.

Mr. Mates

Does my right hon. Friend accept that Conservative Members note with great satisfaction the enormous improvement in security since the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, particularly as reflected in the huge finds of arms and ammunitions on both sides of the border, and in the increase in the number of arrests on both sides of the border for terrorist offences? Does he agree with me that, if the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Conference had not been in place, the very difficult times through which we have been in the past three or four weeks would have been a great deal worse?

Mr. King

I certainly accept that. There have been difficulties in the history of the relationship of this country with the island of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Mr. Lenihan and I recognised yesterday, at our meeting, the benefit that is now coming from the working relationship and the understanding that have developed. I repeat the phrase that I used—we do not speak the same language, but we are beginning to learn to translate. That is important if we are to have a happier future.

Mr. McNamara

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Minister in charge of day-to-day security in Northern Ireland is the Minister who has returned Private Thain to the Army? Is he further aware that that Minister was also responsible for refusing a request to furnish the Fair Employment Agency with a reference supplied by a Catholic seeking a job on HMS Caroline, so that the Belfast Recorder said that, in all probability, he had refused to disclose the reference because the man was a Roman Catholic, and found the Ministry of Defence guilty of unlawful discrimination? In those circumstances, does the Secretary of State agree with The Daily Telegraph that that casts most serious doubts about his judgment as a Minister, particularly in the Northern Ireland Office?

Mr. King

As the hon. Gentleman has made that personal attack, he owed it to the House to be better informed of his facts before he made it. It gives me the opportunity to tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that the matters contained in the second half of the editorial to which he referred are not true.