HC Deb 24 March 1988 vol 130 cc501-3
7. Mr. Duffy

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the security station in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Tom King

Since I last answered questions in the House on 25 February, 12 people have died as a result of the security situation in the Province. They include two soldiers, one policeman, five civilians and four members of the Provisional IRA. A further three members of the Provisional IRA were killed whilst on a terrorist mission in Gibraltar. Against this serious background, the security forces have achieved some significant results.

Since the beginning of the year a total of 56 people have been charged with serious offences, including one with murder and six with attempted murder. In addition, one person was charged earlier this week with the three murders at Milltown cemetery on 16 March and with three sectarian murders committed between November 1984 and May 1987. A total of 247 weapons, approximately 65,000 rounds of ammunition and 2,700 lb of explosives have been recovered in Northern Ireland. I also understand that the Gardia Siochana has recovered some 138 weapons, over 88,000 rounds of ammunition and 600 lb of commercial explosive.

Mr. Duffy

As the Secretary of State comes under obvious pressure to return to hard-line policies, will he bear in mind the earlier opinion expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), which I share, that it was the adoption of such a hard-line policy in Gibraltar that started the present phase of violence? Will he also bear in mind that the restoration of saturation security presence at funerals will, on past records, always end in violence? Will he be especially wary of those advisers who are probably less motivated by a desire to find a way of breaking out of the present mounting cycle of violence than they are simply by blood lust and revenge?

Mr. King

I have to say that, while I understand the second part of the hon. Member's supplementary about the very difficult problem of the policing of funerals and the difficulties with which the House is familiar, which are issues that exercise the Chief Constable very much indeed, as his statement yesterday made clear, I do not accept in any way the premise of his question. The hon. Gentleman speaks with enormous authority about something at which he was not present, on which the inquest before a jury has still to take place and in which certain military personnel were in aid of the Gibraltar police seeking to prevent a very serious terrorist outrage. How he can interpret that in the way that he does as some present hard-line policy under my control within Northern Ireland quite defeats me.

Mr. Marlow

Last week in the House I asked my right hon. Friend whether the IRA was being allowed to police its own funerals. He told the House—Hansard, column 1250 — that I had fallen prey to "damaging and pernicious propaganda." Did my right hon. Friend fall prey to propaganda, or was he deceived, and, if the latter, who deceived him and what is he going to do about it?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend used the word "police". There is only one police force in Northern Ireland, the RUC, and, as the Chief Constable has made clear, we will not countenance breaches of the law or usurpation of the police function. I make that absolutely clear. May I also say to the House—I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me and agree with me on this — that it is an absolute obscenity that a funeral, of all the ceremonies in life, should require a police presence. It is because of the utterly unscrupulous approach of paramilitary organisations that seek to exploit such occasions for propaganda and terrorist purposes that it is necessary to take the steps that we do. I am sure that my hon. Friend would far rather see a funeral, of all occasions, pass off with dignity and respect and without political propaganda.

Mr. Maginnis

Will the Secretary of State, bearing in mind how the Government of whom he is a member were able to change the method by which unemployment figures were presented, to make them more meaningful, we believe, try to change the method by which he presents figures to the House about trouble in Northern Ireland? He constantly tells us about the number of people charged with crimes, but gives us no idea how ineffective the courts are within the civil law in dealing with those crimes or of the number of convictions.

Will he also comment on the fact that when he answered my question about cross-border co-operation he asserted that the Irish Government had charged someone with the murder of Corporal Thomas Hewitt in Belleek? Will he now tell the House that the same Government, and the same judicial procedure, had that person released without even being brought before the courts? May we have meaningful figures in future?

Mr. King

I have some sympathy with the hon. Member in the point that he has made, because it is very difficult indeed to find the best way of presenting these figures. The difficulty that I face, to be quite frank, is that this very week we have had the sentencing of Martin Meehan, the conviction and a substantial gaol sentence for the kidnapping of a TA soldier on 12 July 1986 — and I remember that incident very well. We have had just today the conviction of some people involved with the UDR arms theft, and that, of course, was some time ago as well. I think that it is more accurate to give the House the charging figure, but I will look at the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

Since the Royal Ulster Constabulary's armoured Land Rovers play an essential role in the control of public order, can my right hon. Friend say what steps are being taken to get on top of the new molten copper weapons that the IRA is now using against these Land Rovers? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when he seeks the support of the entire community to turn down the graph of violence that must include everybody, including the media and especially the BBC, whose explanations for not handing over the film were meretricious and unacceptable?

Mr. King

On my hon. Friend's first point, which is very serious, several steps are being taken, and among the work that is actively being pursued are, initially, security procedures. Material investigation is also taking place to try to insure against and prevent what my hon. Friend correctly identifies as a serious problem.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I welcome the fact that yesterday the BBC and ITN, and today RTE, agreed to provide all available tapes to the RUC investigators.

Mr. Molyneaux

At the risk of receiving a further rebuff, may I ask the Secretary of State again whether he will explain how the stand-off decision was taken, what wider considerations preceded the issue of the Chief Constable's directive, and what part was played by the Maryfield secretariat in those deliberations?

Mr. King

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman seeks to pursue these matters when he has already alleged a meeting which I think he now admits did not happen—I hope that he accepts that. The decisions on policing were taken by the Chief Constable, who informed me on Tuesday evening of the decisions that he had reached. I have absolutely no doubt that he consulted widely. Those consultations included myself—I make no secret of that. The Chief Constable took a decision, which I have no doubt was made in conjunction with his senior officers, which seemed to him appropriate in the circumstances. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not seek to undermine the operational independence of the Chief Constable which I respect and which I hope the right hon. Gentleman will support.