HC Deb 12 January 1989 vol 144 cc975-9
1. Mr. Maginnis

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

2. Mr. Flannery

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

4. Mr. Barry Field

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the work of the security forces over the Christmas holiday.

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

During the past year 93 people died as a result of the security situation in Northern Ireland. These included 39 members of the security forces and 54 civilians of whom one third were believed to have been terrorists. The remainder were civilians with no connection with the security forces. There have been no deaths so far this year.

During the recent period, including Christmas, as throughout 1988, the security forces continued to act with determination and courage. This has resulted in a significant number of people being charged with serious offences, while some 550 weapons, over 100,000 rounds of ammunition and 10,500 lbs of explosives have been recovered in Northern Ireland.

The Garda Siochana has recovered over 300 weapons, about 140,000 rounds of ammunition, 1,000 lbs of explosives and 380 gallons of nitrobenzene. In addition, a substantial find was made in county Offaly on 4 January which included over 35 mortar bombs containing a large amount of Semtex explosive. The House may know that there was a further significant discovery this morning near Dundalk of an amount of ammonium nitrate and nitrobenzene.

Mr. Maginnis

The Secretary of State, like many of us, will be aware that the figures that he quoted give very little satisfaction to the people of Northern Ireland. There has been a steady increase in the number of deaths in the past three years. The "significant" finds of more than 500 weapons are less significant nowadays in comparison with the weapons now available and those that were available in the past. Following the Secretary of State's visit to the west of my constituency earlier this week, will he ensure that no change is made to the permanent vehicle check points there? I hope that any changes that he proposes will be discussed properly with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and receive its support, as I am certain that the removal of check points would not.

Mr. King

Obviously I endorse the hon. Gentleman's opening comments. Although the number of deaths is the same as the figure for the year before, that figure is far too high. At the same time, as he knows, we are in the teeth of what the IRA intend to be a sustained campaign, of which the chief constable of the RUC made mention. It would be right to pay tribute to the efforts of the security forces over the past few months in preventing what could have been, and what was forecast to be, an appalling end to the year. That did not actually happen, but that does not mean that there is any room for complacency. It is right to recognise the significant number of finds of arms and explosives and the significant number of arrests where charges have been preferred as well.

As to the hon. Gentleman's particular point, he knows that I will not give him a blanket answer from the Dispatch Box, but it is vital that we make the very best use or available resources. That may not always mean leaving security checks in a static position, which takes up a lot of manpower and can often be easily bypassed.

Mr. Maginnis

What will happen if the security check points are removed?

Mr. King

The security forces may be more effective and more able to bring help if they operate in a mobile fashion. I take seriously the need for the closest possible understanding on any such matters.

Mr. Maginnis


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am the first to appreciate the seriousness of Northern Ireland questions, but I ask right hon. and hon. Members to make them brief so that we may progress more quickly through the Order Paper.

Mr. Maginnis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, I have few opportunities to speak as a Member of Parliament for Northern Ireland. The security situation is extremely—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to challenge me. I am anxious to call as many right hon. and hon. Members aa possible. Long supplementary questions lead to long answers, which slows our progress through the Order Paper.

Mr. Flannery

During the many years that several right hon. and hon. Members have been in the House, whenever security questions have been asked a state of deadlock has been revealed and we seem to get no further. It is always said that we shall defeat the IRA militarily, but politics are never discussed. As one who is deeply frustrated at that situation, may I suggest that the Minister call together the political parties of Northern Ireland—for example, the church groupings—at a conference to discuss not only defeating the IRA but the political situation as it is viewed by the various Northern Ireland groupings? Is that not the right way forward rather than sterile discussions about what armaments will be deployed?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the pointlessness of the campaign of violence, which only damages the prospects for peace for all the people in the Province and brings misery and sadness in its wake. I am anxious to encourage the maximum dialogue, in whatever form is possible, between all constitutional parties supporting the democratic route and not subscribing to violence.

Mr. Field

Do the numbers of those killed in Northern Ireland given by my right hon. Friend include the innocent grandfather and granddaughter who were murdered returning home from a game of bingo? Do they include the two elderly people who were rewarded by an IRA bomb for their kindness in calling on a neighbour? Do they include the two people killed outside the swimming pool in the Falls road? How many innocent victims are included in the figures given by my right hon. Friend?—{HON. MEMBERS: "They were all innocent."] How many innocents were killed by what the IRA obscenely calls a mistake?

Mr. King

I confirm that the figures include just those cases to which my hon. Friend refers and many others—including Gillian Johnston, and the schoolgirl on the school bus who, fortunately was not killed. They were just some of the casaulties of the totally callous campaign being waged by the IRA. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the evilness of that campaign of violence.

Mr. Mallon

Is the Secretary of State aware of the blanket searches currently taking place in Armagh, Derry and Belfast? If so, will he confirm whether individual searches are the result of reasonable suspicion, or are those blanket searches being used to cover up targets and sources of specific information? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is outrageous that innocent people should suffer and flies in the face of every precept of natural and legal justice?

Mr. King

No, I confirm that there is no question of searches being made on a random basis. They are made only when there is good reason to relieve that there is cause for concern. Recently I received a complaint about the searching of a number of houses in west Belfast. Unfortunately, it was necessary to search 43 houses, but seven hides were found in them. In five of those hides nine mortars, 1,500 rounds of ammunition and 400 lbs. of home-made explosives were discovered. I make no apology for those searches. If they will save a grandfather and granddaughter going home from bingo from being mutilated and being blown clean across the road and into a nearby field they will continue to be made.

What is absolutely outrageous—I agree with the hon. Gentleman—is that innocent people are having their homes uprooted because evil men are intimidating and threatening them and forcing them to hide explosives and weapons in their houses. That is what is outrageous, and the House must stand as one against such practices.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the right hon. Gentleman take note of the question put to him by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) and give an unequivocal assurance today that he will not overrule the recommendations of the RUC, which knows better than the Army how to safeguard the lives of individuals on the border?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider the serious situation arising as a result of the closure of part-time police stations? As he is well aware, when the police withdraw from them those police stations become assault targets—two have been bombed already—and much manpower is needed to search them before they are re-occupied. Will the right hon. Gentleman study the position?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also consider the dates of the two coming elections? Why should the security forces have to be employed on two days when the elections could be held on one day, thus easing the burden on the security forces?

Mr. King

On the first point, I cannot add much to what I said to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). I take seriously the RUC's concerns in any such matters. At the same time I know that how best to use available resources is a matter of real concern to those involved in security so as to create maximum uncertainty for terrorists, which in turn creates maximum security for the people whom the security forces are seeking to protect. Having said that. however, I take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously.

I also take seriously the hon. Gentleman's point about part-time police stations. None of the issues is easy. It is a matter of deciding on the best use of manpower, which stations it is most sensible to man on a full-time basis and where stations are needed. We are looking at that matter carefully.

I see no prospect of changing the dates of the elections to make them coincide, but I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the additional burden placed on the security forces.

Ms. Mowlam

I am sure that the Secretary of State will acknowledge the difficulties when a street is searched and everybody becomes confused and upset, but in view of his acknowledgment of the increased number of house searches will he clarify what he means by non-random?

Mr. King

Non-random means when the security forces have good reason to believe that a house may contain hidden munitions. For instance, I hope that the hon. Lady will understand the outrage felt by any resident in the Creggan in Derry at the death of the two good neighbours and the way in which terrorists deliberately intimidate ordinary people into hiding weapons, insisting that they do so. That is intolerable and I hope that the House will not hesitate to make it clear where the blame for the problem really lies.

Sir Antony Buck

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it will be a matter of gratification to hon. Members on both sides that he has paid such a full tribute to our security forces? Does he agree that probably no forces but ours could sustain the burdens that they have sustained over such a long period with such amazing forbearance?

Mr. King

Any holder of my office must be careful as one never knows what problem or tragedy may occur. None the less, it is right to pay tribute to the achievement of the security forces in the past few months. All the intelligence indicated that the IRA was determined to step up its campaign. Its members tried a whole range of different attacks of one sort or another, and the efforts of the security forces were beyond praise.

Although we cannot be certain about the future, I can assure the House that morale is high and that the security forces will do everything in their power to ensure that their performance is maintained.