HC Deb 21 March 1989 vol 149 cc918-27

4.5 pm

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

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the murder yesterday of two senior RUC officers.

At approximately 1 pm yesterday afternoon Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, the divisional commander of Armagh, together with Superintendent Bob Buchanan, the local border superintendent, left Armagh in Superintendent Buchanan's car to attend a meeting with their opposite numbers in the Garda Siochana in Dundalk. I understand that their meeting lasted about one hour and that they then left to return to Armagh.

At 3.55 pm the RUC received information that there were two people believed dead in a car on the Edenappa road south of Jonesborough in County Armagh. The car was located at 4.15 pm some 50 yards north of the border. This car was found to be Superintendent Buchanan's and the dead were identified as the Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan. The clearance operation was put in hand immediately, involving both RUC and Army and with full assistance from the Garda and the Irish Army. Because of the risk of possible devices, this operation is necessarily taking some time to complete.

A full investigation is now under way into all the circumstances surrounding this outrage and in this connection I am grateful for the immediate and forthright assurance from the Taoiseach that every possible co-operation will be forthcoming to ensure that those responsible are apprehended and brought to justice.

Our immediate thoughts must be for the families, friends and serving colleagues of the two officers in extending our deepest sympathy to them in their tragic loss. Our duty to them now is to ensure that everything that can be done will be done to find the perpetrators of these murders, and that we take immediate account of any lessons that need to be drawn from this terrible event.

Nor, sadly, Mr. Speaker, are these the only murders in Northern Ireland in recent days and weeks. Since the beginning of this year, 25 people in Northern Ireland have died as a result of terrorist violence. More than half of those were the victims of purely sectarian attacks.

Only yesterday I called on the whole community to give the fullest support to the RUC in its work to protect everybody from the evil sectarian killers from whichever extreme they might come. Everybody owes a great debt to the RUC and the security forces for their unstinting efforts and courage against the terrorists, and indeed for their successes this year in the number of people who have been arrested and charged with many of these murders and attempted murders.

At a time when the whole community depends so much on the RUC, the murder of two senior officers shows how vile and evil is the IRA's intent. That is why it needs to know that such a deliberate attack on the security co-operation between ourselves and the Irish Government will only make us more determined to make that co-operation all the more effective and to rid the island of Ireland of the evil of terrorism.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

On behalf of my colleagues, I join with the Secretary of State in expressing our horror and dismay at the murders in South Armagh yesterday. The sympathies of myself and my hon. Friends go out to the families and friends of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan. Two more families have been bereaved, a price which unfortunately the families of the security forces may be asked to pay for the security of the rest of the community, and we should all remember that.

The murders yesterday follow a series of sectarian murders in the Province in the past month. The murders committed by the IRA and other paramilitary organisa-tions such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish People's Liberation Organisation have one thing in common: they reveal on the part of the perpetrators a total contempt for human rights, and the basic human right, the right to life. The killers are bent on destroying the possibility of peace in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that the Secretary of State shares my view that neither the people of Northern Ireland nor the vast majority of their elected representatives, nor members on both sides of this House will capitulate to them.

Yesterday's tragic murders have a particular signifi-cance, insofar as the victims were two men who have done much to make Northern Ireland a safer place. South Armagh is often described as bandit country. Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan were working in co-operation with the Garda Siochana to remove that unwanted label from that part of the Province.

Will the Secretary of State assure us that this work will not be abandoned? In fact, the tragic incidents yesterday underline even more the need for positive co-operation between the RUC and the Garda Siochana. I assure the Secretary of State that we share his view that it is the duty of everyone, particularly Members of this House, to co-operate with the security forces on both sides of the border to put a stop to the killing, and that any information they have should be given to the appropriate authority. I join him in welcoming the helpful statement made by the Taoiseach.

Finally, may I put a number of specific points to the Secretary of State. Will he give the House an indication of how security matters will now be conducted to ease the fears of people in all parts of Northern Ireland, but particularly in South Armagh and north Belfast, where there has been a particularly vile set of sectarian murders over the past few weeks?

The right hon. Gentleman may not be in a position to answer my two final points, as his statement seemed to indicate that the clearance operation is not complete, but there has been a degree of speculation. Will he indicate why the car and the incident were not observed from border observation posts, and secondly, in view of what has been reported in some papers, is he able to indicate to the House whether there were any documents of a security nature in the car which are missing?

Mr. King

I thank the hon. Member first of all for the very forthright statement he made on behalf of the Opposition and his right hon. and hon. Friends in their firm stand against terrorism and the evils that these murders represent. He is right to say that many live in fear in South Armagh, not just of the evil of the terrorist but of the gangster and the smuggler; all the criminality there undoubtedly brings terror to many people.

The hon. Member is right to pay tribute to the work of those officers, and indeed those working with them, in co-operation with the Garda Siochana, to try and lift the burden of fear which exists in that part of Ireland on both sides of the border. I am grateful to him for what he said on that, and I confirm to him that that work will certainly continue and be reinforced.

In respect of the fears which exist, with this nasty and very vicious outbreak of sectarian killing, I had a meeting yesterday morning with the deputy Chief Constable. The RUC is taking a number of steps to ensure that its success in bringing a number of people to the courts is continued. We are certainly giving that aspect a very high priority indeed.

I am afraid that I cannot satisfy the hon. Member on his last points in respect of observation and documents. I have referred the incident to a full investigation and I would rather not comment further until more facts are available.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Having known both officers personally, I add my sympathy and that of my hon. Friends to what has already been said.

Does the Secretary of State agree, that as Parliament has required such men to engage in such consultations and meetings, hon. Members now have a duty to review that requirement? Is it necessary to meet in Dundalk, of all places? It is generally recognised to be the garrison town and operational base of the IRA. If such meetings and consultations serve any useful purpose, would it not be safer to meet here in London? After all, it is only 50 minutes' flying time away for both forces.

Mr. King

I express my appreciation for the right hon. Gentleman's opening words. Several hon. Members knew both officers concerned, and the matter becomes all the more tragic, although every death and every murder is a tragedy. That is why I was anxious to take note of the recent tragedies in Northern Ireland.

I profoundly disagree with the right hon. Gentleman's second remark. Parliament has not required officers of the RUC to meet officers of the Garda Siochana. Those officers act under the independent operational responsibility of the Chief Constable. If the suggestion is that the officers of the RUC are doing things that they do not believe to be right in terms of cross-border co-operation —the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) mentioned something similar on the radio today—it is an unfortunate line to take. It is unfair to senior officers of the RUC. No serious observer of the security scene in the island of Ireland does not recognise that one is more likely to have an effective response to the terrorist challenge by close co-operation between senior officers in the Garda Siochana and the RUC. That co-operation is essential.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to read the recently published report of the Chief Constable of the RUC, in which he talks about the growing trust and co-operation, which bodes well for the future between the RUC and the Garda.

On the right hon. Gentleman's serious point about the problems of meetings, clearly it is desirable that officers meet and work face to face and co-operate. Those issues will be part of the consideration. The right hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not comment further on them at this time.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I join with the Secretary of State and others in expressing sympathy to those who have been bereaved by the foul and callous shooting of two highly respected and senior police officers at the border yesterday. All hon. Members will do all within their power to ensure that nothing that they say will make more difficult the task of the security forces.

Will the Secretary of State find out where the IRA got the information in relation to this crime? It is well known that Dundalk has a heavy concentration of active IRA cells and that little goes on within Dundalk that the IRA is not aware of. Information will flow freely about people who would not normally be present in the town. Therefore, was it a wise decision for it to be the meeting place of such senior officers?

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is growing concern in Northern Ireland not just about the recent shootings but the long series of sectarian tit-for-tat killings? The present security policy is not dealing with the situation, and something more must be done. Will he pursue a more rigorous and resolute security initiative against the terrorists, rather than simply react to what terrorists do?

Mr. King

Any security policy needs the support of all people of good will within the community and their determination to stand against terrorism. No security policy can be perfect against the pure hatred for a Catholic or vice versa, by a man with a gun who will be determined to go out and kill anybody, not caring who it may be. The only way that that can be met is by the whole community standing together—every person being determined to see those killings stop, and being prepared to help the police and the security forces with any information whatever that may bring those people to justice. The impression that committing a murder is somehow a victory for one's "side", if I can put it in the most obscene and simplistic style, will have the effect, in the currency of Northern Ireland, that there will be retaliation, and it will inflict tragedy on the other "side" as well.

That is the message. I hope that all hon. Members, and not just those Members elected to represent constituencies in Northern Ireland, can stand together and make everybody appreciate the vital need to stand against the particularly poisonous and vicious challenge that we face in Northern Ireland.

On the point about Dundalk as a suitable meeting place, I have heard comments about some of the activities there and I do not propose to comment on them further today. These are decisions taken by police officers. Such matters will need to be considered in the light of these terrible events. The hon. Gentleman must forgive me if I do not comment on them further this afternoon.

Mr. Eddie McCrady

I and my party colleagues wish to join in the extension of sympathy to Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan, whose remit and authority extended to the part of South Down that I represent. I express our deepest sympathies to their families. I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) who yesterday called upon the whole community to give every support and help to the police in securing these barbarous killers. I endorse and reiterate that statement this afternoon.

I ask the Secretary of State, in the course of his investigations into this horrific and unwarranted crime, to take cognisance of the fact that the scene of the murder, the Edenappa road, is probably the most secure road in western Europe. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, (Mr. McNamara) said, there are many watch towers and security checks in that area. The Secretary of State will need to inquire how this type of event could Occur.

I also join the Secretary of State in extending sympathy to the families of those who have been murdered, almost on a daily basis, simply because of the faith that they hold dear. That is happening nowhere near the border, but mainly in north Belfast. It has nothing to do with the so-called "bandit country". It is most unfortunate for the many law-abiding, good, honest ordinary people in South Armagh especially, and in Newry who have to suffer the stigma of being referred to as the bandits of bandit country. We should drop that phrase entirely from our vocabulary.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

When they give up their terrorists in Armagh.

Mr. McGrady

We have, of course, the repeating record of the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) who is trying to exacerbate a delicate and dangerous situation.

In conclusion, may I personally and on behalf of my colleagues again extend our sympathy, and call upon the entire community—both communities in Northern Ireland —fully to support the police investigations.

Mr. King

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for his general comments. Could I draw upon both his concluding remarks and those made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, (Mr. Mallon) who was the first I heard to comment on this event, as it occurred in his constituency. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh made an unqualified and unequivocal call to all members of the community who had any information available to help the police to bring to justice those responsible for these appalling outrages. I was glad to hear that categorical statement by the hon. Gentleman. I hope that it will be heeded and that all people, from whatever part of the community they come, will realise that murder and killing in Northern Ireland is destroying not only the prospects for young people for a better society, but it is destroying the prospects for everybody in the island of Ireland. That is why all people need to stand together and help the police to suppress this.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

This latest atrocity has taken place on the 20th anniversary of the present IRA campaign of terrorism in Northern Ireland, which is a long time for any people to suffer. Surely in addition to expressing its sympathy, which I do to the relatives of those two police officers, the House should also express in some tangible way its recognition of the gallantry and dedication of the Royal Ulster Constabulary which, together with the armed forces, has had to hold the line in Northern Ireland.

There is no hope for Northern Ireland while the atrocities continue. I am referring both to those perpetrated by the IRA and the equally dastardly tit-for-tat murders that have taken place over the years. Can the Secretary of State give some hope to the people of Northern Ireland, perhaps along the lines of his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who said that the IRA should be extirpated? Now, in this 20th year, will he not say that attempts will be made to boot out and destroy those evil men and, to do that, will he now promise all possible funds to the RUC to make sure that it has the equipment, including helicopters, to deal with the men of violence?

Mr. King

I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in his tribute to the gallantry of the RUC and the security forces for the way in which they stand in the front line against terrorism. However, I do not stand with him about there being no hope for Northern Ireland. One of the most inspiring things that I have seen during the time when I have had the honour to be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been the way so many people triumph over all the disadvantages and the problems, and to see the advances that have been made in the economic life and the improvement that there has been in the quality of life in Northern Ireland. It is a confirmation that the spirit of the people will rise above the threat of terrorism in Northern Ireland. Yes, we are determined to root it out and if it cheers him I can tell him that I endorsed the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the day after he made them although as I did so on the "The Late Late Show" on Radio Tele fis Eireann he may not have heard me. I made it clear that I fully support those needs.

However, there are those whom arguments simply do not reach and they must be rooted out and brought before the courts and, if guilty, they must be sentenced and put in places where they are no longer a threat to society. There is no question about that. From whichever extreme they come, they must recognise that that is the action that must be taken.

In recognising the gallantry of the RUC, I recognise also the gallantry of all the people of Northern Ireland for the way in which they have progressed, as they have, against all the difficulties and the setbacks that they have faced.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Is the Secretary of State aware that all hon. Members appreciate what he has just said and that we are concerned for all the people of Northern Ireland and that although we are also concerned about the murders of the policemen because the RUC bears the brunt, we recognise that there have been sectarian murders on both sides of the divide? The terrible thing is that they will continue. Somehow they run their course and then stop, and no words from anybody here will stop them. The people of Northern Ireland have heard such words too often from the Secretary of State, myself and other people, but how one feels for the people of Northern Ireland.

I want to ask only one question—that is the only reason I rose. In South Armagh, with all the problems and difficulties along the border, are the Irish Government still not interested in the two armies down there—not anywhere else—working together directly, because it is not enough for the RUC alone to cover the border? That would not solve the problem, but it would ease it.

Mr. King

I shall not attempt to qualify the right hon. Gentleman's opening remarks because obviously I respect very much his knowledge and experience. I understand that he has every reason to believe that he is right to talk about the cycles of sectarian killings and the need for the security forces and the police to be as vigilant as possible to try to ensure that that cycle stops at the earliest possible moment.

On the issue of co-operation in South Armagh, there are problems in the approach that the right hon. Gentleman suggests. He will recognise that the tragedy of the particular outrage that we are discussing is, in a sense, symbolic of very much closer co-operation, which I hope and believe will develop. From all my meetings, not least with the commissioner of the Garda, and from all that I know of the relationship that has developed between the senior ranks of the Garda and the senior ranks of the RUC, nothing could have done more to reinforce the resolve to deal with the terrorists in the island of Ireland. The outrage that the IRA committed yesterday is the clearest possible symbol of the challenge that the police forces face, and it will reinforce their determination to work together to achieve what everybody in the island of Ireland wants—the end of terrorism.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to repeat that we have a guillotine motion and a ten-minute Bill motion today. I shall take two more questions from either side, and then we must move on.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

Does the Secretary of State agree that there is great disquiet and fear in many hearts in the Province at this time, not only because of the tragic murder of the two senior police officers but because of the sectarian murders that have been taking place throughout the Province? Does he appreciate that it is difficult for the people of Northern Ireland to understand how two senior officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary were permitted to go into the heart of Dundalk, which is known as the lion's den, to talk about security matters, when, on the walls of every police station in the Province, there are numerous photographs with the words, "Now residing in Dundalk, Republic of Ireland"?

Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether those officers were guarded during their stay in the Irish Republic, whether they were left to the border still guarded by the Garda, and whether they were to be met at the border by officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? I ask those questions because it is known that the officers were to go to another location, but did not turn up. At what time did they leave the meeting in Dundalk, and who knew the route that they were to take? The people of the Province believe that those are vital questions that must be answered.

Mr. King

I understand the hon. Gentleman's comments about the disquiet and fear in Northern Ireland. It is incumbent on us all to exercise great care over the statements that we make, so that we may avoid stirring up fear or hatred, which is so easily done in the present atmosphere. Whatever the tensions, whatever the pressures, whatever the emotional difficulties that any hon. Member must have faced, we have a heavy responsiblity at this time. The questions that the hon. Gentleman has asked are all relevant, and they will undoubtedly be addressed in the investigation. He will understand if I do not go further at this stage.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, may I extend sympathy to the families of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan, and may I extend to the Secretary of State support for the actions that he has taken following the terrible and pointless murder yesterday.

Does not this underline yet again the necessity for the Garda and the RUC to continue the strongest possible, the most unequivocal, co-operation? Is not this what the IRA fears more than anything else? Does not the incident underline the need for the minority community in Northern Ireland to recognise that, as the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said, it has to extend unequivocal support to the RUC and that, in due course, that should involve members of that community joining and working in the RUC?

Mr. King

I thank the hon. Member, and I agree very much with what he has just said. Certainly, the fight against terrorism must be reinforced by better co-operation between the Garda and the RUC. We must all stand together against the evils of terrorism. I do not know whether the House is aware of the fact that at this very minute the Taoiseach is making a statement in the Dail about the murder of three Irish soldiers who were serving with UNIFIL. I understand that they were blown up by a land mine yesterday. Countries must co-operate in the fight against terrorism and in the fight to maintain the peace. Every community must give full support to the security forces in their efforts to protect the community against terrorism.

Mr. W. Benyon (Milton Keynes)

Given the shock of these appalling murders, is it not significant that the IRA continually shows its fear about the success of Anglo-Irish co-operation and does its best to discredit it?

Mr. King

Whatever other views are held of the Anglo-Irish Agreement—I understand points of principle which come from the entirely different perspective, which I respect—there is absolutely no question, and never has been, but that the IRA fears closer co-operation between the Irish and the British Governments. Obviously, that is a threat to the activities of the IRA. Whatever their views about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, no serious observers of the scene doubt the need for there to be closer security co-operation between the Irish and British police forces —the RUC and the Garda Siochana.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

May I join other hon. Members who have expressed regret at the deaths of two fine and gallant members of the RUC, whom I knew personally and who were courageous and courteous in their duty.

The Secretary of State's words going back to the people whom we represent will appear to be but a weak echo of all the platitudes and clichùs that we have heard over the years about many tragedies such as this. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that I have in my hand a file more than 2 in thick, recording the details of 254 people who have died in Northern Ireland since the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed? Will he acknowledge without equivocation that the present rate of killing in Northern Ireland is running at a figure close to 100 per annum, which is exactly twice the rate in the year before the agreement was signed?

May I ask the Secretary of State and other hon. Members to be careful when they use the word "sectarian" because it seems to excuse certain other murders? Like my colleagues, I totally abhor the sectarian killings which have occurred and which are on the increase. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that of the 87 Roman Catholic victims who have been killed since the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, 45 per cent. were killed by the IRA, while 54 per cent. were killed by loyalists? Will he acknowledge that of the 167 Protestant victims, 92 per cent. were killed by the IRA and 7 per cent. by loyalists? Will he be careful in using the word "sectarian" not to suggest that it is one-way traffic but rather acknowledge that the vast amount of killing where the IRA predominates is also sectarian?

Mr. King

In the first points he made the hon. Gentleman referred to some 250 people having been killed since the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. If I followed him correctly, the implication was that the Anglo-Irish Agreement was somehow responsible for those murders, leaving out the 2,250 who were killed in the years before the agreement was signed. He might have been more honest if he had given the House all the figures.

He might also have told the House the date when the Libyans probably started to ship the Semtex, the machine guns and the other weapons of death and destruction—which was significantly before the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement—therefore leaving no one who is prepared to study the matters objectively in any doubt that the IRA campaign that we now face, and that is a threat against which we all have to stand, was planned some time before that, and that these weapons are being used to try to destroy co-operation and to try to ensure that terrorism will win within the island of Ireland. It is our determination not to make political points but to make sure that everybody in the community, the security forces and the Garda Siochana, works together in the most effective way to defeat the evil terrorist ends.

Mr. Speaker

Despite what I said a moment ago, I have just been told that the two police officers were the constituents of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker). I shall, therefore, call him and welcome him back to the House. I hope that his health is improving.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Upper Bann)

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that it was not us who claimed that the Anglo-Irish Agreement would bring peace, stability and reconciliation? None of us for one moment suggested that it is responsible for the violence. However, the hope was held out to our people that the agreement would bring a change. Will the Secretary of State also bear in mind that, despite the exhortation of the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) for information, despite his best endeavours and despite the promises of Charlie Haughey, the experience of the past 15 years shows that the chances of bringing the people responsible for this crime to justice are negligible? That is why South Armagh was described as bandit country by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I believe that he did old-fashioned banditry an injustice, because that is not a word to describe the foul activities of the people who over the past 15 years have engaged in far worse crimes in South Armagh than this one. I speak as its Member of Parliament for the past 10 years.

That being the case, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether those two policemen were armed. If they were not, why not? Were they murdered by a shot in each of their heads when their car was moving or were they stopped at a road block? Were terrorists able to go up to their car, open the door and murder the two of them without them being able to do anything? Is it not asking too much of me and certain people whom I represent to believe that after 20 years incidents like this can still occur?

Mr. King

I respect the knowledge of the hon. Gentleman and his sad experiences at some of the outrages in the past, not least in South Armagh. His illustrations, and those in the newspapers this morning, suggest that there were some terrorists hiding behind a stone wall who fired machine guns when the car went by. I do not know the facts. The hon. Gentleman has given two fairly emotive speculations with considerable implications, which could be intepreted in different ways by different people. I say quite candidly to the hon. Gentleman and the House that we do not know precisely where or how the incident occurred. That is now the subject of an investigation.

The Irish Cabinet met this morning and the commissioner of the Garda has been specifically instructed by the Cabinet to take personal responsibility for its part of the investigation. The commissioner contacted the Chief Constable first thing this morning. The incident will be the subject of a thorough investigation in which I confidently believe that nothing will be held back between the police forces on either side to discover how it happened and to do everything possible to bring the perpetrators to justice.

That is the seriousness with which the Taoiseach has carried forward his pledge of last night into the Cabinet meeting and with a further statement this morning. I have given my assurance of complete co-operation in the investigation. It is important that we now consider the facts. I believe that we all have a duty not to speculate on what might have happened, some of which speculation will be quite emotive and deeply distressing to many people.