HC Deb 15 January 1990 vol 165 cc21-7 3.30 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a Statement about the killings in west Belfast on Saturday night.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Brooke)

At about 10.50 am on Saturday 13 January, two soldiers on duty in civilian clothes were leaving west Belfast and driving along the Falls road in the direction of the city centre. By chance, they saw a car approach from the other direction and stop at the junction of the Falls road and the Whiterock road. They then saw two masked men, one of whom was armed with what appeared to be a sub-machine gun, run from the car into a betting shop. A third man remained in the driver's seat of the car.

It is clearly the responsibility of members of the security forces to take immediate action to respond to a situation which appears to pose immediate danger to life. What precisely happened next, and why, is properly the subject of the investigation now being rigorously pursued by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the House will not expect me to comment on details. However, as the House knows, both the driver of the car and the two men who entered the betting shop were subsequently shot and killed. I am afraid that a passer by was also injured, although not seriously. The identities of the three men have been released by the RUC.

After the shooting, the soldiers recovered the sub-machine gun which had been in the gang's possession. A crowd immediately began to gather and a number of vehicles, including black taxis, began to block adjoining roads. The soldiers accordingly drove immediately to an RUC station in order to report the incident. Subsequently, they were interviewed by the RUC. Meanwhile, the RUC, supported by the Army, moved immediately to the scene of the shooting and took control within a few minutes.

The House will be aware that the sub-machine gun used by the robbers was in fact a replica. In addition, a replica pistol was recovered from the betting shop. These were not toy guns, but exact-scale replicas, convincing in every detail—so convincing that only very careful examination shows that they cannot fire live rounds. Clearly, the availability and use of such realistic replica weapons for criminal and terrorist purposes poses a serious problem for the community, particularly in Northern Ireland. It is a problem which is treated seriously by the courts. In a recent case, two men were sentenced to seven years imprisonment for robbery carried out with imitation firearms. In that case the judge expressed concern at the fact that such weapons were easily obtained in Northern Ireland. I share that concern and have been considering whether there are any further steps that can be taken to deal with this issue.

I should like to place the incident in its proper context. As the House knows, there exists in Northern Ireland a serious terrorist problem which requires the continuous deployment of armed forces in support of the RUC. No one regrets that more than I do. I particularly regret any deaths which, directly or indirectly, have been caused by terrorism. Terrorism has encouraged other types of violent crime, such as armed robbery. In combating such violent crimes, the security forces are required to operate within the rule of law, using such force as is reasonable in the circumstances. Specific instructions and thorough training are given to the security forces to help them carry out their duties. The instructions make it clear that firearms are a last resort, to be used only when life is likely to be endangered and when there is no other way of preventing the danger.

Finally, I think it is only right to remind the House of the often dangerous circumstances of Northern Ireland—circumstances in which we expect the security forces to act in accordance with the very highest standards on every occasion. That is only right and proper. We expect them to evaluate a situation, judge the risks to their own lives and those of others, and act appropriately within the law, often in a matter of seconds or less. We should not under-estimate the difficulties that they face. The RUC is conducting a full and thorough investigation. This must now take its course. I hope that nothing will be said in this House that could hinder or prejudice the completion of this important task.

Mr. McNamara

I thank the Secretary of Sate for his answer. However, I very much regret that the Government failed to volunteer a Statement on such a sensitive issue, which has aroused a great deal of controversy throughout these islands, not least because of the questions that it raises about the rule of law, the relationship of the Army with the RUC and the minimum use of force.

The Opposition are well aware of the difficulties that the security forces face in Northern Ireland, but it is precisely because incidents of this nature have the capacity to inflict great damage on public confidence in the rule of law and in the security forces, and to make their task that much more difficult, that the circumstances of last Saturday's shootings must be subject to the fullest possible scrutiny.

A number of questions must be answered. First, can the Secretary of State inform the House of the rules of engagement under which the Army operates in Northern Ireland? Did the yellow card rules apply—aimed shots only, and only sufficient to prevent escape?

Secondly, may we have a commitment again to the primacy of the RUC? Was the RUC aware of the presence of the Army unit undercover squad in the area and of the instructions under which the unit was operating? Were the soldiers tasked by the RUC for this duty?

Thirdly, can the Secretary of State tell us why the RUC and the Army were not able to issue a Statement on Saturday evening at the end of a special meeting held by them to discuss these shootings? Why was it possible for the Army yesterday heavily to brief selected members of the press on the very issues which today the right hon. Gentleman is asking the House not to pursue?

A number of more specific questions arise from the briefings given yesterday. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the driver of the car was the first to be shot; that he was not challenged; that no arms, either real or replicas, were found in the car; and that no paramilitary uniforms were there, either? Was the Army unit in radio contact with its immediate superiors, what information was sent forward by it, and what instructions may have been relayed to it?

Can the right hon. Gentleman refute the most serious allegations of witnesses, some of whom we saw on television on Saturday, that the other two men were administered the coup de grace while lying on the ground? Will he confirm that the soldiers involved were members of the 14th Independent Company? Can he tell us the purpose of this unit, when it was formed and what its particular duties are? Can he say whether there was any connection between this incident and the reported shootings which occurred at approximately 11 pm on Friday in the near vicinity and the markedly increased heavy military presence in the area over the preceding 24 hours?

Many other detailed questions need to be asked, but I am conscious of the time. What is most important is that we should be able to maintain confidence in the security forces. That is why we need an early and speedy answer to these many difficult and awesome questions that have been raised by the sad events of last Saturday evening.

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman has asked me a series of questions, the first of which related to the rules of engagement. He specifically asked a question about the yellow card. It represents operating instructions for use by the security forces in their duties in Northern Ireland. As it is an operational instruction, it would not be appropriate to publish it. The other questions of that nature which the hon. Gentleman asked come within the same area of operational details.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a number of questions about the RUC and its awareness of the presence and the tasking of the soldiers. That brings us back to the inquiry in which the RUC is engaged.

The hon. Gentleman asked why a Statement was not issued. He probably knows that a short Statement was issued by the RUC on Saturday night. He also asked questions relating to the driver of the car, radio communication and the condition of the men after they had been shot. They all come into the same area of operational details. I made it perfectly clear in my Statement that I was not going to enlarge on those matters to the House. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the unit to which the men belong. It is not our policy to reveal the units to which soldiers belong.

As to the hon. Gentleman's final question about the reported shootings the previous evening and security force activity in the neighbourhood, there is no connection whatsoever between them. I go back to the remark that I made, that the car containing the soldiers passed by chance.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is not the area of the Falls road and Whiterock road among the most dangerous in the whole of Europe—a danger posed by continuing terrorist action? Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the inquest into the deaths of the three people who were killed on Saturday will be held at the earliest date, consistent with the proper process of law?

Mr. Brooke

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I share his views about the neighbourhood of which he spoke. I reassure him that the inquest will be conducted under the due process of law.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Secretary of State agree and accept that the rules of engagement do not require the security forces to hesitate when they apprehend that their lives are endangered? Does he also accept that many will wish to suspend judgment until the inquiry that is clearly necessary has been carried out? When the Secretary of State has seen the report of the RUC inquiry, will he consider whether a wider inquiry that does not directly involve the security forces may be appropriate, since at least one of the issues is the extent to which the armed forces were acting on instructions from the RUC?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his comments about the circumstances in which members of the armed forces have to take decisions in Northern Ireland. I cannot discuss details of the incident without risk of prejudicing the RUC inquiry. I am happy to say that the RUC will of course be passing its conclusions to the Director of Public Prosecutions for consideration. In the context of the present investigation and the hon. Member's question about subsequent action, I have every confidence that the RUC will conduct the investigation in the most thorough and painstaking way.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

Sad and tragic though the whole matter is, does my right hon. Friend agree that any criminal who pursues his activities on the streets of west Belfast, armed and masked, must expect to meet more than an unarmed British policeman? I suggest to my right hon. Friend that he must have the matter thoroughly investigated. Will he please not be diverted from his important announcement, and the efforts that he can make to bring parties together in Northern Ireland to remove the basis for the terrorism that has caused the tragedy to happen?

Mr. Brooke

My hon. Friend makes comments about the circumstances on the streets of west Belfast, and many hon. Members and members of the public will agree with his analysis. I am grateful for his appreciation of the manner in which the matter is being looked into. I confirm that a continuing advance in political development makes a contribution to security. I look forward in the hope that we shall be able to continue those conversations.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

The Secretary of State will be aware that 12 people have been killed since 1982 in similar controversial circumstances, and in a manner that has caused enormous distress in the North of Ireland. Will the Secretary of State accept that all those incidents have one thing in common—that none of the victims was armed in such a way that they could have perpetrated lethal force on any member of the security services? Will he confirm that such incidents do enormous damage to confidence in the process of justice in the North of Ireland, and also that they give the oxygen of propaganda to the IRA at a time when it needs it most? Most important of all, do those incidents not convince many people that, when it comes to a choice between expediency and acting within the integrity of the law, the Government always seem to choose expediency?

Mr. Brooke

I share the hon. Member's concern about the maintenance of the confidence of the community in Northern Ireland in the security forces. That confidence is likely to be sustained and supported by clear evidence that the security forces are operating under the rule of law, as they understand they must.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Does my right hon. Friend share my sadness about the implicit and explicit assumption that is often made by Opposition Members, that the security forces are always wrong, whereas the terrorists are quasi-innocent or hard done by in some way? Can we have any sensible discussions about the issues before the rigorous and much-needed investigation has taken place?

Mr. Brooke

The issue whether anyone is wrong or right in matters relating to the law is for the courts, but I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to what sometimes seems to be an over-bias in one direction.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Would it not have been better to volunteer the interesting Statement that the Secretary of State has made instead of leaving it to a private notice question, and leaving the running during the weekend to the leader of Sinn Fein, who is a former brigade commander? In the past, he has had the nerve to suggest that Amnesty International should investigate the issue. If there is anything in that suggestion, will the Secretary of State ensure that there is an investigation into those who shoot to kill in the incidents that have left 3,000 dead during the past 20 years?

There have been big changes in west Belfast over the years. There are very few British soldiers in Northern Ireland now compared with the past. Irrespective of anything else that comes out of the inquiry, I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that the police are in charge. They have views about the policing of west Belfast. We should not carry out a policy using soldiers, who have a rotten job—few people can comprehend the difficulties that they face—and we should see whether the numbers of soldiers can be further decreased.

Mr. Brooke

I am most grateful for the manner in which the right hon. Gentleman put his question. Statements were made throughout the weekend by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), who was on duty in Northern Ireland, and by the RUC. It was a matter of particular concern that in my Statement today I should be able to provide as full disclosure as possible at this stage, and the passage of time has enabled me to do so. I totally concur with the right hon. Gentleman about the exercise of double standards that were apparent in the Statement made by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams). The right hon. Gentleman referred to Amnesty. It is worth reminding the House that, in the first 10 months of 1989, 363 persons were charged with terrorist offences; 340 persons were convicted; and only two were killed by the security forces.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

My right hon. Friend cannot comment in detail on yellow card procedures, but I suspect that I should not be far from the truth if I said that they do not require a challenge to be given if soldiers suspect that their lives, or other lives, might be in danger. In those circumstances, will my right hon. Friend accept that Conservative Members have rather more sympathy for members of the security forces, who put their lives in danger to protect freedom under the law, but rather less sympathy for those who deliberately don the uniform of a terrorist to commit what appears to be armed robbery and thereby spread fear through the community?

Mr. Brooke

For reasons that I gave earlier, I shall not be drawn on the use of the yellow card. References to the Statement that I made will find an echo of what my hon. Friend has said. I am certain that the security forces will be grateful to him for the expression of confidence that he has uttered.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I hope that the Secretary of State will take it from me that, when honourable and searching questions are asked by Labour Members, it is an abuse for Conservative Members to imply that we are all IRA sympathisers. Many of us have fought against that all our lives. There is real and deep worry, not merely among Labour Members but among our people, about what happened, especially after Gibraltar—and in the Stalker affair, in which the police inquired into the conduct of the Army. The result was that Mr. Stalker was taken off the inquiry. May we have an assurance that, if this inquiry is conducted by the police, its findings will be made available to the general public and it will not be just a police inquiry, since such inquiries always seem to come out in favour of the police and Army and to abuse people who ask honourable and searching questions?

Mr. Brooke

It is obviously the duty of hon. Members to ask searching questions, not least when an incident such as this has occurred. The whole country shares the concern simply to get at the truth, as the RUC is trying to. I am sorry that my confidence in the RUC does not seem to be held totally throughout the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard for the subsequent business, in which I shall have to place a 10-minute limit on speeches. I shall call one hon. Member from each side, but then we must move on.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Against the background of almost daily violence in west Belfast, are not soldiers who come upon armed criminals apparently engaged on a criminal enterprise that is endangering the lives of others, including themselves, entitled to fire first?

Mr. Brooke

Other hon. Friends, like my hon. Friend, have drawn attention to the conditions in west Belfast. We are all aware of the dangers that exists there. It would be wrong for me to make any other Statement in this instance.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the interest of those who ask these questions is that justice should be done? In addition to the stifling, of the Stalker inquiry and the lies told after the Gibraltar killings, we recall the false evidence that led to the wrongful conviction of the Guildford Four and the doubts about the Birmingham Six. An internal inquiry will not carry credibility.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the killings in last Saturday's circumstances will increase the conviction of people that the soldiers and security forces in Northern Ireland are running rampage? That impression 'will be widely shared. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman expressed no regret in his statement for the families of the people killed will confirm the impression that anything that the security forces do, whether within or without the law, carries the Government's endorsement.

Mr. Brooke

I do not think that this is an occasion for going back over many previous cases. The finding of the inquest in Gibraltar into the deaths of self-confessed terrorists speaks for itself.

The right hon. Gentleman refers to people "running rampage". I think that he knows within himself that those are absurd words to use to describe the manner in which the security forces conduct themselves most bravely in Northern Ireland on behalf of us all. As for the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about expressing regret about the deaths, I did in fact express regret in my Statement.

Mr. Speaker

Statutory Instruments?

Mr. David Lightbown (Staffordshire, South-East)

Not moved.