HC Deb 04 November 1991 vol 198 cc195-203 2.34 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Brooke)

I regret to have to tell the House that a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in Musgrave Park hospital at 3.53 pm last Saturday, killing two soldiers and injuring 11 other people, among them a five-year-old girl and a baby of four months. The murdered soldiers were Warrant Officer Philip Cross of the Royal Army Medical Corps and Driver Craig Pantry of the Royal Corps of Transport. Two of those wounded have very grave injuries.

I am also sorry to report that early on Sunday morning in a separate incident a young man was found dead in west Belfast in a car which had earlier been seen in suspicious circumstances and pursued by police; that incident is being investigated by a senior police officer and the Independent Commission for Police Complaints has been asked by the RUC to supervise the inquiry. I know that the House will join me in extending sympathy to the families of all those killed and injured.

The bomb which the IRA left in the hospital is estimated to have contained 20 lb of Semtex. It was part way along a service tunnel between two hospital buildings: first, the Withers block, containing orthopaedic and childrens' wards; and secondly, wards and other medical facilities administered by the RAMC for the benefit of service men and their families, and some civilians. I must stress the fact that this building is not, as the IRA has callously and cynically claimed, an operational military base. Rather, like the rest of the Musgrave Park complex, it is purely and simply a hospital dedicated to healing and the relief of suffering. The nearest security force base is more than a quarter of a mile away and was manifestly not the target of the attack.

In addition to the deaths and injuries, the blast from the explosion caused severe damage to both buildings. In particular, a newly refurbished children's ward in the Withers block was damaged, with debris falling on a father who was nursing his baby daughter. Other children in that ward were immobilised in traction. So far, 97 operations due to have been performed early this week have been cancelled, 80 out of the 200 national health service beds in the hospital have been rendered unusable and damage totalling at least £250,000 has been caused.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in utter condemnation of this appalling attack. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] But the cynical depravity of this outrage—placing a bomb that would inevitably cause massive damage to a national health service hospital and was intended to kill medical staff when it exploded and which, only by great good fortune, did not cause many more deaths and injuries—must surely mark one of the lowest points in the IRA's inglorious history.

I reject all attempts to justify this attack. Let there be no doubt that it has shown the IRA in its true colours. It was an attack on the whole community—on sick children and their parents, on old people whose much-needed operations will have to be delayed, on the medical staff who devotedly care for them, and on the security forces who will continue to defend the community and bring terrorists to justice. Such attacks will not deflect the Government or the security forces from doing their duty in seeing off those evil men who want to destroy all that is best in our community. The horrible nature of the attack only underlines the fact that those are the sort of people whom all democrats oppose.

Just as the emergency services and the staff at Musgrave Park hospital reacted with superlative speed and dedication to allay the effects of this atrocity, so the security forces—to whom I pay the warmest of tributes—will continue with vigorous and impartial professionalism to defend the community and to bring suspected terrorists to justice.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and I bitterly regret the circumstances that made it necessary.

On behalf of the Opposition, and indeed the whole House, I wish to express our sympathy to the victims and their families of what can only be described as a crime against humanity. I should also like to extend our sympathy to the relatives and friends of all those who have been killed in recent incidents in Northern Ireland.

We all know how difficult it is for members of the security forces and their families, and we should now be aware that they are at risk all the time. We owe them a great deal and can best repay them by finding a political solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has rightly pointed out the complete disregard for the Geneva convention on the part of the perpetrators of this appalling outrage. It is worth noting what that convention says. In the second protocol to the Geneva convention of 1977, article 7 specifies: All the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, whether or not they have taken part in the armed conflict, shall be respected and protected". Article 9 states: Medical and religious personnel shall be respected and protected and shall be granted all available help for the performance of their duties". Clearly the IRA has cruelly and inhumanely violated those principles. The members of the IRA claim to be soldiers fighting a just war, but real soldiers are bound by the terms of the Geneva convention. The IRA has destroyed the credibility of its own claims. Members of the IRA are not soldiers, but assassins, carrying out a squalid murder campaign.

I have to say to the IRA and its supporters that their actions only strengthen the determination of all democrats in Britain and Ireland to reject them. We are not prepared to listen to lectures on human rights from people who have such a callous attitude to human life. However, it is important that we do not descend to their level. We must ensure that the security forces are the real defenders of human rights and freedom from fear and violence, and that they are clearly seen to be so.

There can be no substitute for the courageous and difficult efforts of the security forces in upholding, impartially, the rule of law. There are no "quick fix" measures that will put a stop to the violence overnight. No doubt voices will be raised in support of such measures, but I must urge the Secretary of State not to be hustled into steps that can only aggravate the situation.

Finally, I should like to ask the Secretary of State what progress has been made in an area where I believe it would be sensible to take action. Can he tell us the position on the police authority's request for 400 more officers? We would urge him to act rapidly on that request. Such a decision would be complementary to the steps already taken by the Chief Constable following the sectarian killings of the past few weeks. I believe that it is an item of additional expenditure that would win the approval of the whole House.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman not only for the sympathy he expressed to the families of those killed and injured, but for his support for the courageous efforts of the security forces.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House of the terms of the Geneva convention. However, I think I should add that, as the hon. Gentleman implied, there are no legitimate targets on such occasions as Saturday. The hon. Gentleman condemned the IRA as assassins and I am sure that the whole House would wish to do so.

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about the RUC's bid for further manpower. That bid is at the final stage of its examination and I expect to be able to make an announcement soon.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist party, I join other hon. Members in expressing our sympathy to the families of those who have been killed and to all who were injured in the incident at the Musgrave Park hospital at the weekend. Indeed, we sympathise with all the families of people who are killed unnecessarily because of terrorism and violence.

I find it not a little peculiar, however, that the Secretary of State chose to combine his statement on the deaths of the two young men whose duties involved the care of the sick in this hospital with a statement on the death of a car thief. The Secretary of State did not take the opportunity to mention that Roger Ellwood was killed by a stolen car driven by terrorists on 1 October this year. So I fear that some doubt may be placed in the minds of hon. Members about the cause of the shooting that resulted in the death of the young man that the right hon. Gentleman referred to.

I am disappointed that we have still been given no sign that the means necessary to contain violence and to disrupt the command and control structure of the IRA are about to be implemented. The need for internment is staring us all in the face. People who suggest that to intern is to bring the community on to the streets cast doubt on the integrity of the vast majority in Northern Ireland. The majority in the community from which I come would welcome internment at this time, and I cannot believe that the integrity of the Roman Catholic community is such that its members would choose this continued slaughter in our Province in preference to removing from the streets those who command and control the violence that besets us.

It is up to the Secretary of State, if he keeps internment on the books as he has told us he will, to begin to educate people throughout this kingdom about the need to implement internment at a time that he judges correct—when he is advised by the Chief Constable and the GOC to do so. It is unhelpful if Ministers or others speaking on the right hon. Gentleman's behalf suggest that internment will not be used or that it is not a viable and justifiable means of dealing with those whose training and speciality is keeping themselves out of the courts and out of the hands of those on whom we depend to impose justice for the deaths that have occurred in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Brooke

In preparing my statement so as to include another recent event, I was following the behaviour of my predecessors, who have done the same on such occasions.

I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about the death of Roger Ellwood. It seems to me to have been one of the greatest tragedies in the Province in the 27 months I have been Secretary of State. I, too, express my sympathy to his family and to his fiancée and her family.

The hon. Gentleman said that I had said that we would keep internment on the statute book. I would go further and say that we have kept it on the statute book already—there was an opportunity not to retain it during the passage of the emergency provisions Act, but we did retain it then.

The introduction of internment would be a serious step involving difficulties of implementation whose consequences would be difficult to predict. I repeat what I have said before: internment has been retained on the statute book. I would consider using it only in particular circumstances; for obvious reasons I will not predict what they might be. The fact remains that internment is on the statute book and is available to the Government to use.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I fully share the concern felt about the dastardly acts in Ulster and the United Kingdom as a whole, but I ask hon. Members to keep their questions brief.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I should like to express to the House on behalf of the people whom I represent and my party our deep feeling of revulsion at what has taken place and our deepest sympathy for those who have suffered. All right-thinking people in Northern Ireland, whatever their creed, politics or vision, will join with us as we express that heartfelt sympathy and deep revulsion.

On the issue that the Secretary of State has just discussed with the defence spokesman of the Ulster Unionist party, the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), while holding that it should be a weapon in the armoury of any civilised Government to take out of circulation those who are seeking to destroy, murder and maim, will he give a full assurance to the House that he will undertake that act, if he has to do so, as a British Minister responsible to this House, and not in cliques with the Dublin Government who say that they would need to approve such a move?

The Secretary of State must say today that he is in charge of security in Northern Ireland and that he will not allow his hands to be tied by any reference to matters coming from the South. Is he not worried about the rising scale of explosions and the rising tide of murders that are taking place? Is it not time for him to reconsider his whole security policy? Although it may be all right for the spokesman for the Opposition to talk about taking no measures, surely from all parts of the Province there is a cry for a security policy now to carry out what his own colleagues said would have to be done: to extirpate the IRA?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he expressed his sympathy and that of his party and his revulsion at the events that have occurred. I give him and the whole House a full assurance that in the event of the introduction of executive detention, it would be carried out by Her Majesty's Government in line with legislation passed by this House and retained by this Government on the statute book.

Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the level of violence during the past two or three months. I also want to pay tribute to the security forces for their response to the security situation. I remind the hon. Gentleman that 97 people have been charged with terrorist crimes during the past two months, including 11 for murder. Hon. Members should not doubt, either, the response of the security forces and the Government to that level of violence.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

In paying my respects and tribute to the bereaved of the two soldiers and the young man killed, I am tempted to say that I thought that I had seen it all. The young baby in the carry-cot described by the IRA as an accident of war, the young nun serving the community described by the IRA as being in the wrong place at the wrong time and a fireman trying to put out a blaze described by the IRA as helping the British war machine—we did not expect to reach the stage where the IRA would break every precept of human compassion and morality by bombing a hospital.

I recognise and welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said that there is no such thing as a legitimate target anywhere, because once that concept is accepted, we are in effect saying that murder is proper in certain circumstances. We should take this opportunity to restate that. I am not about to tell the Secretary of State what to do. I do not know of any known way of preventing evil men from planting a little piece of plastic explosive in a vast complex like the Musgrave Park hospital.

What I know, and what I would like to tell those who, like me, are involved in the political process, is that we have a responsibility. There is something that we can do—we can give leadership, and we must play our part in trying to end this terrible spiral of despair and killing in the North of Ireland. Rather than give the Secretary of State expert opinions that I do not have, I suggest that all those involved in the political process here, in Northern Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland and everywhere have a bounden responsibility to start proper negotiations to end the nightmare that continued this weekend.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Member for the manner in which his question was posed. I am not in the business of calibrating the relative evil of the atrocities carried out by the IRA, but I am conscious that the events that we have just witnessed come in the train of the attack on the remembrance day ceremony in Enniskillen four years ago, when 13 civilians were killed, and of the proxy bomb a year ago, which killed a civilian who had been tied to the driver's seat of his vehicle. These are crimes against humanity, as has been said.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the political process. All who are constitutional politicians in Northern Ireland have a responsibility towards the political development process. We are quite clear, and we were clear when we conducted the talks this summer, that they were not peace talks because they would not bring an end to the violence, but were one of the pressures that can be mounted against the terrorists. If we can bring such talks into being, we shall be making our contribution.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

I do not know what the answer is, but I know what the answer is not. I hope that my right hon. Friend will join me, the rest of the House and the country in issuing a warning, in the hope and expectation that those who describe themselves as loyalist paramilitaries will not, under any circumstances, physically react to this ghastly occurrence. If they do, or even think of so doing, they will get no support from the House or the country, and no sympathy, direct or indirect. I hope that they hear that loud and clear.

Mr. Brooke

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that expression of view. I join him in saying that the enforcement of law and order in the Province of Northern Ireland lies with Her Majesty's Government, the Chief Constable and those who support him.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

I join hon. Members in unreservedly condemning the act by the IRA. I also speak on behalf of the group New Consensus, of which I am chairman and which is both all-party and none. It fully condemns acts such as this, and acts committed by the Ulster Freedom Fighters, such as attacking Belfast taxi drivers. Does the Minister recognise that, as well as an escalation of violence, there is an escalation of the peace movement in Northern Ireland? Groups such as Families Against Intimidation and Terror, the Newry hostage support group, Enough is Enough, the Peace Train Movement and New Consensus in Northern Ireland are standing up against the people of violence so as to ensure that there is another approach and a different tactic.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the sympathy that he has expressed, and I share his sense of encouragement, brought about by the action taken by individual members of the community and groups which are seeking to call an end to the terrible experiences that we have all had. Those of us who live and work in Northern Ireland would say that the feeling on the part of the community about bringing these matters to an end is not the result of any war-weary or defeatist feeling but because we want to bring them to an end and restore peace, and it is a very strong feeling.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

I join the House in expressing sympathy to the families who have been so griveously bereaved through this tragedy, a tragedy that has been the experience of so many of the British people in Ulster over the past 20 years. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Under-Secretary's statement that these "fascist beasts" should be consigned to hell? Having said that, however, he asks the members of the Unionist community to sit in council chambers with the spokesmen of the "fascist beasts".

In the statement by Her Majesty's Opposition, the Secretary of State heard a continuation of the velvet glove policy, which means, do little or nothing against the terrorist. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the people of Northern Ireland demand equal rights with those on the mainland? They have a right to be protected, and after 20 years, a flawed and failed security policy must be radically changed.

The IRA, and those who support them, having listened to the Secretary of State's statement, will he tell the House what part of his statement will have driven fear into the terrorist's heart?

Mr. Brooke

I am conscious that one of the ways in which my colleagues in the Government, and even on occasions myself, identify with the Province is to relapse periodically into theological language. I recognise what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is important that it is on the record in the context of Sinn Fein's reaction to the attack that occurred on Saturday that I understand that its president, Mr. Adams, when asked last night, specifically refused to condemn the bombing. I hope that the people of Northern Ireland will draw significance from that.

I have said before to the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. W. McCrea), in the context of security, that the Government's policy must always be conducted within the rule of law, and that that is a critical factor in bringing terrorism to an end.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

I join right hon. and hon. colleagues, obviously, in expressing sympathy for the families of the bereaved. I pray that those who have been injured will recover quickly.

It is always popular in the House to condemn the IRA. I have more reason than most to do that, having been shot 10 times by the IRA. There must also be condemnation for those who fail to take on the IRA, and the finger must be pointed at the Secretary of State and those who sit behind him. The Government introduced Dublin rule through the Anglo-Irish Agreement. They gave encouragement to the terrorists, and they are responding in kind.

When the people in Northern Ireland were listening to these matters on the radio, they were wondering why a statement was to be made. Two Ulster Defence Regiment men were killed on the Killylea road in Armagh. Four UDR men in my constituency were killed in Downpatrick. They were from Newtownards. Three were killed recently, in June, in Glenanne. No statements were made to the House following those events, so why is there a specific statement today? We thought that there would be something in it, but instead there were just bland generalities. There is nothing to offer the people of Northern Ireland.

We must be given confidence in the Government who rule us without our consent. We must be given confidence in the Army and the police. The Government must encourage the people of Northern Ireland to give their support for the security forces by giving the correct political leadership. The Secretary of State has given nothing today but bland generalities, and the situation will continue as it is until there is a change of Government policy. Why did the Secretary of state make a statement today?

Mr. Brooke

The right hon. Gentleman quotes a number of incidents in the Province that are within the memory of us all and on which statements were not made. I remind him that there has been criticism historically when statements have been made about incidents in Great Britain, when it was commented that similar statements had not been made in the context of Northern Ireland.

If the right hon. Gentleman goes back to the incidents to which he was referring, he will find that they were not ones that could naturally and immediately be followed by a statement. When, on certain occasions, private notice questions were tabled because of the circumstances of a particular incident, you, Mr. Speaker, in your wisdom, declined to accept them. I made my statement because, against the criticism that on occasions we have not made statements on incidents in Great Britain, I believed it important that there should be one.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

May I join in the expressions of sympathy to the bereaved and those who were injured in Saturday's incident? Will the Secretary of State call on the Roman Catholic Church—many of whose members have suffered at the hands of the IRA—to excommunicate those members of the IRA whose hands are dripping with the blood of innocent victims?

Mr. Brooke

It is my understanding that Cardinal Daly has outrightly condemned the events of last Saturday. As I am not a member of his Church, it would be improper of me to make any theological observations.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand the importance of the statement, but we have a heavy day ahead of us. I shall call one more hon. Member from each side.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

In deploring this latest IRA atrocity, and hoping that those responsible will be brought to justice—like all those, from both sides in Northern Ireland, who carry out squalid murders—may I ask whether the Secretary of State agrees that it is important that we do not play into the hands of the Provisional IRA by following policies which, although the IRA deny it, they want for propaganda purposes in the Republic of Ireland and the United States? I refer mainly to internment and other measures that cannot be justified. We should be careful not to play into the hands of murderers.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advice. The considerations that he mentioned are, among others, taken into account when determining policy.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy. Will my right hon. Friend have a word with our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary about utilising the British information services to maximum effect, especially in north America, in the hope of cutting off the supply of money, sympathy and support for the sort of depraved attack that occurred on Saturday, and to show IRA sympathisers in America precisely what is happening?

Mr. Brooke

I am always content to discuss these matters with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. However, I think that there would be fairly wide agreement that Government actions in north America during recent years have resulted in the proportion of funding coming from north America being greatly diminished.

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