HC Deb 06 February 1992 vol 203 cc466-76

4.5 pm

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

Mr. Speaker, I will, with permission. make a statement about the current security situation in Northern Ireland.

It is my sad duty to report that, since the beginning of this month, 12 people have died in circumstances directly related to the continuation of terrorism in the Province.

The proscribed loyalist terrorist organisation, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, has admitted responsibility for two attacks which have led to the deaths of six people. They include five, two of them teenagers, murdered in a bookmaker's office in Belfast yesterday. Two persons have been arrested in connection with the earlier UFF murder of a taxi driver at his home in north Belfast.

Three persons were killed by an off-duty police officer in the Sinn Fein advice centre on the Falls road. That officer subsequently took his own life. The IRA claimed responsibility for the murder of a bread delivery man in Dungannon and are believed to have been responsible for the attempted murder yesterday near Belleek of a dog warden, who was also a part-time member of the UDR. In this incident, one terrorist was killed. Following it, three persons have been apprehended by the Garda Siochana. In relation to all of these incidents, vigorous follow-up action is in train and will continue.

I know that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy to ail those who have been so suddenly bereaved. Each of these deaths represents a personal tragedy, but each is also part of a wider tragedy in which the whole community, Protestant and Catholic. Unionist and nationalist, shares. For let there be no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland deeply abhor, and want no part of, the wanton destruction perpetrated by that tiny minority who, without democratic, moral or spiritual authority have taken upon themselves the right to decide who should live or die.

As we have seen in recent days, notably in the trade union rally in Belfast last Tuesday and in the unequivocal statement of leading Churchmen, the overwhelming majority of decent people are increasingly making their voice heard and their influence felt. Individuals are coming forward—making use of the confidential telephone and in other ways—to help the police to prevent outrages and to apprehend the criminals. It is vital that this should continue. Terrorists—from whatever side they come—represent no one but themselves. The community has a vital role to play in making them realise that they will never achieve their objectives through violence.

However, a particular responsibility for dealing with terrorism lies with the Government and the security forces. We will not shirk that responsibility. The House will recall the announcement last month of the arrival in Northern Ireland of substantial numbers of additional troops. The level of military reinforcement for the police will continue to be kept under review and further adjustments may be made. We will take whatever action is necessary to bring terrorism to an end, but we will not abandon the underlying principle of our security policy, which is a determination to deal with terrorism under the rule of law.

In accordance with that policy, the police, supported by the armed forces, have achieved, in the last few weeks, further significant successes. A very high proportion of intended attacks are being prevented or aborted. Substantial quantities of arms and explosives—some of it clearly intended for immediate use—have been seized. In these and other situations, important arrests have been made. There will be more seizures and more arrests. The House will recall that almost 400 people were charged with terrorist-related crimes in Northern Ireland last year.

Last week the leaders of the four main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland agreed that, at my invitation, they would meet to consider matters of common concern in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. No matter is of greater shared concern to the people of Northern Ireland and their political leaders than the present security situation. In view of this, and against the background of recent events, the Prime Minister has indicated that he proposes to invite the four leaders to a meeting with both of us to concentrate on that issue. This will ensure that at the highest levels of government we can hear directly from political leaders who understand and represent the views of the people in Northern Ireland who inevitably have borne the brunt of recent events.

The security situation in Northern Ireland is a matter for serious concern; but it is not, and will not be allowed to get, out of control. That is my conviction and that of the Chief Constable. As the Chief Constable said yesterday, a number of new anti-terrorist measures have recently been introduced in Belfast. The House may be assured that, in the discharge of their responsibilities for security in Northern Ireland, the Government and the security forces will take whatever further measures are judged to be necessary and effective.

Mr. Kevin McNamara: (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends I express our sympathy to those who have been so grievously bereaved of loved ones or who have been injured during the events of the past week.

This was a week which was to start with so much confidence and hope. There was the visit of the President of the Republic to cross-community groups in Belfast and the great demonstration organised by the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to demonstrate its revulsion at the Tyrone killings. Those hopes have been apparently dashed by yesterday's and Monday's events.

While I have been in Belfast over the past few days, people have been numbed by the atrocities, and their grief amounts to almost complete despair. It is therefore important that we reiterate in this House the statement of the Chief Constable that security is not out of control. There have been considerable successes. Those who would deny that can only give joy to the terrorists and undermine the confidence of the public in the security forces in the difficult task which they are carrying out on behalf of us all on both these islands.

Equally, it must be realised that there is no easy answer to this problem. Short of bringing the whole of Belfast to a complete stop, which, together with the introduction of internment is the terrorists' aim, no security system can guarantee 100 per cent. protection. Even if those events were to come about, there would be no certainty against the maverick killer and the random sectarian assassin.

For the Chief Constable and his forces it is a long haul. but in the end it is one that must and will prevail. We must not underestimate or underplay the successes that they have had.

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the Chief Constable has all the resources of men, women and materials that he feels are necessary for him and his force to carry out their difficult task? Can he tell us that, if any further reinforcements are needed from the Army, they will be immediately provided? As to the Secretary of State's contribution to achieving confidence in the security forces and the rule of law, will he take an early opportunity to make a full statement on the Nelson affair to this House?

The statement a few weeks ago following the right hon. Gentleman's talks with the party leaders—that the talks were basically to be put on ice—caused great disappointment not only in this island but more particularly in Northern Ireland. When the Prime Minister meets him and the leaders of the constitutional parties—and I trust that they will accept the invitation that they have heard this afternoon—will he ask them to reconsider their position with regard to the political talks as well as considering the important problem of security, which he announced as being the main item of discussion? We must bear in mind that the problem of security is tied up with the political problems, that those problems will be with us now and after the election and that the people of Ireland themselves must ultimately resolve them. To that extent, our election, although important for us all, is irrelevant to the present troubles in Northern Ireland.

The dead bear witness to the failure of the political process. Terrorists divide the community by fear. Constitutional politicians can, by their actions, bind those wounds. Those politicians from Northern Ireland have an awesome responsibility. It is for those of us who represent parties on this island to encourage them, and we should encourage them to grasp now the invitation that has been given to them by the Secretary of State to meet the Prime Minister. I trust that they will accept it and that it will be not just to security but also to political matters that they will turn their attention.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his expression of sympathy on behalf of the Opposition. I am sure that the whole House appreciates his reminder of the constructive developments which have taken place in Belfast since the start of the year, and which appear in the foreground against the terrible backdrop that I have described. I am grateful to him as well, and I believe that the whole House is, for his reiteration of the Chief Constable's view about the state of affairs in the Province and his recognition that we, like the Chief Constable, are talking about a long haul.

The hon. Gentleman asked me four specific questions. The first related to the resources available to the Chief Constable. Of course, there is continuing dialogue between ourselves and the Royal Ulster Constabulary about the resources necessary for it. I can state with confidence from this Dispatch Box that there is no gap between ourselves and the RUC in terms of such resources.

In terms of reinforcements being immediately available on the military side, I should remind the House that on seven separate occasions in the past 14 months the number of troops in the Province has been augmented in different ways. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is present today, has always been responsive to propositions which I have put to him.

On the Nelson affair and the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that I should make a statement on it, he knows that there is not an inclination in the House to go widely into matters of an intelligence nature and that they are best dealt with in more confidential circumstances. I of course give him an assurance that lessons to be learned from the Nelson affair will be learned and acted upon.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the proposed meeting between the Prime Minister and the leaders of the political parties and expressed his hope that the Prime Minister would ask them to reconsider getting back into talks. Those of us who have been engaged in such conversations in the past have shown mutual respect in recognising the realities with which each party has to deal. I have no doubt that the conversation that we have with the Prime Minster will be wide-ranging and I share with the hon. Gentleman the view that dialogue is all to the good. I salute and thank the leaders of the political parties for having always been ready in the course of the past two years to engage in dialogue both with me and, after appropriate negotiations, with each other.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I know the great interest in the House in this matter, but we have an important debate in front of us and I shall have, in any event, to put a limit on speeches. I will allow questions to go on until 4.40 pm, when we must move on. I hope that if questions are brief I shall be able to call all hon. Members.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

I beg my right hon. Friend not to underrate the seriousness of the present situation. The Province is quite close to sliding into civil war between the communities, and if that happens the security forces will find it difficult to hold the ring between them. I ask my right hon. Friend one simple question. Is it a fact that the intelligence community—the security forces—know the identity of the godfathers who are promoting terrorism? If so, what is the valid reason for not interning them?

Mr. Brooke

My right hon. Friend asked me not to underrate the seriousness of the present situation. Those who have followed recent events have all been fully seized of the seriousness of the situation today. There is always a hazard, as in other matters, that, in terms of a borderline, coolness may be mistaken for complacency. I give my right hon. Friend the absolute assurance that nobody on the Treasury Bench is in the remotest bit complacent about those matters. Equally, it is important that members of the Treasury Bench, like the community in Northern Ireland, should keep their nerve when confronted by such events.

As to the intelligence community and the knowledge of those engaged in terrorism, of course it is the case that a significant number of those engaged in terrorism are known to the security forces. It is also worth remarking that between 40 per cent. and 50 per cent. of those charged with terrorist crimes have no previous terrorist traces. On the culminating part of my right hon. Friend's question, internment is an option on the statute book available to the Government, but, as my right hon. Friend knows, we do not say more about it than that, since in any case its principal virtue is that of surprise.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Cabinet Committee that supervised and eventually approved the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement asked the chiefs of staff and the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to counter the inevitable violence that was inspired by the then Prime Minister, when she used those awful words at Hillsborough, on the signing of the agreement: I entered into this agreement because I was not prepared to tolerate a situation of continuing violence. Six years on from that partial surrender to violence, and in the light of the remarks of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), does the Secretary of State agree that that fatal signal by the former Prime Minister must be reversed? That must be done in political terms. Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore agree that the Prime Minister's invitation to Northern Ireland party leaders might pave the way to the restoration of political and constitutional stability in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Brooke

The right hon. Gentleman raises matters which go back over six or seven years and which the House has frequently debated. I know the strength of feeling that relates to them, but I would not accept at this Dispatch Box the strictures that the right hon. Gentleman made about my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) in her discharge of the premiership of this land in relation to Northern Ireland affairs.

As to the meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I strongly take the view myself that only good can come of it in terms of a mutuality of understanding of the realities by all those involved.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Will the Secretary of State reaffirm to the House today that for more than 20 years no local politician has had any responsibility whatsoever for security measures, or how the security forces work, in Northern Ireland? The House took those responsibilities away from the Stormont Government, saying, "We are well able to handle the situation. We will show you how it is to be done." For 20 years, that has been done, and there is the impasse that we have at present. Will the Secretary of State please exonerate Northern Ireland right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House who are blamed by other right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House for being responsible for something for which they have no responsibility? That must be made plain by the Secretary of State, to keep his credibility with the elected representatives of Northern Ireland.

Will the Secretary of State also tell us how many meetings he and his predecessors have had with the Dublin Government? We have been told in the House that, if the Dublin and British Governments met around the table and no longer shouted at each other, they could cure the situation in Northern Ireland. How many meetings has the right hon. Gentleman had, and has he achieved peace, stability or reconciliation? How could he do so when the entire Unionist population were ignored in the signing of the Anglo-Irish diktat?

I welcome the fact that at long last, after 20 years, a British Prime Minister has said, "I will meet the leaders; let us talk about the situation." That is at least one breakthrough. I trust that we shall introduce some realism, and will not accuse people who have no responsibility for security policy.

Mr. Brooke

In a formal sense, what the hon. Gentleman says about the responsibility of Northern Ireland Members, in the context of security, is perfectly correct. They exercise their proper representative right, in the House and elsewhere, in probing in the context of security policy, commenting on it and giving a lead within the community.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of blame. I believe that he may have been alluding in part to the fact that there have been moments when we have not engaged in direct dialogue. All who engaged in last year's talks recognised that the talks were not peace talks per se, but I believe that we all believed that they were constructive in intent, and I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his participation in them.

I meet the Government of the Republic in the intergovernmental conference under the agreement. My guess is that, in one way or another, I have had about a score of meetings in the two and a half years in which I have held my present office. Of course I recognise—it is self-evident, in terms of the overall position—that slow progress is being made in bringing terrorism to an end. I do not make too much of a point of this, because I recognise that it is not of itself a uniquely persuasive fact, but the weapons which Gaddafi provided to the IRA from the mid-1980s onwards have also played a very significant part in the course of the conflict since then.

Finally, let me thank the hon. Gentleman most warmly for what he said about the Prime Minister's initiative.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Let me offer my sympathy to all the families who have been bereaved in the recent past. May I, on behalf of my party leader, respond very positively and very quickly to the proposal for a meeting to be called by the Prime Minister? Our party leader will certainly be there, and we look forward to the dialogue.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the current difficulties with the whole process is the fact that, if the political process in the north of Ireland is singled out for blame for the failure of the talks, we are diminishing that political process, which must and should be nurtured? Should we not remember that it is the Government here, and every hon. Member in the House, who have had responsibility for affairs in the north of Ireland for the past 20 years, along with the Government and political parties in the Republic? Surely, if we are to secure peace and create a new stability, all those factors must work together.

May I almost demean myself by once again making a plea to the people who are organising violence in the north of Ireland? Will they have the moral and political courage to stand up and tell their followers that they are telling them one great lie, and that nothing will ever be achieved through violence except the suffering that they have heaped on Northern Ireland? Have they the courage to call it off? Have they the courage to end the suffering and violence? If not, the political process, as represented by all of us, will have to solve the problem.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about his party's response to the Prime Minister's initiative. I concur with him about the patience required in the political process of working one with another to solve the problems. With the exception of one problem that is created by the present election, we have, with time, among us and between us, been able to solve each of the problems that we have collectively been set. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the contribution that politics and the political process will make to bringing peace to Northern Ireland. I confirm absolutely that, if the terrorists believe that their objective will be secured by the means that they are using, they are hopelessly and wholly deluded.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

May I express sympathy for the relatives of those who have been murdered since the new year began? At this time of heartrending sadness, may I acquaint the Secretary of State with a poem written by a 14-year-old schoolboy who belongs to the legion of youth that has grown up in the shadow of terrorism and never known peace during their lives? The poem is entitled, "A prayer for the children". My young constituent, Neal Coey, declares, in reference to terrorists and terrorism: After all these years it has to cease. For the children's sake, leave us in peace. I think that everyone in the House will concur with the remarks of that schoolboy.

The Secretary of State is aware that I was excluded by him from the talks that he initiated, despite the fact that I frequently asked to be involved. I understand that I was excluded because it was felt that if I took part it would damage the Conservative opponent in my constituency, who had attacked not only the talks but the Government for initiating them.

Even though I have been excluded from the official invitation from No. 10 Downing street, I declare here and now that I am prepared to talk to any Northern Ireland constitutional politician, to go anywhere and to see anyone in Northern Ireland in the cause of peace and in the search for political progress and stability.

Mr. Brooke

The House will have been moved by the poem that the hon. Gentleman read out after expressing his sympathy to the families who have been bereaved. As a consequence of actions of my own, I have had considerable correspondence from across the Province in recent weeks and a moving feature of it has been the contributions from the very young and the very old, as well as others.

On the hon. Gentleman's non-participation in the recent talks, there was a faint element of a conspiracy theory in his suggestion as to how that might have come about. I endorse absolutely his willingness to make a constructive contribution whenever an opportunity is afforded.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

On behalf of my party, I join in the expressions of sympathy for the many families that have been bereaved in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. I welcome the invitation by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to all the constitutional parties to join in talks. Does the Secretary of State agree that ordinary people—non-politicians—in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland hope and expect that all the constitutional parties will join in those talks with genuine determination?

Does he agree that whatever sectarian differences remain, however strong, should disappear into the background, as against the great need to bring to an end the maniacal violence in Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that the long-term future of Northern Ireland depends on the rule of law—just laws, fairly enforced?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his sympathy. As for his expression of opinion within the wider polity, I have no doubt that he represents it correctly. There is a great fund of good will within the country towards the people of Northern Ireland and a desire to see matters resolved. I endorse absolutely his concluding remarks on the rule of law.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that at the moment, through no fault of his, there is a political vacuum, during which violence will continue and most probably increase? In the admirable talks, which we all support, will he ensure that it is made clear to political leaders in the Province that they can at least in part govern their Province, if they want, and that they might, for the sake of us all and for all electorates and communities in Northern Ireland, agree to talk about it sooner rather than later?

Mr. Brooke

As the talks in which we have latterly been engaged have taken place over the past couple of years but the violence stretches back more than 20 years, it would be a mistake to link vacuum and violence too closely. But my hon. Friend is right in believing that the efforts of constitutional politicians to make progress are inherently worth while, as we patently will not reach a conclusion, a settlement and a solution without those talks.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the response today of those who have spoken for the Unionist tradition has been deeply depressing? They almost said that the present situation is the inevitable product of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which is almost to justify it, and they use the present situation to justify their political project of seeking to get rid of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Will he join me in appealing to them to accept that there will be no progress unless they stop harking back to Stormont? Those were days of bigotry, discrimination and misuse of the security forces in Northern Ireland, which helps to explain the current crisis. We shall not progress unless they are willing to seek full equality and justice in Northern Ireland and to accept that the British and Irish Governments must co-operate if we are ever to achieve peace in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Brooke

I must say to the hon. Lady—I do so in the context of what we have been seeking to do among the constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland—that I am not sure that questioning, not necessarily in a complimentary manner, the motivation and objectives of other parties is the swiftest way to make progress. The willingness to participate in multistrand talks was wholly evidenced by the participation of the parties last year and their willingness to contemplate taking up the process with the same structures after the election.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I welcome the news of the proposed talks with the Prime Minister, but is my right hon. Friend leaving out of account the one agency which, more than any other, encourages terrorism in Northern Ireland—the constitutional claim of the Irish Republic over Northern Ireland? The IRA claims that it is simply doing by violence what the Irish constitution, according to the Supreme Court, says is a constitutional imperative. Surely the time has come for the British Government officially to approach the Irish Government and say, "Drop this criminal and impossible claim"?

Mr. Brooke

The response of the Irish Government to the Provisional IRA in connection with their constitution is patently a matter for that Government and not for me. I have indicated my attitude to articles 2 and 3 in the context of the matters which we are discussing. One encouraging feature of our progress last year was the absolute willingness of everyone concerned to see everything relevant on the table, including articles 2 and 3 of the constitution.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

It goes without saying that my party regrets every death from terrorism in Northern Ireland, irrespective of whence the violence comes. I am disappointed none the less that the Secretary of State did not have more to say about the security forces and the work they do so courageously in Northern Ireland in fighting terrorism. I am disappointed that he did not acknowledge that the off-duty policeman, to whom he referred in his statement, was mentally disturbed; that was not made clear. To fail to do so tends to besmirch the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Why in his statement did not the Secretary of State mention how he intends to deal with the command and control structure, the higher echelon, within the terrorist organisations, who for years have walked the streets of our towns with impunity, and who have carried out, organised and continue to organise the murders throughout the years? One of the young people who died during the last week was a constituent of mine. Yesterday evening, another, only by great personal courage, managed to save his own life.

The Secretary of State must join us in paying tribute to those who have withstood the violence. He must not try to distract people from those who are guilty of the violence by talking about what local politicians might do. My party leader will be delighted to meet him and the Prime Minister, but we cannot have the House and the public at large being led to believe that those of us who work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, with the vast majority of the population on both sides supporting us, are somehow to blame for what is the responsibility of a handful of self-appointed assassins whom the Government have not yet been able to take out of society.

Mr. Brooke

I welcome particularly the hon. Gentleman's condemnation of terrorism and of the consequences of terrorism, from whatever source it comes. The whole House will welcome the fact that he did that so unreservedly on behalf of his party.

Yesterday in the Province I alluded to the mental condition of the off-duty policeman. I said that that death too was a tragedy which embraced and encompassed us all, and that none of us could know what was in the mind of that young man when he went to the Sinn Fein advice centre.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to the security forces and the unremitting work which is done day in, day out, and night in, night out across the Province. In the heat of the moment earlier in the week, the hon. Gentleman referred to the Government as gutless in not being prepared to pursue internment. He might on reflection agree that all of us involved in Northern Ireland—whether in the security orces, as elected representatives, or even as Ministers—require a fair amount of intestinal fortitude in order to grapple with the problems with which we are faced. As to the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of internment, of which he is a powerful advocate, while I recognise that he thinks that it is a lack of guts which is causing it not to be brought in, other commentators who take a balanced view of the issue think that it might be reckless to embark on it. Both considerations need to be taken into account.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that there is no place in any civilised society for terrorism? Does he agree also that 25 deaths in 30 days represent a despicable line of deaths and sorrow in the Province? Does he also accept that many in the law-abiding community within the Province are fed up and frustrated with the statements that we will have security reviews and that there is no quick fix for security. Surely a community which has waited 22 years, begging for peace, cannot be blamed for looking for a quick fix.

Some silly people seek to give credence to the idea that the politicians are to blame. Do they not realise that they place politicians in Northern Ireland in greater danger of their lives than ever before from terrorist thugs? Very few hon. Members understand what it is like for people and their elected representatives to live day after day in the shadow of the bomb and the bullet. When we go out to do our ordinary constituency work, we realise that we may be blown to bits. Instead of listening to so-called platitudes, sympathy, lectures and gimmicks, is it not time that the people of Ulster got their basic British right—peace and the right to live?

Mr. Brooke

The whole House will join me in expressing to the hon. Gentleman sympathy because of outrages and atrocities which have been committed in his constituency and which have caused constituents of his to lose their lives. I recognise the intensity of the experience that the hon. Gentleman has had so often in going into homes which have been bereaved by the loss of the breadwinner or the son of the family, and the feeling that he must have, because, as his hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, he does not have direct responsibility for these matters and wonders how he can offer comfort against the security position. I have to reiterate from the Dispatch Box that the rule of law is critical to the eventual triumph over terrorism.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I am sorry that I have not been able to call all hon. Members who wish to speak. It will be legitimate to raise the subject again on the Army Bill which is to be debated next Thursday.