HC Deb 21 May 1992 vol 208 cc481-4
3. Mr. Bellingham

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he next expects a meeting of the intergovernmental conference to take place: and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Mates)

The two Governments announced at the last meeting of the intergovernmental conference on 27 April that, in order to allow further opportunity for political talks to take place, there would be no further meeting of the conference before the week beginning 27 July 1992.

Mr. Bellingham

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment, which was extremely good news. I can think of no one better qualified. Will he confirm that, despite the representations from the Irish Government. there are no plans to withdraw the 3rd battalion of the Parachute Regiment?

Mr. Mates

Yes, I can confirm that. The deployment of Army units in support of the RUC in Northern Ireland is a matter for the General Officer Commanding, but we shall seek to provide the maximum support with regiments of the British Army, which are provided by the Ministry of Defence to the GOC in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Maginnis

Is not the Minister frustrated and angered by the intergovernmental council and seven years of the Anglo-Irish Conference, which, we were told, would end frustration and create consensus? David Andrews, the Irish Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs, continues to indulge in megaphone diplomacy to the extent that he exacerbates problems. We know that we have difficulties, but he pours oil on the fire and embarrasses everyone who is working to bring a degree of nomality to the streets of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mates

I am certainly not frustrated by the process of the intergovernmental talks, but I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we set up the mechanism so that these difficulties could be examined and representations made in private. I further agree with the hon. Gentleman that, in these circumstances, megaphone diplomacy seldom helps.

Mr. Budgen

Would not constitutional progress in Northern Ireland be better advanced by setting up a proper system of local government so that issues such as metal windows could be decided by the people of Northern Ireland, rather than having grandiose schemes that pander to the impertinent interference of the Americans and of the citizens of the Republic in the affairs of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mates

All these matters, and others, are being discussed in the talks that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is holding with the political parties in Northern Ireland, and they can all be resolved if those talks are successful.

Mr. Mallon

Will the Minister of State confirm that recent events in Coalisland have been matters for discussion within the secretariat of the Anglo-Irish Conference? Will he assure the House that at the next meeting serious consideration will be given to those incidents—which include one soldier in the area losing both legs—and to the brutality and offensive behaviour of the Parachute Regiment towards members of the public? In the meantime, will he take steps to ensure that the Parachute Regiment is not allowed to act as a recruiting officer for the IRA in Coalisland or anywhere else in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mates

It is important to remember that there have been two separate incidents in Coalisland over the past 10 days. The first, which involved a bar, is now being investigated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the normal, proper way. Meanwhile, the commanding officer of the 3rd battalion of the Parachute Regiment has suspended one of his officers from duty. It is unusual for such a matter to be made public, and the fact that that happened is a measure of how seriously my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and I regard such matters. We are determined that the Army, acting in support of the RUC, will always keep within the law. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not wish to go further into the matter, because inquiries are proceeding.

In the second incident a group of soldiers from another regiment were set upon by a gang of thugs motivated by the IRA. Those are not my words but those of Father Dennis Faul, who condemned the attack. During the attack weapons were taken from the soldiers—one weapon is still missing—and it was in response to that incident that troops were deployed to restore the situation. I am as determined as the hon. Gentleman to keep all operations of the security forces within the law, but if the IRA stopped the terrorist attacks, there would be no need for our troops to be on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Wilkinson

I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend on his first day at the Dispatch Box. Will he make it clear to the Government of the Irish Republic that it is wholly unhelpful for their Foreign Minister to suggest which British regiments should be on the streets of Northern Ireland, and wholly offensive for the same Minister openly to criticise the Parachute Regiment? Will he make it clear to the Government of the Republic that the sooner they clear the IRA out of the South, the sooner British troops will be able to be withdrawn from the North.

Mr. Mates

I understand what my hon. Friend says about what was said in Dublin, but as I have said, it is best if such matters are kept for private discussion, and we have a mechanism for allowing that. It is not helpful to make such discussions public. My hon. Friend spoke about the Parachute Regiment. It is important to make it clear that although the incident last week in Coalisland involved the 3rd battalion of the Parachute Regiment, members of another battalion of the same regiment and their families have been living in Northern Ireland on a long tour for the past year and doing their job properly. It is certainly not for any foreign Government to dictate where and how troops should be deployed in Northern Ireland, but it is not a job for the Northern Ireland Office either; it is a job for the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. McNamara

I welcome the Minister of State to his new post as chief of staff to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as opposed to his previous position as chief of staff for the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—now the President of the Board of Trade. Can he assure the House that the Government are still committed to the principle of police primacy, and can he say what steps are being taken to ensure that the RUC retains effective control of security force operations—and especially that the deployment of troops should be under the overall control of the RUC? What steps have been taken to prevent a recurrence of incidents such as those that occurred recently in Coalisland?

Is the Minister aware that while, very properly, there can be no part of Northern Ireland where the rule of law does not run, nevertheless the Government, and especially the GOC, should pay attention to the sensitivities of local politicians, especially when they have advance warning from a person so distinguished in that regard as the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). They should pay a bit more attention to such matters. If they did there would be fewer opportunities for such incidents.

Mr. Mates

Yes, I can confirm the primacy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. That is well established and we will do nothing other than reinforce that policy. The GOC acts in support of the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and all the Army commanders down the line act in support of the respective police commanders. I should add that a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was present with the patrol during the first incident at Coalisland. Difficulties do arise, but he was there.