HC Deb 20 July 1993 vol 229 cc186-7
9. Mrs. Ann Winterton

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many service men have been killed or injured in the last 10 years while stationed in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Rifkind

In the 10-year period up to 31 December 1992, 145 service men were murdered in terrorist-related incidents in Northern Ireland; a further 1,573 were injured.

Mrs. Winterton

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that soldiers in Northern Ireland must make rapid, life-or-death decisions in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances? Inevitably, mistakes occur from time to time. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, when a genuine mistake is made, soldiers should not be subject to the threat of criminal proceedings? Will he and his colleagues examine the present law and ensure that soldiers fighting the brutal Irish Republican Army do not do so with one hand tied behind their backs?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There can be no doubting the courage and gallantry of so many soldiers in Northern Ireland. In 1992 alone, 356 awards were given for gallantry or meritorious conduct in Northern Ireland.

There have been occasions when individual soldiers have been charged with criminal offences. These are always difficult and sensitive issues, but I think that my hon. Friend would he the first to agree that our armed forces must operate under the same law of the land as the rest of the British public. It is for the courts to decide any case where a person, whether a civilian or a soldier, has broken the law of the land. The Army would be the first to insist that that should continue to be the case.

Mr. John D. Taylor

As many soldiers have been tragically killed along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—including, regrettably, another one this week—is the Secretary of State surprised at the astonishment felt in Northern Ireland at his statement last week that there is now great co-operation between the security forces on both sides of the border? If he is correct, when the British forces are under attack across the border, why do the Irish Army still refuse to speak or communicate with the British Army?

Mr. Rifkind

The remark that I made was that co-operation between the British and Irish Governments on battling against the Irish terrorist menace is better than it has ever been in the past. That is something about which the right hon. Gentleman will not disagree. The fact that he may point out, quite correctly, that there is still considerable scope for further progress is something on which we both can heartily agree.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

My right hon. and learned Friend knows well the determination of the British Army to eradicate terrorism. What talks is he having with the Northern Ireland Office to try to reduce the size of the British Army in Northern Ireland to its level of a few years ago? Will he insist that the British Army remains in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and locally raised defence forces in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Rifkind

The size of the Army contribution to Northern Ireland must depend on security considerations and on security considerations alone. I have no doubt that the defence of territory of the United Kingdom and its citizens must continue to be the first call on Her Majesty's armed forces. We will continue to discuss with the Northern Ireland Office whether there are ways of improving the use that is made of our armed forces in order to ensure that they, in co-operation with the RUC, can be as effective as possible in the battle against terrorism.