HC Deb 28 March 1995 vol 257 cc809-10
1. Mr. Merchant

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he last visited Northern Ireland to discuss the current security situation; and if he will make a statement. [14624]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I visited Northern Ireland on 15 to 16 August 1994, when I met the General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland and his senior officers to discuss operational matters.

Mr. Merchant

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on being able to redeploy some troops out of Northern Ireland—an early dividend of the peace process. However, can he reassure the House that, whatever the results of troop redeployments, there will not be an overall reduction in the strength of the British Army?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I am happy to give such an unequivocal assurance. I can state categorically that, if the position in Northern Ireland were to permit further reductions in troop levels in Northern Ireland, that would not lead to any reductions in the size of the services. It would enable us to provide more time for training, create a position in which there was less pressure on our troops and enable them to have more time with their families.

Mr. Trimble

I urge the Secretary of State to proceed very cautiously in any rundown of troop levels in Northern Ireland, especially when there are so many uncertainties and while terrorist organisations remain in existence and continue to be active, as evidenced by the shooting in south Belfast at the weekend, by yet another savage beating-up in Strabane yesterday and by the attacks on the homes of five prison officers in my constituency last night. Those incidents demonstrate that the organisations are still there and that it is not enough to tackle the issue of decommissioning of weapons without dealing with the disbandment of the terrorists.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is right to advise caution. He can take comfort from the fact that it is now, about six months after the beginnings of the ceasefire, that we have withdrawn the first roulement battalion. Any further changes will be based on the operational and security advice of the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and of the General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if we err, we shall err on the side of caution, for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman states.

Lady Olga Maitland

I accept the decision to bring the battalions back to the mainland, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is essential that they must be on standby duty, and that we must have the facility to return them to Northern Ireland, should the need ever arise?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. The Drummadd roulement battalion, which we have withdrawn to the mainland, was one of two roulement battalions first deployed to Northern Ireland as recently as 1991 and 1992. My hon. Friend can assume that, if it were necessary to redeploy it back to Northern Ireland, that could happen very quickly indeed. The battalion that has been withdrawn was due to finish its tour in April 1995. The successor battalion continues to train on the basis that it might be required, and would be available to go if that were necessary.

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