HC Deb 20 March 2000 vol 346 cc711-2
12. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

If he will make a statement on the Army's state of readiness in Northern Ireland in relation to the threat posed by the Real IRA. [113699]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland keep the security situation under constant review. We remain alert to the threat posed by dissident republicans and changes to the security profile are made as and when appropriate. The recently announced withdrawal of about 500 soldiers from Belfast to a rear base in Great Britain is one such adjustment. I would like to take this opportunity to commend, once again, all those who serve in Northern Ireland for their excellent performance in a most demanding role in support of the police.

Mr. Fabricant

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Did he note that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland evaded answering my question on Wednesday, when I asked him about the Real IRA's acquisition of shoulder-held rocket launchers—just as, incidentally, he managed to evade apologising to the Household Division? What steps is the Secretary of State for Defence taking to protect our service men in Northern Ireland, given that the Real IRA is acquiring weapons from the Balkans, including portable rocket launchers, and given that we now learn that people who have been released early from prison in Northern Ireland are joining the Real IRA?

Mr. Hoon

I have already made it clear that we regard the security situation in Northern Ireland to be of paramount importance. On the hon. Gentleman's specific observation, we obviously do all that we can to block the illegal import of weapons from whatever source and we work closely with the police in achieving that.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

While reviewing the overall security situation in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State take particular care when considering proposals for withdrawal of the Royal Navy Northern Ireland patrol vessels, which I understand have not yet been discussed with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider carefully the ability of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Customs and Excise to replicate the valuable work that those patrol vessels currently do?

Mr. Hoon

Again, we consider any proposals that might affect the security of Northern Ireland very carefully. However, I emphasise that it is ultimately the responsibility of the Chief Constable to determine the level of security that is required. He acts in consultation with the General Officer Commanding and makes appropriate recommendations.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

As the Secretary of State started, quite rightly, with fulsome praise for members of our armed forces who have served in Northern Ireland, will he tell us whether, when he heard the comments of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about chinless wonders serving in the Household Division, he contacted him and told him to apologise unequivocally? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has done so in his letter to the Major-General?

Mr. Hoon

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, conversations between Cabinet Ministers on a private matter should remain private. As he also knows, my right hon. Friend wrote an apology to the General Officer Commanding, London district of the Household Cavalry, and also expressed his regret publicly in the House.