HL Deb 11 March 1971 vol 316 cc191-6

4.4 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made in another place about Northern Ireland. It is as follows:

"In Belfast last night three soldiers of the Royal Highland Fusiliers were murdered in cold blood. They were off duty, unarmed and in civilian clothes. The crime was clearly deliberate and premeditated.

"I am sure the entire House will wish to register its condemnation of this appalling crime and deep sympathy with the relatives of the men who died at the hands of these evil forces.

"As I informed the House on February 15, the situation in Northern Ireland has recently changed to a more vicious form. The organised groups of armed terrorists have been stepping up their campaign of murder and violence. The security forces have been intensifying their campaign, not without success, I am sure the House would wish me to confirm once again that the Government will give all possible support to the security forces in carrying out their dangerous and distasteful duties and I am equally convinced that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people in Northern Ireland, to whatever community they may belong, equally join in condemning these brutal acts and in wishing to see the criminals brought to justice. Every effort will be made to see this is done. In addition, the General Officer Commanding is considering urgently whether any additional precautions are necessary in respect of movements of soldiers when off duty.

"I think it is important at the same time to remember that the aim of the terrorists is to destroy peace and order throughout the province. To this end, they are clearly trying to provoke the security forces into reprisals which would appear to be aimed not against the criminals but against large sections of the population. In this way they clearly would like to inflame relations between the Army and the public and to stoke up once again the sectarian violence on the streets which in recent months has shown hopeful signs of diminishing. The Government do not intend that they should succeed in this objective. The battle now joined against the terrorists will be fought with the utmost vigour and determination. It is a battle against a small minority of armed and ruthless men whose strength lies not so much in their numbers as in their wickedness."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for that Statement. I wonder what else one can say in regard to this terrible story. I am sure that the entire House agrees with what is said in the Statement and would wish to send the utmost sympathy to the families of these very young men. I wonder whether the noble Lord can give us any further information. I imagine that it is not yet known which particular group or section were responsible for this awful crime, but I am sure that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people in Northern Ireland—everybody except a minute handful of people, both in the North and in the South—regardless of community would condemn this crime.

I noted what the noble Lord said about the intention of the terrorists to inflame relations between the Army and the public. I am sure that the message that will go out from your Lordships' House is of admiration at the enormous and remarkable restraint of the troops. I believe that this is entirely characteristic of the British Army of to-day. In a way, the situation in Northern Ireland is becoming like the Aden situation. Here again I believe that there would be very few armies in the world who would not now be rampaging trying to carry out reprisals. I hope that the noble Lord will convey the strong feeling of sympathy and admiration that we feel on the restraint of the British Army.


My Lords, I am very grateful for what the noble Lord has said, and I will convey his remarks to those concerned. I agree with him wholeheartedly. Anybody who has been to Northern Ireland, and has seen how the Army is behaving, must be filled with admiration. The noble Lord said—and this is perfectly true—that it is only a tiny fraction of the people of Northern Ireland who would not be revolted by what was done last night. But one has to remember that there are large sections of the population who appear to be terrorised by these people. It is very important that the security forces should get information about these murderous thugs, about what they are proposing to do and what they are doing, as soon as possible; for if the security forces are not given the information they need it is going to take much longer than it otherwise would do to eradicate this terrorism. I hope that the people of Northern Ireland will give information when they know and see these murderous people on the streets, carrying weapons, or hiding in houses next door to them.

With regard to the other question, about who is responsible for this crime, it is too early to say. The Royal Ulster Constabulary are making a very thorough investigation into this affair, and I hope it will be possible to arrest those responsible and deal with them accordingly.


My Lords, we on these Benches would like fully to support what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has just said, and indeed what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. We want to join in the condemnation of this appallingly callous act and to associate ourselves with the clear sympathy which must be expressed to the relatives. I have no intention of pressing the Government on a matter of this kind. I am sure that they must rely on the judgment and advice of their professional advisers. I must say that when I was over there some time ago I was full of admiration, both for the troops and for the people who were advising the Government.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord.


My Lords, while deploring this terrible outrage, may I ask the noble Lord whether the Government have considered a suggestion that I ventured to make some weeks ago, in the form of a Question, in view of the fact that Mr. Jack Lynch and members of his Cabinet have condemned these outrages—and similar outrages have occurred before? Has he, and have the authorities in the South, been consulted with a view to obtaining useful information about the activities of the Provisionals, so as to enable our authorities, our troops and those responsible in Northern Ireland to deal with the situation more effectively?


Yes, my Lords. My right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has been in touch with the Government of Eire. I have no doubt that as a result of what happened last night he will ensure that there are more discussions on this subject. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, that this situation is going to be ended only when we have enough intelligence about who the people are, where they are coming from and how they are going from one place to the other. The suggestion the noble Lord makes is a very valuable one, which we have already followed up.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House whether he knows who was responsible for permitting the highly provocative Orangemen's march last week, when troops, who had been stood down only at 6 a.m. that day after three or four nights of dealing with non-stop rioting, had to be called out to protect that march that afternoon? And may that not have been one of the sparks that set off these frightful murders?


My Lords, I do not know who was responsible for it, without Notice, and I do not know whether that was one of the causes of this matter. I should rather doubt it. But I very much hope that those in Northern Ireland who are responsible for calling these marches will realise the strain they put on the Army and the dangers that are run by provocation of this kind.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he has any information as to what religious denomination the three young murdered soldiers belonged?


My Lords, I have not. Two of them came from Glasgow and one from Ayr. I am afraid I do not know of what religious denomination they were, and I doubt whether that had much to do with it.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that we are all feeling a sense of outrage at this horrible incident? In view of his own statement that the great majority of people in both Northern and Southern Ireland are opposed to this violence, may I ask him whether it is not possible to take some steps to mobilise that opinion in the Churches, in the trade union movement and among the groups of women who are standing between the sides—to mobilise it in such a way that it would have an influence upon events?


My Lords, I very much agree with what the noble Lord has said. As he will know, the Home Secretary, when he was over in Northern Ireland last week, saw the leaders of the Churches. Of course we wish to mobilise public opinion against this activity. That is the obvious and right thing to do. It has not been very easy in the past. I think there is a growing sign of revulsion among the people of Northern Ireland against outrages of this kind. I do not know whether any of your Lordships saw the television News last week which showed the lady in Londonderry in whose house a soldier died. One had only to see what happened then to realise how all decent people feel about these events. I hope that if any good can come out of this senseless business of last night, at least it will mobilise the people of Ulster into realising what is happening and will ensure that they give information to the security forces when they have it about what is happening.


My Lords, while wishing to avoid any possibility of thoughts of discipline in this most painful situation, but remembering that the noble Lord has just explained to us these terrible acts of terrorism in the North of Ireland, which he subsequently said were carried out by "murderous thugs", may I ask this? Since in so many other quarters terrorism has been described as "freedom fighting", would it be too much to ask the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition to assure us that there is no likelihood of any confusion as a result of so improper and wrong a description being used in this case?


My Lords, I think my noble friend is wrong in asking the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition any question. I thought we disposed of that matter for the time being last June. But I think it would be true to say that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and his Party have been four square with all three Parties in their attitude to what is happening in Northern Ireland. There is no conceivable Party issue in anything that is happening in Northern Ireland at the present time.