HL Deb 31 January 1972 vol 327 cc515-9

3.50 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. The Statement reads as follows:

"The House will have heard with deep anxiety that a number of people were killed and injured in the course of disturbances in Londonderry yesterday.

"A march was organised in deliberate defiance of the legal order banning marches. The G.O.C. Northern Ireland has reported that at an appropriate point this march was stopped by the security forces and that those who were under the control of the organisers turned back. A large number of trouble-makers refused to accept the instructions of the march stewards and attacked the Army with stones, bottles, steel bars and canisters of CS. The Army met this assault with two water cannon, CS and rubber bullets only.

"The G.O.C. has further reported that when the Army advanced to make arrests among the trouble-makers they came under fire from a block of flats and other quarters. At this stage the members of the orderly, though illegal march, were no longer in the near vicinity. The Army returned the fire directed at them with aimed shots and inflicted a number of casualties on those who were attacking them with firearms and with bombs.

"In view of the statements which have been made which publicly dispute this account the Government have decided that it is right to set up an independent inquiry into the circumstances of the march and the incidents leading up to the casualties which resulted. We are urgently considering the most appropriate form and membership of such an inquiry and I will make a further statement to the House as soon as possible."


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating this Statement, even though it relates to perhaps one of the most tragic and shocking incidents that any of us can recall. I think my first remark must be to express our intense sympathy, which I am sure all noble Lords share, to the relatives of those who were killed and injured, and obviously I very much include the relatives of the soldiers who were wounded. It is a tragic coincidence that an officer who had been wounded some months ago died at about the same time.

I am sure that it would be quite inappropriate and inopportune for us to attempt to pass any judgment to-day. As the Government Statement makes clear, there are a number of pretty detailed reports in the Press and elsewhere which dispute some of the Statement. Since in any case we are to have a debate on Wednesday, and we are in the middle of a very important debate to-day, it would seem to me on two grounds inappropriate to attempt to press for any answers to-day. We and the House very much welcome the Inquiry. It is vital—and I am sure the Government will seek to achieve this—that it should be seen to be impartial, to establish exactly what did happen. I believe that speed is rather important, and, bearing in mind that the Scarman Inquiry is still not complete, I am wondering whether Lord Justice Scarman, who knows the situation well, might be asked to drop his other Inquiry and try to carry through this one quickly. However, that is a matter for the Government; I do not ask them to decide to-day.

We shall also want to know at some stage—and again I do not ask for an answer now—whether there was any particular policy decision which led to the troops, as I understand it, entering the Bogside, and how any such decision came to be taken. However, these are questions which the Inquiry will reveal. I am sure that, apart from expressing our deep anxiety and making the few points that I have made, it is better to leave the matter there to-day.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord. I should like to answer one question which he put, and that is whether there was any policy decision about troops entering the Bogside. This, of course, was an illegal march and it was up to the security forces to stop it at some point, and they decided to stop it where they did. In the event, they were attacked by these disorderly elements and they felt it necessary to go in and arrest some of them, and that is where the trouble took place. The noble Lord's other remarks will be borne in mind by Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I should like to associate my noble friends on these Benches with the sympathy expressed to the injured and the relatives of those killed and injured in all parts of the dispute, a sympathy ably expressed by Lord Shackleton and which I should have thought might well have been included in the Statement by the Home Secretary. It is important that there should be an Inquiry immediately and we very much welcome this. It is equally important that the Inquiry should be of such a nature that it is not open to any charges of partiality or whitewashing, and we will look forward with great interest and care to see what the composition and nature of the Inquiry will be.


My Lords, may I answer one thing the noble Lord said? He took the Government and the Home Secretary to task for not having said something about those wounded and killed. I must say that it is my information that some of those who were killed were some of the I.R.A. men who were shooting at the Army. It is very tragic that that should have happened and I am sorry indeed that they should have been so misguided as to do so, and I am very sorry indeed for their relatives.


My Lords, as one who comes from Northern Ireland, I should like to express very profound disquiet at these terrible happenings in Londonderry last night and also to express my sympathy with the relations of those who were killed and wounded. May I ask my noble friend if he has any idea as to what the civilian casualties were in these disturbances?


My Lords, I think the figures have been published in the papers, which so far as I know are accurate.


My Lords, as one who was in Londonderry yesterday, may I welcome the decision to have an independent Inquiry. May I ask the Minister this question? Will he see that at that independent Inquiry the widest possible invitation is given to witnesses? Is he aware that the situation yesterday was one of extraordinary chaos; that not only the Secretary but observers from the National Council of Civil Liberties were there; that while I did not take part in the march but did attempt to take part in a public meeting, with the knowledge of the Home Office? One could see only a part of what occurred, but those of us who were there were deeply concerned about what happened, and one had the unique experience at a public orderly meeting of having to fall on the ground because there was shooting over us. When those circumstances arise, is it not desirable that this Inquiry should include all of those who are able to give any evidence in the matter?


My Lords, everybody in the House will be very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, was unharmed, but I do not accept for one moment that anybody was shooting at him.


No, My Lords, I did not suggest it; I did not suggest that for a moment. I do not think that the Army fired at an orderly public meeting. All I am saying is that firing did take place over that meeting, and because of that I, and the others, at an ordinary peaceful meeting which was legal, had to fall on the ground in order to avoid the bullets that were fired.


My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord has cleared up that matter, because I think that left as it was there might have been a misunderstanding. With regard to the rest of what he said, of course in this sort of situation there is always considerable confusion; but I would ask your Lordships to remember that this march was illegal and was known by those who organised it to be illegal. Indeed, they were warned on Saturday morning of this by Army Headquarters, Northern Ireland, who emphasised the illegality of the march and the responsibility which rested on the organisers for any violence which resulted as a result of that march. I think it a very great pity that this march took place.


My Lords, may I just ask my noble friend whether it would be possible for the Government to urge the Press, in reporting these incidents, to exercise the very greatest restraint? On my way up here this morning, I happened to see a headline which said, "The Army attacks Bogside. Thirteen civilians killed" While that headline does not state anything that did not actually happen, it seems to imply that the Army made a deliberate attack without having been fired on themselves.


My Lords, I have enough trouble without being responsible for the Press.


My Lords, no doubt inadvertently, the noble Lord did not answer what I thought was the main point of my noble friend's question; namely, about those who would be able to give evidence.


My Lords, I beg the noble Lord's pardon. This is one of the matters about which we are now in urgent consultation, as to the terms of reference and composition of the Inquiry.