HL Deb 14 July 1972 vol 333 cc470-4

11.7 a.m.


My Lords, I will, with permission, repeat a Statement that is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It runs as follows :

" Yesterday afternoon a concerted attack was made on the Lenadoon Army post on the edge of the Andersonstown district in Belfast. This post, which had been under continuous attacks for the previous three days, is in an inter-face position and therefore important as a means of preventing sectarian conflict. During this attack some 400 rounds were fired at the post and a digger loaded with an explosive device was rolled down the hill at the post. The device exploded and there was damage to the post but, fortunately, no civilian or military casualties. It was clear that the post could not be maintained unless the area from which it was being attacked by gunmen was occupied. Accordingly the Army moved into the area in strength and are now dominating it.

"In the Divis Street flats area, Belfast, there was also an extensive gun battle last night. I am now informed that some 3,000 rounds were fired at security forces who fired 1,000 rounds in return. The Army are now occupying the Divis Street flats.

"I regret to inform the House that two soldiers were killed and three soldiers were wounded in these two operations. The Army believe that they hit 28 gunmen.

"There were here two considerable military operations of a clearly offensive character against the Army and endangering the lives of the residents of the areas, many of whose houses were hit by terrorist fire. Rocket launchers have also been used in the area by the terrorists for the first time. These greatly multiply the risks of damage and casualties. The Army, therefore, with my authority, responded by action to control the areas from which the attacks were launched and to protect themselves and the civil population. It is now clear that the civil population of these areas, and so the security forces, have become he objects of deliberate terrorist attack of a character avowed by the terrorists to be of ' the utmost ferocity '.

"Her Majesty's Government's policy remains to seek to reconcile the differences of the two communities whilst acting with the greatest firmness against lawlessness and terrorism wherever it appears."


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that Statement. We are getting accustomed to these appalling Statements. I take it that the Army were expecting rocket launchers to appear. I do not know whether the noble Lord can say where they come from. Are they the Katyusha type of rockets which were used in Aden and for which there are certain measures, like wire fences, that will make them explode? This is an appalling thought, because these are weapons that are likely to kill many more people than those in the target area. I take it that it was one of the occasions when the Secretary of State felt that his policy of restraint, and of not at this moment going into "No-go" areas, could no longer apply ; because this was, as the noble Lord said, in an area where so many people's lives were at stake that the Army simply had to, so to speak, hold the line. Has he any information about arrests made in the course of the occupation of the Divis Street flats? The Secretary of State has shown great restraint in difficult circumstances and in the face of most severe criticis ; he has our support and admiration. Could the noble Lord confirm, as I take it his last sentence means, that the policy of avoiding direct confrontation in the areas where there is at the moment no Army presence remains?—though how long it will go on I do not know.


My Lords, we from these Benches wish to express our sympathy with the families of those who have died or been wounded in this most regrettable action. We express also full support for firm action against terrorism in defence of the Army and the civilian population.


My Lords, with regard to the question put by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, he is quite right that on this occasion the Secretary of State felt that not only because the military posts were involved, and at risk unless further action was taken, but also because these areas were in an area of interface between the Protestant and Catholic populations it was necessary to take some action. This does not mean that the Secretary of State's policy has in any way changed. I am afraid I cannot tell the noble Lord the number of arrests in the Divis Street area. We have known for some time that the I.R.A. have had these launchers; I do not know offhand what type they are. There is considerable escalation of violence when these are used. There is no doubt that the events of last night and of the past few days since the end of the cease-fire have shown violence of an unprecedented scale. It is a position of the utmost gravity. One can only hope that the people of Northern Ireland themselves realise how near they are to distaster and that they will take some steps to see that this situation is brought to an end.


My Lords, in view of the low conclusion to the Minister's Statement would it not be possible to encourage combined action by the very large moderate forces in Northern Ireland? There are the courageous deputations of women from Derry to the Provisionals, the S.D.L.P., the Northern Ireland Labour Party, the Alliance Party, the Catholic leaders and the Church leaders. Could not encouragement be given to them to act effectively to bring about a better situation?


My Lords, I think everybody would agree with the noble Lord. It was the success of the Government's policy and the measures which my right honourable friend took which led to the cease-fire of a fortnight or so ago. It was through the fact that he brought pressure to bear on the moderates, and that the moderates brought pressure to bear on the extremists that the cease-fire was brought about. Since the cease-fire has now ended it is difficult to see how the moderates could bring pressure on these people. Although one says in the comfort of your Lordships' House that the moderates should do something about it, it is not all that easy for moderate people to convince terrorists with guns that they must behave in a civilised fashion. One can only hope that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, who are sensible and do not wish this disaster to occur, will succeed by the overwhelming weight of public opinion in putting a stop to what is a critical situation.


My Lords, will the noble Lord say whether or not it is desirable to draw the attention of the people of Northen Ireland to this alarming new development of using rockets? When bombs have been used some notice has usually been given, so that the civilian population have had an opportunity to get away. They have no opportunity to get away from rockets.


My Lords. while it may be useful to draw the attention of noble Lords to the use of rocket launchers, I hardly think it necessary to draw the attention of the people of Northern Ireland to them.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware how grateful we are in Northern Ireland to the British Army for all the good work they have carried out since they were first called in aid of the Civil Power in August, 1969? Are the Government aware that, but for the action of the Army and the wonderful restraint they have shown, we should now have full-scale civil war in Northern Ireland? I should like noble Lords to realise how grateful we are.


My Lords, coming as it does from the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, that compliment to the Army and to the British generally is doubly welcome. I only wish that the population on both sides realised that without the British Army in Northern Ireland there would be no hope for anyone there.