HL Deb 31 July 1972 vol 334 cc27-32

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I think your Lordships would wish me to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office. The Statement reads as follows:

"At 4 o'clock this morning the security forces in Northern Ireland moved in strength into a number of areas which have been used as bases for murder, intimidation and the destruction of property. Before these activities began, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State issued at 9.30 p.m. last night a general advice and warning to the population to assist the security forces and protect themselves by keeping off the streets.

"The operations met with little resistance, and I am glad to be able to tell the House that known casualties were in all the circumstances extremely light. Two civilians were killed and two injured. These were people who, in spite of the warning issued, were present on the streets in the early hours of the morning. It is a matter for great regret that there were any casualties at all, but it is a tribute both to the discipline and moderation of the troops and to the good sense of the population at large that these extensive operations were successfully carried out at so little cost.

"As a result of these operations all barricades, Protestant and Catholic, have either been removed or are being urgently taken down. The sole aim of the operations is to see that everyone in Northern Ireland enjoys the full protection of the law. Where such protection does not exist law-abiding people are exposed to such savagery as we saw on ' Bloody Friday ' in Belfast, and to brutal and indiscriminate murder, assault and intimidation. Our purpose is not to act against any section of the community but to protect all, and to restore as soon as possible the ordinary conditions of life.

"Last night's military operation was by no means an end in itself. There can be no military solution to the complex problems of Northern Ireland; but political representatives cannot hope to discuss the future openly and without fear if the rule of law is defined by any section of the community. Even today a bomb outrage at Claudy in Co. Londonderry has claimed a further six lives, thus underlying yet again the urgent need to free the population from the oppression of terror.

"The policy of Her Majesty's Government continues to rest, as it always has done, on two objectives; first, the restoration of peace and the destruction of the capacity of men of violence to terrorise the community; secondly, to engage in constructive discussion as to how the political, social and economic aspirations of the whole community can best be met."


My Lords, we are grateful to the Secretary of State for repeating that Statement and I will make only a few brief comments on it. First, in my view the Government and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have been entirely right in not taking this action earlier. It was because of the events of "Bloody Friday" that it became apparent to nearly everybody that the Army had no option but to take action of this kind. Although we have paid tribute to the moderation and discipline of the troops on many occasions, it was characteristic once again of the British Army that this operation was carried out with so few casualties and such little damage.

May I ask the noble Lord to say whether the unfortunate two civilians who were killed were innocent bystanders, who unwisely had come out despite the warning that had been given; and, secondly, whether further arrests are being made? Although the noble Lord may not be able to answer this question now, will any arrests be the subject of judicial action rather than simply of internment? It would be disastrous if we returned to the situation of having so many people locked up indefinitely without trial. Tempting though this may be, especially with known terrorists, it should now be possible to make charges against people. If arrests have been made, may I ask the noble Lord to say whether any have also been made of members of the U.D.A., many of whom have clearly been behaving illegally, although they have not been guilty of the appalling brutality which we have witnessed?


My Lords, I am not sure that I speak for all my colleagues on these Benches because I have not had time to consult them on this issue. However, I personally believe that the action which was taken by our troops this morning was absolutely justifiable and necessary. Noble Lords may recall that about 10 days ago I inquired whether, if the situation got worse, it might not be desirable to employ more heavily protected vehicles, not excluding tanks, for the protection of our soldiers in any operations we might undertake. It may be that tanks have not been employed, but certainly more heavily armoured vehicles have been used to protect our soldiers. I am pleased about that and I am glad to think that they may have been successful in reducing the barriers. Having said that, may I inform the noble Lord that I could not agree more with the Government when they say that they must now engage in constructive discussions on how the political, economic and social aspirations of the whole community can best be met, and I am sure that Mr. Whitelaw will do his best to keep the conversations on that subject going.


My Lords, nobody could complain about the reception which this Statement has received from the two noble Lords opposite. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked me about the casualties. The information I have about the two who were killed is that one was 19 and the other 16, and that one was apparently in possession of arms while the other was suspected of being a gunman. This is more obscure, however, because his body was not brought in by the Army. No doubt we shall learn more about him later. In fact, three rather than two people were wounded. One has been discharged and the other two are in hospital. So far as arrests are concerned, it is certainly the intention of my right honourable friend to use judicial procedures where-ever possible. He is as conscious as the noble Lord about the need to do that.

Further to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, about armoured vehicles, in view of the fact that a lot has been written about the use of tanks it might be of assistance if I were to make it clear that these are armoured bulldozers on a Centurion chassis. They are tracked vehicles and are the normal equipment of the British Army of the Rhine. They were taken from there for this purpose because, apart from anything else, they are obviously much more powerful. I am grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, said about the conduct of the Army. This operation reflects very great credit on the Army and I, having the honour and duty of being in political control of the Army, am very proud on this day to be associated with them.


My Lords, while welcoming what the Minister said in the latter part of his Statement, may I ask him whether he has been informed of the meeting which took place yesterday in Londonderry between representatives of the Ulster Defence Association and the official I.R.A. and which denounced the iniquitous bombing on "Bloody Friday"? Will the Government provide facilities for this common action on a non-sectarian basis by both sides at this time?


I have read—probably the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has read the same reports—in the newspapers about this meeting, though I have had no official indication of it. I will certainly bring what the noble Lord said to the attention of my right honourable friend.


My Lords, bearing in mind that the main purpose of this operation was, rightly, to prevent a recurrence of the appalling events of "Bloody Friday", may I ask the noble Lord to agree that it is alarming that a bombing should have taken place so soon after the Army moved in—this morning, as the noble Lord said? What grounds are there for thinking that the manufacture, stockpiling and use of these horrible weapons will have been prevented as a result of the occupation by the troops of the "No-go" areas? Is there any truth in the reports we saw last night on television that gunmen who were protected by the population in the "No-go" areas had already moved South before the troops moved in?


My Lords, as regards the last question which the noble Lord put, it is very difficult to say whether that has happened or not. There are two possibilities: one is that there was obviously some expectation that the Army was going to take some action in Northern Ireland and it may be that a number of the gunmen did escape across the border. There is nothing to stop them from doing it, as the noble Lord knows. The other explanation is that they may have seen that the Army was in considerable strength and decided to lie low. One of those two things was bound to happen and there was nothing very much that the Army could do about it.

The noble Lord is quite right when he suggested, as I think he was suggesting, that the occupation of the areas which the Army has entered will not of itself cure the problem. We have never suggested, either we on this side of the House or noble Lords opposite, that there was a purely military solution to this problem and, as I have said on a number of occasions in your Lordships' House, it is very easy for one man to plant a bomb and kill people, or for one man with a rifle to shoot a number of people in an evening. It would be quite wrong to suppose that what happened early this morning will put a stop to all that. But what one does hope very much is that the occupation by the Army of these areas will make it very much more difficult for those terrorists to operate with impunity.


My Lords, would the noble Lord bear in mind that the general reaction of people in this country will be, "And about time, too!"? And would he also recognise the fact, implicit in what has been done, that appeasement never pays?


My Lords, I think I would rather go along with the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and say that the policy of restraint and conciliation and the efforts to get a ceasefire, which the Government have followed ever since the initiative in March. have, though unsuccessful in reaching a ceasefire, made it possible to carry out the operation this morning without the casualties which all of us would have feared otherwise.