HL Deb 18 October 1972 vol 335 cc1821-8

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question of which I have given Private Notice—namely,

"To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on recent developments in Northern Ireland."


My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that the past few days have witnessed serious disturbances in Belfast. Last night there was more shooting at the security forces, mainly in Protestant areas. Sixty-eight shooting incidents involved the security forces, of which at least 40 occurred in Protestant areas. Nine soldiers were injured, two of them with gunshot wounds. Two R.U.C. constables were shot at and injured. Two civilians were found shot while seven other civilians were injured.

This was a continuation of the mounting lawlessness over the past few days, in which members of the Ulster Defence Association have taken a prominent part. Last night a meeting took place between the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the General Officer Commanding, with leaders of the U.D.A., at which it was made clear that this rioting and shooting in Protestant areas not only was illegal and destructive but was diverting the security forces at a time when progress was being made in countering the Provisional I.R.A.

The growth of Protestant violence, added to the continuing I.R.A. campaign, represents a new threat to the hopes for future peace in the Province. Your Lordships may be assured that the security forces will continue to resist, with the utmost determination and with complete impartiality, all those who resort to violence in order to further their own aims.

A Commission, under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, has already been announced to consider what new arrangements in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland might be made to deal more effectively with terrorist organisations. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has to-day appointed the other members of the Commission who are: Professor A. R. N. Cross; Mr. George Woodcock and Sir Kenneth Younger. The inquiry is an urgent one and the Commission intends to have its first meeting later this week.


My Lords. I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for that Statement. The Protestant backlash, for so long feared, is a quite appalling new development which has now manifested itself as a direct threat to the authority of the Government and the British Parliament. As always, our sympathy goes out both to the Ministers who are concerned with facing this new problem and to the British forces showing again their impartial and steadfast determination to do their duty under terribly worrying conditions.

The noble Lord may not perhaps be in a position to answer this question, because clearly this new threat in its present form is going to endanger the Government's timetable, but may I ask him whether it is correct that the Green Paper will be published shortly? I do not know whether the noble Lord can say when. Again, the last thing that any of us wish to do is to embarrass the Ministers who carry this responsibility, but would the noble Lord at least consider whether or not this does not bring into doubt the whole feasibility not merely of the plebiscite but also of the local government elections? Would he recognise that the moderate Parties, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, the Alliance Party, and indeed the S.D.L.P., may be hazarding the lives and security of any candidates they put up between these two terrifying extremes? May it not therefore be better to come to a final decision on dates of elections after the Government's proposals have been published? I have no doubt that the noble Lord has these matters very much in mind.

Would the noble Lord also agree that while a great deal of this violence is partly the violence of people who in certain situations are inclined to violence, some is partly due to fear? Has he considered, if this situation grows, what is really going to happen in the mixed population areas, where I think it is quite terrifying to contemplate what may develop? I still believe that the British Army alone stands against the most terrible threat to the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. As a Member of the Northern Irish Labour Party said to me, "It is our lives that will be at risk if the British Army is pulled out "—as may emerge in the end, although I would deplore it.

We are grateful for this announcement, about the setting up of the Commission, and we urge them to move as rapidly as possible in this difficult task. When they meet will they be considering not only the setting up of the courts but also any attendant, necessary rights that may need to be introduced? I have in mind my noble friend Lord Brockway's Bill of Rights. I did not support it, but as things are developing, while it may not be a Bill of Rights that is required, it will be important that any decisions that may be arrived at for trying terrorist offences, because the existing jury system cannot properly work, should have particular regard to the sort of individual rights to which we attach so much importance.


My Lords, the Government's aim is to press on with the publication of the Green Paper as quickly as possible. It will canvass a wide range of possibilities, and we feel that there should then be a period for further consultation and discussion before final proposals are framed. As to the timing of the local government elections, these have been set for December 6. They are the first local government elections for five years. They are the first ever to be held on the basis of one man-one vote with no property qualification. There are new boundaries, and votes at eighteen. These are important reforms, and it would be unfortunate if it were not possible to hold any elections. But the Secretary of State is, of course, continuing to keep the security situation under the very closest review.

The Commission will be meeting under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord. Lord Diplock. He has heard what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has had to say to-day, and it will be a matter for him how the members of the Commission conduct their inquiry. For myself, I would think that any Commission which included within its terms of reference the phrase: To consider what arrangements for the administration of justice in Northern Ireland could be made … would necessarily be concerned with defences and with individual human rights.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one further question? Can he say what would be the connection at the present time between the security forces and the Commission which is to be established under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord?


My Lords, there is no direct connection between the review that the Diplock Commission will be carrying out and the security forces at the present time. The security operations will, of course, be maintained. If the Commission decided to recommend changes in the administration of justice to deal more effectively with those responsible for organising terrorist activities, without necessarily carrying them out themselves, this might then mean that a number of people arrested by the security forces could more readily be brought to justice than is sometimes possible under present law.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that most sensible people in Northern Ireland on both sides of the religious line are most grateful to the British Army for their great, massive presence in Northern Ireland over the last three years? But for that presence, there would be bloody civil war raging over the whole of Ireland. Secondly, is the Minister aware that the reason why I suggested on Monday that it might be well to consider the postponement of the local government elections was that I hesitated to think of yet further burdens being imposed upon the security forces at that time?

May I finally ask the Minister whether he would give careful consideration to the varying suggestions? If the Government feel that they would like to have the voice of the sensible people of Northern Ireland rather than a report from a rifle or a blast from a bomb, would they consider the possibility of the local government election being run on the basis of a postal vote so that it would not be necessary for the general public to risk their lives by going to the polling booths?


My Lords, I recognise the constructive spirit in which the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, has spoken, and I should like to thank him for his tribute to the Army and for what he said about the burdens on the security forces. We gave considera- tion to the question of the local government elections being conducted by post, but the main difficulty is that there is no really satisfactory method of preventing it being used as a form of personation. The idea of conducting an entire election by post, whether in Great Britain or Northern Ireland, has never been regarded as practicable. We are well aware of the practical problems to which the noble Lord referred, and hope to meet some of the difficulties faced by voters in troubled areas by providing for advance voting at a number of centrally situated polling stations before the date on which the local election is held.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that all of us have the deepest sympathy with the noble Lord and the other Ministers for Northern Ireland in the terrible difficulties of the situation which have been made worse by the events of the last three days? Refraining from broader considerations which I hope we may be able to debate at an early date, may I ask one question supplementing what the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, have said about local elections? Is it likely that this situation will, in the Government's view, lead to the necessity for reinforcing the troops at present in Northern Ireland?


My Lords, the troop levels depend on the assessment by the G.O.C. of the number of Army personnel he requires to maintain the security of the Province. It has been arranged that there will be a minimum number of polling stations, many fewer than before, and the Chief Electoral Officer has already discussed the siting of these polling stations with the security forces. There will be police at all polling stations, supplemented by Army personnel wherever it is considered that polling stations call for additional security. The points raised by the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, and others are all matters very much in the Secretary of State's mind, but at the same time it is necessary to be aware of the advantages in holding local government elections for the first time in five years. If the security situation makes it impossible for voting to take place one must bear in mind that there will be other elections and other people who will be encouraged to use the same methods later on.


My Lords, if the Government were to accede to the request put forward by the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, regarding postal voting, it would set at great danger the lives of the people engaged in the postal service and responsible for the collection of letters. Their lives would be endangered just as much as those of other individuals in Northern Ireland while the crisis continues.


My Lords, that is something which would have to be borne in mind in considering any suggestion of the type made by the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine.


My Lords, would the noble Lord or the Government bear in mind that some units of our small Army are coming up for their fifth tour of duty, and that there is a limit to the length of time in which an Army even as good as ours can go on under the circumstances? In view of the increasing disenchantment of the security forces with the political situation, is it not time to withdraw our politicians and appoint a Templer?


My Lords, the Secretary of State's policy, despite all the difficulties, remains unchanged. I think it is the wish of Parliament, as it is of the Government, that it should remain unchanged. It is simple to state, but very hard to execute. It is to continue to try and reconcile the divided communities in Northern Ireland, while at the same time countering firmly terrorism and acts of violence. This task is made even more difficult by those who claim to be Loyalists while at the same time attacking the forces of the Crown.


My Lords, wil lthe noble Lord on his return convey to the troops in Northern Ireland the admiration of the whole of the House for their conduct in a most difficult task, and also convey to his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland our very good wishes in the very difficult task he has had to undertake?


My Lords, I will do so with the greatest of pleasure. I know that the noble Lord's tribute will be accepted with gratitude coming from the source that it does in this House to-day. I invariably pass on to the G.O.C. the tributes paid to the Armed Forces in this House and I know how much they are welcomed. I will also pass on to the Secretary of State the good wishes sent to him by an old friend from another place.


My Lords, in view of the difficulties which have been pointed out by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition and also by the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, of holding the local government elections, has the Minister given consideration to the possibility of holding the plebiscite before the local government elections, instead of the other way round?


My Lords, the most careful consideration was given to that point and the Secretary of State has said he would have liked to have been able to do it that way round. But legislation is required for the plebiscite. A Bill has to be presented and the assent of Parliament obtained. This cannot be done in the time available.


My Lords, in view of the religious difficulties, which we all recognise, can we assume that the Churches have lost all their power in trying to take the heat out of the situation?


My Lords, the conflict in Northern Ireland is not fundamentally a religious dispute. It is a conflict of two communities characterised by religious differences. The Church leaders have made a number of attempts to bring people together. Recently, for example, we saw throughout the Province a series of non-sectarian services of prayer for peace, to set an example to all those who belong to the various religious denominations.

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