HL Deb 11 September 1972 vol 335 cc17-24

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I will, with the leave of the House, make a Statement about the situation in Northern Ireland. Since the House went into recess on August 11 operations by the security forces against the terrorists in Northern Ireland have been maintained at a high level. In the period between Operation "Motorman" on July 31 and September 8, 127 persons have been brought before the courts and charged with offences related to terrorist activities. Arms finds have included 17 machine guns, 150 rifles, 108 pistols, 24,500 rounds of ammunition and approximately 7½ tons of explosives. There has in recent weeks been a reduction in the number of bombing incidents, although the security forces continue to suffer casualties from bombing and sniping attacks made directly on them.

But action against terrorism is not enough by itself, and at the same time Her Majesty's Government have pressed ahead with the preparations for a conference between the 25th and the 27th September which will discuss the future constitutional arrangements for the Province. At this conference the political Parties in Northern Ireland represented at Stormont will have the opportunity to express their considered views on the future of Northern Ireland. Her Majesty's Government are encouraged by the preparation, and publication, of proposals by some of the Parties. In addition, Her Majesty's Government have invited, and have received, a number of comments from other persons or organisations. It is the Government's intention to give the most careful examination to all of these comments and proposals.

Political progress is, however, threatened by incidents such as that which occurred last Thursday in the Shan-kill area of Belfast, in which a mobile patrol was confronted with a riotous crowd. The incident led to an exchange of fire in which two persons lost their lives. The circumstances of this incident are being investigated by the police with the full co-operation of the Service authorities, and the conclusions will be reported to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It is clear that incidents of this kind cannot do other than impede and obstruct progress towards the restoration of peaceful conditions in Northern Ireland.

Her Majesty's Government well understand the impact of three years of violence and terrorism, and the natural anxiety of people to protect themselves. If, however, the people of Northern Ireland, who have suffered so much, want to see the emergence of an orderly society, they must appreciate that this cannot be achieved so long as extreme factions in both communities persist in provocative behaviour and sectarian violence in the streets. The people of Great Britain know—and the people of Northern Ireland must realise it, too—that the lot of British soldiers, contending not only with sniping and bombing attacks but also with violent behaviour from opposing factions, including persons of all ages and both sexes, is a very hard one indeed. There can be no peace in Northern Ireland unless it is left to the properly constituted security forces to deal with violence and disorder from wherever it may come.

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, and indeed to the Leader of the House, for this Statement. I think it is most valuable that, while your Lordships are sitting, even if Members of another place are still enjoying a holiday, we should have reports on important matters; and this continues the practice of Her Majesty's Government in regard to Northern Ireland. I do not wish to comment at any great length because, in a sense, there is nothing very new in what the noble Lord has said, but I think it is fair to say that we receive with some feeling of relief the fact that the situation does not appear to have deteriorated since we last had a Statement. There have been some new developments, and once again the Army, as always, have borne the brunt. They have, for the most part, suffered the casualties; and, whatever particular incidents there may have been, they have shown a degree of discipline and self-control which I still believe could not have been equalled by any other Army. It is inevitable, when there is violence of this kind, that there should be incidents, although I do not know the detail of that in the Shankill area, and the tragedy of the civilians who were killed, about which there is to be an inquiry. One does not know the circumstances.

But in the light of the very large arms haul following Operation "Motorman", and of persons being brought before the courts and charged with offences, may I ask the noble Lord whether there have been further internments? I think there is general agreement that, one way or another, it would be far better that there should not be; and it was interesting to note the Unionist Party's proposals that internment should be abandoned and that some proper form of judicial procedure should be followed. If the noble Lord can tell us it would be interesting to know whether internment is going on. May I further ask him whether, if he has any further information on the prospects for this conference, he will give it to your Lordships before the House rises, bearing in mind that we all accept the extreme delicacy of what Mr. Whitelaw is attempting to do and that none of us would wish in any way to impede what he is doing, or make his task more difficult, and would only wish him luck in bringing about a successful conference?


My Lords—


My Lords, perhaps I might comment on those points before the noble Lord the Leader of the Liberal Party intervenes. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked whether it was right to say that there has been no deterioration in the situation in Northern Ireland since Operation "Motorman". The position has changed, and the most significant feature in many ways is the considerable decline in the number of bombing attacks, particularly against civilian targets. This in itself is an advance, but in other respects the situation is still far from satisfactory. The Secretary of State has not signed any internment orders, but he has detained a number of people under the powers of detention contained in the Special Powers Act. If I can make a further statement next week, and my noble friend the Leader of the House thinks it appropriate, I shall be happy to do so.


My Lords, I should like to endorse everything that was said by the noble Lord about the appalling difficulties in which the British forces find themselves in Northern Ireland and to endorse what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has said about how proud we are of the way they are behaving. May I ask whether the conference will be confined to matters of constitutional importance or whether the opportunity will be taken, having got the participants together, to see if it is not possible for them to use their influence on the irresponsible groups of militants, and particularly civilians (men, women and even children), which are emerging and bring pressure on these wings to stop the unfair attacks on the peace-keeping forces of the area?


My Lords, tributes have often been paid in this House to the Armed Forces and I can tell your Lordships that they are very much appreciated. I invariably pass them on to the G.O.C. and will certainly do so again in the case of the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Shackleton and Lord Byers. The leaders of the political Parties in Northern Ireland have a responsibility to try to use their influence in favour of moderation. Some of them, to their credit, have done so. But I would have some reservations about trying to adapt the conference for this purpose. It is essential from time to time to create an opportunity to enable people concerned with future constitutional arrangements to stand back from current events and think about the future pattern.


My Lords, in regard to what the noble Lord said about the possibility of distorting the purpose of the conference, might it not be worth while to consider getting agreement for a separate conference at a later stage on this subject of exerting pressure on all sides?


My Lords, I should like to bear that suggestion in mind. We are in touch on a regular basis with representatives of all the political Parties. The intimacy of contact between the Government, the political Parties and the politicians in Northern Ireland is of great advantage in this respect.


My Lords, could my noble friend say anything about the relationship between the Army and the Ulster Defence Association?


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, speaks with great knowledge and experience on matters concerning Northern Ireland. The Ulster Defence Regiment is a disciplined body of men under the command of the G.O.C. and subject to the authority of the Secretary of State for Defence. They carry out useful and important duties such as safeguarding police stations, searching vehicles and so on, relieving Army personnel of these duties.


My Lords, would the Minister be good enough to give a slightly more objective account of the situation by informing the House how many casualties, killed and wounded, the Armed Forces have suffered since " Motorman" and the number for a comparable period before that operation?


My Lords, with the leave of the House, the most appropriate way in which I could answer that question would be to circulate the information inHansard.


My Lords, would the noble Lord consider whether he could make a Statement next week on the outcome of the Prime Minister's discussion with Mr. Lynch in Munich?—because the situation of Mr. Lynch is now becoming dreadfully analogous to that in other countries where terrorist organisations are permitted to exist, to advertise themselves and give publicity to their activities with complete freedom. Is the noble Lord aware that many of us feel that these bloody murderers are receiving rather too much encouragement and help, both below the Border and from British Press and publicity?


My Lords, it would be inappropriate for me to make a statement on matters covered in the discussion between the Prime Minister and Mr. Lynch. These discussions took place on the basis of confidentiality; but I can tell the noble Lord that Her Majesty's Government maintain the closest possible contact with the Government of the Republic. They are well aware of the strength of feeling in the North about cross-Border raids and similar matters. We intend to maintain that contact.


My Lords, would my noble friend circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT not only the details of the casualties among the Armed Forces and the police force but also the number of casualties and the number who needed hospital attention among the civilian population of Northern Ireland in the last three years—women and children as well?


My Lords, I shall certainly see what information is available and over what period. If it does not correspond exactly with that for which the noble Lord has asked I will get in touch with him and say what statistics I can provide.


My Lords, could the Minister at this stage make any assessment of the extent to which, as is suggested in the Press, it is factual that international leaders of violence, disorder and terrorism are taking an increasing part in the guidance, at close range or at distant range, of these unfortunate operations in Ireland?


My Lords, I have no information to give the House on that to-day. We are having enough difficulty in dealing with the national leaders of violence.


My Lords, could the noble Lord say what nature of investigation will be carried out into the Shankill Road affair?—by which I mean to say, will the result of the investigation he made public? Secondly, does the Secretary of State intend to hold the conference even if the S.D.L.P. refuse to attend?


My Lords, there is an established complaints procedure which, if it establishes the possibility that a criminal offence has been committed, involves the papers being referred to the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions. It is then for him to decide whether any further action should be taken. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, who speaks with such knowledge on matters concerning Northern Ireland, will agree with me if I say it is important that the complaints procedure should not be abused and made the vehicle for advancing sectarian interests. As regards the attendance of the S.D.L.P. or any other Party which has been invited to the conference later this month, it is our strong hope that every Party that has been invited to attend will do so. That remains the position. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is meeting representatives of the S.D.L.P. to-morrow. But they must accept, as we have made plain to others, that nobody can expect to have a veto on the holding of this conference.


My Lords, is the Minister in a position to tell the House. as regards the large haul of arms made during Operation "Motorman", what proportion were made in Protestant and what in Catholic areas?


My Lords, the security forces search for arms wherever they believe they are to be found, no matter in what area. Since "Motorman", 14 machine guns, 136 rifles, 85 pistols, 36 shotguns, 18,000 rounds of ammunition, and over seven tons of explosive material have been found in predominantly Catholic areas. In Protestant areas the security forces have found 3 machine guns, 14 rifles, 23 pistols, 3 shotguns, 6,800 rounds of ammunition and 650 lb. of explosives.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, one question on procedure? Do I understand that in order to supply the information for which the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, has asked, and which I think the House would like to have, it is possible for the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, to circulate it, or should we not use the flexible procedure which we have by which a Question is put down to-day and, even though it does not appear on the Order Paper to-morrow, it can in fact be ans- wered to-morrow so that the answer appears at the same time, in which case Lord Wigg's Question could be translated formally into a Question for Written Answer?


My Lords, I think it would be very helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Wigg's Question could receive the wide publicity which it is possible to give by a Question for Written Answer. I understand that my noble friend Lord Windlesham is unlikely to have the information and be able to impart it to your Lordships to-morrow. Therefore it would be possible for the noble Lord to put down a Question for Written Answer and ensure wide circulation of the reply and the information.