HL Deb 20 September 1972 vol 335 cc1131-4

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I will, with the leave of the House, make a Statement about the situation in Northern Ireland. Since my Statement last week the level of violence within Northern Ireland has not significantly changed. During that period there were 184 shooting incidents and 25 explosions. One soldier was killed and another died of wounds sustained some weeks ago; and 15 soldiers and eight policemen were injured during the same period. Seven civilians were killed and 98 others were hurt. This toll of human suffering and personal tragedy is intolerable and cannot be stated "without revulsion. The security forces have increased their pressure on the terrorists and during the last eight days some 28 persons have been charged with offences connected with terrorist activities.

Moreover, all those in positions of responsibility or leadership in Northern Ireland have a clear obligation to contribute towards an atmosphere in which political advances can be made. This responsibility extends beyond the elected representatives in the political Parties. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was heartened by the prompt and constructive reaction from trade union leaders and employers' organisations to the recent attempts by certain groups of workers to disrupt power supplies in Northern Ireland. Her Majesty's Government are determined to bring about the industrial regeneration of the Province and will be much aided in this by the reconstituted Economic Council which is now reviewing the current economic situation. At a meeting held at Stormont Castle last Friday members of the Council discussed prospects for employment and the range of financial inducements and facilities which are being provided to promote I industrial expansion and maintain employment. This vital work must not I be jeopardised by small groups of persons attempting through industrial action to hold the Northern Ireland community lo ransom for political ends.

The arrangements for the forthcoming Conference which is to be held in Darlington between September 25 and September 27 are proceeding and Her Majesty's Government have now received the acceptance of the Unionist Party, the Alliance Party and the Northern Ireland Labour Party, together with their detailed proposals for the future of Northern Ireland. This Conference is an essential part of the consultations in which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is engaged. The Government regret that certain political Parties have not so far responded to the invitation to attend the Conference or have said that certain conditions must be satisfied before they would be prepared to attend. The purpose of the Conference is to enable various groups of opinion to present proposals on the future of Northern Ireland and it is to no one's advantage that persons or political Parties who have something to contribute should seek to make conditions as the price of their attendance. At this critical moment in the shaping of the future of political institutions in Northern Ireland, my right honourable friend hopes that those concerned will reconsider their positions so that their voices may be heard. The door to the Conference is still open and will remain so.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord who I believe has flown specially from Northern Ireland to make this Statement. I assure him that we very much appreciate that. Bearing in mind the appeal of the Leader of the House, I do not propose to ask any questions because I, too, accept that we must get on with the debate that is to follow. We note with satisfaction the co-operation of employers' organisations, and the trade unions have always been a stable element. The fact that the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Alliance Party are participating is to be welcomed, and I echo the noble Lord's pleas that others who have so far refused to come to the conference table may change their minds, if not on this occasion then perhaps a little later. I am sure that the noble Lord and his right honourable friend are doing their utmost in this regard.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord for making this Statement and for the great trouble he has gone to make it. Very little can be said. It is almost unnecessary to say that we all deplore the callous bombing and shooting that is continuing. My Lords, may I ask, are we to imply from the Statement that the situation is in fact still very grim? As for the future it is, I think, clear that a political solution is the only real and hopeful one. I hope that this Conference will achieve a breakthrough. As there has been a certain amount of argument about the percentage of the population represented, could the noble Lord give very broadly an estimate as to how many will be represented by those who have accepted this invitation to the Conference?


My Lords, I am grateful for what both noble Lords have said and I shall reply briefly, as I am sure will be the wish of the House. I can say to both noble Lords that contact is maintained on a regular basis with all political Parties in Northern Ireland and that will continue to be the case whether or not the full range of political Parties decide to attend the Conference. It is very difficult to give an estimate, and it would be rather misleading to seek to do so, of what percentage of the population would or would not be represented. Our aim is to have the widest possible spread of interest so that people can put forward their ideas, hear what others have to say and have a general discussion about the most acceptable form of political institutions for Northern Ireland.


My Lords, may I as the noble Lord whether, in view of the fact that almost every device has been tried without success and in view, of the casualties suffered by the Army in Ulster, it would not be wise to withdraw the Army and leave the matter of law and order to the police? After all, the police in the past have been disliked by both sections in Ulster. It now appears as if the Army is in that position also. Why not leave it to the police to settle this matter? They might make as good a job of it as the Army.


My Lords, in making a suggestion of that sort one would have to estimate in a realistic way what the consequences of such action are likely to be. The noble Baroness, Lady Stocks, has a Question very much on those lines for answer on Friday and I understand that my noble friend the Secretary of State for Defence hopes to reply. Perhaps it would be appropriate to leave that matter until then.