HL Deb 01 February 1973 vol 338 cc729-34

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I should like to repeat a Statement which has just been made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"Following the spate of sectarian killings towards the end of last year a Joint Task Force of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Royal Military Police was set up in December to investigate and prevent sectarian murders. In the first three weeks of January there was a marked decline in the number of murders and of murder attempts. Two people were murdered in this period, one Catholic and one Protestant. Bad as this was, it was a marked improvement, and much of the credit should be given to the Task Force, which was responsible for the arrest of three men who have been charged with three murders committed last year.

"However, there has now been a fresh and appalling wave of murders. During the last four days five people have been murdered, one of them a mere boy, and there have also been cases of attempted murder. And now this morning at about 8 o'clock a grenade was thrown in Kingsway Park on the East side of Belfast at a bus which was carrying men to their work in Dundonald. One man was killed and nine others injured, of whom three are still in hospital.

"On behalf of Her Majesty's Government I would like to express deep regret and extend our sympathy to the families of those killed and injured in these recent bestial incidents. Every effort is being made by the security forces to apprehend those responsible for these crimes. Since January 1, sixteen people have been charged with ten murders. A massive security operation has been carried out to-day by the security forces in the area in which the bus was attacked, and is still going on."


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement, and I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is unable to be present. I should like first to echo the sympathy expressed to the families for what the noble Viscount has rightly described as "bestial incidents". It is almost impossible to imagine what sort of people could commit these recent crimes.

We have consistently supported the Secretary of State, and indeed all those forces of law and order in Northern Ireland. There are just a few questions that I should like to ask. First, how far have the U.D.A., as well as the U.D.F., possibly some connection with these killings? We have heard the statement made recently by Mr. Heron, that they would no longer seek to control these assassination attempts; and of course against this background there is a suspicion that these forces may be going more extremist. It is not for me to interpret, and I recognise that the Government may feel hesitant in doing so. None the less, I think it is right to say that there has been some acceptance of responsibility for bombing, although I think that it is the U.D.F. who have in fact done it. No doubt the Government are looking closely to see whether there is a link of this kind. On the other side, it is noteworthy that some of those who sympathise with the Nationalist forces—the Social Democratic and Labour Party—have now been asking for firmer action against such assassinations. I could only wish that they had all given firmer support to the security forces on other occasions. It is as a consequence of this appalling train of events that these things have occurred.

There are two other questions that I should like to ask. First, would not the Government, who are in grave difficulties in this matter, as we all appreciate, do better to get on and publish the White Paper at this moment? Almost any new movement might perhaps change the atmosphere, although I appreciate that the Government may think that it might change it for the worse. But they have to face this at some stage. Then there is the suggestion that even legally held weapons ought to be called in, even if subsequently they have to be reissued to those who need them. My Lords, I think there is little that we in this House can do, beyond expressing sympathy and hoping that the security forces are successful in their efforts. And it is to be noted that a number of prosecutions for murder are taking place.


My Lords, since the people in Northern Ireland seem to be reverting in considerable numbers to the level of the beast, might not the Government perhaps now consider the introduction of some kind of martial law whereby anyone found in possession of an unauthorised lethal weapon would be automatically condemned to a long spell of imprisonment? Secondly, can the Minister say how many of the fifteen people charged with nine murders recently are Catholic and how many are Protestant?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, for echoing what I believe to be the reaction of the whole House to these recent events and sharing the sympathy of us all with those who have been deprived of their relatives.

As to the noble Lord's particular questions, I am a little hesitant to go far into the question of the involvement of some of the Protestant organisations. For one thing, I personally do not know at first hand what the situation is, although it is perfectly true that recently a very large number of articles of ammunition and weapons and explosives have been found in Protestant areas. In precisely whose hands, or the hands of what organisation they are, I do not know. We, of course, keep permanently under supervision and under control the situation as regards both the Protestants and the Catholics, and there is no differentiation between the care with which we investigate offences against the one as opposed to the other sort of community. This fact cannot be stressed too much.

As for the White Paper, I know that this is urgently under preparation at the moment. I am afraid that I do not know when it is going to be published, but the question of legally held weapons is one that has been raised from time to time and I know how concerned people are. My right honourable friend is also very concerned about this matter, and he has in the forefront of his mind the question of deciding what should be done(and, if anything, when) on the question of calling them in. But I do not think he has yet made any decision. If he does, we shall soon hear about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, asked about martial law. I do not think one needs martial law in Northern Ireland to attract a pretty severe sentence for carrying illegal weapons. I should have thought that, without any question, anybody found with weapons in the sort of circumstances that the noble Lord had in mind would very soon find himself serving an extremely long term of imprisonment or suffering some other form of penalty. With regard to the numbers of Catholics and Protestants, the figures that I have show that there were 15 Protestants charged with the murder of 7 Roman Catholics and 2 Protestants in January and December. What the religion of the 16th was I am not sure, but 15 were Protestants.


My Lords, would my noble friend ask his right honourable friend the Secretary of State to have conveyed to the task force to which he referred, and to the security forces generally, the very warm appreciation of their efforts of both Houses of Parliament and our constant support in what they are trying to do?


My Lords, it must be a very great comfort to the security forces in Northern Ireland—and I do not mean just the task force which is mentioned in this Statement but also the Army, the Special Branch and the police, and all those concerned—that they should have the consistent support and congratulation of my noble friend Lord Oakshott and many other noble Lords in this House and of Members in another place, and I shall gladly do what he asks.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister a question arising out of his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Shackle-ton? I know that I am treading on very delicate ground, but can he assure the House that, or ask his noble friend Lord Windlesham whether, the information in the possession of the Special Branch in Northern Ireland about the activities and organisation of the Ulster Volunteer Force is approximately—and I mean only approximately—as good as that on the I.R.A.? I ask this question because my colleagues and I in 1969 were not satisfied on that point.


My Lords, the question of the calibre of information about any particular sector of the population in Northern Ireland is rather a delicate one. I entirely understand the anxiety that lies behind the noble Lord's question. I would rather not say anything about it, but I will certainly pass on to my noble friend Lord Windlesham the fact that the noble Lord has raised this matter specifically in the House this afternoon.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say in respect of how many sectarian murders someone has been charged during the last two or three months? This is the point that particularly worries people. They do not hear —and perhaps it is their fault—how many people are identified.


My Lords, 130 people have been murdered and so far 24 people have been charged since last May, including the 16 I mentioned earlier. But some of those charged are alleged to have been involved in more than one of the murders. So we are beginning to get results; and the results have greatly increased in the last two months.