HL Deb 08 February 1973 vol 338 cc1148-51

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question of which I have given Her Majesty's Government Private Notice. The Question is as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the strike in Northern Ireland yesterday and the consequent security situation.


My Lords, I should like, in response to the noble Lord's Question, to repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is making now in reply to a Private Notice Question in another place. The reply is as follows: A one-day strike was called in Northern Ireland yesterday by various Protestant organisations. This particularly affected Belfast, where most of industry closed down, bus services were stopped, and electricity supplies were severely cut. There was widespread intimidation. In the course of the day there was a number of serious shooting incidents and riots. Some of these were inter-sectarian; in others the security forces came under fire from Catholic and Protestant gunmen. There were five deaths. Three were gunmen shot by the security forces, the fourth was a fireman on duty shot by a gunman, and the body was found of a civilian who had previously been abducted. Several civilians were injured and two soldiers were wounded, one of them very seriously. In East Belfast, some of the rioting was extremely violent. A mob of 1,200 wrecked a Catholic church and the priest's house. They were dispersed with baton rounds. Barricades were erected in a number of Protestant areas in Belfast by the U.D.A. and Tartan Gangs. In Belfast and elsewhere, the security forces arrested and are charging 68 people—18 for riotous behaviour, 31 for disorderly conduct, 10 for burglary, 5 with possession of explosives and weapons, and 4 for taking and driving away cars. I should like to pay tribute to the brave and strenuous efforts made yesterday by all members of the security forces to control the violence. By this morning, the situation had improved. Electricity supplies have been restored, and normal working has been resumed. All barricades have been removed. The responsibility for yesterday's catalogue of violence rests squarely on those who called the strike and should have appreciated the risks involved. My Lords, that terminates the reply from my right honourable friend.


My Lords we are grateful to the noble Earl for repeating a Statement, which can give none of us any satisfaction. We all once again regret the deaths, especially the death of a fireman. We shall be debating the Fire Services (Northern Ireland) Order in due course, and I think it is right to pay tribute, among the many tributes that have been paid, to the fire services who had to operate under the most extreme conditions—more extreme than is normal anywhere else.

I notice with some interest and regret the fact that the noble Earl specifically pinned the responsibility on the U.D.A., among the others. This presumably includes the I.R.A. on the Nationalist side. The extent to which the U.D.A. seem to be following along with the U.V.F. is very alarming—it is rather important to get these letters right, since I was wrongly reported on this. What was at one time a peaceful body is rapidly becoming less peaceful and may invite, as it has in fact done, action by the Secretary of State (and this partly triggered off the riots) to detain sonic of those who are now leading Ireland further and further over the brink—it is difficult to talk about being at the brink, because they are very nearly over the brink. There is something to be said for this in regard to the publication of these events. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has consistently opposed all strikes for political ends, and it is unfortunate that the media continue always to feature the more sensational extremist point of view. I hesitate to say that they actually organise the events, but certainly they have contributed to the picture. It is very unfortunate that the moderate voices, because they are less newsworthy, do not receive the publicity that someone like Mr. Tommy Herron gets on this.

The noble Earl mentioned that one particular mob who wrecked the Catholic church were dispersed with baton rounds. I am not clear what that means. None the less, it appears that the security forces did not arrive until a little late. I make no criticism at all of them. The military leadership are responsible even more than the Secretary of State for properly maintaining a cautious posture—not seeking to be provocative in areas where an occasional military presence may trigger action. It may well he that a less low posture may be necessary in the future in the way events have gone.

Finally, as we come up to the Border poll—and I will not repeat the criticisms that one has made in the past on this matter: so far as we know there is still going to be a Border poll—I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Government will see that all the forces necessary are available. It may be that rather soon we shall have to debate the Irish situation, which is getting to a point of such desperation that I believe neither the Government nor any of us at the moment knows what the answer is, and what the outcome is going to be.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition for the typically responsible attitude that he has taken in questioning us on this very serious Statement on this very serious situation. I should also like to endorse what he has said about the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It is certainly my understanding of the position that we owe a great debt to the trade union movement in Northern Ireland, on both sides of the sectarian fence, for the moderation they have shown. It is the view of my right honourable friend, and certainly the view of Her Majesty's Government, that we must continue to afford all support we can for those in the centre who are standing for moderate views and working towards some form of way out, some form of reconciliation.

So far as the question of the Armed Forces is concerned, I note what the noble Lord has said. The Armed Forces in the future, as in the past, will continue quite impartially to confront and deal with violence, from whichever side it comes, and with whatever degree of counter-force the situation demands. I note also what the noble Lord has said about a debate on this subject. I shall be glad to follow up that suggestion through the usual channels.


My Lords, while entirely agreeing with what has been said about the fire services, would my noble Leader care to say a word of approbation also about certain local authority workmen? I do not know whether he saw the television news the other night which referred to a bomb being placed in a petrol lorry. Before anybody could do anything (and presumably the tanker might have suddenly exploded) local authority workmen and lorry drivers brought in sand to spread all over the street. I am told that both in that instance and in demolition work the local authority workmen are repeatedly carrying out highly dangerous jobs.


My Lords, I gladly endorse what my noble friend has said, and the commendation he has paid, and likewise the commendation which the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition paid to the fire services. In so far as we feel horror and revulsion at these acts of violence in Northern Ireland, at the same time our admiration for the acts of courage one sees performed is equally great.