HL Deb 21 July 1975 vol 363 cc30-6

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I will repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made in another place this afternoon. He said:

"I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a Statement.

"On Thursday, 10th July, in South Armagh near the border village of Forkhill, the Security Forces saw what appeared to be a suspect device possibly containing explosives. This was kept under observation until Thursday 17th July, when an Army patrol went to deal with it. As they approached, an explosive was detonated from a distance. Four soldiers were killed and one was seriously wounded. A man has been arrested and has appeared in court charged with murder. The House will join with me in expressing sympathy for the relatives of the dead and injured.

"The Crossmaglen Provisional IRA claimed responsibility. They have used the excuse that they were avenging the death in Bessbrook on 4th June of one of their members and the death of a man in Belfast on 13th July. These are specious justifications. In the Bess-brook incident a man was shot by the Security Forces while trying to throw a bomb into a crowded bar. The Crossmaglen Provisionals had set up their ambush at least three days before the Belfast incident.

"Overall there has been a substantial reduction in the violence attributable to the Provisional IRA. It has never ceased completely, and particularly in the South Armagh area shootings and booby traps have continued, although less frequently and less successfully. The Government are very conscious of the desire—indeed the longing—of the people of Northern Ireland from all parts of the community for peace and a return to normality. The Government have, therefore, responded sincerely to the reduction in activity by the Provisional IRA by a very substantial lowering of activity by the Army but without lowering its guard. In normal circumstances violence should be dealt with by the police, and by bringing criminals before the courts and not by detention. So far in 1975, the police have charged 640 persons with security type offences including 66 with murder and 59 with attempted murder. Already, as I have said, a man has been charged with the murder of one of the soldiers killed last Thursday.

"Accusations have been made of so-called Army harassment. I pay tribute to the good will and restraint shown by the Security Forces in carrying out our policy of maintaining a level of Security Forces activity related to the level of violence. They have done neither more nor less than this. They have my full support.

"As I have said before, I want an end to detention. But this will depend on the progress towards the cessation of violence and on the continued success of the police in bringing criminals before the courts. It will, however, clearly be necessary to retain for some time to come the power to detain people, and I will not hesitate to use this power if I am satisfied that it is needed.

"In the light of all these factors, I must under the law exercise my own judgment on releases. I have to make the judgment on each individual case balancing the right of the community to be protected against the right of the individual to his freedom. Decisions are difficult, but I will not shirk them. I do not know whether the Provisionals from Crossmaglen want to see detainees released, but I will not be deflected from what I think is right. The big questions I have to ask myself are: whether the leaders of the Provisional IRA are able to control their followers, for example, in South Armagh; whether such actions do not make the ceasefire meaningless; and whether they will not provoke reactions in retaliation against innocent Catholics. With every incident and each new Provisional statement such as the one they have made today, there is speculation about the end of the ceasefire or changes in government policy.

"The Government's policy is clear and has been explained fully in this House. It is that we are looking for a lasting and permanent peace and for a genuine and sustained cessation of violence which would create a new situation and make further progress possible on the basis of the statements I have made. The Provisional's political aims as restated today are well-known. Provisional Sinn Fein is free to pursue them by peaceful and legitimate means. I must make it clear that the Government have not entered into any agreement.

"I have already informed the House of the changing nature of violence in Northern Ireland in recent months. All those who engage in violence in Northern Ireland should be considering their position. The British Government want peace in Northern Ireland as do most of the people there. What is needed is a positive and continuing response from the Provisional IRA and from other groups involved."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the information contained in that Statement and I think it is right that the Statement has exposed the false claim of the Provisional IRA that this crime was intended to avenge the death of one of their members. Indeed, the premeditated nature of this crime was more than usually brutal. It is repellent to think of terrorists setting up a milk churn filled with explosives and surrounded, as I understand, by explosives and then leaving their dreadful refuse to claim its victims. Certainly we on this side of the House join with the Government in sending our sympathy to the families of the four soldiers who died in these circumstances.

My Lords, I have three questions which I should like to put to the noble Lord: first, how do the Government now set the future of the ceasefire which, after all, affects not only Northern Ireland but the whole of the United Kingdom? Of course, the level of violence has reduced since the ceasefire began and for this we are all thankful. However, as the Statement said, this is one of a series of terrorist acts which have been going on for three or four months. The Secretary of State has said in another place that the level of activity of the Security Forces will be related to the level of violence. Can the noble Lord give an undertaking that the Security Forces—both the Army and the police—will be enabled to spare no effort to prevent such actions and to seek out those who are guilty of crimes of this sort?

Secondly, it is inconceivable to me that this trap was not known about by quite a number of people locally. If I am right in that supposition, it means that the familiar evil of intimidation was part and parcel of the outrage. I very much welcome the news in the Statement that one capture has been effected and that the man concerned is to be charged before the courts with murder. However, may I ask whether it is right to understand from the Statement that, if others who are thought to be responsible are captured, and it is not found possible to get the necessary evidence to charge them before a court, the Secretary of State's current policy would not preclude detention proceedings being brought against such men?

Finally, may I ask a question about the Criminal Jurisdiction Bill? The village where the explosion occurred is very near the Border and, if the search becomes too hot, these terrorists may seek shelter in the Republic. It was precisely to prevent this that legal representatives from Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic agreed on a system of extra-territorial jurisdiction which has been put into the Bill which has gone through this House and is now in Committee in another place. When is this legislation to become law on both sides of the Irish Sea, so that terrorists of this sort can no longer easily evade the consequences of their heartless crimes?


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement and to express with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, sympathy for the relatives of the murdered men and to pay tribute to the Security Forces for their courage, perseverance and forbearance during a long and difficult period. I believe that all quarters of the House will support the Government in the attitude which they are taking, and will applaud their refusal to give way to any kind of blackmail. It is cheering to hear from the Statement that there appears to be considerable progress in the apprehension of possible criminals. That is something that will go a very long way towards solving the problem. We must hope that the Provisional IRA will heed the words of the Secretary of State. We should particularly like to express our support and sympathy for the very difficult job, and for the very difficult choices of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. We know that their burden must be very severe in these times. I feel that the Statement is self-explanatory. There are no questions that I want to ask, but I felt it right to express to the Government the support of noble Lords on these Benches in the task which they have to perform.


My Lords, may I also express thanks to the Minister for the Statement, and associate myself with the expressions of sympathy for the bereaved which we have heard? May I ask whether the Minister has any evidence that when, during the last three of four months, crimes such as we are discussing have been perpetrated and the criminals arrested, any of these men have been detained on some former occasion under the Emergency Powers Act?


I am grateful for the general support which my right honourable friend's Statement has received. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked me about the future of the ceasefire. I believe we cannot say too often that the ceasefire is a unilateral effort on the part of the Provisional IRA, to which my right honourable friend has repeatedly said he will respond according to the level of violence. He has also repeatedly said—and the statistics of the RUC's successes prove this—that this does not, and never could, involve holding back on the prosecution of crime. I feel that it is impossible to say more than that. We believe that the ceasefire has saved lives and, as long as it remains on the one side, we shall respond to it in exactly the way my right honourable friend has said; that is, according to the level of violence and the safety of the public.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, also asked whether, if people were arrested with very good evidence against them which could not be proved in court, my right honourable friend would revert to the practice of signing ICO's. The answer is that he actually says so in the Statement. Nobody wants to do this, but he is absolutely clear that if he can combat an increase in violence only by so doing, he will do so. His hands are in no way tied.

The Criminal Jurisdiction Bill is awaiting its Third Reading in another place, and we may take it as read that it will go through there as easily as it went through this House. The complementary Irish Bill is in Committee in the Senate at the moment. A good deal has been completed in Committee and it is worth noting that the Dublin Parliament have no system of losing Bills if they are uncompleted during a Parliament. So there is no immediate sign of failure there, though I hesitate to put a date on it. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, for what is said. I am trying to remember what the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, asked me: I am ashamed to say that I cannot read my own note.


My Lords, I asked whether the noble Lord had any evidence that the perpetrators of these crimes had been formerly detained for other crimes and then released.


My Lords, the answer at this moment is, No. But I will check this again and, if there is any change, write to the noble Viscount.

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