HL Deb 17 May 1976 vol 370 cc1179-88

3.38 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION and SCIENCE (Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Northern Ireland in answer to a Private Notice Question by Mr. Airey Neave. The Statement is as follows:

"The past three days have seen a series of particularly brutal incidents in Northern Ireland. Since Saturday morning, five policemen and eight civilians have been killed. In addition, over 50 people, including three policemen and a five-year old girl, were injured, some very seriously.

"The first incident occurred in the early morning of 15th May. Three policemen were killed and a fourth was seriously injured by an explosive device in the follow-up to an earlier shooting incident near the police station at Belcoo in County Fermanagh. Later on Saturday there were a number of bombing attacks against public houses in Belfast and Counties Armagh and Tyrone which resulted in the deaths of five civilians and 48 injured. The most serious attacks occurred in the Avenue Bar in Belfast, when two people were killed and 22 injured, and Clancy's Bar in the village of Charlemont in County Armagh where three people were killed and 14 injured.

" On Saturday evening, a policeman was killed and two others injured when their patrol car was ambushed near Warrenpoint in County Down. On Sunday evening an off duty full-time member of the RUC Reserve was shot dead at his home at Benburd in County Tyrone. This morning two men were shot dead at their business premises in Moy in County Tyrone.

" The House will join me in expressing sympathy to the relatives of those who have been murdered in this latest spate of senseless killing, and in paying tribute to the five members of the RUC who have so gallantly laid down their lives in the service of the whole community. Their sacrifices will not be in vain.

" Let me assure the House that the cold blooded murders of policemen and the crimes of sectarian gangsters will not deflect the Government or the Security Forces from our course in Northern Ireland. We are determined that the rule of law will prevail and that those who commit these brutal acts will be brought to justice. Despite these cowardly attacks the morale and determination of the RUC is high. They deserve the unstinted support of the whole community and of this House.

" The Secretary of State had a meeting this morning with the GOC, Lieutenant-General Sir David House and the Chief Constable, Mr. Kenneth Newman. The Secretary of State agreed that the increasing effectiveness of the police represents a continuing process towards a long-term objective and cannot be achieved hastily. The core of the policy is to secure the conviction of terrorists through the use of the criminal law in the courts. The process cannot be based on some arithmetical equation involving an automatic and simultaneous reduction in the number of soldiers as the strength of the RUC increases. The roles of the Army and the RUC complement one another. Both are needed. The RUC is not intended to be, and will not be, a paramilitary force. The details of the changes are still the subject of study by a Government Working Party, but the essential objective is clear; to make the RUC still more effective in its proper role of law enforcement.

" Whatever they may claim, the real reason why the leaders of the PIRA have ordered attacks on members of the RUC is that they have no policy other than violence. They fear the success which the RUC arc already having in bringing their members to justice.

" The events of the weekend have demonstrated once again how the PIRA's actions bring down retaliation in the minority community whom they claim, but are powerless, to protect. Retaliation itself is equally abhorrent. We condemn it, as we have always condemned violence from whatever source it comes."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord will realise that I have had this Statement in my hands for only a few minutes. Our first thought must be one of grief at the death of so many innocent people and sympathy with the relatives who stay behind to mourn them, and the sense of outrage at the wickedness of those concerned in bringing about those deaths and terrible injuries. I should also like to associate noble Lords on this side of the House with what has just been said about the sacrifice of the RUC officers, their continued high morale, and the abominable nature of the crimes and the wickedness of retaliation for them, which can only accentuate the bitterness which is already felt.

It is disturbing that either gang of murderers could still mount the operational strength necessary to commit crimes on this scale. I should like the Government to tell us, if they can, what they intend to do to contain this; and to be reassured about the equipment and training of the RUC, who obviously need every support that we can give them, and of their continued liaison with the Army. I feel that these are matters which we may have to probe a little more deeply on a more suitable occasion. I should also like to ask the Government a question which I should like to formulate in this way. Those who actually commit these crimes are not always the most guilty. There are people behind them who skulk in corners, the godfathers, you might say, of the murderers. Can they be identified and can they be brought to justice? If so, how?


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the Statement, and to join in the expressions of sympathy to the relatives, which I know is felt by everyone in your Lordships' House, and to associate noble Lords on these Benches with the tribute to the courage of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. We on these Benches think that the Government's basic policy in trying to combat the terrorism with the strongest possible affirmation of law and order by the use of the police and the courts as much as possible is absolutely the right one. But the whole question of not using the police as a paramilitary force, which I think is absolutely right, brings into question the role and the size of the Army. The only question I have to ask is whether the statement, in which the Secretary of State agreed that the core of the policy to secure the conviction of the terrorists by the use of the criminal law and the courts could not be based on some arithmetical appraisal involving an automatic and simultaneous reduction of the number of soldiers as the strength of the RUC increases, implies that there will not be any reduction in the military strength for the immediate future as long as this scale of murder and crime continues, and indeed whether the Government are considering the restoration of some greater military strength?


My Lords, may I first answer those two contributions. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for what he said, for his expression of grief and sympathy and outrage, which I think everybody in the House will share. He asked three questions about equipment and training, about liaison with the Army, and about the godfathers. Over the first two items I am entirely happy that the equipment and training is what the Army desire, ask for and get, and I believe that there is nothing held back from them at all.


My Lords, I was asking about the RUC's equipment.


Exactly the same, my Lords. The noble and learned Lord said that he was asking about the RUC's equipment. There is nothing held back from the RUC which they think they need, and this is a matter of weekly discussion between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, the General Officer Commanding, and Mr. Kenneth Newman, the Chief Constable. In so far as the RUC can show this group that they need something, I can assure noble Lords that they get it. Secondly, the liaison with the Army: my belief is that there is nothing to question here. It is totally effective, in so far as these things can be. On the third matter, we are up against a much more difficult problem. Of course the intelligence services would say they know there are people who are really the powers behind the actions which go on; but they cannot give proof which is enough for the Chief Constable to think that he, with the Director of Prosecutions, can act upon it. Here we do not wish to go away from the normal rules of law as maintained in this country, though it would be possible to do so. Personally, at this stage, I should be against it. I think there are people whom intelligence can identify but for whom it cannot provide enough proof for prosecution. As long as that situation remains I do not think we can do any more about it. However, this matter is under constant examination and I assure the noble and learned Lord that there is no weakness or lightheartedness about it; it is a problem which is taken extremely seriously.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, asked whether the question of an arithmetical equation between the reduction of troops and the reduction of crime could stand. The answer is that I do not think it can for a moment. The Secretary of State, in conjunction with the General Officer Commanding, has to deal with the situation week by week as it arises. The Secretary of State has made clear time and again that his intention is to withdraw troops and to increase the control of the RUC as and when it becomes possible, but I do not think that there can be an arithmetical equation which will deal with this.


My Lords, I find this a very sad day indeed because so many of those who were killed were killed in County Fermanagh and were not only my friends but also my protectors. I find it an emotionally difficult occasion when so many people are involved and one knows so much about the people concerned and their families. I wish to associate myself with the Government's conveying to the forces and especially to the Royal Ulster Constabulary our admiration of them; especially the RUC because for them it is 365 days and 365 nights a year, seven years running. It is that, which would sap the determination of any other body of men, which causes my admiration for them to be unlimited.

I am afraid that I must ask the Government to try to re-establish their will to win by some dramatic legislative effort or by some dramatic demonstration that that will to win exists, because in the population of Northern Ireland there is a feeling that a position exists in which the Government are willing to contain the terrorist situation at the moment. My noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone mentioned the question of the godfathers and the Minister said he felt that the legislation was sufficiently good to take care of those criminals. In a revolutionary situation we have to suspend certain freedoms. In the situation which we face in Northern Ireland, in my view the legislative attitude of this Parliament and Government has not been sufficiently strong to prove to the IRA that they cannot win. If one cannot use detention—and the Government have made it clear that they cannot—then in my view there must be some legislation to re-establish their determination to win and not to contain.

I was delighted to hear the Minister say that the RUC will not lack in a generous supply of equipment. At the present time the UDR is badly equipped and the noble Lord's colleague, Lord Winterbottom, said that the Government would be looking at the matter urgently. It is well known where those deficiencies are—they do not have to be looked for urgently—and the equipment has only to be provided. May I ask the noble Lord to see that it is provided? Further, we hear time and again that a review is going on. May we have the answer to that at once?

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord to accept that these brutal murders can have only one dominating effect on all of us, and that is to make us still more resolute in supporting and paying tribute to all those in that fine body, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, to the Army, the courts, magistrates and all who are risking their lives every day in the defence of law and order and in protecting the ordinarycitizens of Northern Ireland, the great majority of whom have only one wish, which is to follow their ordinary day's activities in peace and safety.


My Lords, I am most grateful for what has been said, particularly by the noble Viscount, Lord Amory; the resolution of the people concerned is extraordinary. This applies not only to the fighting services, the Army and RUC, but to the probation service, prison officers, some of whom have recently been murdered, Customs officers on the Border, and to everyone who is trying to maintain law and order in Northern Ireland. It is very widespread. I think they are absolutely undeterred by what is happening and I respect them very much indeed for it.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brooke-borough, was really opening a debate and this is not a suitable moment to reply. I would only say that certain freedoms have already been suspended in Northern Ireland and I should be very careful indeed before I suspended any more. However, this is something which is in everybody's mind as an ultimate possibility if we fail to achieve what we want without it. I am grateful for the general reception of this very tragic news. There is nothing good to be said about it except that we soldier on.


My Lords, I accept that this is not the occasion for a debate, but may I ask the Minister to answer the question put by my noble friend Lord Brookeborough about the equipment of the UDR? Some of us are worried about this. The matter was raised in the defence debate and a not very good answer was given and in the light of what is happening now it is most important that we should be reassured that the UDR will be properly equipped.


My Lords, I take the point fully and I will make the necessary inquiries; I am not equipped with the answer at the moment.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that noble Lords on this side of the House are as horrified at these detestable events as are any other noble Lords? Is it not obvious now that guerrilla warfare is not peculiar to Northern Ireland? It is happening throughout the world and our experience over the years has been that one can deal with guerrilla warfare not by military means but only through a political solution. I am well aware that a political solution is not easy to formulate and have accepted. Would it not be possible, however, to have a reappraisal of our political intentions (I speak entirely for myself in this matter) perhaps by re-establishing the Stormont Government and investing that Government—which I know would be a majority Government, not acceptable to everybody in Northern Ireland any more than our own Government in the United Kingdom is not acceptable to everybody—with full powers backed by the police and the military, who should not be withdrawn until a solution is achieved? Would this not be worth consideration? Is my noble friend aware that some years ago, when we had considerable difficulty of a similar character in Malaysia, it was resolved only by political methods? We sent General, now Field Marshal, Templer to Malaysia and he was able, almost solely by political means, to effect a solution? Would it not be worth Her Majesty's Government considering a reappraisal of the whole situation?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The answer is, of course, that it would be worth it and that is exactly what is being done at the moment. We have made initiative after initiative to get a political settlement and, in the recent arrangements which failed, we got somewhere near it. My noble friend must not think that because he is reading nothing about it, nothing is happening. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is continually discussing with political Parties and individuals the possibilities of some kind of political settlement. I agree with my noble friend that, in the end, that is what we have to go for and it is what we have really been going for over the last four years. I feel it is fair to say, however, that a political settlement, even if we had it tomorrow, would not stop violence. I do not feel it would have any immediate effect on the violence, but in the end I do not believe that we shall finish the violence without a political settlement. So, basically, I am in entire agreement with my noble friend and so, I believe, is my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, can the noble Lord give some undertaking that the co-operation between the Army of the Irish Republic and our Army in Ulster will be improved? It appears that there is no cross-border wireless link, and this would make an enormous difference in the event of terrorists crossing the border, which they often do. It would make the jobs of the authorities on both sides of the border—both of whom have exactly the same interest in stopping these vile happenings—much easier.


My Lords, all I can tell the noble Earl is that the situation has improved enormously. It is under constant revision and is looked at most closely by both sides. There are a number of difficulties which I do not propose to go into now, but the situation is a very great deal better than it was 18 months ago.


My Lords, I should like to associate myself with what my noble friend Lord Shinwell said and to say that we are all outraged by these abhorrent murders in Northern Ireland—the attacks on the RUC and the retaliatory attacks on the Catholics. What worries me is this. Interviews with leaders of the IRA and with leaders of the paramilitary organisations on the Loyalist side are published in the Press. I should like to ask whether it is not possible to make illegal membership of the organisations which carry out these barbarities, so that procedures can be taken without the kind of evidence for which the Minister asked Endorsing the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Shinwell that Stormont will have to be re-established, may I also ask whether the condition of re-establishment is not that there should be a basis of civil rights which would apply to whatever Government came into force in Northern Ireland?


My Lords, with the last point I entirely agree. We could not possibly have a devolved Government in Northern Ireland which did not have the backing of the people as a whole. That is really the point at issue. As regards the Press, they used to interview people like Al Capone and nobody could stop them. I do not feel that we should interfere with them. If they like to interview gangsters, they are allowed to do so. I do not believe there is anything further we can do about this except carry on as we are. I believe that attempts to repress this kind of activity almost invariably do more harm than good.