HL Deb 03 March 1977 vol 380 cc741-6

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place in answer to a Private Notice Question on Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows: There has been a greater concentration in the last few days of violence against people in the business community. This is, sadly, not a new development, as there have been series of attacks on business people in the past. Her Majesty's Government regret these deaths. But I can assure the House that security measures are kept under constant review and are adjusted to deal with the changing patterns of violence". My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. The reason for this Private Notice Question is the considerable number of tragic murders committed in Northern Ireland during the last month, although I accept from the noble Lord that they are not a totally new development. The murders began with the shooting of Mr. Geoffrey Agate in Londonderry at the beginning of February, then there were further such murders during the month and within the last 10 days eight businessmen and policemen have been murdered in Northern Ireland. May I just ask the Government to accept that I am in no way trying to press the noble Lord to reveal any information which would be of use to the IRA; but the Northern Ireland Office, the Department which the noble Lord serves, has been reported in the Irish Times within the last few days as stating that special protection will be offered to leading personalities, and I think it is right to ask the Government whether they can enlarge on that statement. May I just add that, in asking that question, I would ask the Government to accept that we on these Benches will support the Government in any measures which they deem necessary to end this brutal wave of killings.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that response to the Statement. Certainly I can give him some information although, as he has accepted, it would not necessarily be sensible to reveal everything that is being done by the RUC and the Security Forces in Northern Ireland. But I can tell the noble Lord that a directive has been issued by the Deputy Chief Constable to all divisional commanders instructing them to mount additional mobile patrols, foot patrols and vehicle check points; to familiarise themselves with the homes of prominent members of the business community, and to pay these special attention; to offer advice to businessmen on measures they can take to protect themselves; and to call up reserve policemen as required. The directive will remain in force for as long as is considered necessary.


My Lords, I feel that this is a very grave moment in the history of Northern Ireland, and it would be wrong if I did not emphasise to the House the fact that at the present moment public opinion in Northern Ireland is really at a breaking point. It is extremely exercised; and I am going to ask the Government what would have happened here if these last four murders had occurred in London in the short period of time in which they have occurred in Northern Ireland. I believe that there would have been some dramatic and drastic action, and I think public opinion in Northern Ireland now requires some dramatic step to be taken.

Yesterday's murderers were teenagers. They were under 10 when the "Troubles" started. From that, it must be obvious to the Government that the present methods are not enough. I shall ask the Government this: can they not convince the terrorists that they will be caught, and, secondly, that the punishment will be sufficient to hurt? Even the Churchmen at the funerals of the victims are now calling for the reimposition of the death penalty, much though I, personally, and other people may dislike it. May I ask the Government whether they will seriously consider it, because what we are facing is the failure of the deterrent to deter? It may be all right to release an anarchist in England, but the battle is in the United Kingdom as a whole. Do the Government realise how much it undermines the firm statement made by the Secretary of State that there will be no amnesty for terrorists? Can they please do something to emphasise the fact that the Government are determined not to have an amnesty?

Finally, will the Government convey to the Security Forces the admiration of the whole House for their work, particularly the UDR and the RUC reserves? If society does not protect its population, then even peace loving people will take the law into their own hands. That is what we have to prevent.


My Lords, I certainly welcome the admiration of the House for the work of the Security Forces in Northern Ireland. It may be appropriate to remind ourselves of the very heavy casualties that the Security Forces have suffered over the past years in Northern Ireland when we are today discussing the series of brutal murders against the civilian population there. The noble Viscount asked what I thought would happen if a similar series of murders had taken place in this country, in Great Britain. I certainly believe that the Government would have reacted in exactly the way we react to the deaths of people in any part of the United Kingdom and in the same way as we are reacting to the brutal murders that have taken place in Northern Ireland.

As I said in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, this is not, unfortunately, a new development, although there have been a particularly large number of killings of this kind in recent days. I have to say to the noble Viscount that I do not think anyone can possibly say that there are any new sweeping measures which have not yet been tried which are likely to solve the problem in Northern Ireland. If there were, they would already have been tried. I would agree with the noble Viscount that the Security Forces are doing a fine job. This is something that we, as Ministers in Northern Ireland, constantly reiterate. They are apprehending the terrorists; they have been taken before the courts and tried and convicted in large numbers. We constantly reiterate the fact that the RUC, and the action they have taken, have our full support, and that the Army will remain in Northern Ireland as long as necessary to back up the RUC in the job they are doing. The most helpful thing, so far as that task is concerned, is that instead of casting doubts on the integrity of the statements every time the Government say this, everybody in Northern Ireland, for a change, will believe what is told to them endlessly and repeatedly and set about the job of backing us up.


My Lords, without seeking in any way to impugn the integrity either of the Government or of the noble Lord—for I am sure that the sympathy of the whole House will be with him and them—can one altogether avoid the impression that the policy of the Government at the moment is one of enforcing the law but without any political imagination at all? How long is this to go on? Does the noble Lord think that this policy of what I believe to be political drift is really paying a dividend? Does he not think that the time will have to come when the Government will have to take further steps to look at political change?


My Lords, I could not accept that the Government policy is a policy of drift. I accept that, as yet, it has not paid a dividend. The dividend that we all seek on both sides of the House is a devolved Government in Northern Ireland that is acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland. That is agreed policy between us. What, I believe, has been made clear by previous political initiatives taken by the United Kingdom Government is that it cannot be imposed on the people of Northern Ireland if the people there are not prepared to accept it. Our political initiative is to recognise that fact and to say to politicians and people of Northern Ireland: "In your hands lies your future. You must, at least, get to the stage where you are ready to talk to each other about some new political system in Northern Ireland to which both major Parties in this country have pledged themselves to and are committed to".


My Lords, while we all appreciate that these murders are deplorable and despicable, and while we are aware of the strain on the Security Forces, may I ask a question which puts the matter in a slightly different context; I think it is both political and psychological. Would the noble Lord agree that in the circumstances at the moment in Northern Ireland it would be unwise to act precipitately? For example, an increase in the size of the military forces at present might have the opposite of the desired effect. That is one of the difficulties under which any Government are working at present.


Certainly, my Lords, before taking any steps to change the existing security policy, the Government must be convinced that new measures will be effective. That is the important thing. The Government are not convinced that there are any new sweeping measures as yet untried which are likely to be more effective than the policy currently being pursued—which is being effective in as much as terrorists are being arrested, taken before the courts, convicted and sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.


My Lords, I do not want to prolong this. The noble Lord has said, as have other Ministers in successive Administrations, that the solution lies in the hands of the politicians in Northern Ireland. What I want to ask is this. Where is the forum at present available to those unfortunate people to find such a solution? When I was accusing the Government of a policy of drift, I was really asking the noble Lord whether we could not, apart from law enforcement measures, use a little more political imagination: because the present policy of waiting for somebody else to do something does not seem to be very successful.


My Lords, as one who spends most of the week in Northern Ireland, I would say that there are plenty of opportunities for the political Parties to get together and to exchange ideas. Recently, as the noble and learned Lord will know, all major political Parties in Northern Ireland had meetings with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Following that series of meetings, my right honourable friend said that it was clear to him that there was as yet not sufficient common ground between the Parties for real progress to be made. Once again, he made clear to the political Parties the grounds on which both major Parties in this country, indeed I believe all the main political Parties in this country, believed that a constitutional settlement would be desirable. While admitting that a great deal of movement has taken place, he enjoined the political Parties in Northern Ireland to move towards that; so the picture is not quite as dark as the noble and learned Lord is painting it. As soon as there is a real prospect for progress, the Government will be prepared to act in any way possible; but my right honourable friend at this moment is convinced that there is not sufficient common ground for that sort of initiative to be taken.