HL Deb 11 June 1980 vol 410 cc448-51

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to make a Statement on the New Hebrides.

As your Lordships are aware, my noble friend Lord Trefgarne made a Statement to the House on 3rd June on current problems in the New Hebrides. He informed your Lordships that if no progress was made towards reconciliation then Britain and France would decide jointly on what further action to take. My honourable friend the Minister of State and I met M. Dijoud, the French Minister responsible for Overseas Territories, on 9th June as part of our continuing consultations on the situation in the Condominium.

Your Lordships will be aware that within the last 24 hours the security situation in the New Hebrides has deteriorated. I regret that last night on the island of Tanna, Alexis Yolou, an opposition political leader on the island, was killed. The exact circumstances of his death are not yet clear.

In order to maintain the joint commitments of the British and French Governments to preserve law and order and the territorial integrity of the New Hebrides, the French Government today sent a contingent of gendarmes from Noumea in New Caledonia to the New Hebrides. Her Majesty's Government are despatching to Vila one company of Royal Marines with a headquarters element and logistic support. This action by both Governments does not reflect any change in our determination to work jointly for a peaceful solution to the present problems.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for that Statement. It is perfectly clear now that the situation in the New Hebrides has seriously worsened since we raised the matter last week. There has been loss of life and extensive damage to property, and now another island, as some of us predicted last week—Tanna—has been added to Espiritu Santo, which has been taken over by Jimmy Stevens with the aid of this sinister American gambling syndicate which is backing him. The Government have now decided, with our French partners in the Condominium, to take action. It is police action and nothing like gunboat action, as was said last week, and in our view it should have been taken a bit earlier than before things got to this situation. However, we welcome the decision to send out gendarmes from the French contingent in New Caledonia. I imagine they will be on site in the New Hebrides by now. I should like to ask when the noble Lord expects the company of Royal Marines to arrive in the New Hebrides. We take it for granted, of course, that there will be the closest collaboration between the two contingents in doing what is necessary to restore law and order in the prospective new state.

May I ask the noble Lord for these assurances: that the date of independence —30th July—which has been agreed through the proper procedures will not be postponed because of the action of the insurgents, and that as the New Hebrides moves into independence on that date the two partners in the Condominium will ensure that Father Lini and the duly democratically elected Government of the new state—the present Government—will have sufficient forces to maintain law and order? They have none now on their own, of course. Secondly, will he give an assurance that the blockade, which I gather is effective on Santo, will not be raised at the continued pleas of Jimmy Stevens and his backers? There are signs that this blockade is having a certain effect, and backed by the police action which the noble Lord has announced today it may prove effective.

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, we, too, are very grateful to the noble Lord for giving us this Statement. We have great sympathy for him in the appalling situation which he has inherited from a number of Governments, even going back to the last Liberal Government. We appreciate the complexities of the situation. May I ask him whether he can tell us when the company of Royal Marines will reach Vila? Can he assure us that the gendarmes and marines who will be on Vila, which is not where the trouble is occurring, could, if necessary, be moved to where the trouble is occurring and that this would not be prevented by any Condominium disagreement? My last question is in a slightly different form from the one which the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, asked. I should like an assurance that independence will not be granted until we can hand over to Father Walter Lini an archipelago in which every island fully recognises the authority of the central Government.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, both the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, and the noble Lord, Lord McNair, asked me when the Royal Marine Commando company would arrive. I think they will arrive on Saturday. The French gendarmerie will arrive today on Vila. Both noble Lords also asked me about the date of independence. It is the intention of Her Majesty's Government and of the French Government to adhere to the date of 30th July, but obviously this must depend upon the circumstances; that goes without saying. But I very much hope that the circumstances will enable us to go ahead, and that by that time the situation in the Condominium will be such that we can stick to the original intentions.

The noble Lord, Lord McNair, asked me whether the commando could be moved to the place where it is needed. We shall of course make sure that there is transport for the company to be moved to wherever is necessary. We will very much bear in mind the other point about law and order which the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, raised.


My Lords, I have no desire to add in any way to the difficulties which this situation presents, but I would have hoped that the noble Lord and the Government would consider very carefully indeed the implications of postponing the announced date of independence. In particular, if there is any question of postponing they could consider whether this will not add encouragement to the action of Jimmy Stevens and the people acting with him—indeed, some of the elements in the New Hebrides itself; and also whether such action might not conduce to a similar disturbance in other archipelagian states already independent but not yet assured of consistent integrity in the area. I leave the thought with the noble Lord. I know that he has considered this and will continue to consider it. I believe that adhering to the date of independence is of great importance. Perhaps the noble Lord will look at the point I made about maintaining the blockade. There is evidence that the insurgents are desperately anxious for this to be raised and that is a reason why it should be kept going.


My Lords, I must beg the pardon of the noble Lord for not having answered that question. I hope that negotiations will shortly take place between the head of the New Hebrides Government, Father Lini, ourselves and Mr. Stevens. I hope it may be possible, as a result of those negotiations, to get further talks going. The precondition of that, naturally, would be the return to legality of the island of Santo, in which case the blockade obviously would be removed. I do not think that in other circumstances it is very likely to happen.

I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the date of independence. I do not want him to misunderstand me. What I was saying was that we would stick to it, and we hope that it will he all right, but I do not think that it would be proper for either the French Government or the British Government, if the situation were not all right, to hand over to independence islands in a state of insurrection.


My Lords, if the gendarmes are coming from Noumea can the Secretary of State tell us where the Royal Marines are coming from?


My Lords, I think that they are coming from this country.


My Lords is my noble friend aware that some of us, who over the years have been dealing with the problems of the old Hebrides, which sometimes have appeared to be never ending, wish him all success in dealing with this complex and difficult situation which has arisen in the New Hebrides?