HL Deb 04 March 1986 vol 472 cc99-108

3.42 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the events in Northern Ireland yesterday.

"As the house will be aware, the leaders of the two main Unionist parties had called for a day of action and protest. They invited everybody to stay away from work and stated that it was to be a passive and voluntary demonstration and that there should be no roadblocks or intimidation of those going to work.

"In the event, there was widespread obstruction, intimidation and some violence during the day, culminating in serious disorder in East and North Belfast last night. The first incidents occurred before midnight on Sunday and disturbances continued until the early hours of this morning.

"In spite of these difficulties a very considerable number of people succeeded in getting to work, particularly in the commercial offices and public services, but many factories were seriously affected.

"I pay tribute to the determination of all those who refused to be intimidated and exercised their right to go to work. I also pay tribute to the men of the security forces and particularly the RUC for all the work that they did to seek to keep roads open for people to be able to get to work. However, there have also been a number of complaints when it is alleged that the police did not take action when it was required. The Chief Constable is preparing a full report on all the policing aspects of the past 24 hours. To give the House some indication of the scale of the workload that the RUC faced, on the latest information available there were some 655 roadblocks in the Province over the period, of which 441 were cleared. There were in addition some 80 cavalcades and demonstrations, which caused considerable disruption in a number of towns mainly around midday. There were 57 arrests and the names of 184 people noted to proceed by way of summons. Sixty-five plastic baton rounds were fired, and 47 policemen were injured. Last night there were a number of petrol bombs thrown, and there were over 20 shots fired in three firearm attacks on the police during the disturbances in the loyalist areas.

"The figures listed above give the details of a tragic day for Northern Ireland. Many Members will have seen some of the disgraceful incidents on television last night. These pictures have been shown all over the world and will do great damage to the reputation of the Province. The House will also have seen elected Members of this House making common cause with people in paramilitary dress.

"The Government are well aware of the strength of feeling among many Unionists about aspects of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The House will be aware that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and I met the right honourable Member for Lagan Valley and the member for North Antrim last Tuesday. During a long meeting my right honourable friend put forward a number of proposals to help meet their main concerns and agreed to consider positively their suggestions that the Government should call a round table conference to discuss devolution in Northern Ireland. It was agreed that we would all reflect on the various suggestions that had been made and would meet again shortly. The prospects of constructive discussions instead of confrontation were greeted with widespread relief in the Province, only for that to be destroyed by their abrupt repudiation of this course following a meeting in Belfast late that night. They then decided to proceed with the day of protest.

"The whole country can now see how tragic and totally counter-productive yesterday's action has been. It is now urgent that the Unionists' leaders recognise again that the only way in which the concerns of those they seek to represent can be addressed is by constructive discussion and not by threats and violence. The degree of intimidation evident yesterday showed how little confidence many of the organisers had in being able peacefully to persuade their fellow citizens to join their day of protest. I make it quite clear that this Government, this Parliament, will not be intimidated either by the sort of violent actions that took place yesterday. I believe that an increasing number of Unionists, while disliking many aspects of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, wish to look for a constructive way forward. The Government have made quite clear our willingness to sit down and discuss seriously the Unionists' concerns. In our parliamentary democracy, in this United Kindom, that can be the only way".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, we on this side of the House are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. I should also like to thank the noble Lord for the content of the Statement and to express our steadfast support for the Statement, amounting as it does to a condemnation of the events of yesterday and also amounting to a clear reaffirmation of the Government's commitment to the implementation of the Anglo-Irish treaty.

We deplore the violence, the injury to life, the damage to property and the intimidation and fear. Indeed, intimidation and fear can possibly be the worst form of violence. We agree with the Statement that yesterday's events will be shown to be counterproductive. However, on the other hand, we would not underestimate the significance of the one-day protest, although we do not know—indeed, there is no means of knowing—how voluntary was yesterday's protest. Nevertheless, it has cast a dark shadow across the Province and we agree with the Government's judgment that it was a tragic day for the Province.

One's hope must be that yesterday's protest does not indicate the end of one phase, which has failed, and the beginning of a more sinister phase in the negative campaign to bring down the treaty. Time alone will reveal its true significance.

Arising out of the Statement, there is only one question which I should like to ask the Minister, and it is this: is there any firm evidence implicating named individuals that yesterday's violence and intimidation were planned in advance? If there is such evidence, do the Government propose to institute criminal proceedings against the planners?

We are pleased that the chief constable proposes to hold an inquiry into all aspects of policing during the last 24 hours. It was a difficult exercise, but we are glad that he is holding an inquiry into any complaints that may be made. We are also glad that the Government have again offered to have talks with the leaders of the Unionist parties with a view to agreeing arrangements that would enable them to make their views known to the Government, and to consider how the Province can move towards a devolved government which would be received by the community of Northern Ireland.

Finally, in paying tribute to the bravery of the 34 police officers who were injured yesterday in the course of their duty may I also pay tribute to the bravery of all their colleagues in the RUC and to the members of the public who are exposed to growing intimidation and pressures but who nevertheless have shown their determination to go about their work and their lawful business.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord the Minister for repeating this Statement about the events which took place in Northern Ireland yesterday. It was a dark day for the Province, and may well be held to pressage tragedy. I am tired of reading in the press references to ugly activities by so-called loyalists. I was glad that at least The Times put the term in inverted commas, for although they may deceive themselves these thugs and hoodlums are loyal to no one.

We on these Benches wholeheartedly supported the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement, as of course did the Parliament at Westminster as a whole. It is tragic indeed that the very idea of reconciliation, of attempting to get on better terms with the minority in Ulster and the people of the Republic, seems only to arouse hatred and fear in the minds of some Unionists. The advantages which could accrue are ignored. We support the Government in their determination to stand firm.

There are just two questions I should like to ask the Minister. First, is he in a position to remind the House of what it has cost the taxpayer in Great Britain to support the people of Ulster over, say, the last five years, or whatever figures he has? While I think that there has been general acceptance that the people of the Province have been in exceptional need—and support also from the EEC confirms this—I suspect that the people on this side of the water will be rather less keen to support a people who deliberately make difficulties for themselves. Burning down factories is the work of an irresponsible minority, and is hardly the way to ease the already grave unemployment situation; and much more disruption of everyday business is forecast.

My second question follows the comments of the Statement. I believe that in many situations the RUC behaved with great courage. Who, they may well ask, are our friends? Our sincere thanks and admiration should go out to them. But there have indeed been reports that in some cases they stood passively by while bullying, blockade and general intimidation where fiercely carried out. Discretion may sometimes be the better part of valour, but to remain on the scene even though powerless may appear to give a sign of acceptance of evil deeds. We shall look forward to the results of the inquiry, but can the Minister comment further at present?

As I said earlier, we support the Government in their determination to stand firm. While the outlook is bleak we must support the many good and enlightened Ulstermen behind the scenes. We must make plain to the extremists our contempt and condemnation of their acts. Yesterday was, I believe, a sad and shameful day in the history of the Province. We must not allow its promoters to succeed in a way which can only lead Ulster into a desperate and even more depressed situation. It is vital that the Unionist leaders should in fact return to the conference table.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I should first like to thank both noble Lords who have spoken so far for their forthright support for the Government and, indeed, for the Anglo-Irish agreement. If I may try to cover the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, first, we are of course grateful for his reassertion that there can never be any excuse for violence. Secondly, of course he is absolutely right: yesterday was a tragedy for the Province. I pointed out in the Statement made by my right honourable friend that pictures in the media and in the printed form have gone all round the world showing what all of us know to be the unacceptable face of Ulster. However, those of your Lordships who have had the privilege—and have it still—of serving in Ulster know that hopefully that is a false picture. But, of course, there are no winners of any strike or of any events like those of yesterday. The only beneficiaries of yesterday's events were terrorists and the enemies of democracy and, I believe, one more important group—the competitors of Ulster in the commercial and trade world.

The noble Lord asked whether there was any firm evidence about planners of yesterday's events. I understand that a substantial number of people have already been arrested. As I stressed in the Statement, I understand that more have been given notice of summons. Of course, the noble Lord and your Lordships will be aware that decisions to prosecute are a matter, first of all, for the police and ultimately for the Director of Public Prosecutions, who is of course independent in the exercise of his reponsibilities. I am sure that all of them, the police and, indeed, the Director of Public Prosecutions, can be relied upon to do their duty, and especially in this aspect. I would wish to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. I think he had a figure of an earlier count of 34 policemen. I am sure he would appreciate that it is 47 policemen who have been treated for injuries.

We would also wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, and his party and supporters for their support for the Anglo-Irish agreement. I understand that the subsidy, or net payment, to Ulster this year—the figure I think he is looking for—is in the region of £1.5 billion. If I may, I shall take note of his question and obtain details and write to him. Once again, I reiterate to the noble Lord that there are no winners in yesterday's events.

The noble Lord had one query about the activities of the RUC yesterday. The scale of the problem which faced the police forces and, indeed, the security forces in Northern Ireland was evident from the figures I gave at the start of the Statement: 655 road blocks, of which 441 were cleared, throughout the Province. The chief constable has made it clear that any incidents of indifferent policing will be thoroughly investigated, and that is in addition to the report that he will be issuing in due course.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, may I first of all, without any reservation, condemn the action of yesterday, which was a disaster for Northern Ireland. I should be pleased if your Lordships would allow me to associate myself in the tribute to the RUC and the army. Their task has been immeasurably difficult. When their conduct is reported on, it will be shown that of the number of incidents that they handled there were very few at which anybody could point a finger.

Will my noble friend agree that yesterday's actions were totally predictable after the folly of the Government having the Anglo-Irish accord? Is my noble friend aware that a month before the signing of that agreement I spoke to my noble friend the Leader of the House and warned him and predicted exactly what would happen? Does he also agree that the accord is the direct result of 14 years of IRA violence and SDLP abstention? Can he understand that this surrender to violence has led to a section of the Unionist Party believing that violence pays and therefore leaving the cause of democracy? Does he also agree that far from the security situation being improved the strain on the security forces has been immeasurably increased by this Anglo-Irish accord? Will he ask the Secretary of State to approach the Dublin Government with a view to our Government and their Government jointly suspending the conference—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

No, no, my Lords.

Viscount Brookeborough

—temporarily suspending the conference, thereby enabling talks to take place?

4 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, of course all of us are grateful to have a voice from Northern Ireland, and, if I may say so, a voice from County Fermanagh, speaking in your Lordships' House this afternoon. I am sure that all of us would wish to join my noble friend, who is so involved in life in Northern Ireland, in his tributes to the security forces and to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I am afraid that I am not aware of any conversations that my noble friend had with my noble friend the Leader of the House. I am sure that my noble friend the Leader of the House will already have passed on to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State any of the points which the noble Viscount wished to raise.

I assure my noble friend Lord Brookeborough that there has been and will be no surrender to violence by this Government or, I trust, by any other. I note the comments that he wishes me to pass on to my right honourable friend, but there is no question of the suspension of the Anglo-Irish agreement. I think that my noble friend will be aware of the statements made both by the right honourable Member for Lagan Valley and by the honourable Member for North Antrim last Tuesday after a meeting of no less than one-and-a-half hours with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. Their talks, and the result of them, are borne out in the Statement that I made earlier.

My noble friend will observe that I said then—and I reiterate—that it was agreed at the meeting with my right honourable friend that we would all reflect on the various suggestions that had been made and would meet again shortly. I believe that the whole House will agree that that is more than reasonable. I shall pass on to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State everything that has been said in your Lordships' House. In the Government's view, there is no question that the agreement will be suspended.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, will the Minister confirm (it was not mentioned in the Statement although it is fairly well known) that the nationalist minority did not initiate or willingly take part in any of the disturbances yesterday? Futhermore, in the light of the fact that the loyalist paramilitary forces now appear to be greater than any others as a threat to the peace and security of the Province, will the Government consider proscribing them?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I said earlier that 184 people had been dealt with by the police and that summonses for proceedings have been taken out against that number. There has been a number of arrests as well. I do not have a break-down. I do not know who all those persons were or what was their persuasion. As to proscribing any organistion, I hope that indications have made clear that we intend to take firm action in relation to any organisation; but the question is not really one that I can answer this afternoon as it is far too complicated.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, may I as one who has for long supported the Unionist cause ask my noble friend whether the Government can do anything to convey to the leaders of the Unionists in Northern Ireland that they are rapidly losing all the goodwill which over many years has been built up on this side of the water?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for my noble friend's thoughts on our communications with the leaders of the Unionist Party. He could not have put the case better. I certainly could not have put it better. I am grateful to him for putting it just in this way. I am sure that he and your Lordships will agree that the main question is to try to re-establish communications with the leaders of the Unionist Party. We have made the offer and we hope that the offer still remains on the table.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I very much appreciate the content and the temper of the Statement that has been made. We are in a struggle to detach people from traditional loyalties, which is extremely difficult. Ministerial statements are made, but what additional steps are being taken by the Government to make clear to the population of Northern Ireland the extent of the damage that is being done economically to the Province? Are they being made aware of the impact of this in international competition for inward investment? Are they being made aware of the fact that people on this side of the water are becoming a little unhappy about continued subsidy to a country which shows little response? Has the experience of the withdrawal of United States subsidy from the Philippines and its consequences for the regime in that country any relevance in this situation, in so far as any indication is being given to the people of Northern Ireland that they are endangering the continued subsidy from the United Kingdom Government by behaviour of this type?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, we are grateful for the interest in this matter shown by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. His point has been reiterated, as I have stressed, and stress again, that the beneficiaries of yesterday's events were terrorists, enemies of democracy, and Ulster's commercial competitors. During the past week I have been seeing reports. I am sure that everybody in Northern Ireland cannot have been unaware of appeals from bodies such as the IDB and the chairman of Harland and Wolff and Shorts that events such as those which took place yesterday can only be of benefit to the commercial competitors of Northern Ireland and in the long run do immeasurable damage to job prospects in Northern Ireland. I am sure that everybody in Northern Ireland is aware of that. We just hope that they will take cognisance of it.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, if by any chance, which God forbid (because we must all hope that the Protestants will eventually see reason and accept the Anglo-Irish agreement), there would be what would amount to a rebellion in Northern Ireland, would the Government in the last resort and if necessary—I repeat, in the last resort and if necessary—be prepared to overcome such a rebellion by what would amount to the force of arms?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, the noble Lord is so much more experienced in the ways of diplomacy and in your Lordships' House than I am. I learnt, probably from the noble Lord, not to try to bet on a hypothesis. We take note of the strong feeling in your Lordships' House and of what the noble Lord said, but I should not want to comment on that today. I am grateful to him for the additional lesson.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, picking up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, is my noble friend prepared on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to forswear totally the use of the word "loyalist" as though it was synonymous with "Unionist"?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I think it is hardly within my province to forswear this. It is what people wish to call themselves. Perhaps it is a label. May we discuss this at a later stage with my noble friend? I shall certainly convey it to my right honourable friend, but I suspect that this label may be with us for a number of years yet.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, very warm tributes have been paid to the men of the Royal Ulster Constabulary by the noble Lord's honourable friend in his Statement, and those tributes have been echoed on all sides of your Lordships' House. I hope that it will be acceptable if, after a long connection with the RUC, I add my personal voice to those tributes to them in their immensely dangerous and difficult job.

In his Statement the noble Lord referred to the security forces and, in particular, to the RUC, which implies—and I think that the Minister said the same—that other security forces were also involved, presumably the army. Would he care to say to what extent the army was used, whether regular British units posted to Northern Ireland in support of the civil power or the locally-raised forces, the Ulster Defence Regiment, or both; to what extent they might, when the inquiry proceeds, have filled in and done some of the overload of work raised by the disorders yesterday; and whether there have been any complaints against the security forces, the army and the UDR?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his continuing interest in Northern Ireland, and we are especially grateful after all that he has done over the years. As far as I am aware, there have been no complaints. I do not know of any. I am not able to differentiate between any formal complaints against the RUC, the army or the Ulster Defence Regiment. I do not know. The only point that I have been able to confirm to your Lordships (and would confirm again to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt) is that the chief constable will be issuing a full report. I reiterate that the chief constable is prepared to consider and will fully consider any incident of what I have called indifferent policing, and will make a very full investigation of any such incident.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will be aware, as your Lordships will be aware, that the army and the Ulster Defence Regiment act in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. If I am able to elicit any detailed information of the type requested by the noble Lord, I shall of course let him have it. He will accept that I am not able to give him much this afternoon.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether he considers that the so-called leaders of the Unionist parties are leading or are following extreme elements in their parties?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I should have to leave that to the two gentlemen who had a meeting with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister last Tuesday. I am not exactly aware of what was said or where it was said, or when opinions, thoughts, words and statements changed from the somewhat more optimistic and somewhat brighter statements that have been made here in London. Who is leading and who is taking part, and what part various Unionist political leaders are taking in Northern Ireland, I think we shall have to leave to them.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I, too, should like unreservedly to condemn the violence and intimidation yesterday. The yobbo element is sadly increasingly in evidence in our society, and not just in Northern Ireland. I should like to say a brief word about the underlying problem, because there seems to me to be a rather frightening gulf between the general opinion in your Lordships' House and the opinion of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.

When we discussed the Hillsborough agreement on 26th November I was critical of it but I accepted that it must be judged on results. The results so far give no cause for optimism. I said then that Mr. Paisley put people off but that we had been landed with him because we had cut the ground from under the feet of his predecessors. Now it looks as though he himself may be losing control, because he came to a provisional agreement with the Government and his colleagues perhaps feared that he might go down the road travelled earlier by Bishop Muzorewa. The noble Viscount explained to us in November why the Government had thought it right to conclude this agreement. He put the case very clearly and firmly; and it was clearly right to try to get on better terms with Dublin, especially on security.

But I still believe that the fundamental error was, after a lengthy negotiation conducted in secret and without any consultation with those affected, to conclude an unprecedented agreement giving a foreign power a consultative role in the running of a part of the United Kingdom; and, despite the wretched violence yesterday, it is clear enough that the agreement is passionately opposed by a large majority in Northern Ireland. The Government seem to take the line that they know best—

Noble Lords


Lord Moran

My Lords, I am merely making a brief comment, which I am allowed to do. The Government seem to take the line that they know best: that they decide and the people concerned must lump it. That seems to me, with respect, an odd way to run a democracy. It is a style of government associated with Charles I, who claimed the sanction of divine right. But it is not, I believe, a style suited to open government today. I believe that the Government ought to think very carefully about what they do now, and, in particular, I have real doubts about the wisdom of devolution because that seems to me to open the door to the break-up of the United Kingdom, which I believe would be a profound mistake. I ask them, with great respect, to think again.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, the noble Lord was present on 26th November last year. He will have heard all the comments, as indeed I did, and I well remember his caveat and his thoughts on that day. He would accept, as indeed your Lordships would accept, that the majority in Northern Ireland still have difficulties and do not accept and do not agree with the agreement. The Government's position is that we shall keep trying and do our very best to persuade everybody in Northern Ireland that this agreement will be ultimately to their benefit.

The noble Lord spoke of results. Just one minor thought is that there have been massive arms finds in Sligo and Roscommon, which I believe should be put down to the credit of—and we are grateful for the joint co-operation with—the Gardai Siochana. I believe that three months is a very short time. I am careful when mentioning history as regards Ulster, but I think that those of your Lordships who have taken an interest in the problems of Ireland and Northern Ireland over the centuries would certainly agree that three months is a very short while.

The noble Lord also mentioned the question of democracy. Tactfully, I would remind the noble Lord that the agreement was endorsed, I believe nemine dissentiente in your Lordships' House and by an overwhelming majority in another place. Let us not forget that this is the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, will the Minister not agree, in view of the vital importance of maintaining the sympathy and understanding of the people on this island with what is happening in the Province, that the responsibility of the press and media in the following weeks and months is of very great importance—not only to report the tragic and dramatic but also to report the very serious work that is going on among the communities in the vast majority of Northern Ireland? Would the Minister not agree that every encouragement should be given to the BBC and to our press to do that?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Baroness for that very helpful suggestion. Certainly I will do everything I can to suggest to all my friends in the media that they should see the acceptable and wonderful face of Ulster that I have learned to know and which the noble Baroness and, indeed, all your Lordships know. We do take note of the kind and helpful suggestion of the noble Baroness. I shall certainly pass it on to my right honourable friend and my colleagues. I am sure that her remarks will bear fruit.