HL Deb 17 March 1988 vol 494 cc1273-7

4.35 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the permission of your Lordships, I shall repeat a Statement that is currently 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 wish to make a Statement about the attack yesterday upon mourners attending the funeral in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast of the three terrorists killed in Gibraltar.

"Before the funerals, the Roman Catholic Church, local politicians and community leaders had appealed for the occasion to be orderly and without violence. The police had made it clear that they wished this to happen, and would do all they could to assist. Against this background, and in the belief that neither the families nor the community wished to see any exploitation of the funerals for paramilitary purposes, the chief constable decided his dispositions accordingly. His aim was to police the whole area in a sensitive manner, and to avoid intervening in a private and solemn occasion. I would emphasise that the funerals were proceeding in a peaceful way until the attack took place.

"At about 1340 hours a man on the fringe of the crowd in the cemetery opened fire with a handgun, and started to throw grenades among the mourners. He was identified, and as he made his retreat he threw further grenades and continued to fire. He was pursued by members of the crowd who caught him at the nearby motorway where he was subsequently arrested by the RUC. He is at present under police guard in hospital recovering from the injuries he received at the hands of the crowd. A second man subsequently arrested by the police at his home is now helping them in their inquiries.

"In the course of this vicious attack, three people were killed, and 68 injured, of whom four have been detained in hospital, one in intensive care. The House will wish to express its sympathy with the relations and friends of those killed and injured in this appalling incident.

"A telephone call was made to the BBC, purporting to be from an organisation calling itself the Protestant Action Force, and claiming responsibility for the outrage, but the accuracy of this claim is not yet clear.

"It was an obscenity that an occasion which, whatever its origins, should have been one for private mourning and grief was brutally and savagely interrupted by such an attack. The events of yesterday only serve to underline the total futility of violence in all its forms. The day began with a blast bomb attack by the IRA on an Army patrol, in which fortunately there were no fatalities, but in which one soldier was injured.

"Even after the incident at the cemetery, and notwithstanding the professed appeals for calm, the IRA tried to launch a mortar attack on a police station in Belfast which was fortunately forestalled by the security forces. There was further violence last night, with hijackings and burning of vehicles, petrol bomb attacks, and a sectarian attack on some Protestant houses.

"We can only be grateful that the violence of last night did not lead to still more deaths and serious injuries.

"Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly that if people's thoughts are only of revenge and retaliation after any incident, then this awful cycle of killing and murder and violence will continue. And yet nothing showed more clearly the total futility of violence and that it offers nothing to any part of the community in Northern Ireland. There are likely to be funerals every day this week in Belfast at which the human suffering and sadness and heartache will be all too plain, and the ultimate tragedy for all the bereaved is that it is all to no purpose. Some 2,500 people have been killed in Northern Ireland in the past 20 years. We know how many of those deaths flow from terrorist action and we know that those killings have not advanced any cause whatever. Instead they serve only to deepen the bitterness and hatred that can divide the communities.

"At this time of great emotion it is now incumbent on everybody in the Province to play their part in ending the cycle of violence and retaliation and further violence. It is not just the politicians, the Church and community leaders, crucial though their role is, but everybody in the Province who has a responsibility to heal, and to calm and to mind what they say as much as what they do. The need once and for all to repudiate violence in speech as well as action and the determination to work positively to build a tolerant and caring society is the message that this House should send today. It is a message that does not seek to judge or to distinguish between one section of the community and another, but one that is deeply important for the future of every single person in Northern Ireland."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, we thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We are grateful to the Secretary of State for taking the earliest possible opportunity to express his outright condemnation of the appalling atrocity which was committed in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, yesterday. We also wish to convey our sympathy to the families and friends of those who were killed, to those who were wounded and to the bereaved who wished to bury their dead in dignity.

Sadly, the paramilitary elements in both communities think that they know what is best for the Province. They believe that their aims can only be achieved by mounting fury and violence upon violence. Yesterday's tragedy in Milltown Cemetery may be seen by the Unionist paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland as retaliation in kind or revenge for the atrocity committed by the IRA at the Enniskillen war memorial. But violence from either community is no answer to the problems of Northern Ireland. It is no answer because violence upon violence breeds further violence. Indeed, over time the cycle of violence can eventually lead to the death and become the grave of Ulster itself.

Over the next few days many questions will be asked about yesterday's tragic events. Today, I have only two questions for the Minister. First, while it is appreciated that the RUC and the security forces had been requested by the leaders of the Catholic and nationalist community to adopt a low profile during the funerals—and it appears that they so responded—did the RUC or the security forces have any indication at all that any Protestant paramilitary force or any individuals intended to embark on a course of violence which could in any way disturb the funerals? Secondly, while accepting, as we readily acknowledge, that the problem of Northern Ireland appears to be intractable, do the Government—or indeed both Governments—intend to take any initiative which could bring the cycle of killing and wounding to an end?

Finally, we can only hope with the Secretary of State that all sections of the community in the Province will respond to the earnest appeals from Church leaders on both sides of the divide for a period of calm and avoidance of further recrimination.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, first I wish to associate all my friends and colleagues on these Benches with the outrage expressed in the Statement and with the sympathy for the bereaved and the wounded which the Secretary of State and the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, have expressed. Secondly, I wish success to the RUC and the army in their duties, which become more difficult and dangerous with each hateful atrocity committed first by one side and then by the other.

Over the last 12 years, I have had to respond to all too many accounts of atrocities in Northern Ireland. However, this is surely the least excusable, the most inexcusable and the least forgiveable atrocity, even including Enniskillen. I have no questions to ask the Minister. But I stand squarely behind the Secretary of State's brief but powerful statement made over the wireless last night when he appealed to everybody to restrain themselves from the appalling cycle of repeated violence.

That sentiment was gallantly echoed this morning by the mother of one of the dead, as I have seen on the tape this afternoon. She said: Please, please, let there be, for once, no acts of revenge, no escalation of these senseless cruelties. Let the ordinary people of Northern Ireland shame their paramilitary factions on both sides into a proper respect for human life".

Lord Lyell

My Lords, the words of sympathy which have been expressed by both noble Lords who have spoken for the bereaved, the dead and the wounded as a result of this appalling incident will be passed to all those concerned. I am sure that those words will be of comfort to everyone in Belfast.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked if we had had any indication of what might happen and whether it could have been prevented in any way. He also asked whether there was any possibility of an initiative by either the Government of the United Kingdom or that of the Republic of Ireland.

So far as we are aware now, the perpetrator of that appalling deed is presently in hospital and under police guard. The police have been unable to obtain much information from him which is of any use. Nor was there any indication of what might happen. Perhaps it will help the House if I stress that, following assurances that there would be no paramilitary displays at yesterday's funerals, the RUC deliberately kept its distance and did not enter the cemetery. I believe that the House will accept that it is entirely hypocritical of all those who have been loudest in their criticism of the police for the handling of previous funerals to now seek to place the blame for what took place yesterday on the RUC. From the information that we have, there is no indication of how the perpetrator of that foul deed came into the cemetery. However, our inquiries are still continuing.

As regards the second point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, the Anglo-Irish Agreement is still very much in place. I think that your Lordships will wish to know of the helpful statement which came from the Taoiseach. It was much appreciated. He issued his statement at approximately 4.30 p.m. yesterday. Among other things, he stated: The anger which this savage attack will cause should not lead to further violence and I appeal to the nationalist people of Belfast and to all the people of Northern Ireland to respond with calm to this outrage and to take no action which might heighten tension or lead to further loss of life.". Those were the words of the Taoiseach, which I believe should go some way to answering the second point made by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies.

We are grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. I shall see that his kind remarks on the work of the army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary are passed on to the relevant quarters.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, I do not think that anyone has so far mentioned that this is 17th March, St. Patrick's Day. Is it not possible that the deep sense of shock which all Christians must feel that St. Patrick's Day should be the day upon which we have to record events of this kind and those of the past three weeks could be utilised to bring an end to this appalling reign of hatred and violence?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, my noble and learned friend puts into eloquent words what is felt in your Lordships' House on this day that is so special to Irishmen in Ireland and all over the world, who will feel very much what has been expressed by my noble and learned friend. I am grateful to him for putting that into words. I am sure that it will be noted, not just in your Lordships' House but in Ireland and further afield.

Lord Monson

My Lords, is there any evidence as to the provenance of the grenades used in the cemetery attack? Is there not considerable suspicion that the Libyans have been supplying arms to both sides in the conflict?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, we have no definite information about the provenance nor the types of the weapons that were used in the cemetery. I understand that further inquiries are being carried out by the RUC, but we do not have any definite information on the provenance of those dreadful weapons. They could have come from anywhere.