HL Deb 21 March 1988 vol 495 cc25-36

4.8 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 on the recent killings in Northern Ireland, and especially on the murders of two soldiers in Belfast on Saturday 19th March.

"I must remind the House of the background and sequence of events during the past week in Northern Ireland. On Wednesday the funerals were held of the three IRA terrorists killed in Gibraltar. In spite of the very large crowds and the extremely tense situation in West Belfast, the funerals had proceeded in an orderly manner, without violence and without any paramilitary display. This was the position when a vicious attack took place at Milltown Cemetery by a loyalist gunman. In that attack three people attending the funeral were killed and a large number injured, of whom one remains in intensive care.

"On Thursday there was the funeral of the IRA gunman shot by the army on Monday. He was acknowledged by the IRA as one of its members. His funeral took place without disturbance and without paramilitary display.

"On Friday the funeral took place of Charles McCrillen, a Catholic with no paramilitary connections, shot by the UFF; and of Thomas McErlean, one of the three killed at Milltown Cemetery. These again took place peacefully and without any breach of the law. On Saturday the funerals of the other two killed at Milltown Cemetery took place; first that of John Murray, and second that of Kevin Brady, who was acknowledged by the Provisional IRA to be one of their members. It was at this funeral that the quite horrific events took place that have so shocked the world.

"I should like to tell the House the facts as far as they can be established about these events. Just after midday on Saturday, following the funeral service at St. Agnes' Church, the cortege moved off along Andersonstown Road towards Milltown Cemetery. At that point a civilian car attempted to reverse away from the cortège. Despite the television coverage of the subsequent events which many honourable Members will have seen, it remains unclear how the car came to be in that position and for how long it had been on that road. What is quite clear, however, is that as it reversed away from the cortège, its way was blocked, both forward and backward, by taxis accompanying the funeral. What immediately followed is a matter of sickening visual record. A number of those in the funeral cortege immediately set upon the car with the obvious intention of pulling out the two occupants. Photographs indicate that at this point the driver of the car leaned out of his window and fired one shot in the air— the only shot which both occupants fired in the course of the attack upon them. After only a moment's pause the crowd resumed the onslaught on the car, some of them smashing at it with iron bars, and eventually succeeded in hauling out both occupants. Both men were then dragged by the crowd into an adjacent stadium, the gates were closed and it appears that a smaller group of attackers continued to assault them, stripped them and searched their clothing, subsequently threw them over a wall, and then bundled them into a black taxi which took them to a nearby piece of wasteland, where they were shot.

"It subsequently emerged that the two victims were corporals in the Royal Corps of Signals. Shortly beforehand they had left a joint police and army base in North Howard Street Mill after completing a routine maintenance task, in order to return to their unit at Lisburn. They had no reason to be in the vicinity of the funeral. This is not an approved route for soldiers who are not on operational duty at the time, and there is absolutely no question of their being involved in any way with surveillance or any other duties connected with the funeral. I am therefore unable to tell the House with any certainty why they were there. If the most likely explanation is that they decided to take the shortest route back to their base, without appreciating the presence of the funeral, this can only be conjecture, and it will be probably never be known why they were there.

"Whatever the reason, however, nothing can conceivably justify the utterly appalling outrage that then occurred and which resulted in their deaths. The whole House will join me in extending the utmost sympathy to their families, and even more so in view of the awful television pictures of the occasion. Nor has it gone unnoticed that although they both had loaded personal protection pistols, they showed incredible restraint in using them only to fire a warning shot in the air.

"In the face of this outrage and the others in the week, the first and immediate objective is to bring to justice those responsible. In respect of the Milltown cemetery attack, a man will shortly be charged with these murders, and also a number of other serious offences. In respect of the killing of the soldiers, two men are already in custody. In addition, a massive murder investigation is under way, in which all possible resources are involved, to identify all those responsible.

"The next issue that I wish to address is that of the approach of the RUC to the conduct of these funerals. Large funerals and processions arc arguably the most difficult events from a public order and terrorist threat point of view that the security forces face. They have been used quite unscrupulously by paramilitaries for propaganda purposes.

"The chief constable, in determining the most appropriate method of policing any funeral, takes account of all the relevant circumstances in reaching his decision. Clearly a prime consideration has been that they should be conducted within the law and without paramilitary display. He also would have regard to the degree to which other elements would seek deliberately to exploit the presence of the police to provoke violence and disorder.

"There have been suggestions made that the arrangements for the funerals were the consequence of a political directive and that there had been some interference with the operational independent responsibility of the chief constable. This is quite false. The chief constable has asked me to make quite clear that he takes full responsibility for the arrangements for the funerals, and that these were policing decisions, taken after the most careful assessment of all the relevant circumstances. I emphasise that I fully support the decisions that he took in these matters, and in which the initial outcome had clearly been successful. However, clearly the two incidents that subsequently occurred are wholly unacceptable and require immediate review in regard to policing to be followed at any future funeral. The chief constable has informed me this morning that he is carrying this through as a matter of urgency.

"This task I know that he will carry through with great integrity. But the House knows well how difficult it is to ensure that funerals can proceed in good order and within the law when there are elements who have absolutely no scruples or respect for family feelings in the way in which they will exploit them.

"Faced with the appalling violence of the last weeks, not only in Belfast, but with the vicious murders of Jillian Johnston in Fermanagh and Constable Graham in the Creggan only this morning, the House may remember the words I spoke last Thursday about the desperate need to break the awful cycle of violence and retaliation and end the suffering and heartache that is achieving nothing but more misery for all. This is now urgent, and it is the time when every person with a spark of human decency must determine to give their full support to the fight against terrorism from whichever quarter it may come. The security forces will take the lead as they have done so bravely over the years, but they must have the whole hearted co-operation of everybody in the Province, in the island of Ireland, and throughout the United Kingdom, in their task. I saw this morning Archbishop Eames, Cardinal O'Fiaich, the Moderator and Secretary of the Presbyterian Church and the President of the Methodist Church, on the need for all in the Province to take their share of responsibility and to condemn violence in all its forms.

"It is vital that we help the community in any way to support the fight against terrorism, and in this connection we arc improving significantly the confidential telephone system. Very shortly indeed we shall be supplementing the present system with a single and easily memorable free phone number usable right across the Province. I have asked the broadcasting authorities to publicise this number and they have agreed. This will be a valuable strengthening of the present facility, which is in fact being used by a considerable number of people in their horror at the events of Saturday.

"The fight against republican terrorism must be waged also beyond the confines of Northern Ireland and particularly raises major challenges for the Government of the Republic of Ireland. A significant number of steps have been taken to help improve our cross-border co-operation, and we particularly appreciate the amount of weapons and explosives that have already been recovered by the Garda. We have to keep working to improve this co-operation in our common interest in defeating terrorism, and I have this morning agreed with Mr. Lenihan that there will be a further meeting of the inter-governmental conference this week, in which we shall be discussing cross-border security cooperation, and which will be attended by Mr. Lenihan and myself, as co-chairmen, by Mr. Collins, the Irish Minister of Justice, by my right honourable friend the Minister of State and by the chief constable and the commissioner of the Garda.

"Mr. Speaker, the common phrase this weekend is that the troubles of Northern Ireland had plumbed new depths of horror. That was the phrase at Enniskillen, at Milltown Cemetery and in the Andersonstown Road on Saturday. And the truth is that there will be new depths again so long as this awful and violent campaign of terrorism and revenge continues. It has got to stop in the name of humanity and if there is to be any decent future for the people of Northern Ireland and all those living in the island of Ireland and if the evil shroud of terrorism is to be lifted from the United Kingdom as a whole.

"We all have our part to play, whether in actively combating terrorism, whether working to build bridges across communities, whether in deciding we do nothing in our words or actions that can increase the tensions. We all have our part, and the duty we owe to all the tragic victims of these outrages is to play that part to the full."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, we thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I come to the Dispatch Box for the second time in four days to condemn atrocity in Northern Ireland, Obviously we on these Benches join unreservedly in the condemnation of the horrific murders of the two young soldiers in West Belfast last Saturday and we express our utmost sympathy with the bereaved relatives. We also condemn the murder of yet another policeman in Londonderry earlier today and extend our sympathy to his family.

On Saturday the television camera captured the depth of bitterness and hatred that accompanied the murderous attack on the soldiers. We were all shocked, alarmed and sickened at the savagery which was unleashed before our eyes. We associate ourselves with the remarks of the Secretary of State about the action of the police in keeping their distance during the funerals last week. It was inevitably a complicated decision for the chief constable. We are told that the chief constable is now studying urgently whether that decision was correct or whether it needs to be modified. We suggest that in evaluating that decision the police will also have to consider whether the violence would have been even greater if they had not kept their distance during the funerals.

We note from the Statement that the Secretary of State is absolutely satisfied that the two soldiers had no reason to be in the vicinity of the funeral. They were not on the route of the funeral as part of any undercover operation or to spy on the funeral. We regret deeply that somehow the young soldiers drove into the funeral route and became entangled with it, in breach of their instructions. We agree with the Secretary of State that, whatever the reason, nothing can conceivably justify the outrage which occurred.

I have only one question for the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. Can the Minister tell the House whether the helicopter personnel promptly summoned assistance from the security forces or police and, supplemental to that question, was the help dispatched without avoidable delay? That is a matter which is not referred to in the Statement.

We realise that on Saturday emotion and tension were particularly heightened and that some people may possibly have feared a repeat of the savage attack in Milltown Cemetery. But the fury, violence and depth of hatred which we saw in Northern Ireland last Saturday is an indication of the magnitude of the problem which faces the people of Northern Ireland and the two Prime Ministers.

In conclusion, we urge as strongly as we can that the Inter-Governmental Conference, with the active involvement of the two Prime Ministers, should come up with measures that will at least prevent a worsening of the position in Northern Ireland. Is that too much to hope for?

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for the Statement, perhaps I may associate my noble friends and colleagues on these Benches with the shock which he has expressed at the horrific events which the Statement describes and with his sympathy with the families of the two fine young men who were so savagely lynched by the crowd. A lynching mob is one of the most disagreeable manifestations that society can reveal. To see it on one's own television, as many of us did, is something that we all hoped would never happen in our lifetimes.

I should like to express our relief that the statement from Gerry Adams, which was reported in the newspapers and may not have been correct, that the two soldiers were members of the SAS was an ordinary untruth based on no facts and that the facts arc quite different; that they were members of the Signal Corps on reasonable business which need not have taken them to the area and that nobody knows why they were there. The Secretary of State's unswerving denial that they were in any way engaged in surveillance of the funeral seems to me obviously correct. I hope that everybody will accept it, including Mr. Gerry Adams.

I have only one question for the Minister. Am I right in having gathered from the newspapers that the IRA claims responsibility for that disgusting scene? I think I saw that they were. If they are, I think that we ought to know.

I accept the chief constable's view as to what is the right thing to do over the surveillance or non-surveillance of funerals. I do not think that opinions from Whitehall are of the slightest interest. There is a very experienced group of security people—both army and RUC. They cannot always be right in a situation which leads inevitably to clashes, but I shall be very happy to continue to accept without further criticism their views as to the right way to deal with this situation.

We were appalled to hear of yet another constable—Constable Graham—being shot this morning. Will it never end? I do not think it ever will. I believe one thing is absolutely certain—that the situation will get worse before it gets better.

The Minister referred to the Churches. I am very glad that the Secretary of State has been talking to them. They have not been blameless always but certainly in situations of this kind I think that they are behaving as they should. They are one of the sources which can provide some help.

The other development which is very encouraging—and which was always effective right back in the 1970s when I was in Northern Ireland—is that of the freephone system. I am very glad that that will be used, because it gives people who suddenly can stand the situation no longer an opportunity to ring up and give information.

The last point I wish to make is that I believe things will get worse. I believe that the Secretary of State will have very difficult decisions to make. I think that he has the best advice possible, and we shall back him in any decision that he makes in trying to control the situation.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly reply to the very helpful comments and sympathy that have been expressed by the two noble Lords who have spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, proffered sympathy and stressed the words of the Statement. I am sure that we are all particularly grateful for his comments about the duties of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and how they carry them out in this very difficult area of the policing of funerals. The policing of such processions and funerals is entirely an operational matter for the chief constable. With the full support of my right honourable friend, he considers each funeral according to its particular circumstances, having regard both to the wish for peace and dignity and to upholding the law.

As to the question why the two soldiers were in that particular location, that is something we shall never know. As I have stressed, the two soldiers were not on surveillance duty. They were returning to their headquarters at Lisburn and the route that they took was one of many possible routes. We shall never know why they happened to be in that particular location at that particular time.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also asked me about the helicopter seen on television overflying the events on Saturday morning. I should like to stress first that the situation on the ground was very unclear and, as I understand it, the helicopter was at some height and distance away at the onset of these events. Secondly, the helicopter was not able to give assistance to forces on the ground who could not have moved sooner without possibly being accused of some aspect of recklessness. It would appear that preliminary surveillance gave no reason to indicate involvement of soldiers nor, indeed, of the nature of this appalling disturbance.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, asked about the Provisional IRA. Whatever the IRA may have had to say in the media, I am sure that all noble Lords—indeed everyone—will treat those comments with the contempt that such remarks and justifications deserve. The facts are that those two soldiers, as I have described in the Statement, were brutally beaten and shot. I stress again that the soldiers did not have anything to do with the SAS. We shall never know why they were in that particular location.

Once again I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for his comments on policing and also for his helpful remarks about the freephone, which we believe will be of assistance. It seems that it has been of some assistance since the ghastly events of Saturday. We hope that the measures I have announced today will be of help.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I am sure that we all abhor the bestiality of the West Belfast terrorists as witnessed on our screens over the weekend. I believe that it was pressure from Sinn Fein, the Roman Catholic Church and the Government of the Republic that determined the change in security policy at Provisional IRA funerals. It was a mistake, I believe. Had the policy not been changed, those two young men might have been saved and alive today. Indeed, they might not even have strayed into the danger area. Moreover, at the previous funeral that madman might not have got through the security ring to hurl his bombs. It was a mistake.

I hope the House appreciates that the Provisional IRA fixes its own propaganda settings and scenes. When it appeared that it was going to be denied the opportunity to fire a salute over the coffins of the three Gibraltar bombers, its men, who were in uniform and armed, went secretly before the funeral into a quiet side street and fired shots over the photographs of the three Gibraltar bombers. That was done in cahoots with the British television media who did not inform the security forces. The terrorists got their propaganda before the funeral took place. Therefore, Parliament in the first place, and then the Home Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary, should ask the chiefs of television whose side they are on.

Further, if no security forces are present at the funerals of terrorists, who takes charge? It is the terrorists. They organise the programme. They oversee the funeral march. All the young men of West Belfast look upon them as possessing the authority of the state; they do not look to the authority of the Government. That gives credence to the terrorist leadership.

I appeal to Her Majesty's Government for the policy to be changed. There should be no "no go" areas in any part of the United Kingdom and especially not in Northern Ireland. Secondly, at some time the Government must consider whether they will allow the media, and television in particular, to make secret arrangements with terrorist leaders and take secret photographs of them, inferring that the terrorists are operating widely in the Province, and then to display them on national and international television while the authorities stand by and freely allow it.

The Republic does not allow it; it has not done so for years. It has passed legislation. No member of any terrorist group may appear on television or radio in the Republic. Terrorist propaganda has been cut off. If we are to beat the terrorists, then we must consider doing the same.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords will be very grateful for the forthright comments of the noble Lord who has considerable experience of activities in Northern Ireland. With that in mind we should all respect his views.

The noble Lord mentioned pressure from three separate quarters as regards the policing of funerals. I should like once again to stress that the chief constable considers each funeral according to its particular circumstances. It is a decision for the chief constable which, as I stressed in the Statement, is fully supported by my right honourable friend. That is a matter of known policy.

Secondly, at the time of the funerals in the past week, and especially the funerals on Saturday—at least the second one which gave rise to these appalling events—the chief constable took account of appeals for a low security presence from clergy and local community leaders, not all of whom are terrorist leaders, as the noble Lord will know. The chief constable considers each case individually. It was his decision that low security was justified in those cases.

Thirdly, had there been a heavier security presence on Wednesday or Saturday it could easily have had other penalties given the Provisional IRA's wish to provoke disorder and the constant danger to the security forces when they are at close quarters with terrorists. I want to stress to the House and to the noble Lord that there is no question of "no go" areas. With his knowledge of Northern Ireland I hope that he will accept that statement. The security forces continued to operate in the areas around both funeral processions on Saturday. That was the policy, and it will continue.

As regards the noble Lord's comments about television coverage and the media, that is not a matter for the Government. Certainly, we are aware of the noble Lord's experience in Northern Ireland. We note everything that he says, as I am sure, also, will the House.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I do not want to say anything that may make matters more difficult for the Government in a very sensitive and dangerous situation. However, I should like to put one question to the Minister which may have a bearing on the nature and magnitude of the problem. Would he care to comment on an assertion made during an interview this morning on the BBC seven o'clock news when the interviewee, speaking in general terms, claimed that the crowds at Catholic funerals are there under duress and pressure from the IRA? Would he care to comment on that assertion?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, in one word, no. However, out of courtesy to the House and above all to the noble Lord, perhaps I may say that we would have no means of knowing why crowds turn out at these events, processions, funerals or whatever. Certainly it has been the case that at all the funerals during the past week there have been fairly large crowds. But they varied in size and location. However, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will know that crowds tend to vary in composition on these occasions which sometimes give offence, although sometimes they do not.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the remarks made by Pearse after the 1916 uprising: "But the fools, the fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead"? Would it not have been possible not to have given the bodies back in Gibraltar but to have buried them with decent Christian burial there as opposed to unchristian burials, when the lady was compared to Christ? We would not then have had the funeral processions or the provocation. We would not then have allowed the IRA political propaganda and the general mayhem that has resulted in Belfast.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, my noble friend's suggestion might possibly have its attractions, but I am afraid that I am not sure of the legal procedures in Gibraltar, let alone in the United Kingdom, over the state of bodies and to whom they belong. Perhaps I might make inquiries and write briefly, and I hope expeditiously, to him. As far as his first point is concerned, I am aware of what he says but I am afraid that I have not read all the words.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, reference has been made during this Statement and questions to the Minister to the role of the Churches. I am sure that we all recognise that they have a part to play. One thing for which we can be profoundly grateful is the increasingly good relationships between Christian leaders in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, although the bitter divisions between the communities are still all too apparent. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether the struggle against terrorism, which has to go on constantly, is in any way going to impede the search for political solutions, because we realise that this is fundamental to the whole tragic situation in Northern Ireland.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I should like to thank the right reverend Prelate for his support and above all for everything that the Church leaders in Northern Ireland are doing today. As my right honourable friend pointed out in the Statement, he met the various Church leaders this morning. I understand that there will be a further announcement later on this afternoon.

The right reverend Prelate asked whether political steps were being taken. This is the case, and we proceed in this way in Northern Ireland and the whole of Ireland. Discussions between the Government of the Republic and the United Kingdom Government in tandem cover both political attitudes and the problems of terrorism and security. However, we are very grateful for the thoughts that have been suggested by the right reverend Prelate.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I have known the fury of the IRA mobs in Northern Ireland over many years. They invaded my home and had it not been for certain circumstances, I should not be here to address your Lordships' House. I express my deepest sympathy over those who have died, particularly the two young soldiers who met such a savage death at the hands of my former constituents. As I and my wife watched those terrible scenes on television we were vividly reminded of a mob with exactly the same motivation which attacked my home many years ago, in 1976.

Perhaps the Minister will accept that I find it deeply offensive to see the IRA paraded on television, firing shots either over shrines or anywhere else and wearing the cowardly Balaclava helmet to prevent identification. Will he make representations to the broadcasting authorities that in no circumstances should the people in these islands be allowed to witness this terrible and provocative scene of the IRA firing shots in furtherance of their cause? We find it deeply offensive. As one who has spent his political and personal life in Northern Ireland under the threat of the IRA, I no later than this morning would have given an undertaking to the House to prevent those scenes being shown on television.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, all of us in your Lordships' House admire the continuing courage of the noble Lord, not just for the courage that he showed in his duties in West Belfast 10, 15 or 20 years ago. He knows West Belfast better than anybody in the House. He can stress the horror and outrage that is felt about these appalling scenes, above all of hooded gunmen firing salutes.

Certainly I cannot of my own volition stop these scenes appearing on television or elsewhere in the madia. However, I shall certainly make the noble Lord's views and the views of several of your Lordships who have spoken this afternoon, known to my right honourable friend. I hope that we might be able to make progress. I hope that he will accept that it is not in my power, nor indeed in the power of the Government yet, to take the action that he so much desires.

The Marquess bf Salisbury

My Lords, I wonder whether it is possible for the Minister to give some indication of what further steps he proposes to take to curtail the existing spate of violence. We had expressions of regret and appeals last week from the noble Lord and his Minister to the IRA not to continue with the violence. They have clearly not worked. Surely, we are in grave danger at the moment of both sides escalating the violence. It seems to me that the feeling is running very much higher. Surely there are steps which should be taken to try to ensure that the rule of law is carried out all over the Province.

There are steps that can be taken. Having had three sons who have done more than one tour each in the Province, I understand that the security forces could do more if they were allowed to. I wonder whether the Minister could give any indication as to what steps the Government propose to take in this respect.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I can certainly indicate to my noble friend that my right honourable friend, in conjunction with the General Officer Commanding and the Chief Constable of the RUC, continually take steps to try to reduce this appalling level of violence that has been endemic in Northern Ireland for 20 years.

There is a danger that murders and retaliation will continue. I have nothing further to add, especially today, to the Statement that I have made this afternoon. I stress to my noble friend that the RUC carries out its duties all over the Province. We admire each and every one of its members for carrying out policing duties in situations which all of us have seen on television over the weekend. This is the climate. I should like to pay my personal tribute, and I believe the tribute of all of your Lordships, to each and every member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and to their families, who share this appalling burden of policing Northern Ireland. Certainly they carry these duties out everywhere. The main security role is carried out by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and that is the way it will stay under this Government.