HL Deb 06 February 1992 vol 535 cc357-64

4.12 p.m.

The Paymaster General (Lord Belstead)

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 shall make a Statement about the current security situation in Northern Ireland.

"It is my sad duty to report that since the beginning of this month 12 people have died in circumstances directly related to the continuation of terrorism in the Province.

"The proscribed loyalist terrorist organisation, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, has admitted responsibility for two attacks, which have led to the deaths of six people. They include five, two of them teenagers, murdered in a bookmaker's office in Belfast yesterday. Two persons have been arrested in connection with the earlier UFF murder of a taxi driver at his home in North Belfast. Three persons were killed by an off-duty police officer in the Sinn Fein Advice Centre on the Falls Road. That officer subsequently took his own life. The IRA claimed responsibility for the murder of a bread delivery man in Dungannon and is believed to have been responsible for the attempted murder yesterday near Belleek of a dog warden, who was also a part-time member of the UDR. In this incident, one terrorist was killed. Following it, three persons have been apprehended by the Garda Siochana. In relation to all of these incidents vigorous follow-up action is in train and will continue.

"I know that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy to all those who have been so suddenly bereaved. Each of these deaths represents a personal tragedy. But each is also part of a wider tragedy in which the whole community, Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Nationalist, shares. For let there be no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland deeply abhor, and want no part of, the wanton destruction perpetrated by that tiny minority who, without democratic, moral or spiritual authority, have taken upon themselves the right to decide who should live or die.

"As we have seen in recent days, notably in the trade union rally in Belfast last Tuesday and in the unequivocal statement of leading Churchmen, this overwhelming majority of decent people is increasingly making its voice heard and its influence felt. And individuals are coming forward—making use of the confidential telephone and in other ways—to help the police prevent outrages and to apprehend the criminals. It is vitally important that this should continue. Terrorists—from whichever side they come—represent no one but themselves. The community has a vital role to play in making them realise that they will never achieve their objectives through violence.

"But a particular responsibility for dealing with terrorism lies with the Government and the security forces. We will not shirk that responsibility. The House will recall the announcement last month of the arrival in Northern Ireland of substantial numbers of additional troops. The level of military reinforcement for the police will continue to be kept under review and further adjustments may he made.

"We will take whatever action is necessary to bring terrorism to an end. But we will not abandon the underlying principle of our security policy which is a determination to deal with terrorism under the rule of law. In accordance with that policy, the police supported by the Armed Forces have achieved, in the past few weeks, further significant successes. A very high proportion of intended attacks is being prevented or aborted. Substantial quantities of arms and explosives (some of it clearly intended for immediate use) have been seized. In these and other situations, important arrests have been made. There will be more seizures and more arrests. The House will recall that almost 400 people were charged with terrorist related crimes in Northern Ireland last year.

"Last week the leaders of the four main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland agreed that, at my invitation, they would meet to consider matters of common concern in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. No matter is of greater shared concern to the people of Northern Ireland and their political leaders than the present security situation. In view of this, and against the background of recent events, the Prime Minister has indicated that he proposes to invite the four leaders to a meeting with both of us to concentrate on that issue. This will ensure that at the highest levels of government we can hear directly from political leaders who understand and represent the views of the people in Northern Ireland who inevitably have borne the brunt of recent events.

"The security situation in Northern Ireland is a matter for serious concern; but it is not, and will not be allowed to get, out of control. That is my conviction and that of the chief constable. As the chief constable said yesterday, a number of new anti-terrorist measures have recently been introduced in Belfast. The House may be assured that, in the discharge of their responsibilities for security in Northern Ireland, the Government and the security forces will take whatever further measures are judged to be necessary and effective." My Lords, that concludes my right honourable friend's Statement.

4.18 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating the Statement on the current security situation in Northern Ireland. On these Benches we wholly condemn the carnage and we express our sympathy to the bereaved and to those who have been injured. We stand squarely behind the Government's determination to deal effectively with terrorism, as set out in the Statement. Our hope is that the Statement will go some way to restore confidence in Northern Ireland.

We watched yesterday, as we have watched over the past month, with a feeling of revulsion the horrific scenes of carnage in Northern Ireland. The good news from Northern Ireland was the brave march against intimidation to which the Minister referred. It took place in Belfast last Tuesday and was organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. That was good news. Yet at times we detect words of almost despair on the streets of Belfast. The violence is horrific, frequent and regular—regular in as much as it generates the fear that every act of violence will lead to retaliation. All that generates a fear that all that is most cherished and valued in civilised life is now being threatened. However, the Government are right to emphasise, as they do, that all is not lost and that the situation is not out of control.

In this situation I wonder whether it is possible for the Minister to elaborate a little more in public on the broad grounds on which the Government agree with the assessment of the Chief Constable that the security position is still under control. We do not question that judgment. But I have a feeling that if the Minister can elaborate further on the reasons for that assessment, his words could bring further comfort to the people of Northern Ireland and help to restore confidence.

The Statement discloses that a very high proportion of terrorist ventures in Northern Ireland last year were frustrated by the security forces. Perhaps I may ask the Minister one question on the relationship between the police and the security forces. Can he unconditionally reassure the House that there is a full, free and unimpeded flow of all relevant information and intelligence between the Army and the RUC, and vice versa? That question is prompted mainly by the mitigation evidence presented in the High Court in Belfast last week during the trial of Brian Nelson.

We wholeheartedly support the determination of the Government and the RUC to bring the murderers to trial. We note from the Statement that there were over 400 people charged last year with terrorist offences. That is good news. But if the information is available, can the Minister tell the House whether that figure is higher or lower than the number of charges made during the two preceding years? Further, can the Minister confirm whether the RUC is making satisfactory progress in the hunt for the murderers of the seven Protestant workmen killed on their way home from work a fortnight ago? Alternatively, are the inquiries running into unexpected difficulties?

We fully support the Statement. We appreciate that the Government may be under pressure from some quarters to produce a simple and quick solution. Of course, in a sense that is understandable bearing in mind the fact that the people of Northern Ireland have been suffering for 20 years. However, we do not believe that there is a solution which is likely to be enduring and which would bring peace and reconciliation to Northern Ireland.

Finally, it is for the political leaders in Northern Ireland, with encouragement from the Government and with the support of the political parties, to develop the political formula which can lead to an enduring political solution. Men and women who live and work and have their being in Northern Ireland are suffering under an intolerable burden. They are entitled to expect as strong as necessary political leadership. That is why we fully support the Government in their efforts to persuade the leaders of the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland to search for a political solution. We urge that those talks should proceed on the basis that they will continue, whichever party forms the next government.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, perhaps I may join the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, in expressing from these Benches our great sympathy and sorrow over these tragic events not only to the families of the bereaved, for whom these are indeed terrible days, but also to the whole community in Northern Ireland which bears with such stoic courage the succession of violent events. There cannot be anyone in your Lordships' House who does not feel sympathy for the ordinary people of Northern Ireland for what they have to put up with day in and day out.

It is becoming a very serious situation. I am sure that the Secretary of State was right to ask people not to lose their nerve in the face of such provocations. However, at the same time we must look with a very cold eye at what is happening. We have had an outbreak of machine gunning, gang warfare and multiple deaths on a scale that we have not seen for a long time, even in Northern Ireland. We should make no mistake about it, accustomed as we are to hearing about the horrors of the IRA: the UFF and the Protestant paramilitaries have a young and fanatical leadership which is growing in insolence every day and which is every bit as dangerous as the IRA.

Therefore we have two groups of people firing at each other across the streets and at the people of Northern Ireland. One response—it is the right response and one on which we fully support the Government's approach—is to do everything we can through security to make life safer for the people who live in Northern Ireland. I believe that the police deserve our congratulations, together with the Army, for the arms finds which have recently been made. That has been a considerable breakthrough. However, I should like to echo one question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, about the Brian Nelson case. We need some reassurance, which perhaps the Minister will be able to give us, that relationships and liaison between the Army and the police in Northern Ireland are everything that they should be. Although this is not the proper time to go deeply into the matter, from reading reports of that case it seems that there is a question about the effectiveness of communications between the two branches of the security services.

The Government have our support in trying to do everything that they can on the security front. But of course the other response must be, as it has always been, political. The Government's strategy is to make progress on the social front, which they continue to do, to make progress where possible on security—and events in the past few months have, I believe, been setbacks—and to make progress on the political front on which ultimately any prospect for a lasting peace must depend.

We must recognise the fact that since the talks broke down last year violence has increased exponentially in Northern Ireland. There is a connection between the two. Into the vacuum of the hopelessness of no political progress and no meaningful peace talks it is inevitable that those who can offer violence should fill the gap and become the dominant theme. When the Secretary of State and his right honourable friend the Prime Minister meet the leaders of the four constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, I earnestly hope that on their agenda they have not only security, which perhaps the Statement implies; I would welcome the Minister's reassurance that the agenda at the meeting will be primarily political. The question for the leaders of the four constitutional parties is: when are they going to get down to meaningful talks again? In turn, the question for the Government, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister is: how can they avoid a British general election getting in the way of a resumption of peace talks?

When the talks broke down last year I warned that a British general election could, as it did in 1974, have a malign effect on the resumption of talks in Northern Ireland. I fear that that is happening now. I fear that the prospect of an election makes it more difficult for people to settle down; indeed, the various parties may hope for a better outcome after the election. Perhaps I may say from these Benches—I hope that it applies as regards all sides of the House—that all parties are united in wanting the Northern Ireland parties to get together again. All parties are united in the maintenance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement unless and until the parties to it freely agree upon something better. There is no short cut available to either side as regards the troubles in Northern Ireland; in other words, there is no alternative to getting together to talk. I shall be most interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. The Government can do much to make it plain that the time for talk is now.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their reception of the Statement. They gave unequivocal support for the action that is being taken against terrorism. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked me to give an assurance, and chapter and verse, that the security position is under control. First, a large number of charges were made last year. I believe that I said over the past 14 months. Nearly 400 terrorist-related offences were charged and brought to court. A considerable number of them are for murder and attempted murder. They show that the actions of the security forces are translated into charges brought to court.

The other point embedded in the Statement is that it is reckoned by the chief constable that as many as four out of five attempted or intended terrorist actions have to be aborted because of the high level of activity of the security forces. There is a huge amount of patrolling going on at present. A high level of manpower is involved in the Province. If we take the members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, the regular Army and the RUC, there are approaching 30,000 members of the security forces in Northern Ireland at present.

My answer to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, on the point about matters being under control, is that it is one thing for terrorists to kill innocent civilians in cold blood, but when they do so I believe that they know in their hearts that it will not help them attain their objectives.

The noble Lords asked me about the free flow of information between the Army and the RUC. The very greatest care is taken to see that there is a free flow of information to the police from the Army, and the other way around. That is extremely important. All the circumstances surrounding the Nelson case are being examined carefully, but it would not be right to say anything more today about intelligence matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked to be assured that satisfactory progress was being made in the hunt for the murderers of the men who had been doing an honest day's work on a security force base and who were merely returning home in a large van and were blown up at the crossroads at Teebane. That hunt is being prosecuted with the greatest energy by the RUC, as indeed is the hunt for those who murdered in the appalling shootings that occurred in the Ormeau Road in Belfast yesterday.

Finally, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, perhaps I may say that when, at the end of the Statement, I repeated the words of my right honourable friend that the Prime Minister has indicated that he proposes to invite the four party leaders to a meeting with himself and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that is to concentrate upon the security situation. It is important, and, I hope, a reassurance and at least a partial answer to the noble Lord's question, that that is in the context that the four main constitutional party leaders agreed a little while ago, when it was apparent that the talks were not going to proceed, that they would, nonetheless wish to meet the Government to consider matters of common interest, in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. The noble Lord can assume that that will be an important and, I hope, fruitful meeting.

4.32 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in the light of the recent trial, it is clear that the UDA is engaged in systematic assassination? Will he consider making that organisation illegal, like the IRA?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the question of proscription is always kept under review.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, as one who has spent most of his political life in Northern Ireland, I am only too well aware of the terrible heartbreak and sorrow now prevalent in that community and of the great distress and despair that exists at the apparent unworkability of any political action taken recently. I am glad to hear the positive mention that the Prime Minister is calling together the four constitutional party leaders to talk about security. That is all that we can expect. I do not believe that there is the remotest hope of any political talks taking place in advance of the general election.

Security is by far the most important issue facing the people of Northern Ireland today. Is it possible for those four constitutional leaders, after they have had talks, to come out into the open and to call upon their constituents to give total and absolute support to the security forces, and to cut away all the ambivalence and ambiguity that we sometimes hear in their statements in relation to the security forces? Is it possible for the leaders of the four main Churches in Northern Ireland to call upon their people —the people who attend their churches—again, unambiguously, to (this is an awful word in the Irish political vocabulary) "inform" upon those people whom they suspect of being engaged in violence? The Minister stated that only a tiny minority of people support the violence. It is that tiny minority in the Catholic community and in the Loyalist Protestant community which is giving succour, support and protection to the men who are carrying out the murders. It is not a security problem only for the police, the UDR and the Army; it is up to the people who are giving the protection to inform upon those who they believe are carrying out acts of violence. We need the co-operation and an unambiguous statement from the four Church leaders and the four constitutional party leaders. If we could have those statements, I believe that they would go some way to show the honesty and integrity of those involved.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, no one could ask that question with more justification than the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. He has been an example to all by the brave and open way in which he has expressed himself today, and expressed himself and conducted himself when he was a representative for Northern Ireland in another place. He will be aware that there have been unequivocal statements of support for the security forces and for law and order from leading churchmen and the leaders of political parties in the past few days. I shall draw to the attention of my right honourable friends what the noble Lord has said. I hope that there will be others also who will see what the noble Lord has said in your Lordships' House.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, as one who belongs to a family with long connections with the Province, which none of us has ever forgotten, I join others in expressing the grief and indignation with which we have heard of the recent outrages. There is one point that I wanted to put to my noble friend. I was greatly heartened by one phrase in the Statement, and that was his reference to the rule of law. There are many people who, understandably and with every possible moral justification, demand the suspension of the rule of law. I was very much encouraged to hear my noble friend reassert his belief in it, because if, for instance, we were to consider reintroducing internment, which remains on the statute book as a possibility, we should remember that it has a bad track record in producing results.

Internment involves the suspension of the rule of law. It involves the abolition, for the time being in a limited number of cases, of the due process of law; of the burden of proof; and of the work of the courts. It has not succeeded in the past. Whenever it has been introduced, it has had to be abolished within a measurable time. I was greatly heartened, in consequence, by what my noble friend said about the rule of law. I hope that we shall not go down that path unless necessity drives us to it.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for what he said. The principle underlying our security policy is the absolute determination to bring terrorism to an end within the rule of law. I agree with him that that principle cannot be set aside. He referred to executive detention or internment. That option remains on the statute book, but it would be a very serious step indeed.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

; My Lords, like other noble Lords I should like to express my great sorrow at the sectarian killings that have taken place in recent days in Northern Ireland. I wish to give my heartfelt sympathy to the relatives and families of those who have been killed.

Against the tragic background of the Minister's Statement today, I welcome the news he gave that the Prime Minister has called together the leaders of the four constitutional parties in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that a great anxiety to the people of Northern Ireland, and to us all, must be that the initiative has been seized by the men of violence and that they retain it? Therefore, the Government must welcome any kind of replacement of that initiative which has been seized by the gunmen.

Does the Minister agree that it would be important in the talks for matters of common concern to be placed before the four leaders? It is always the case that when constitutional issues are placed before them there cannot be agreement. Would it not be better, therefore, to keep the talks to matters of security, common interest, social issues and other issues of direct concern to them and not to risk the breakdown of the talks and the invaluable initiative that has been taken before they get anywhere?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for the sympathy which she expressed to those who have recently been bereaved. She asked me once again about the talks which were announced in the Statement. She will forgive me if I say that I cannot anticipate the agenda except that the Statement clearly proposes that the talks will concentrate on the issue of security. To the people of Northern Ireland that matter is at the top of their agenda. I join the noble Baroness in the hope that we shall find that the meeting will be a fruitful opportunity for leadership both from Downing Street and within Northern Ireland.