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Public Ceremonies (Firearms)

Volume 886: debated on Thursday 13 February 1975

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10.

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what instructions he has given regarding the apprehension of persons unlawfully discharging illegal firearms at public ceremonies in Northern Ireland.

Local commanders must decide what action is appropriate in the circumstances.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if it appears that those who publicly commit criminal offences are not being brought before the courts, that is an invitation to others in other ways to break the law?

I agree, but I feel very strongly about this matter. It is a matter for interpretation by the commander on the ground. He knows the law that he has to interpret and the emotive situation at funerals. When I investigated what happened in Newry, I was told that vehicle check points were put around the town when there was a big funeral to check people carrying arms into the town. No shots were fired over a funeral last year. However, either that night or the following night people came in and fired shots over the grave long after everybody had gone. Most of the funerals have been for the IRA. But there was one in Northern Ireland, at the time Mr. Tommy Heron was buried, when 30,000 people were present, an oration was delivered by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and shots were fired over the coffin. It happens both ways. I understand the situation in Northern Ireland. On that occasion, with 30,000 people present—it was the Protestants on that occasion—it would have been extremely foolish to have gone in with soldiers to try to do something about it.

Does the Secretary of State agree that when a minister of religion is asked to take a funeral service he is not responsible for what happens there? Will he assure the House that on that occasion I immediately dissociated myself from the shots that were fired over the coffin?

I fully understand that. I was trying to show my understanding that ministers of religion are in a peculiar position.