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Northern Ireland (Goc's Speech)

Volume 890: debated on Monday 14 April 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the speech delivered to a public audience on Saturday 12th April by Sir Frank King, General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland.

The St. John Ambulance Brigade invited the GOC Northern Ireland some 11 weeks ago to take part in its Annual Medical Conference at Nottingham University. The general theme of the conference was related to the part that the St. John Ambulance Brigade might have to play in urban violence, including such things as football crowds, demonstrations and processions. It was not specifically related to Northern Ireland and the General was asked, with other speakers, including an academic expert, a senior police officer and a doctor, to take part in a symposium and panel discussions.

This was not a conference, seminar or discussion organised by Government or by a political party. It was a conference of people professionally concerned with their jobs. There was no question of the GOC's making an official speech, of giving a Press hand out, or of any Press briefing. Indeed. I understand from the GOC that he spoke from notes and did not believe that any members of the Press were present or that any of his remarks would be reported, let alone reported out of context. He was concerned solely with some of the practical problems that result from urban violence and he had no intention whatsoever of criticising Government policy.

His remarks have caused political embarrassment and the General has expressed his regrets to me that, quite inadvertently, his contribution at what was intended to be a wholly non-controversial conference has, when taken out of context, had such an effect. I accept this position and should add that I have every confidence in the advice which has always been given to me by General King on security matters and, indeed, his tour of duty in Northern Ireland has been extended by six months.

The Government's policy in regard to Northern Ireland was clearly stated in this House by me on 14th January and subsequently. It stands exactly as I have expressed it. This policy has been formed after full consultation with the security forces and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I have made clear that the Government's actions with regard to the rôle of the Army and the ending of detention will be, and are being, directly related so far as the Provisionals are concerned to a genuine and sustained cessation of violence. I am fully aware of all the factors that have to be taken into account, which also include the sectarian and gangster-type murders, shootings and bombings that have taken place during the past few weeks. It is of the utmost importance that everything possible should continue to be done to bring those involved to justice before the courts, and this is happening with considerable success.

With regard to detention, I have to take many factors into account. I would repeat what I said on 14th January:
"The crucial point is that only the Government can decide, in the light of the situation as a whole, when to start bringing detention progressively to an end. I am prepared to say now that, if there is a genuine sustained end of violence, I shall progressively release detainees. I do not propose to act precipitately, and any early releases must, and will he, carefully judged in relation to whether the cessation of violence is genuine and sustained."—[Official Report, 14th January 1975; Vol. 884, c. 202.]
That remains my policy.

There is no question, and never has been, of political responsibility for security policy in Northern Ireland resting other than with me. This has never been changed, nor is it at issue now.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Press reports of General King's remarks have caused considerable concern both at political and military level? In view of the naïve explanation given by the General to my right hon. Friend, will my right hon. Friend when he next meets the General draw to his attention that at a time when a political initiative to set up the Constitutional Convention is about to begin, with the run-up to the elections, and when the cease-fire is balanced on a delicate knife edge, the General's remarks are particularly ill timed and constitute, in the view of a great number of people, a breach of the normal military etiquette of military commanders? Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that there will be a general welcome for his clear statement that he will require a high degree of evidence before signing ICOs? Will my right hon. Friend accept that we welcome his commitment to continue the phasing out of detention at a pace which is commensurate with the general political requirements of the situation and the maintenance and protection of the lives of the security forces?

Of almost all the generals I know, I would go so far as to say that Frank King is the least political. The General is fully aware of the effect of what he said, and in that context he has offered his regrets to me. He is aware of the effect it has had politically in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt about that.

Detention is a matter for me. In July last year I announced the phased programme. During the fall of last year there were releases by the commissioners. Since that time 400 detainees have been released. At the same time, when I sign an ICO I do so because of evidence in front of me that someone has been involved in physical violence.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition warmly support the tribute which he has paid to a fine commander, Sir Frank King, who is doing a very difficult job. We are glad that the right hon. Gentleman has accepted Sir Frank's explanation. In view of the anxiety in many quarters at the mounting violence in Northern Ireland, could the House be assured that the ceasefire and the policy of release as a whole will be reviewed so that it does not work to the advantage of the terrorists, some of whom have been retrained after their release from detention in Long Kesh? This is frustrating the work of the Army, particularly on the intelligence side. Will the Secretary of State and his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary also stop transferring convicted prisoners to Northern Ireland from this country while the elections for the Constitutional Convention are actually in progress?

There is one point which I must make clear to the hon. Gentleman. There has been some violence from the Provisional IRA in recent weeks, but very little—that is not to say that it could not happen again—and almost all the violence in Northern Ireland is internecine, between the UDA and the UDF. That horrible bomb of Saturday night—if it can be singled out—has been claimed by a Protestant organisation. There is the violence today, when, in the middle of Belfast, an official IRA member standing for the Republican Clubs has been shot by a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party. The cease-fire on the part of the Provisional IRA should not be mixed up with other sorts of violence not connected with the PIRA. They are distinct.

On the question of the transfer of prisoners, my right hon. Friend and I co-operate in deciding who is to be moved in the context of space and of need. We shall continue to do so, and I shall continue to release detainees. I released five on Saturday and four this afternoon.

Will my right hon. Friend make clear as a matter of principle that the intervention of serving officers, including general officers, in sensitive political matters is against the public interest and must be deprecated in the strongest possible terms?

I agree absolutely. It is a wrong thing to do. I have tried to explain the circumstances of the general discursive nature of the minor conference that took place. Although it is politically embarrassing and bad from the point of view of the politics of Northern Ireland, I am absolutely convinced that it was not done with the intention of getting into the political arena.

In view of the misconceptions which have been created or confirmed by this unfortunate report, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the release of detainees cannot be the subject of a bargain, whether implied or explicit, between Her Majesty's Government and any other person or persons?

Yes, I can accept that fully. Release from detention is entirely a matter for me. It involves a value judgment. Perhaps I may tell the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that in May of last year an assassination squad attempted to assassinate me. I signed an ICO on the Loyalist concerned. I released him some weeks ago.

We accept that the General made an inept remark and that he has now apologised to my right hon. Friend, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the difficulties that the statement has caused in Northern Ireland? Will he underline that the truce or cease-fire, whatever it is called, has not been significantly broken by the Provisional IRA? Does he agree that that has to be understood in this country and in Northern Ireland so that temperatures can be kept down? When the Convention election comes, we do not want opposing parties and opposing groups rushing into their ghettos and achieving the sort of stalemate that we have had in the past few months.

I can only say that already today there is a division on sectarian lines. In the electioneering hustings the Loyalists say that I have the Army with one arm behind its back. The Catholics put the matter the other way round and suggest that the General tells me what to do. This has broken almost completely on sectarian lines. That is the sadness of the fact that this matter happened last week.

Further to the question raised by the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes), is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the doctrine of collective responsibility is the seamless robe which applies not only to Cabinet Ministers or other Ministers but to officials and senior officers as well, and that the dispensation given by his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to certain Ministers to express their own views is bound ineluctably to lead to other officials and senior officers expressing their own views in a way not normally acceptable?

I have not discovered Frank King's views on the Common Market, but when I see him tonight I shall ask him.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what is unfortunate is that this event has happened at a difficult and delicate political moment, and that it involves a General who has given distinguished service for at least the past two years in Northern Ireland, and who no doubt will continue to do so? It is right that security officers should make known their views to the Government of the day, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the only people in an official position who can be the critics or protagonists of any political view must be Ministers who are answerable to this House, which has firm control over the affairs of Northern Ireland? Whatever may be the merits of this individual, that point must be made to him now if it is not already apparent.

The point has firmly been made. I say from my days at the Ministry of Defence, that, overall, we are lucky in this country that this general rule or convention, call it what one will, is well understood.

My right hon. Friend has agreed that the General made a very grave statement. He has also said that the General was speaking from notes. Yet he has accepted the General's explanation that he was quoted out of context. Will my right hon. Friend explain what he means by the cliché "quoted out of context"?

The St. John Ambulance Brigade has a tape of the general discussion. One of my officials has had the opportunity to listen to it. I have not heard the tape but I have the word of the official who did. If we take the question of the release of detainees, it is true that if we return to violence there will be real problems. There is no doubt that there would be real problems in that event. This is a judgment that I have to make.

The General made a mistake last weekend, but I am absolutely sure that it was not done for political reasons. This report has caused a problem, but I think the General's security advice is always of the best—and it is security advice that I want from Frank King.