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Northern Ireland

Volume 893: debated on Monday 16 June 1975

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the severe recrudescence of violence in Northern Ireland in the last 48 hours.

There were a number of incidents in Northern Ireland during Saturday and Sunday, 14th and 15th June. On Saturday 14th June two people were killed and 10 injured. The main incident was in New Lodge Road, Belfast, when a woman was killed and five persons were injured in the same attack when gunmen carried out a shooting attack; in addition, a man was killed by a gunman at the Garden Bar in the Tiger Bay area, and there were two other shooting incidents, involving injuries, in Belfast. There were also incidents involving injuries in Castlewellan, Co. Down, and Larne. On Sunday 15th June a man was injured by a gunman in the Village, Belfast. There were other attacks in Belfast but no one was hurt. The RUC is taking every possible means to deal with these incidents and 18 people have been charged with murder, attempted murder, and explosives and firearms offences in respect of those incidents.

In addition, the House will be aware of incidents which occurred last Friday, including one in which a child was killed and her father seriously injured in Belfast; and in the early hours of this morning, weapons and ammunition were stolen from the UDR centre at Magherafeld, Co. Londonderry.

Since the Provisional IRA cease-fire, violence has continued but its nature has changed. The cease-fire has brought into sharp focus a great deal of violence in, and between, both communities. This violence has got to be stamped out if the road forward in Northern Ireland is not to remain blocked for ever. The security forces are doing everything possible; the help of the people of Northern Ireland is essential to them in this vital task. As I stated in the answer which I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) on 11th June, during the period 1st January to 9th June 1975 52 attempted murder charges, 199 firearms charges, 35 explosive charges, 131 theft charges and 45 other security-type charges were made. These figures do not include murder charges, of which there have been 54 so far this year.

While recognising the volume of successful action taken by the RUC, to which, despite the right hon. Gentleman's efforts, not sufficient publicity is probably given, may I ask him two questions? First, what has been the rôle in these matters in recent days of the incident centres? Second, bearing in mind that uncertainty as to the future status of Northern Ireland is the breeding ground of violence, is it not the case that those who purport to issue and to give circulation to baseless and improbable rumours as to Her Majesty's Government's action in hypothetical circumstances bear a grave responsibility for the consequences?

The incident centres have been used both ways to try to find out who has been involved in the violence of the last few days, and, indeed, of the last three or four months. But I must make a basic point that is sometimes ignored. The cease-fire is not complete, it is not genuine and sustained, but in terms of the violence within a community, sectarian violence, the killings and the murderings are taking place from both sides of the community—indeed, on balance, in terms of murders, from the majority community. It is most important to get that into perspective.

On the second question, of course uncertainty plays a part, but the more I look at it the more I realise that there are people in Northern Ireland who are motivated not by political ideals or ideas but by killing for the sake of killing. For instance, if the right hon. Gentleman could tell me what was involved in spraying a bus queue with machine-gun fire which killed and injured people, what that was supposed to do for the future of the community on either side, I should be obliged. I cannot sum it up. This is deeper and more senseless than perhaps any of us realises; and it is the cease-fire which has isolated it.

I know that my right hon. Friend would not want anyone to say anything which would inflame a difficult situation, but would he not agree that the catalogue of melancholy actions is getting deeper and deeper and that, so far, the political actions which we have taken do not seem to have had the effect that we had hoped for? Therefore, is not a complete reassessment of our political approach to Northern Ireland absolutely necessary because at the moment we are getting nowhere?

My hon. Friend has fallen prey to the English disease of pretending that there is a simple answer to the problem of Northern Ireland——

My hon. Friend says that it is not working, which illustrates the same point. Years of hatred are involved in present events. There is one point: thank heaven the number of men in the Army who have been hurt or killed since the end of last year is much lower, which is a part of the story that I was trying to indicate of the different nature of the present violence.

What is happening in Northern Ireland now is that, with the IRA violence very much lower, this violence is taking place in working-class areas—I use the phrase advisedly—and it is sectarian, inter-sectarian, Chicagoesque, and, politically, I do not believe that even a political solution would solve this problem. It will go on even if we came up with a nice simple solution to the problem of 800 years.

While one congratulates the RUC on its efforts to deal with these terrible incidents—efforts which have been well recognised by the welcome honour to Sir Jamie Flanagan which we heard about on Saturday—is it not the case that the Government are resolved, whatever may be said to the contrary, that our forces shall continue in support of the civil power until normal policing by the RUC throughout the Province is possible?

Yes, Sir. Support by the Army for the civil power is marked by the presence in Northern Ireland of 13,000 soldiers. But when the Army first went there five or six years ago it was for a particular purpose. There is no denigration involved in what I say, because I am fully aware of the incredible rôle that it has played. A great deal of what I have described today is not capable of solution by soldiers; it needs detective work and the sort of investigation that the RUC is used to. This is the nature of the change which has taken place, and I am grateful for this opportunity to illustrate the changed nature of the security situation in Northern Ireland. It would be wrong to pretend that the violence comes only from the minority community. That is not the case. It comes from both sides. We have to mark that well.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman about a matter for which we do have responsibility? That is the raid on the UDR depot. Is it not the case that a large number of weapons were stolen and that it is suggested that between a minimum of three and a maximum of nine people only were involved? Does that not suggest that security was very lax? In order to prevent these weapons from spreading into very dangerous hands, has the area been cordoned off and have we sought and received the support of the authorities of the Republic on the border?

Without wanting to avoid answering those questions, I must make it clear for the record that the UDR and the Army, when it comes to answering Questions in the House, are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Defence. However, I have, of course, looked into that matter this morning. A great deal is being done in regard to the raid on the UDR armoury last night. It would be foolish of me to give any indication of what is involved. It is not easy, when this sort of thing happens, for the spread of arms to one or other of the para-military organisations to be prevented. But it is a bad thing and everything is being done to deal with it. Without checking on the telephone, I do not know at the moment the preliminary view of the security forces. Here again. I would advise against jumping to conclusion as to which of the para-military forces carried out this raid overnight.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that a monumental mistake was made when we entered, in a military sense, into the Northern Ireland situation? Would it now be wise to review the position from the point of view of a withdrawal and allow the people of Northern Ireland to try to sort out their own problems in their own way?

I have just reported that the people of Northern Ireland are trying to sort out their own problems in their own way. Their own way is not pleasant. I repeat a point of view which I sometimes hear. It is largely a working-class fight which is taking place in Northern Ireland. I refer to 1969. It is easy after the event to say that going in in that way was a monumental mistake. The Army was already there, because Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. The job of this Government—as I am sure it was of the previous Government—is to obtain normal policing, with normal civilian forces to deal with this matter. It is not meant that the Army should deal with this kind of problem. However, it has a rôle to play there. I hope that when, from time to time, the number of soldiers in Northern Ireland is reduced it will not be seen as a case of pulling out but will be seen as a case of dealing with a situation in the best way.

Will the Secretary of State take it that the hon. Members on these benches from Northern Ireland agree with him that a section of the majority population has been involved in the most dastardly deeds? Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that the majority of the Protestant population in Northern Ireland completely dissociate themselves from these actions which are supposedly done in their name? Will he confirm that the Protestant population in the main are supporting, through their leaders, the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary as it carries out its work? Will he say whether he takes heart that tomorrow in the Northern Ireland Convention, for the first time in Northern Ireland politics, an all-party motion proposed by the leader of the UUC, and seconded by the leader of the SDLP, condemning violence will be discussed? Does he not feel that that is an omen in the right direction?

Taking the hon. Gentleman's last point, when I first proposed to the House that there should be a meeting and a Convention, representing the people of Northern Ireland, composed of people sitting together and putting their minds to the political problems of Northern Ireland, there were many who believed that that was impossible. I do not deny the difficulty. This past weekend illustrates that. There are many signs in the Convention that the representatives of Northern Ireland stand a better chance than those from outside in working out their future. This is about the only comment I have made in recent months. Tomorrow's activities in the Convention show what can be done. I note with interest what the hon. Gentleman said. We have faced difficulties together. As he said today, he has spoken out against violence. That cannot but be helpful. The majority of both communities want peace, but there is a small group of people with guns. That is the measure of the political problem in Northern Ireland.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the reported detention of four men almost immediately after the indiscriminate shooting in the New Lodge area is very much to the credit of the soldiers involved? It is very reassuring. Will the Secretary of State say whether that action fairly reflects the growing success of the police and the armed forces in dealing with these terrible sectarian attacks?

The difficulty, when we move into the area of cases being considered by the courts, is that I must not get involved in matters which are sub judice. On Saturday afternoon the men of the Second Parachute Regiment—I saw the Officer Commanding on Saturday evening—apprehended some people shortly after the machine-gunning took place. I must leave the matter at that point. This illustrates the fact that the police are too stretched to patrol the interfaces, and that the Army has a rôle to play, and that it did on that occasion apprehend a number of people. We must await the outcome from the courts.

I should like to pick up one of my hon. Friend's points. Those persons were not detained by me. They will go through the courts. That is the measure of the change which is taking place.