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Northern Ireland

Volume 931: debated on Saturday 5 March 1977

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in his statement on Monday, undertook to keep the House informed about events in Northern Ireland. He has thought it right to stay there for the time being and has asked me to give this report on his behalf. I am appreciative of the few hours' leave today.

We are now half-way through the third day since the stoppage announced by the United Unionist Action Council was due to come into effect. The first day was a day of uncertainty. A number of people did not turn up for work: these were mainly in the engineering sector of industry. The police reported numerous complaints of intimidation, but most of these were telephone threats which the police were unable to check. On the second day the turn-out was better, but some of the intimidation became more blatant.

Today, the indications are that the turn-out for work has been the highest yet, with most firms reporting a very good attendance. Traffic is flowing freely, although the police have had to clear some road blocks—usually of telegraph poles or trees—and there have been some suspect or hoax car bombs. Although the harbour at Larne has been closed, most public services have continued to operate in a near-normal fashion. Bread and milk were being delivered normally this morning.

The story of the last two and a half days is of the people of Northern Ireland behaving with courage and determination, often in the face of threats or intimidation, by firmly demonstrating their desire to work normally. In this resolve they have been encouraged and supported by the good sense and moderation of responsible leaders of opinion in Northern Ireland, including those in this House, to whom I am pleased to pay tribute. Trade union leaders, shop stewards and other workers' representatives have also given courageous leadership to their fellow workers. This also applies to the CBI and the various chairmen of the chambers of trade and commerce. It is these workers who are showing the bravery to protect their jobs and thereby to protect the whole economic future of Northern Ireland.

I would like also to pay tribute to the RUC, which has given further demonstration—if that were needed—of its ability to act as an impartial and effective force. The Chief Constable has assured my right hon. Friend that his force, supported as necessary by the Army, will continue to do its utmost to ensure that all those who wish to do so can continue to go to work.

Finally, to those who are understandably concerned about the continuing terrorist violence in Northern Ireland I repeat the message given by my right hon. Friend on Monday. We are not complacent about the present security situation. We appreciate the feelings of frustration in Northern Ireland from a community that has had to suffer so much for so long. But we are convinced that the method chosen by the UUAC and its supporters is not the way to improve matters. It distracts the security forces from their efforts against the Provisional IRA, and a continuation of present tactics by the supporters of the strike will only aid the terrorists.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement about the turnout for work today. We join warmly in his tribute to the courage and good sense of Northern Ireland working people as a whole, and we assure the Government of our full and continuing support for necessary steps to protect their right to go to work in peace.

I thank the Conservative Opposition for the support that they are giving us. I readily assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and my other colleagues in Northern Ireland are fully appreciative of that support.

Does the Minister of State recognise that the course of events of the last few days is proving the commitment of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland to constitutional action and to the maintenance of the rule of law? Is he aware that it is the determination of my hon. Friends and myself to see that they are not disappointed in putting their confidence there?

May I once again thank the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends for the assistance and good help that they have given us in this situation? I find it frustrating, as the Minister in charge of commerce and manpower in Northern Ireland, that the police and security forces, including all the detective forces that we have there, are now deployed in looking into active intimidation instead of being able to get on with the job of detecting the terrorists and putting them behind bars.

Is my hon. Friend aware that all of us on this side of the House, too, warmly welcome the fact that the strike has not had the evil effects which some predicted and that a lot of common sense has been shown? There have, however, been some peculiar reports, which he may be able to clarify. For example, some reports have said that the power workers—this is a key matter—were coming out on strike and others have said that they were not. Can my hon. Friend say anything more specific?

The power workers have been pushed to the front in this issue, which is not their wish. I should just like to say that the power stations are working normally and were fully manned this morning.

This is clearly not the time to ask searching questions about contingency plans. I should like the Minister to accept that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I totally support the actions of the Secretary of State. We salute the courage of the people and the officers of Northern Ireland, and in particular we pay tribute to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, for which this must be a desperately difficult and delicate assignment.

I thank the spokesman for the Liberal Party very much indeed. I can only add my compliments to the House. It has been fully behind the Secretary of State in the actions he has taken, and we are very appreciative of that fact. It has shown everybody in Northern Ireland that the House of Commons, bar one Member, is on a certain side.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the lessons of the last few days in Northern Ireland seem to indicate that the two communities are democratically reaching out towards one another in order to achieve a lasting peace, and that those who are exacerbating the situation are now clearly seen to be who they are and what they are? Should not one of them, in the interests of democracy in Northern Ireland, carry out his threat to resign from this House?

:I do not think that I should go as far as my hon. Friend on that. I do not know what reports have reached the House, but in the Northern Ireland Press and on television last night a Member of this House has now firmly committed himself to being on strike and has stopped drawing his parliamentary salary.

I echo the support that my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) has given for the actions so far taken, but can the Minister give the House an assurance that there will be no discussion with the leaders of the strike on any constitutional issue at all as long as the strike continues?

One of the leaders of the strike is a Member of Parliament in his own right. It would be unconstitutional if a Member of Parliament who came to meet a Minister was turned away. But if the hon. Gentleman is referring to the bully boys and paramilitaries, I can give him that assurance.

The Minister's opening remarks reported, rather refreshingly, that during the first two days and on this third day things were getting better for people going to work. He also said that unfortunately, on the other side of the coin, during the first two days intimidation and threats grew. Are they continuing to grow, or is there a welcome sign that this counter-trend is not going on and that those concerned are beginning to realise that intimidation will not work?

My reports confirm, and it seemed so to me as I travelled through Belfast on my way here this morning, that a lot more people are going to work. Also, my information is that the intimidation and picketing have been stepped up rather aggressively. I believe that one of our colleagues suffered an unfortunate occurrence in one of the disturbances this morning.

I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in welcoming the Minister's statement. Is he aware that I was in Londonderry last weekend and that, when meeting members of all sections of the community in Northern Ireland, I found hardly one person who supported the present strike as a way of achieving their legitimate demands of the British Government? In saying that, may I ask the Minister yet again to state very clearly that it is the British Government's intention to step up their campaign against the terrorists? Only by doing this and removing them from the community will it be possible—I join the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) in saying this—to return Ulster to peace and prosperity so that that very fine and loyal Province can play its part in the economy of the United Kingdom as a whole.

Certain things have been happening on the security front, and they were reported by my right hon. Friend on Monday. I do not think it would serve any useful purpose for me to go over the figures, except to say that we are certainly not complacent about the security situation in Northern Ireland and that all that can be done will be done to rectify it.