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Security Situation

Volume 929: debated on Thursday 7 April 1977

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5.

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the current security situation in Northern Ireland.

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a further statement about the security situation.

Since the beginning of the year 43 people have lost their lives and 347 people have been injured as a result of violence in Northern Ireland. The main features of this violence have been the attacks by the Provisional IRA against members of the security forces, some murder attempts on prominent members of the community and a much reduced number of sectarian assassinations. Appalling and tragic though this violence is, the toll of death and injury is significantly lower than during the corresponding period in previous years. In the first 74 weeks of 1976,99 people were killed and 698 were injured; in the same period in 1975—during the Provisionals' ceasefire—55 people were killed and 527 were injured; and in 1974 62 people were killed and 677 were injured. Therefore, there is a noticeable decline in deaths and injuries.

In the past three months there has been sustained activity by the security forces in the campaign against terrorism, including the call-out of five companies of the Ulster Defence Regiment. This activity has resulted in the capture of 170 firearms and 3,363 1b of explosive. In the same period 297 people have been charged with serious offences, including 18 with murder, 42 with attempted murder, 81 with firearms offences and 34 with explosives offences.

I welcome the slight improvement in the ghastly total figures that the Secretary of State has given us. Is he aware that there is growing resentment among the junior level of command in the regular security forces at the increasing restrictions—as they see them—that have been placed on them in trying to carry out the vital job of rooting out terrorism? They are getting frustrated because the permission required before they can follow up information and make searches in many cases negates their skill in getting the information quickly at first hand. Will the Secretary of State assure everyone that there will be no unnecessary restrictions on the activities of the security forces, in whatever posture the politicians may want them to operate?

I am sorry to hear that. There are no political restraints on members of the security forces. In view of what the hon. Gentleman said and his interest in defence and security matters in Northern Ireland, I shall certainly draw that matter to the attention of the GOC.

I congratulate the security forces on their good work this year. Will the Secretary of State tell us what success there has been in the campaign against the "Goldfingers" of terrorism—the men who make a fat living out of protection rackets and illegal drinking clubs?

I cannot give a progress report on that aspect of the matter, because it does not arise from the original Question. The Chief Constable is fully aware of the black taxi rackets, gaming clubs, illegal drinking clubs, and so on. He is doing his utmost, with the deployment of his resources, gradually to tighten a grip on that situation.

While acknowledging the successes of the security forces, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to pay attention to the legal position of the Provisional Sinn Fein and make a statement on this matter after the recess? Did he notice that its national organiser was sentenced at the Old Bailey yesterday under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for soliciting guns and radios for terrorism in Northern Ireland? Will he therefore consult the Home Secretary about the alleged collection of funds in London for various purposes and the possible use of that organisation in Northern Ireland as a political front for the IRA?

Anyone who watches the Irish situation, north and south, and occasionally in Great Britain, has no doubt that there is a relationship between the PSF and the Provisional IRA. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the PSF was de-proscribed in 1974 by my predecessor. Indeed, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the Conservative Administration indicated in a speech at Cambridge in February 1974 that that was desirable. It was desirable because, if the Provisional IRA wanted to pursue the proper electoral processes, the PSF, still being legal, would be the outlet for it to do so.

The other point raised by the hon. Gentleman concerned talks with the Home Secretary.

Order. If the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) does not mind, I shall call him later. Mr. Neave.

Will the Secretary of State particularly investigate the circumstances of the case at the Old Bailey yesterday, where the national organiser of the Provisional Sinn Fein was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment under the Prevention of Terrorism Act? Is he satisfied that the provisions of that Act are working with regard to Provisional Sinn Fein?

Yes. This is spilling over to the Home Secretary's responsibilities. However, I shall do what the hon. Gentleman suggests and consult the Home Secretary to see what can be done about it.

Did my right hon. Friend detect the wave of absolute revulsion that swept throughout Northern Ireland this week because of the Provisional IRA's admission that it was responsible for blowing up two cafes in the centre of Belfast, in which many innocent children were badly wounded and maimed? Does he accept that everyone agrees with the Government's strategy of bringing terrorists before the courts, but that it must be seen that the courts act in a fair and impartial way? Is he aware that last week the local Press in Northern Ireland reported four sentences that were handed out to terrorists for the offence of murder? One was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment, another to 14 years' imprisonment and the other two to 10 years' imprisonment. On the face of it, that could give rise to some question whether all those convicted of murder should be given the same sentences, whether 30, 15 or 10 years.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not start to undermine the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland in the courts of justice. They have a difficult task to perform. They are terribly overworked and have a difficult job to do in present circumstances. I think that, alongside the RUC, they have managed to maintain the respect and esteem of the people of Northern Ireland. It may be that occasionally sentences are imposed that do not look satisfactory to some people, particularly the minority community.

However, I should like to add to what I said earlier, in view of the first point made by my hon. Friend. There has certainly been a considerable protest by Northern Ireland people against the cowardly and callous attacks on what might be termed soft targets in the past few weeks. Credit is due to some members of the minority community—Austin Curry, John Hume and Patrick O'Hanlon, a founder member of the SDLP—who, backed by Mr. Cosgrave and Senator Kennedy, have, for the first time, courageously spoken against the Provisional IRA. There is now a stronger wave of revulsion by the minority community, which is more outspoken than ever before, against the Provisional IRA's activities.

Does the Secretary o: State agree that one reason for the reduced figures has been the improved situation in South Armagh? Will he continue to bear in mind the strategic importance of that part of my constituency and resist any attempt to divert resources to other parts of Northern Ireland?

That is a valid point, and it would not be for me to direct the GOC or the police to lower their levels of security there. It is essential that they should be maintained.

Since terrorism is still rampant in Northern Ireland, surely there is an urgent need for the creation of an anti-terrorist force such as exists in other Common Market countries, where there are fewer terrorists and less death and destruction? When will the Government realise that Northern Ireland will not be treated as the Khyber Pass and the North-West frontier of the 1970s, providing reminiscences for Ministers and for military mess dinners?

The hon. Gentleman would appear not to have listened to what I said earlier, when I explained to the House that there are already 31,000 members of the security forces in Northern Ireland—one to every 50 of the community. That is a considerable proportion.

Secondly, the SAS is operating inside Northern Ireland Province-wide. It is aiding and abetting the police, feeding the police with intelligence and making sure that the RUC, with its regional crime squads, is successful in its arrests of the terrorists.

I welcome the Secretary of State's asurances that the Army will remain in support of the civil power for as long as is necessary in Northern Ireland, but is it not the case that it is not a question of numbers of troops so much as of suitable forces with the right skills, organisation and equipment? Will the Secretary of State not be quite so negative concerning the question put by the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), and the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) for a special antiterrorist force regularly constituted? Will the Secretary of State not rush at this, but give it some thought during the recess?

I do not think that it is necessary to change the strategy. I have tried to explain during the course of Question Time that the strategy is working. The rate of attrition is improving. I do not, therefore, see any need for any other special anti-terrorist squad in Northern Ireland.