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Security Forces

Volume 929: debated on Thursday 7 April 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is his policy regarding the conclusion of the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee contained in the Second Report from the Expenditure Committee to the effect that there is an urgent need, in the interests of the Army, to get force levels in Northern Ireland down, and what is being done in particular to ensure that the civil authority has sufficient resources of its own to diminish and ultimately relieve its dependence on aid from the Army without weakening the forces to combat terrorism and subversion.

Soldiers will support the civil power in Northern Ireland as long as they are needed to maintain the security of the Province. The maintenance of law and order is a police responsibility and the aim is that the RUC will progressively take over full responsibility for it. They will be recruited, trained and equipped to enable them to do so, but they will not be given tasks for which they are not fitted as a civil force. While the level of violence requires it, the Army will remain as a buttress for the police, supported as necessary by the UDR.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the prime responsibility for combating terrorism and subversion lies with the police force of the Province? That being so, will he say what special training and equipment is being made available to the RUC?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary indicated earlier that we do not wish to see the RUC develop as a para-military force, but in the present security situation it is essential that the RUC has defensive weaponry. It is being equipped with the M1 carbine. The first batch of these weapons has already arrived and tests have been carried out. Secondly, I have agreed that it should have mobile equipment up to 1,178 vehicles. Thirdly, it is to receive another 40 Land Rovers by the end of April and they will have protection around them, which will be fitted by the end of May.

Will my right hon. Friend be replying to this part of the Expenditure Committee's Report, and will he recognise that while we all believe the Army to be doing an extremely good job in Northern Ireland, the only solution to the problem there will be a political solution? Can he say what new initiatives are being taken in this regard?

I am not certain yet whether I shall be answering the Expenditure Sub-Committee myself, but no doubt the usual channels between the Secretary of State for Defence and myself will be operating to see how we can give a full and adequate reply. On the political side, perhaps my hon. Friend has not been fully conversant with the movements of recent times, but I decided three weeks ago to bring the major political parties together at a meeting with me at Stormont. I am sorry to say that there was not at that time a willingness among the political leaders to meet. There is no possible chance yet of them being prepared to come back from intransigent postures. We shall have to wait until after the local elections to see whether a greater willingness exists then.

Even if such a conference or discussion were arranged, and even if absolutely unanimous agreement were reached, what conceivable effect could that have on the level of terrorism being practised by the Provisional IRA?

It would be a signal to the terrorists in Northern Ireland—the Provisional IRA—that part of their cause had evaporated, and that the political parties themselves, across the religious divide, were prepared to work together. That would help the atmosphere, but it would not solve the terrorist problem.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the objective of the terrorists can truly be removed only if this House grants to Northern Ireland the constitutional arrangements that obtain in this part of the United Kingdom, namely, the reorganisation of local government and increased representation in this House?

On the last point, the hon. Gentleman knows that the Lord President of the Council gave an assurance that a Speaker's Conference could examine the possibility of increased representation from Northern Ireland in this House.

As regards the reorganisation of local government, the political parties in Northern Ireland are divided on what they really want. The Government's aim is devolved executive government. Some of the parties would like two or three councils to fill the yawning gap between local councils and Westminster representation. Therefore, there is no agreement coming from the parties themselves.