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Northern Ireland (Lurgan Police Station)

Volume 930: debated on Thursday 21 April 1977

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

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Bates.]

11.20 p.m.

I begin with the words of an English journalist:

"Lurgan is a dying town, a hell-hole, a gunman's paradise where hate spreads like a malignant cancer."
I have to try to accept those words as an unbiased and objective assessment of how that journalist views the town in which I was born and bred, the town that I love, and where members of my family still reside. It is a small town by English standards, with a population of approximately 30,000. It is an industrial town based originally in the linen industry. Even in these bad times the unemployment rate is low by Northern Ireland standards and, being in single figures, it is even tolerable by British standards.

I have worked in the town. The relationship between the various religious groups in those workplaces is excellent. I do not like the description that has been applied to my town, and I do not like to accept it as being accurate.

I visited Lurgan last Friday morning. I believe that the Minister has also been there, and certainly the Opposition's Front Bench Northern Ireland spokesman has been there. The main street is a broad, lengthy Irish main street. In fact, it is one of the broadest main streets in Northern Ireland. It is about half a mile long. At one end of the street stands the parish church.

It was business as usual, and that meant virtually no business. One could hear the sound of one's own footsteps as one walked along the street on Friday morning. There was very little traffic movement because traffic movement is not permitted in Lurgan. If one looked a bit closer, particularly at the real business centre, one could observe eight gaping holes in the fabric of the small town. In those gaping holes at one time stood I6 business premises, some of them the most vital business premises in the town.

I pay tribute to one of the owners who has erected the steel works and is now getting back into business. One cannot pay enough credit to him for doing so. If one stops and looks and tries to analyse what has happened to this once happy, prosperous street, one notices that a barrier is thrown across it which cuts it in half and is now permanently closed.

The plug in the middle of that barrier is the war memorial. That is almost a blasphemy in itself, because the Lurgan war memorial is a beautiful war memorial. It is a small garden, not decorated with the figures of war, but with a statue of the angel of peace on top of the memorial. The memorial is plugging the gap in the barrier of hate that exists in my home town.

On the other side of the barrier is one of the biggest holes. If one inquires what filled that hole, one is told that it was the RUC station, or, as it was known in Lurgan, the old barracks. It stood there for more than a century. It had been very strategically placed and commanded what in modern jargon is known as a flash-point of the town.

No doubt the English reporter who described the town as a hell-hole made inquiries about the deaths of members of the security forces and others. In Lurgan nine RUC men have been killed, as well as numerous soldiers, UDR men and others. That figure might not surprise one until one realises that it is almost 10 per cent. of the total number of fatalities of the RUC. Yet they were killed in a town of only 30,000 people. If that proportion of fatalities was repeated across the Province the number of RUC men who have been killed would not be 102, which is already one in 50 of the police force in Northern Ireland. It would be much more excessive. Of those nine policemen two were killed in the past six months. One of them was the late Constable Cush, who was a personal friend of mine. The other was Inspector Cobb, a young family man who worked in Lurgan for many years. In the same place occurred the death of Private Lutton of the UDR, who was shot in the back.

It is bad enough getting such an impression of Lurgan on a sunny Friday afternoon, but to visit Lurgan after dark, as I did just a few weeks ago at seven o'clock in the evening, is like watching a scene from a science fiction movie. In that broad main street bathed in modem lighting not a thing moves. Not a car drives along and not a person is seen on the street. One begins to wonder whether it is reality.

It is different again on a cold wet night, the sort of night when Private Lutton died. I passed the spot where he was killed only a few minutes before it happened. I was stopped by a red traffic light, and I was so concerned about the atmosphere in the area that I drove through the red lights to get out of the town. In view of what subsequently happened I now know that I was right to do what I did. It is not surprising that one gets the feeling that this is a hell-hole, that the town is dying.

The tragedy is that Private Lutton died 50 yards from where the front of the new police station should be. I want to convince the Minister tonight, if I have not already done so, that the new police station holds the key to the security situation in Lurgan. Many of the problems that the police face today are a direct consequence of the failure of the Government to get that police station built.

Let me illustrate my reasons for saying that the Government have failed. I promised the people of Lurgan when they elected me that my first priority for that town would be the police station. On 5th April 1974, within days of coming to this place, I asked the Secretary of State when he intended to start rebuilding the Lurgan RUC station, whether he would take the opportunity to improve the traffic, and so on. The then Minister of State replied
"The Police Authority … has in hand plans to replace Lurgan RUC station as soon as possible."—[Official Report, 5th April 1974; Vol. 871, c. 478.]
A year later I asked the Secretary of State when he hoped to put the rebuilding of the station out to tender, when he hoped to start building and when he hoped to have it completed. I was told by the Under-Secretary
"I understand that the Police Authority for Northern Ireland plans to ask for tenders for the new RUC station at Lurgan in April of next year. Building operations are planned to start in July 1976, and it is hoped that the new station will be ready for occupation early in 1978."—[Official Report, 14th July 1975; Vol. 895 c. 351.]
Last year when it was obvious that this would not happen I asked again when it was hoped to start rebuilding the station. The Under-Secretary told me
"The Police Authority for Northern Ireland … expects work on the rebuilding of Lurgan RUC station to commence later this year … there have been continual revisions of police requirements and security requirements for the station. That has caused the delay in the planning procedure, which is now nearly over"—[Official Report, 18th March 1976; Vol. 907, c. 1523.]
Finally on 28th February this year I asked the present Under-Secretary the same question, and I accepted his answer that he would write to me as soon as possible. If some of the other answers were misleading, his reply must surely be one of the most complacent that any hon. Member facing a situation such as I have described has received. He said
"As you know, a great deal of preparatory work has already been undertaken in aid of rebuilding the Lurgan RUC Station.
However, timing of the reconstruction will largely depend on relative priorities within a tightly stretched programme of major works projects for the police.
I will get in touch with you again as soon as we can say something more definite."
That might have been acceptable if it had been written six months after the police station had been blown to smithereens, but it was written after three and a half years of delay and prevarication and answers that had proved to be inaccurate.

Although the Minister has inherited much of the situation, he carries responsibility tonight, and he must be ashamed.

Following the death of the UDR private whom I have mentioned, last November I asked the Ministry of Defence to establish a full-time Army post in Church Place until the RUC station was rebuilt. In reply I had a letter written in general terms and saying that that matter was being considered along with other security matters and that, regrettably, not much could be done for me. However, a full-time Army presence was established half a mile from where I suggested. People have been killed in the flashpoint of Church Place, and yet an Army sangar was built half a mile away at the other end of the town.

The most recent assassination attempt occurred last Friday morning when I was in the town. It took place not 100 yards from the sangar, and yet the soldiers could not do anything about it even if they wanted to do so. That highlights the failure of this type of operation.

Following the death of Inspector Cobb, the barrier at Church Place was closed. It was considered to be too great a risk for the police to see the traffic through there. It was also obviously too great a risk for the Army to build a sangar there, for it was built half a mile away.

A local trader telephoned me on Monday about his business, which was adjacent to the barrier in Church Place. He was burned out of his business in the most appalling circumstances towards the end of last year, and he has been trying to get back into business on the same site. He received a letter saying:
"We refer to your above mentioned claim, which is receiving attention. We would advise you after consideration of your security precautions that we would intend to seek a 20 per cent. reduction in the compensation that is being offered to you."
Here is a trader who has been operating alongside the barrier where the police and the Army cannot mount a guard. He is told that it is agreed that he should be given compensation, but that it should be cut by 20 per cent. because he did not provide sufficient security. This man employed four people of whom one provided security precautions for him.

I hope that the Minister will look into this case. I feel very sore about it. I have done my best to convince this trader that it is worth setting up his business again. It is essential that he and others like him do so if Lurgan is not to die completely.

I am not speaking irresponsibly or without a great deal of thought. The Minister knows that for three months I have deliberately refrained from commenting on the situation for I wanted to give him and the police authority and everyone else involved a breathing space. For the reasons I have given, it was difficult for me to do so. I know that it can sometimes be alleged that highlighting the problems gives a victory to the IRA, but the Minister has been long enuogh in politics to know that after a time the elected representative cannot be put off by the civil servants and the bureaucrats and has to highlight what he regards as inadequacies.

Lurgan is only 20 miles from the capital of Northern Ireland and only 25 miles from where the Minister resides when he is in Northern Ireland on duty. Despite its size, it is one of the major towns of Northern Ireland. The Government must tell us tonight whether they really believe that the IRA has such a stranglehold on the part of the town in which my mother lives, and which I visit weekly, that they cannot rebuild this police station. They have built a police station in Londonderry in recent years, and are continually doing works at Long Kesh. They intend to build a new prison at Megaberry, and in my own county there have been substantial building works at Middleton—hardly a safe area. They have built a complete Army post, which is like a small town on its own, in Armagh City.

Is the Minister convinced that the Lurgan police station can or cannot be built? He must either tell the contractor to get on to the site and do the job, or tell him that he accepts that he cannot do it. I do not under-estimate the problems of the contract. If the contractor takes too many security precautions he may draw attention to himself. If he takes too few he may feel he is endangering people's lives. However, I must look at the more important aspect—the future of the town of Lurgan.

If some of the things that I have said seem hard, the Minister must bear in mind that this is a serious matter. The contractor must either take on the job or give it to someone else who can do it. If he does take it on and the station is rebuilt on the site so that it commands Lurgan once again, I believe that all the existing barriers could be taken away The Minister might consider that anyway as a step in the right direction.

The isolation of the half of Lurgan which no longer belongs would then be over. The parish church—the largest in Ireland—would once again be able to play its part in the community. Business would resume. There would be a return of public transport, which no longer provides a service; it is trying, in difficult circumstances, but the constraints mean that journeys are lengthened because they have to skirt the town. The police would be relieved of being locked in behind their own barriers.

Without criticising the police, I feel that they are existing barriers within barriers. That imposes severe constraints upon them and exposes them to hazards whenever they have to come out and open the barriers. When there is an incident, as there was last Friday, there may be delay in getting to that incident.

Referring back to last Friday's incident, had the town of Lurgan been open we could have closed the road through the public park once more. That may seem trivial to some hon. Members, but that road, which detours the town centre, was the one that the assassins took when they almost killed the policeman. That was the road that led back to their hideout. Had the police station been where it used to be, the police could have been there before the assassins arrived back in a way they could not manage last Friday. If the barriers were removed the police would be relieved of the dangerous, boring and onerous task of manning the barriers and could get on with fighting the terrorists.

Predecessors of the Minister were telling me not so long ago that problems at the other end of my constituency could not be handled, it would take too many soldiers—10,000 members of the British Army—and soon. Then suddenly determination and will showed that it could be done. With the same will and determination here, success could again be achieved. I want the Minister to show some of that determination here tonight and win again.

11.39 p.m.

The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) need feel no shame for the promise that he made to his electorate. He has tried to discharge that promise in all the ways open to him, both in Parliament and outside the Chamber. I recognise and acknowledge that fact.

I am aware of the concern and anxiety that the hon. Gentleman must feel. His mother still lives in the town. If I were in similar circumstances, I should be doing exactly what he is doing. I should not be paying too much regard to the suggestion that highlighting a situation may increase the dangers and problems. If I were in his position, I would not have changed one word of his speech. I hope that he will accept my sincerity in this matter. However, there is always a difficulty for a Minister who recognises and sympathises with a problem raised by an hon. Member. There are always other considerations that have to be taken into account.

As the hon. Member has stated, Lurgan RUC Station was destroyed in a bomb attack in November 1973. Since then the Royal Ulster Constabulary has occupied premises in the local town hall, and I take this opportunity of acknowledging and expressing appreciation for the help and co-operation of the members of Craigavon Borough Council by making these facilities available to the police at some considerable inconvenience to themselves. Their continuing acceptance of this situation is greatly appreciated by the Police Authority and the Chief Constable.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from my letter to him on the subject on 11th October last, the preparation of plans for rebuilding the station on its former site in Church Place was put in hand by the Authority immediately following the explosion. Initially it was thought that the new station would be a straightforward replacement with only minor modifications. On this basis, answers to Questions tabled by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues at that time indicated that work would begin soon on the Church Place site. However, it became clear that to build a mere replica of the old station would be short-sighted and that it would be more sensible operationally to build for the longer-term needs of the station. Revised plans were, therefore, prepared to take account of additional police requirements, and it was not until late 1976 that the Police Authority was in a position to invite tenders for the building of the station to its new specifications.

The Authority had actually awarded a contract for the new station when new considerations arose for which I am partly responsible. The successful recruitment to the RUC has, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, meant rapid numerical expansion, and consequently created logistic problems, not the least of which concerned accommodation and training.

During 1976, some 570 recruits were accepted into the force, and this excellent rate of recruitment has continued during the early months of 1977. This is most encouraging, and I hope that the trend will continue. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares that hope. Although generous financial provision has been made for the acquisition and building of new premises for the RUC in order to meet most of these pressing and immediate needs, it has also become necessary to reassess our overall priorities.

Our conclusion—and this of course includes the Police Authority and the Chief Constable—is that to respond adequately to the immediate requirements of the force it has proved necessary to give special priority to the acquisition and adaptation of suitable existing buildings which can quickly be brought into use. In this connection we have been considering the potential of Gough Barracks in the city of Armagh, which was vacated by the Army last year. In terms of existing accommodation, this property is not ideally suited to the intended use and it will require reconstruction and modernisation. However, it has the advantage of being located in an area of particular need, it is readily accessible via the motorway, and it can provide for a wide range of services for which the RUC has an urgent and immediate requirement. These have been carefully assessed by the Police Authority in consultation with the Chief Constable, and will ease considerably the pressure on accommodation and in-force training facilities in County Armagh.

This proposal will involve considerable expenditure, against a background of already accepted financial constraints. Therefore, we must meet the cost without also adding to the capital expenditure allocations already existing. In other words, we have had to reassess priorities within the building programme, and it is in this context that it has been decided to defer the rebuilding of the Lurgan station, where difficulties were being experienced also in assembling a work force.

This decision should not be misinterpreted. We recognise the difficulties faced by the security forces in Lurgan and we are sadly aware that they have suffered grave casualties. In this connection I wish to pay tribute on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my other ministerial colleagues, myself and the whole House to the resolution shown by the members of the RUC generally and to those of this area in particular.

Security arrangements to protect the town centre have had to be changed and the Church Place barrier has necessarily had to be closed. But, despite these problems, all areas of the town have been, and will continue to be, patrolled by the security forces. The essential operational police functions will continue from the existing premises, which are approximately 300 yards from the site at Church Place.

I acknowledge the keen and continuing interest which the hon. Gentleman takes in the Church Place project, and I can well understand that he will not entirely welcome the additional delay in the rebuilding of the Lurgan station. Nevertheless, I feel that the decision which has been taken is the right one in the circumstances. It is the intention of the Police Authority to negotiate with the Borough Council for an extended lease of the Town Hall. It has proved adequate as a station for the past four years. I hope that the Council will show continuing understanding of our present difficulties.

I emphasise that the Church Place project has not been abandoned. It has simply been deferred to allow the more urgent requirements to be met.

The hon. Gentleman has brought other points to my notice.

The hon. Gentleman has not left me a great deal of time, so I hope he will allow me to conclude.

I shall take up those points at the earliest opportunity and write to the hon. Gentleman, particularly about the compensation problem. I have told him that I appreciate the reasons for his introducing this serious subject and the manner in which he did it.

When one deals with priorities against a background of constraint one is often compelled to take certain decisions which one would wish not to be compelled to take. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has experienced this in the many and various pursuits he has followed during his lifetime. I regret that it is necessary temporarily to suspend the contract for the building of Lurgan police station. I hope that we can return to the project at an early date and perhaps not only carry out on the hon. Gentleman's behalf his promise to his electors but meet the needs of the Province in general.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Twelve o'clock.