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Northern Ireland (Bomb Incidents)

Volume 958: debated on Wednesday 15 November 1978

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the bombing attacks yesterday on Belfast and six other towns, causing serious damage and casualties.

In a series of bomb attacks against commercial premises in Northern Ireland yesterday, a total of six car bombs and nine other devices exploded; eight devices were defused. Car bombs exploded in Omagh, Dungannon, Cookstown, Enniskillen and Newry. In Londonderry and Castlederg incendiary devices caused considerable damage. In Strabane a car bomb was successfully defused by the security forces, while in Belfast a blast incendiary caused some damage. No one was seriously hurt.

I understand that the Provisional IRA has admitted its guilt for these criminal attacks. As its support dwindles, it demonstrates its concern to disrupt the life of the Province. More significantly, it has betrayed its anxiety at the growing evidence of the people's wish and determination to be able to live an ordinary life. Yesterday's bombings have been condemned from all sides in Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend and I have never disguised the fact that the terrorists still have the capacity to mount attacks of this kind. Our security policy is flexible and the security forces will maintain their pressure on the terrorists.

The people of Northern Ireland have reacted with courage and steadfastness. There have been calls to the security forces not to be stampeded into re-erect- ing security barriers in town centres. Our policy is soundly based, and the terrorists cannot succeed against the will of the people of Northern Ireland.

I hope that I do not sound complacent if I conclude by saying that the PIRA has a well-organised propaganda machine, as right hon. and hon. Members know from their postbags, and I only trust that the House will not today do half of the propaganda work for the PIRA machine.

We thank the right hon. Gentleman for that very necessary statement, and we express our sympathy with the injured and those who suffered damage. Mercifully, I was mistaken yesterday when, in addressing you, Mr. Speaker, I spoke of loss of life. But is it not clear that, thanks to the vigilance of the security forces, a far worse outbreak in Belfast was avoided, and are they not to be congratulated on that? Although this was a carefully planned attempt to disrupt commercial and social life, will the right hon. Gentleman take it there would be great reluctance to return to security barriers in the towns to which he referred? Is it not plain that these attacks are designed to hinder the efforts of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in America to promote Northern Ireland industry and therefore employment for both communities, and will the Minister of State take it that we wish his right hon. Friend every success on his visit?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. Certainly, these attacks are not designed to help my right hon. Friend's work in America to attract industry; they are designed, so to speak, to give the Province an image in other countries which it does not deserve. I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As I said in my original answer, the towns involved are coming out very strongly about the re-erection of barriers, and I am sure that this is the right decision to make, but these matters arc kept under continuing review.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the overwhelming desire in the Province that this temporary setback should not be the reason for any reaction towards negative and defensive attitudes, and that the normalisation which has been taking place is greatly welcomed and supported? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that this event will bring no delay in the process of Ulsterisation of the security forces? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] Very well. If the House does not like the single word, I shall speak of the entrusting of security duties predominantly to Ulster forces. Will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that that will go ahead notwithstanding this event?

As I have said, we are convinced that our policy is right and we shall continue with that policy. I take that to be entwined in what the right hon. Gentleman said. I must point out to the House that, despite yesterday's events, the indicators of violence within the Province are continuing on a downward trend. As my right hon. Friend and I have often stressed, the PIRA terrorists are capable of doing these things, but of doing them not weekly or daily as they used to do but in more spread-out fashion.

Is it not possible for a quite small number of terrorists to maintain a campaign of this kind for a very long time? Indeed, is it not likely that they will do so as they become more frustrated in their attempts to force a decision their way, and ought we not therefore to make clear that we listen not to that but to the ballot box?

I trust that the House will send that message out loud and clear—that no one here will be forced to talk to the terrorists through the bomb and the bullet. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said.

Will my right hon. Friend say which was PIRA's greatest success—the damage, destruction and casualties in Northern Ireland yesterday or the rushed statement which was shot off yesterday afternoon and today's questioning?

As I said in my original answer, I want to be very careful that we do not do half of the PIRA's job for it today. If I went down the avenue that my hon. Friend is opening, I think that I should be doing that. From experience in the Province, I take the view that although I look at statements and listen to rumours in Northern Ireland, I should take no notice of them until I have heard the third denial.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that some satisfaction can be taken from the fact that the police managed to apprehend one load of bombs, no doubt destined to destroy more of Belfast? Can he say whether those bombs and the other bombs used in the attacks had their origin in the Irish Republic? In view of the concern in Northern Ireland that the Provisionals have to restore their morale, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether, in the coming days, other town centres will receive adequate patrolling to ensure that a similar occurrence does not take place?

We shall continue to pursue our policy as we have been doing over these past years. As I say, we are convinced that it is the right policy. We have no evidence whatever of the explosive material coming from south of the border. In fact, all the evidence points of its being home-made—and I think that the hon. Gentleman knows how easy that can be.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although, obviously, there must be no over-reaction to this outrage, it confirms once again the contemptible irresponsibility of the "Troops out" movement and those hon. Members who give it their support?

I repeat that I am very careful on these matters at all times. As Ministers, we are always fighting propaganda battles with the PIRA, or—I should say—fighting the PIRA's propaganda. Many right hon. and hon. Members know from their postbags how well oiled that machine is. In all that I do, I certainly do nothing to add to the work of that machine.