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Volume 972: debated on Thursday 25 October 1979

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


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on developments in security during the past three months.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he is satisfied with present security arrangements.

The Government's first—and overriding—duty in Northern Ireland is, and will be, to defend its people against terrorism from whatever source it comes. We shall not be satisfied until it has been totally suppressed. Ninety-one people have been killed this year as a result of terrorist activity. There have also been 487 bomb attacks. Since the end of August there has been some rise in inter-sectarian tension, mainly in the Belfast area, resulting in four deaths.

The Provisional IRA has continued to concentrate its attacks on the security forces and prison officers. I am sure the House would wish to pay tribute to the extraordinary dedication and bravery of all the men and women in the RUC, the Army and the prison service.

Their efforts are by no means without result. Five hundred and fifty charges have been brought for terrorist offences this year, 36 of them for murder and 29 for attempted murder. In the same period, 647 people have been convicted of terrorist crimes: 53 of these of murder and 16 of attempted murder.

During the recess I announced measures taken to strengthen our hand—an increase of 1,000 in the establishment of the RUC and the appointment of a new joint staff under Sir Maurice Oldfield to assist me in improving the co-ordination and effectiveness of the fight against terrorism. Most recently, I have held discussions with Ministers of the Irish Republic which are leading to substantial improvements in the anti-terrorist efforts of our respective security forces.

The tragic events of recent weeks have shown yet again what the terrorist threat means, and the Government fully recognise the concern that is alive in Northern Ireland today. I take this first opportunity to re-affirm to the House, as I have already done in Northern Ireland, that we neither underestimate the gravity of that threat nor shall we weaken in our determination to overcome it, so that the people of Northern Ireland can enjoy the fundamental human right to live at peace under the rule of law. With the support of the community itself, and the resolve of the security forces, I am confident that we shall succeed.

In view of the alarming statistics of death and destruction in Northern Ireland that the Secretary of State has given, how confident can he be that the measures he has outlined will have any telling impact in the war against terrorists? Will the Secretary of State give an assurance to the House that, if the measures he has outlined do not have the effect that he hopes for, he will change his security policy to one that is more penetrating and effective?

I said in my original answer that with the measures we have introduced and are continuing, and with the resolve of the security forces and the support of the community, I am confident that we shall succeed, although I am afraid that it is bound to take time. In answer to the second part of the hon. Member's question, we constantly look at the direction and thrust of our effort to meet changing circumstances, and shall continue to do so.

In view of the apparent inability of the Dublin Government to deliver what little may have been promised in the way of co-operation, will the Secretary of State now take effective measures to ensure that the land frontier of the United Kingdom is absolutely secure?

There is a later question on the Order Paper about my discussions with the Dublin Government. If I may say so, I think that the hon. Gentleman is premature in saying that the Government of the Republic are not delivering the goods. I shall return to this in due course. The hon. Gentleman suggests that the border should be made secure. Frankly, if by that he means that it should be sealed off, I must remind him and the House that the border is more than 300 miles long and that to close it altogether would require a dramatic increase in the number of security forces that would have to patrol it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that while security must be maintained—and we must express our gratitude to and respect for the services involved—the extent and cost of that commitment, and the level of economic engagement in Ulster, should, at least to some extent, be made dependent upon the response to the political initiatives that are now so necessary?

I think the whole House recognises that to seek to defend citizens of the United Kingdom against the kind of attack to which the people of Northern Ireland are subjected is a costly business. At the same time, I do not believe that this House would begrudge the cost of seeking to defend our fellow citizens against this kind of evil.

Does the right hon. Gentleman remember that after the tragic Mountbatten murders he went on record as saying that he would insist that the RUC would be permitted to question, in Gardia stations across the border, those who had been arrested by the Gardia for acts of terrorism within Northern Ireland? Does he also recall that he talked about hot pursuit across the border, as well as coming to grips with extradition? Can he tell the House whether, on any of these grounds, he has had any satisfaction from the Irish Republic Government in view of the strong statement made yesterday by the Premier of the Republic that no such steps would be taken?

There is a later question on the Order Paper about my discussions with the Government of the Irish Republic, and I think that it would be more appropriate if I left the answer to that point until then.

Does the Secretary of State recall that when he was first appointed he was described by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) as

"a strong law and order man"?
When does the right hon. Gentleman hope to fulfil those expectations?

I trust that the House is is no doubt about the resolve of the Government and I to use the most effective means of suppressing terrorism. Since we came into office, we have adjusted the way in which we are tackling terrorism to take account of the new circumstances. In my original answer I described a number of the steps that we have taken. When further steps need to be taken which seem to the Government to be appropriate, we shall take them.

May I press on the Secretary of State one particular case, namely, the one in which an unfortunate gentleman was not only shot during the day but was further shot during the evening while he was a patient in hospital? May I suggest that one of the constructive steps that he could take is to ensure that hospitals and other such institutions are more conscious of security and the danger to patients than they are at the moment?

This was a most distressing case which showed up a weakness in hospital security arrangements. I immediately issued instructions that security in hospitals should be reviewed in an effort to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.