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New Hebrides

Volume 986: debated on Monday 16 June 1980

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4.20 pm

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House I shall make a statement on the New Hebrides.

On 11 June, following the shooting of a prominent Opposition deputy during a demonstration on the island of Tanna, the New Hebrides Government asked the two resident commissioners to recommend to their Governments the dispatch of British and French forces to the New Hebrides. This request was made during the course of a Cabinet meeting, and both resident commissioners agreed to make such a recommendation to their respective Governments. The Chief Minister's understanding of their agreement was later confirmed in writing.

It was in response to this joint recommendation that the French decided to send some gendarmes from New Caledonia. They informed us of this decision. It was also in response to the joint recommendation and to match the French action, that we decided to send a contingent of the Royal Marines, in order that we might be in a position to act jointly, should the need arise, with the French gendarmes. We informed the French of that decision.

On 12 June the French Government decided to withdraw the gendarmes from the New Hebrides, and did so that day. On 15 June the French resident commissioner made a formal protest to the British resident commissioner about the dispatch of the Royal Marines.

In deploying our troops in Vila, we are not only demonstrating our willingness to live up to our obligations but we are satisfied that we are acting in accordance with the 1914 protocol that governs the joint administration in the condominium.

I am seeking an early meeting with M. Dijoud, the responsible French Minister, in order that we may clarify our joint approach to the problems in the New Hebrides. Meanwhile, it remains the intention of the Government to do all in their power to promote a peaceful solution to the problem, to support the democratically elected Government, and to safeguard the integrity of the New Hebrides.

Is it not painfully obvious that the Government have been led by the nose by the French Government? What price now the close accord that seems to have been reached between the Prime Minister and the French President? Is it true that the order to withdraw the gendarmes came from the Elysée Palace? If so, was that in direct contradiction of the written understanding of the joint declaration of the resident commissioners? Will the blockade of Espiritu Santo be maintained? That is vitally important for the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the Government.

If need be, are the British forces prepared to act independently, giving the same information to the French Government that they appear to have given to us, and in accord with the wishes of the elected Chief Minister of the New Hebrides Government? What undertakings have the British Government given to the Rev. Walter Lini about the maintenance of law if the present talks, which he has instituted yet again with Jimmy Stevens, break down?

I entirely repudiate the hon. Lady's first remarks. I do not think that it helps to inflame the position between Britain and France. Quite clearly, we have a difference of opinion. I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that it is very much in the interests of the people of the New Hebrides—to whom I hope she will pay some attention—that Britain and France should be able to resume their joint approach to the problems of the New Hebrides. Many in the New Hebrides speak French and have links with France. Many speak English and have links with Britain. It is important to continue to work in co-operation to restore stability, to preserve the integrity of the islands, and to give aid.

On the question of the talks between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Giscard d'Estaing, I have nothing to add to my right hon. Friend's earlier remarks except that they agreed that the two Governments should remain in the closest touch in their handling of the problem and that they should continue their joint effort to resolve the problem by peaceful means.

I do not know from whom the order came to withdraw the French gendarmes. The blockade of Espiritu Santo continues. The undertakings given by the British and French Governments, on a number of occasions, to support the legally-elected Government of the New Hebrides, the constitution worked out last September, and the integrity of the islands, still exist.

With respect to the Minister, we have been told what the Prime Minister said to the President but we have not been told what the President said to the Prime Minister. It would be helpful to know whether he got a word in edgeways. If the Minister wants information about who made the statement that the order to withdraw the troops came from the Elysée Palace, I can tell him that it came from the French resident commissioner on the news bulletins. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us whether the Government have the faintest idea what they are doing about the attitude of the French Government.

It would not be proper for me to say what the French President said to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The hilarity on the Opposition Benches will not be well regarded by the New Hebrideans. It is high time that the Opposition took the matter seriously. It has become perfectly clear to me—after three statements in the House—that there is a degree of ignorance and irresponsibility on the part of the Opposition about matters in the New Hebrides.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not the first time that assurances given in private have been falsified by later declarations made in public? Will he not lose any sleep over that? Will he answer two questions? How does he now see the role of the British troops in the New Hebrides, and will he continue to encourage negotiations between the New Hebridean parties?

The role of the British troops is to provide an element of stability and to create an atmosphere in which negotiations can once again take place. I am optimistic about the possibility of negotiations starting again. I am confident drat the Chief Minister, Father Lini, is prepared to make proposals for new nego- tiations. I hope that Mr. Stevens will respond.

The Minister made two statements—first, that the French decided to send gendarmes, and informed us and, secondly, that we decided to send Marines and informed the French. Was it stupid and idealistic of me to imagine that a condominium meant that the two parties actually discussed matters with each other, in advance of any action?

We informed the French before we sent the Marines. The French informed us simultaneously with their dispatch of the gendarmes.

Bearing in mind that the New Hebrides is a condominium regulated by treaty, and that our partner, France, is now refusing to sanction emergency arrangements, under what lawful authority can British troops be used to put down a secessionist movement? Should we not be careful to avoid using force in a position where, very shortly, we shall be asked to leave the area altogether? Why should the life of a single British Service man be risked in such a ludicrous position?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the desirability of avoiding force, if at all possible. However, opinion in the Pacific is grateful that the British have sent the Royal Marines to the New Hebrides in the interests of preserving stability in the islands.

In view of what appears to be the unhealthy influence of a group of French landowners on the island of Espiritu Santo, will the Minister say what response has been made to today's statement by the French Government that independence for the New Hebrides should be postponed? Surely we should treat that remark with the contempt that it deserves.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has correctly quoted the remark attributed today to the French Government—although they have discussed the possibility of postponing independence. It remains the position of the Government that 30 July is the target date for independence. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would not be a responsible action to allow a territory to go into independence in a state of insurrection.

The French landowners exist in fairly substantial numbers. Some of them have been engaged in rebellion on Espiritu Santo, against the lawful authority. That illustrates the importance of making every effort to achieve the co-operation of the French Government, so as to ensure that the maximum pressure is put upon Mr. Stevens and the French settlers to agree to a peaceful settlement.

I revert to the question relating to the legal position which was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine). Obviously, the legal position is a difficult one, particularly in a condominium, the, basic assumption of which must be that the two parties act in co-operation. However, I return to my main point, that it is important to restore joint Anglo-French policy in the interests of the people of the New Hebrides themselves.

Will my hon. Friend never cease to keep in the forefront of his policy our obligation, as one of the co-governors of the New Hebrides, to ensure that the peace of the islands is maintained and that they soon achieve the independence that is promised? In so doing, will he also reject attempts that have been made, not least by the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), to inflame Anglo-French relations—the friendship of our two countries being vital to the future of Europe and much more important than any temporary local difficulty?

I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend. I would only add that it would be wrong to imagine that Britain and France alone can solve this problem. When I visit my French opposite number, which I am planning to do as soon as it can be arranged, I hope that we will be able to re-establish our policy on similar lines. However, we must recognise that ultimately it is up to the people of the New Hebrides themselves to work out their own future in a friendly manner.

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising, but I hope that they will be brief.

Is the Minister aware that a few days ago I had the privilege of putting a question to him, and I regret that at that time I left an implication of dishonesty with regard to that statement? I wish to withdraw anything that could be construed as suggesting any dishonesty whatever.

I look upon the Minister as someone of integrity. However, can he give an assurance that the democratically elected Government of the New Hebrides will be given every opportunity to take control, as a Government should do after they have been democratically elected?

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the first part of his remarks. One of the purposes of the dispatch of the Marines to the New Hebrides was to reinforce the authority of that democratically elected Government.

Can my hon.

Friend give an assurance that the Marines who are now in the New Hebrides will be kept there until the position is stabilised? On the other hand, if for diplomatic reasons it becomes necessary to match the French withdrawal of the gendarmes, is contact being maintained with friendly Commonwealth countries in the area to see whether there is somewhere nearer than the United Kingdom for the Marines to spend their time, perhaps during an interim period?

It is our intention to keep the Marines in the New Hebrides as long as is necessary. We are already in touch with friendly Commonwealth countries in the area, as my hon. Friend suggested.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if the French are not prepared to behave responsibly, and intend to pursue their national interests at such a vast distance, some Labour Members will strongly support whatever tough action is forced upon the Government?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. I repeat that at the moment our aim must be to restore a joint Anglo-French policy, in the interests of the New Hebrideans themselves.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time to override the vacillating and arrogant attitude of the French, and to ensure that law and order is maintained in Espiritu Santo and Tanna? Will the Marines be used to that end?

With all respect to my hon. Friend, I am not sure that I entirely agree with the tone of his suggestion, although we are determined that this problem shall be resolved.

The hon. Gentleman has made many statements during the past few weeks. His attitude has been fair, correct, scrupulously open and honest. Has it possibly occurred to him in the last few days that he may have been too honest, trusting and correct in dealing with the French? They look after their own interests, and we should do the same. How can we co-operate with someone who will not co-operate with us? Will the Minister at least try to ensure that British forces in the New Hebrides are not split between island and island? The secret of any success that we are likely to achieve there is in Espiritu Santo.

The main problem is the rebellion in the island of Santo. However, another purpose of the presence of the Marines is to restore a feeling of stability and confidence in the islands generally. The hon. Gentleman will recall that not long ago there was trouble in the island of Tanna—trouble that was successfully put down. I believe that the presence of our forces will discourage further outbreaks of trouble in other islands. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about my fairness and correctness, although I thought that it was perhaps a double-edged compliment—

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making clear what I thought was his point. I do not think that at present it helps to impugn the motives of the French Government. It is my purpose to ensure that, with my French opposite number, we restore a joint Anglo-French policy. The hon. Gentleman knows the area, unlike most of his hon. Friends. I am sure that he will realise that a joint Anglo-French policy is in the interests of the New Hebrideans themselves and that that must be in the forefront of our minds.

If the French Government refuse to co-operate, will the Government take action apart from the French? In what circumstances will the British troops be used in the New Hebrides? Will they be withdrawn when the date of independence arrives?

The first part of my hon. Friend's question is hypothetical. Of course, when the date of independence arrives it would be normal for British troops to be withdrawn.

Will my hon. Friend pass on to the Service chiefs the appreciation of many Conservative Members of this prompt action, bearing in mind the vast distances involved? I hope that my hon. Friend will continue not to dwell unnecessarily on the over-reaction of the French and the equal and predictable over-reaction of the Opposition.

I shall gladly pass on my hon. Friend's remarks to the Service chiefs, and also the thanks of the House for the speed and skill with which they conducted their operations. What has been striking today has been the responsible nature of the questions from my hon. Friends and the irresponsible nature of the questions from the Opposition.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the cheap flippancy of the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) and certain other interventions has probably been matched in equivalent questions in the French Parliament during the past week? Does he accept that there is great confidence in his determination to preserve a sensible balance in these matters and not to lose sight of the fact that Anglo-French relations are more important than quarrels among beachcombers in the Pacific?

I do not know whether I agree with the last part of my hon. Friend's question. I certainly would not put it that way myself. However, the Opposition should recognise that, after all, we are concerned with the interests of the New Hebridean people themselves.