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Ulster Defence Regiment Bases (Closure)

Volume 987: debated on Friday 27 June 1980

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. Brooke.]

2.32 pm

It has been another remarkable week for the Ulster Defence Regiment in Northern Ireland and it is appropriate that we should have the opportunity to discuss some aspects of its work today.

We have learnt that another member of the UDR has been seriously wounded and an ex-member of the regiment wounded in the same incident. Terrorists once again moved from the safety of the Irish Republic to attack those two men, who, of course, were at their most vulnerable, with the tools of their trade in their hands, and off duty. The terrorists tried to murder them, as they have murdered so many other gallant members of this regiment. We wish both those men good fortune and hope that they will soon be restored to health and strength.

We also had another occasion this week marking the tenth anniversary of the regiment when the Duke and Duchess of Kent participated in a garden party at Hillsborough House. Everyone in Northern Ireland expresses gratitude to Their Royal Highnesses for their concern and their appreciation, and for the sympathy they showed to members of the regiment and their dependants on that occasion.

We have also had a remarkable statement from a responsible elected member of the SDLP. He was defending the Provisional IRA against the allegation that they engaged in sectarian violence against Protestants. He said that they did not kill Protestants in Northern Ireland. He said that Protestants were killed only when they put on the uniform of the UDR and took sides in the conflict. I hope, of course, that many more tens of thousands of Ulstermen are prepared to take sides in that conflict and will continue to join the UDR.

If they are taking sides they are taking sides on the side of law and order and of civilised standards in our society.

The principal issue I wish to discuss is the closure of two UDR bases in my constituency. I regret having to have a public debate on this issue. The Minister knows that I tried to deal with this matter in private talks and in correspondence with him. But that has not sufficed. In order adequately to represent the feelings of my constituents and the feelings of members of the UDR I have had to raise the matter in the House.

I shall try to avoid saying anything that could further damage morale in the companies involved in the moves. There is heightened local concern at the proposal to close these bases, but I shall do my best to avoid assisting the enemy in what I say. But anything we say here can be read by the Provisionals and I suppose that they might use it.

We would be deceiving ourselves if we thought that the IRA did not already know what is going on. The closure of Loughgall has been reported in the press. The base is now empty for all to see and the impending closure of Lurgan has been reported extensively in the press. I am concerned about these closures.

County Armagh has a population of 130,000. The county has borne the brunt of the IRA war both from bases within the county itself and, in more recent times, as a result of the incursions from the Republic against the security forces in Northern Ireland.

The IRA has taken a terrible toll of off-duty UDR personnel and their colleagues in the Regular Army. If the deaths in County Armagh were population-rated there would be almost twice the number of UDR men killed compared with the figures for the rest of the Province.

The UDR performs a vital task. The fact that the Provisionals make such an effort to eliminate its members shows that they are aware of the threat that it poses to them. The closure of two of the five bases in the county seriously affects the viability of the UDR operations in County Armagh.

I have supported the general policy of reducing the Regular Army personnel involved in the conflict in the Province, but I have always argued that although it is possible to reduce the numbers in County Down, Antrim and parts of Belfast, they are still required in strength along the frontier in South Armagh, South Tyrone and Fermanagh. I have said that I can support the policy of reducing the Regular Army commitment if there is proper deployment of the UDR, both full-time and part-time, as a back-up to the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

One must have been concerned when one read, as one did a few weeks ago, that there would be another reduction of 500 or 600 men in the Province. At the same time one learnt that that would cause the closure of the Lurgan UDR base. If the bases were of no significance and had no strategic importance, I should not object to their closure, however, that is not so.

The Loughgall base is the centre of a large geographical area in North-West County Armagh. As well as being well placed to patrol a number of violent Republican areas, it forms the guard on the Armagh-South Tyrone border, patrolling along the Blackwater River from Magheny to Caledon. There were three vital bridges across that river. There is no doubt that the Provisional IRA would have used the bridges to carry arms and explosives from the Dungannon and Coal island area into County Armagh or perhaps to Belfast.

The Loughgall company was recruited from the large natural hinterland around the village. Many of its members had to travel a fair distance to do their duty. The base was adjacent to the RUC station and the guard at the base automatically provided a guard for the local RUC station.

On several occasions recently the Loughgall police have sought UDR assistance and have had difficulty in obtaining it. When the base was open and the men were there, there was no trouble in that regard.

Regular Army activities in that area—1 do not want to say too much about that —have been inhibited because there is no base for a quick reaction force. It must be frustrating for the Regular Army unit which has always relied on the facilities of the UDR base. The base is there and almost all the facilities are ready for used.

No doubt we shall be told that there are good cost reasons for the closures. How can one measure that cost when there are so many offsetting costs? What about providing a guard for the local police station? How can one put a price on lives and damage to property that might occur as a result of the closure? We shall also be told that the closures release personnel. That will be an advantage only if we manage to hold on to the part-timers who will have to travel substantial distances. The two arguments are not particularly strong.

The most disturbing aspect of the Loughgall base closure is that the decision to close it was taken by the commanding officer of the UDR battalion without consultation with the local company commander. The man who had commanded the company based in Loughgall for six or seven years learnt about the closure of his base in the same way as I did—from gossip and the local press. It says a lot for the communications during the period of that commanding officer's reign if that is the case.

The gates were shut virtually a few days before the new commanding officer of the battalion took over command. In view of the fact that no discussion took place with the local company commander, and that there is a new commanding officer of the battalion, I ask the Minister to consider the need for a reappraisal of the situation to provide an opportunity for the man who will be looking after the area for the next two, perhaps vital, years to arrive at a different decision.

The impending closure of the Lurgan base is more incomprehensible. I was born and bred in Lurgan. Of the major centres of population in my constituency, Lurgan is obviously the most dangerous. It is a deeply-divided town, with a number of sensitive flash-point areas. Yet, within a matter of days, we are told, there will be no permanent Army and UDR presence in Lurgan. The Minister, in a reply to me a few weeks ago, said that the UDR felt that it was able to maintain a more efficient presence on the ground from bases elsewhere, meaning the Portadown base; and that the Porta- down base, almost, would be six miles further for part-timers to travel.

I measured the distance on Monday afternoon. The shortest possible route from the UDR base in Lurgan to the new UDR base in Portadown is 7·8 miles. It might be asked "What is 8 miles?" I should like to indicate the situation that will confront the part-timer. A part-time UDR member living in Lurgan, who can probably now walk to his base, will come home from a day's work, have a quick bite to eat, get into his car and drive to Portadown, pick up his weapon and drive eight miles back to Lurgan to do his duty. When his tour of duty is over, he will drive eight miles back to Portadown, leave the weapon in the armoury, and travel eight miles back home. That means a journey of 32 miles if it is intended that the UDR shall do duty in the town of Lurgan. There is no doubt that they are required in Lurgan.

The fact that Lurgan has managed to escape, over the past 12 months, a number of major bomb attempts, made on the commercial centre, has been due, in no small measure, to the UDR, which undoubtedly works closely with the local police and provides an excellent service in controlling the town centre. If it is intended that the part-time UDR members should continue these duties, they will be asked to add 32 miles to their journey.

I have no wish to bore the House by referring to the relationship between Portadown and Lurgan. I was born in Lurgan and have the misfortune to live in Portadown. I know the feeling that exists between the two places. There will be great reluctance among many men serving in the UDR in Lurgan to travel to Portadown, to be based there and to pick up their weapons there in order to do duty in their home town.

The 32 miles that constitute the shortest route go through hostile areas. There are three direct routes—the motorway, the main Lurgan-Portadown road and what was known as the old LurganPortadown road. Each of those three routes takes the UDR man through a hostile area. No matter how often he varies his route, he is bound to establish a pattern. We are asking people who already carry a sufficient burden to bear an added one that is totally unnecessary. I believe that frustration and disillusionment will quickly be engendered. Instead of being better off in personnel, we shall be worse off.

I should like to make two suggestions to the Minister. There is an excellent Territorial Army base in Lurgan—the Kings Park camp—which I believe was at one time used by the UDR until it acquired its existing premises. Why cannot the Lurgan UDR company again be based in that TA camp? Secondly, if there are long-term objections to that proposal, why cannot the Ministry of Defence enter into negotiations with the police authority for Northern Ireland, which is presently building a large and modern police station on an extensive site just off the Lurgan main street, with a view to sharing a portion of that site with the UDR?

After all, the UDR will become the immediate back-up to the police in the town. The police force already has a good relationship with the UDR. I hope that the Ministry of Defence and the policy authority for Northern Ireland can come to an agreement whereby the UDR unit in Lurgan can share that site as well as the armoury, and so on.

I do not believe that there will be any cost saving if more lives and property are destroyed. The Ministry of Defence budget may be slightly reduced, but the budget of another Ministry will subsequently be increased. If the Government want to save, they should save elsewhere rather than on this issue. I hope that the Minister will think again about both those bases.

2.46 pm

I join in the regrets expressed by the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) about today's UDR casualties. I am sure that all hon. Members join him in sending best wishes for the full recovery of those concerned.

As was made very clear in our debate on the Army yesterday, there is widespread recognition of the important and significant contribution of the UDR in the Province. I join with the hon. Gentleman in the tribute which he paid to the work that it does.

I am grateful for the manner in which the hon. Gentleman raised the question of the bases. Concern has been growing in the command structure of Northern Ireland for some time that too many UDR soldiers are engaged in guarding their own bases. The decision to close the five UDR bases, which was made earlier this year, was made for operational reasons and for operational reasons alone. The decision involved the GOC Northern Ireland, who consulted his brigade commanders. The headquarters of the UDR consulted the COs of those battalions concerned.

I regret just as much as the hon. Gentleman the way in which those decisions were leaked. We in this House know only too well that Government and other machines can be leaky, as a result of which the decision gets out and embarrassment is caused.

As the right hon. Gentleman says, especially in Northern Ireland. I concur with that comment.

Unfortunately, that meant that the company commander heard the decision as a result of the information being leaked rather than from the commanding officer of the battalion, which is what was planned. I regret that that happened. I cannot do more than hope that it will not happen too often in the future, because one recognises the realities of the situation.

At the same time as the decision was being made to close the five bases for operational reasons—and, therefore, to release men for full-time patrolling duties —it was agreed that 175 extra full-time UDR members be recruited. That meant an increment of 350 extra full-time UDR members who were available for operational duties.

This is an important improvement. The Lurgan decision came later, but again it was made for operational reasons and not, as the hon. Member suggested, as a direct result of the decision to reduce the force level in July by not replacing another major unit. It was made because, for operational reasons redeployment of the Regular Army was taking place, which meant that the Regular Army was not available to guard the Lurgan base.

Have the Government taken into consideration the effect on morale not only in County Armagh but throughout Northern Ireland of the widespread impression that the Government are not wholehearted in their desire to use the UDR? If there is a need for more people to man the bases, surely those people should be recruited, and recruited quickly. Lives are at stake here.

Of course the Government are aware of the feelings expressed by the hon. Member, because he expressed them in the debate yesterday. I wish that I had had more time then to reply. But the decisions being made in these matters are being made by the military commanders—for operational, not political, reasons. I must make that clear.

The redeployment of the Regulars in Northern Ireland meant that they were not available for guarding the Lurgan base, so 25 full-time members of 11 UDR would be required if the base were kept open for full-time guard duties. The choice is an operational one—whether they are there guarding the base or employed full time in their patrolling duties.

Of course one understands the concern of those directly affected. There is some additional inconvenience and travelling for many of those concerned. But against that must be set the real operational gains from these base closures. There is no question of reducing what the hon. Member referred to as the viability of the UDR in Armagh. If anything, the operational capabilities of the UDR in Armagh will increase as the result of these changes. I should be very loth—I hope that every hon. Member will support this—to seek to intervene from a political position in an essentially operational matter which should be determined by the local commanders. To intervene in such a way as to reduce the number of UDR men out on patrol would not be in the best interests of anyone concerned.

The Lurgan base is being moved to Portadown, which, I am told, is six miles away. The hon. Member says that it is 7·8 miles. I was brought up to believe that the Irish mile was different from the English mile. In the light of the three-mile limit which used to occur in some significant situations, one can understand that.

I accept that there is some inconvenience and that some extra travelling will be involved. There will be some additional costs. The UDR patrolling in the Lurgan area will not be adversely affected. The present close liaison between the police and the UDR will not be affected in any way either. Similar considerations apply to the closing of the base in Loughgall. C Company of 2 UDR is now being based at Armagh. It will be able more effectively to carry out its war against the terrorists in that area as a result of this change.

Cost did not figure in the decision to close the bases, but it may be useful to indicate what the manpower saving means. The cost of guarding a base comes out—on the 25 men required—at over £100,000 a year. The extra travelling costs of those concerned are very small in relation to that. The expenditure on the new armoury, which will now not be used by the UDR but which might be used by the police at Loughgall, is insignificant compared with the overall manpower cost of continuing to guard all the bases as they were guarded.

As far as I am aware, there have been no resignations by any of the members of the UDR, full-time or part-time. I very much hope that no resignations will flow from these decisions.

I was grateful for the way in which the hon. Gentleman encouraged all concerned to continue to work this decision. As with any operational decision, the door is never closed completely to matters being reexamined if operational conditions change. If the new company commander or battalion commander took a different view, no doubt he would make his representations through his own command channels, and careful account would be taken of the views of the commander on the spot by those higher up the military ladder. Therefore, I do not entirely close the door and say that never, in any circumstances, could a change be made. It would be absurd of me to suggest that. However, the advice that I have had is that at present the feeling is still genuinely held that the work can be carried out by the UDR more effectively as a result of their base closures.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the three bridges over the Blackwater river which have been used by terrorists. I assure him that there will be no change in UDR activity at those bridges.

The hon. Gentleman made a particular point about the police station at Loughgall and incidents in which the police have had to call for military assistance in recent weeks. I shall look into his points. I am not aware of those incidents, and I should like to be fully informed about them. I am advised that the military back-up will there for the police in Loughgall when it is needed.

Taking all these matters together, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think that the decisions have been made in the best interests of making the fight against terrorism more effective in Armargh and other parts of Northern Ireland.

I again join the hon. Gentleman in paying the warmest tribute to the work done by the UDR. It makes a valuable contribution to maintaining decent standards and reducing the amount of terrorist activity in the Province. I would not wish to do or agree to anything that would reduce the UDR's effectiveness.

I believe that a case has not been made out to justify a political intervention here. The hon. Gentleman has properly raised the matter on behalf of his constituents, on behalf of people who may have slightly misunderstood some of the implications of the decisions, who may have thought that they would lead to a reduction of UDR activities. Having raised it and received these assurances, the hon. Gentleman will, I hope, feel that his fears have been allayed and that he can pass on this message to people living in his constituency, whom he has well represented in the manner in which he has raised the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.