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Volume 80: debated on Thursday 13 June 1985

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

Since I last answered questions in the House on 9 May, four police officers and two civilians have died in incidents arising from the security situation in the Province. The recent tragedy at the Killeen border crossing point, in which the four police officers died, underlines the grave risks which the security forces continue to face in carrying out their duties. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to their outstanding courage and determination to defeat terrorism. Our sympathies go to the families of the bereaved.

Since the beginning of this year a total of 230 people have been charged with serious offences, including 20 with murder and 18 with attempted murder, and 103 weapons, 5,715 rounds of ammunition and 3,858 lb of explosives have been recovered.

The House will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for that statement. Does he regret the reluctance of the Irish Police Commissioner, Mr. Wren, to meet and to co-operate with Sir John Hermon, the Chief Constable of the RUC, since such co-operation must be in the best interests of both police forces to ensure that terrorism is eliminated as speedily as possible?

It is not for me to analyse the position of Commissioner Wren of the Garda. As my hon. Friend knows, in many ways there is strong and worthwhile co-operation between the RUC and the Garda, as a result of which many lives have been saved. However, that must be buttressed by regular meetings at a senior level between the two police forces, and I would hope that it could be regarded as a matter of course that the two chiefs of the police forces should also meet from time to time

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Chief Constable of the RUC has consistently stated that he has no disagreement with Commissioner Wren? Has the commissioner or the Government of the Irish Republic identified to the British Government the substance of any disagreement on their part with the chief constable?

No, Sir. As the hon. Gentleman said, Sir John Hermon has always been keen to improve co-operation, which in many respects is good, but which could be improved.

Will the Secretary of State comment on the remarks made at the annual meeting of the police representative body in Northern Ireland, when Mr. Alan Wright said that the financial cuts were hindering the RUC in their campaign against terrorism, and that the deplorable state of some border police stations was telling against the morale of the RUC?

I have noted those remarks, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State was present at the dinner. There have been no financial cuts, in the sense that the RUC now disposes of greater financial resources than ever before. I understand what Mr. Wright said about the need for the renovation and replacement of buildings, and £20 million has been designated for that purpose for each of the next three years. That will match the needs created by the rapid expansion of the RUC in recent years.

Did the Secretary of State see the editorial in The Economist and think about its implications for security? It suggested that the Government were wrong to refuse to meet elected Sinn Fein representatives. Does he agree that it is a better democratic principle to meet the representatives of all elected parties than for the Government to pick and choose which representatives they find acceptable?

I am a little puzzled about The Economist. In one article it advises us not to talk to Dublin any more, and in another, as the hon. Lady said, it advises us to talk to Sinn Fein. I am clear that there is no purpose in deceiving ourselves that any conversations with Sinn Fein representatives would turn members of the Provisional IRA into decent, law-abiding citizens. In my view, that is not a possibility. The policy which I pursue is clearly different from that practised by the hon. Lady, though not, as I understand it, by her Front Bench spokesmen, who took an aeroplane to London before the embarrassing meeting took place. The policy in which I believe is that we should use every means within the law to distinguish between those in Northern Ireland who believe in and practise constitutional means and those who connive at violence.

Is my right hon. Friend content with the present practice in relation to marches and parades in the Province?

I have not lived through a marching and parading season yet, but I am uneasy about the present position. The policing of marches and parades on the present scale places a heavy burden on the police and in some cases, not all, can provoke sectarian conflict. Those who wish to see the police concentrate on the basic security problems of saving lives and protecting the community should think rather more carefully about the way in which some, not all, of those parades are organised and the burden that they place upon the RUC.

Despite Sir John Hermon's repeated statements that he wants to see an improvement in relations between the RUC and the Garda, does the Secretary of State agree that such an improvement will not be helped by public recriminations and by the apportioning of blame by the RUC or by the Garda?

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I agree with that. It is inevitable that occasionally feelings run high and that there are misunderstandings. Those produce statements and further misunderstandings. I do not believe that any of those principally involved believe that that is a sensible way to carry on.

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind the serious statement made by the Sinn Fein chairman of Omagh council, who claimed that if ordinary Northern Ireland council workmen don the Queen's uniform and are part-time members of the security forces and the IRA say that they are legitimate targets, he is happy to abide by that? What action will the Secretary of State and the Government take against Provo Kerr, and what protection will they give to my constituents who happen to be part-time members of the security forces and work for Omagh council? When shall we see an end to the mockery of Sinn Fein-IRA vampires in our councils in Northern Ireland?

Anyone in Northern Ireland, whether a councillor or not, is under the law, and any remarks made or any membership of any illegal organisation—whether the person involved is a councillor or not—fall to be examined by the police and prosecuting authorities in the same way as with any other citizen. I hope that people who make the kind of highly objectionable and disgusting remarks to which the hon. Gentleman referred have that point well in mind.

In view of the fact that the armed wing of Sinn Fein has murdered three councillors in County Armagh, an hon. Member and a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, what measures has the Secretary of State taken to protect other councillors, council officials and council workers in the Province?

The level of personal protection accorded to personalities in the Province who may be under threat is plainly something that the RUC studies constantly, sometimes adding and sometimes subtracting protection as it assesses the threat. With his long experience, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is the only sensible way to proceed.

While the House is pleased to hear my right hon. Friend's comment about cross-border co-operation, is it not a fact that the two chief officers of police have not met for more than two years, and that, however good that co-operation may be today, it would be much better if the two chief officers of police could be persuaded to get together more frequently?

It is true that the co-operation that exists and is particularly strong in the border areas would be buttressed and re-inforced if there was more regular contact and co-operation at senior levels of the police forces. It should become a matter of course, without need for publicity or notice, that the commanders of the two police forces occasionally meet.

For the avoidance of doubt, will the Secretary of State accept that the return to London yesterday of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and me for an evening engagement was arranged before we knew the timetable of the working group and the order in which it was seeing delegations. However strongly the right hon. Gentleman may disagree, as we all do, with some of the views expressed by Sinn Fein, does he accept that the essence of democratic and constitutional politics, in which we all profess to believe, is listening to people with whom we disagree? In particular, can the right hon. Gentleman justify refusing to talk to elected councillors about health and safety matters? Does he agree that those whose reaction to every circumstance is to throw a tantrum and walk out can hardly complain if they are seen as being more interested in dramatic discord than genuine understanding?

I am sorry to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman's explanation, because it means that he associated himself with the Labour party delegation's decision that it was right to receive Sinn Fein. I simply repeat what I believe to be the right attitude for people in positions of responsibility, which is to distinguish to the maximum extent permitted by the law between those, whether we agree with them or not, who practise constitutional means of arguing their objectives and those who connive at violence.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent cross-border incursions by British soldiers into County Louth and the consequences of it? Is he further aware that there have been many such incursions, that they are always one way, and that the soldiers always give the same reason— a map-reading error? What conclusions does the Secretary of State draw from the fact that the only soldiers in Ireland who appear to be able to read maps are Irish soldiers?

I am not so sure that there are many Irish soldiers in those areas. The hon. Gentleman is correct in drawing attention to an error that was made and has been acknowledged by the Army. He spoke of "consequences", and he may be talking about a certain tap and oil supply. I have no evidence to lead me to suppose that that incident had anything to do with the British Army.