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Nuclear Missiles: Siting

Volume 416: debated on Monday 2 February 1981

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2.42 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is their intention to site nuclear missiles, when distributed from storage depots in England, in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I assume that the noble Lord is referring to the planned deployment of United States ground-launched cruise missiles at RAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, and RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire. My noble friend Lord Strathcona made clear in the House on 17th June 1980 (Hansard, Vol. 410, cols. 987–998) that during times of tension it is the intention that the missile launchers would disperse by road up to about 50 to 100 miles from these peacetime bases. The Government cannot, however, give an undertaking that these forces will not be deployed anywhere in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, may I ask the Government whether they will very seriously consider not placing these missiles in Northern Ireland for three reasons: first, they would intensify the sectarian confrontation in Northern Ireland; secondly, the radioactive fall-out would almost inevitably penetrate the Republic of Ireland; and thirdly, as Sean McBride, that great international figure, has pointed out, all Ireland might become a target in the case of a nuclear war?

My Lords, I cannot go further than my first Answer. The Government will not give an undertaking that these forces will not he deployed anywhere in the United Kingdom for, I think, fairly obvious strategical reasons and reasons of security. Nevertheless, the first part of the previous Answer of my noble friend Lord Strathcona makes clear that the normal dispersal of these weapons is by road to a distance of 50 to 100 miles.

My Lords, is it not true that at present there is a substantial preponderance of Soviet theatre nuclear weapons distributed in Europe? Is it not in Britain's and NATO's interests that these missiles should be deployed as quickly as possible and as widely as possible throughout Western Europe, including the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for those questions. Yes, there is an enormous preponderance of Soviet theatre nuclear weapons in Europe. Yes, I believe it is very important to the whole alliance that the countries in it, and ultimately five countries in Europe in the alliance, should he prepared to allow these weapons to be deployed. At the moment the main American long-range theatre nuclear weapon in Europe, the FI-II, is of course deployed only in this country, and therefore this modernisation programme will spread the basing of these weapons to a greater extent.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the final sentence of his original Answer to my noble friend—a sentence which he deliberately repeated, quite rightly—will be carefully studied on this side of the House officially with a view to ascertaining, perhaps later on, that it is not part of the Government's policy of the immediate future to spread these very dangerous weapons in every part of the country; that the 50 to 100 miles limitation will be applied as long and as meticulously as possible; and that the possibility of the missiles being sited in additionally hazardous areas, as my noble friend has described Northern Ireland, will only be taken into consideration in exigency, which would mean of course the direst possible exigency of all?

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will agree with me that the security of the United Kingdom and its allies is the dominant question here. I cannot go any further than I have already answered in relation to the likelihood of dispersing these weapons to any part of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he would agree that the strong line now being taken by President Reagan about Soviet activities in various parts of the world may prevent missiles of a nuclear character ever being used at all? Does that not indicate that more is likely to be gained by strength than by weakness?

My Lords, we all agree, I think, or nearly all agree, with those sentiments.

Nevertheless, my Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount to convey to his Secretary of State the views which were expressed by my noble friend Lord Goronwy-Roberts, which we on this side feel to be of the greatest importance?