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Northern Ireland: Massereene Army Base

Volume 708: debated on Monday 9 March 2009


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, with permission I should like to make a Statement about the horrific attack last Saturday at Massereene army base in Antrim. The focus for this sickening crime was civilians and young soldiers of the 38 Engineer Regiment, part of 19 Light Brigade.

The House will know that Operation Banner—the deployment of troops in Northern Ireland—was brought to an end in July 2007 and that 38 Engineer Regiment is part of the Northern Ireland garrison. These men and women are part of the new arrangements in which soldiers are based in Northern Ireland for deployment anywhere throughout the world. They are not about a garrison to replace Operation Banner.

These soldiers were in the process of being deployed for active service in Afghanistan, to support international efforts, to stabilise and to bring peace to that region. At the time of the attack, most of their colleagues had already left for this deployment. A small number remained, awaiting their deployment to begin within hours. While waiting, a small number of soldiers decided to order food from Domino’s Pizza in Antrim. At about 9.40 pm, the delivery arrived in two separate cars. The soldiers came out of the main gate of the barracks. The cars delivering the pizzas were parked fewer than 10 yards away. As they did so, two masked gunmen opened fire.

The initial volley of shots was followed by a second. The attackers clearly were intent to kill the soldiers and the civilians. They continued firing at the men even when injured; even when some had fallen to the ground. The firing lasted for more than 30 seconds. More than 60 shots were fired. Neither the soldiers nor the civilians had a chance against the premeditated attempt at mass murder. Two of the soldiers were killed. The families were informed yesterday and this morning the MoD released their names.

Sapper Patrick Azimkar and Sapper Mark Quinsey were held in the highest regard by everyone in their regiment. Patrick Azimkar was just 21. He was looking forward to facing the challenges of his first operational tour in southern Helmand. Mark Quinsey, who was 23, was equally looking forward to the operational challenges that he would face in Afghanistan. Two more soldiers were seriously injured. The attack was just as barbaric on the civilians from the pizza company. Both were injured—one extremely seriously. There can be no doubt that those responsible were intent to take the lives of all of these men. Before commenting further, I know that the House will want to join me in expressing our deepest condolences to the families of those who were murdered and to send our sympathy to the injured and all those families, who too are victims of this act of terrible violence which has rightly been described as evil.

Immediately after the attack, fellow soldiers from 38 Engineer Regiment went to the aid of their friends. They tended the wounded and cared for the dying. I had the honour of meeting some of these young men and women yesterday morning. Today my right honourable friend the Prime Minister flew to Northern Ireland and with him I met this group of outstanding young soldiers. I put on the record the admiration that we all have for these young men and women. They are the greatest credit to our country and I know that I speak for the whole House in saying how proud we are of them.

It is now the job of the PSNI to conduct the investigation to bring to justice those who murdered and injured these soldiers and civilians. A major investigation is now under way. This morning both the Prime Minister and I had further briefings with the chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, our intelligence advisers and Brigadier George Norton, Command 38 (Irish) Brigade and NI Garrison.

The House will wish to know that everything that can be done is being done. It is too early for me to report on the progress of the criminal investigation. However, I should tell the House that yesterday evening the so-called Real IRA claimed responsibility for this act of extreme brutality. Whatever self-styled name these murderers choose to use, the House will correctly recognise them as barbaric criminals who are prepared to carry out an act of pre-meditated mass murder—callously murdering innocent people going about their daily business. They are simply brutal and cowardly killers.

The numbers of people who make up these criminal groups are relatively few. However, they are no less dangerous for their small numbers. We know that they have no community support whatever, but their guns are able to murder. The police have asked for everyone in the community who has information to come forward. They should do so as a matter of urgency. Anyone in the Antrim area or beyond on Saturday who may have seen anything suspicious in the vicinity of Domino’s Pizza or on the Randalstown Road, close to Massereene Barracks, should contact the PSNI.

The House will want to know that all political leaders and political parties in Northern Ireland have condemned this evil act. They are all united not only in their condemnation and their expressions of condolence to the families but in their demand that anyone who can help should come forward. They join in these expressions with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and all the party leaders in this House. It is only right for me to record the expressions of support and sympathy that we immediately received from the Taoiseach and President McAleese. Indeed, messages of support and condolence have come from the United States, including from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and President Obama last night made his position very clear, condemning in the strongest terms the attack and making clear his support for the people of Northern Ireland who have chosen a future of peace, reconciliation and prosperity.

It may be helpful if I provide the House with further information about the current levels of security threat in Northern Ireland. As the House will know, both the chief constable and I have made public our view that the level of threat posed by dissident republicans has recently been higher than at any time in the past six years. Since 2008 they have mounted 18 attacks: 15 during 2008; and three so far this year. The House will be aware that last week the Security Service raised the level of threat from Irish-related terrorism from substantial to severe in Northern Ireland. This was a carefully calibrated decision, based on the overall assessment of the past nine months. This period includes the attempted murder of police officers, the savage attacks on those dropping their children at school and the failed car bomb in Castlewellan on 27 January 2009.

There was some uncertainty last week about the wisdom of raising the threat level. I believe that this was the right decision and entirely justified. Policing in Northern Ireland enjoys the highest levels of confidence from the public. In my judgment it is absolutely essential that the chief constable has operational independence. Of course he is accountable to the Policing Board under the Patten arrangements. He will, if he sees fit, enjoy the same rights as any other chief constable in the UK to request further technical back-up if so needed. That would be the case in, say, dealing with a threat from al-Qaeda and international terrorism; so, too, for any terrorist threat.

Indeed, we made that clear at the end of Operation Banner. In a Statement to this House on 31 July 2007, my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Defence, Bob Ainsworth, said that after 1 August the vast majority of military support in Northern Ireland would be broadly comparable to the assistance that is currently provided in Great Britain, tailored for the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. He also made it clear that the provision of explosive ordnance disposal—the kind used to deal with the car bomb in Castlewellan—would continue.

Whatever concerns honourable Members may have expressed last week—and it may be appropriate to comment on the serious distortions and misleading reports in some of the media at that time—I hope that they will now feel reassured about the role of any technical support being used to tackle the current threat. As the chief constable has repeatedly said, this is not about the return of troops to the streets but about protecting the public proportionately and protecting those who provide that protection, such as police officers and those who work to protect the international community or on international theatre operations.

It has been 12 years since the death of a soldier in Northern Ireland. This has been a very dark few days for Northern Ireland, but it is a temporary darkness at the end of a tunnel of considerable light. The peace process and political progress, as part of shared power, have transformed Northern Ireland. The perpetrators of this attack believe that they can stall that progress and, in stalling it, instil seeds of self-destruction. Indeed, they have clearly chosen to act in this evil way only because the politics of a shared future is working. The determination and resolve of all political leaders in the face of this brutal act is working proof of a unity of purpose.

We are all united in our resolve that the criminals will not succeed. Our confidence will be stronger, our resolve even greater, and while the House will understandably be sombre as a result of this murderous attack, the greatest memorial to Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey and their families will be in our determination to unite behind the peace process and political progress in Northern Ireland. Let us make sure that those responsible for this attack are not given any opportunity to stall or prevent the progress of Northern Ireland. Let us join together; let this House send an unequivocal message. The men of violence will not succeed. These criminals will not succeed—not now, not ever”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness the Lord President and other noble Lords in sending our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of Sapper Patrick Azimkar and Sapper Mark Quinsey, and to those injured in this most cowardly of attacks. The murdered men were about to travel to Afghanistan to serve their country and to support the Afghan people. The awful events of the weekend remind us, once again, of the bravery of all those who serve in the Armed Forces, the PSNI and the security services. We also thank the emergency services and medical staff; we are, indeed, all indebted to them.

The Independent Monitoring Commission review confirmed our concerns about the dissident threat. We have raised those concerns here and in another place. The attack follows a succession of near misses on police. The chief constable of the PSNI has been consistent and increasingly public about the threat posed by dissident republican groups. That must tell us how seriously he viewed the severity of the situation. I confirm our firm support for the operational independence of the chief constable. Like every other chief constable in the United Kingdom, he must have the right to enlist the help of specialists. Can the noble Baroness confirm that the decision of the chief constable to call in reconnaissance experts would not have been affected had criminal justice and policing been devolved?

The aim of these attacks is to try to disrupt normal policing, forcing police into barracks and armoured vehicles away from the public. We must not allow that objective to succeed but, rather, we must ensure that a balance be struck between the need to increase protection for officers and to ensure that the police are visible and known to their communities.

The Government raised the threat level from substantial to severe last week. Was that change due to specific intelligence received or a response to the general security situation? Were civilian guards briefed on the current threat level and individual establishments chased up to ensure that it was understood and that appropriate measures had been taken to account for it? Given the understandable and desirable pursuit of normalisation, which we on these Benches strongly support, will the Government conduct an immediate review of the security arrangements at police stations and military installations? Lastly, in this context, what are the implications for defence installations in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The attackers showed a chilling ruthlessness in shooting their victims a second time, on the ground. Do the Government not agree that such cold brutality suggests that these were experienced terrorists? The crime scene will reveal valuable ballistic and forensic evidence. The experience from previous investigations shows that speed is of the essence. Will the noble Baroness confirm that these murders will receive top priority and that the most competent and experienced officers will be in charge of the investigation?

I confirm that the position of the Official Opposition is to support the Government’s efforts to bring these criminals to justice. We believe that they have no support in the wider community. The support for the police investigation from all political parties is welcome. The key to defeating terrorism in Northern Ireland lies with all parts of the community. I endorse the Secretary of State’s appeal yesterday for anyone with information on these criminal acts to come forward; even the smallest piece of information could be vital and might help to bring this investigation to a swift conclusion.

Thanks to the peace process, which was begun by the previous Government and continued by this one, Northern Ireland has been transformed. An unrepresentative minority of dissidents are determined to undo the good work of the past 15 years. It is incumbent on us all to respond to this shocking attack by going about our business normally, but with increased vigilance; the good work of recent years must continue. Terrorism in any form must never succeed.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State. We must first extend our sincere sympathy to the families of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, the two soldiers who were killed on Saturday night. Those two young men were doing their duty and serving the whole community, before proceeding to Afghanistan. Our condolences go to their families, friends and colleagues—some of whom are still in Antrim, some already in Afghanistan. We also send our thoughts and sympathies to the families of those injured in the attack and continue to have in our thoughts the staff of Antrim Area Hospital, who continue to care for the wounded. We are indebted to all of them.

We utterly condemn this outrageous atrocity. As we saw and heard from the people of Antrim in the media this morning, this attack has been roundly condemned and received no justification or support from any quarter. These brutal murders serve no cause, nor have they resulted in anything but suffering for the families involved. We add our voice to those who have appealed for anyone with any information about this shocking attack to report it to the police, and to co-operate with the police investigation. We also reinforce our support for the chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, and his PSNI officers who have been subject to several—thankfully, so far, unsuccessful—attacks in recent months.

Under no circumstances—I echo what has already been said—should these atrocities disrupt the continuing peace process in Northern Ireland and the move towards full devolution. I have two questions for the noble Baroness. First, will she confirm that any additional resources that are needed for this investigation will be given to the PSNI? Secondly, does she agree that the people of Antrim have sent a great message to those who carried out this barbaric act? By coming together in a quite remarkable and quiet dignity, they have shown that nothing will set the peace process back and that there is no appetite from the people of Northern Ireland to go back to the violence of the past.

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Viscount and the noble Lord for their strong support of the Statement. I wholeheartedly endorse the thanks that the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, gave to the emergency and medical staff.

We all endorse the statement that the operational independence of the chief constable is absolutely necessary and will and must continue. I confirm that the chief constable, post-devolution, will be able to request further technical back-up, if needed. He will enjoy the same rights as any other chief constable in the United Kingdom.

On the change in threat, I confirm that the decision was taken on the basis of the past nine months. There was no prior intelligence about this attack. As for security at bases, it is the practice that after any incident there should be a reassessment of the security arrangements. And yes, absolutely top priority will be given to these investigations, with the most experienced personnel.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, is right that these atrocities must not disrupt and derail the current peace process. Like the noble Lord, I watched the television yesterday and saw quite extraordinary scenes of people of all faiths gathered outside the barracks. That is a clear statement of the determination of the people of Northern Ireland not to go back but to move forward and to have confidence in the police process.

My Lords, I have already had the opportunity this afternoon to express my sympathy, and I do so again with those families who have suffered. With every ounce of sincerity that I can muster, I appeal from these Benches that there should be no retaliation in Northern Ireland for the dreadful execution that occurred at Massereene barracks. It is important to us all. It would be an insult to the families of those who have lost loved ones if any retaliation took place.

On the issue of intelligence, I have had 12 responses to Parliamentary Questions in the past three or four months; 50 per cent of these have been non-answers in so far as I have been told that this is an operational intelligence matter. Particularly in the light of the Prime Minister’s unequivocal statement that these killers will be brought to justice, I should like to know the state of intelligence in Northern Ireland at the moment. We have had the chief constable for months tell us about the dangers. We have had the recent warning. We have had an unequivocal statement by the Prime Minister. Yet one Parliamentary Answer that I got seems to contradict it all, saying:

“The PSNI is also unable to provide information on charges relating specifically to dissident republican attacks as they are not attributed to individual dissident groupings. The Public Prosecution Service does not record what organisation a suspect is believed to represent in its conviction statistics”.—[Official Report, 26/11/08; col. WA318.]

Is there not a contradiction? Are we not having a cover-up? Is there intelligence and, if so, why is it not acted on? Is there no intelligence and is that why we find ourselves with this guessing game, which was not at the weekend successful?

My Lords, I am delighted in many ways that the noble Lord speaks of the need for us in this House to take a very firm view on the need to ensure that there is no retaliation in response to these atrocities. I wholeheartedly endorse the clear and proper statement from the noble Lord and am grateful to him for expressing those views.

I sign off the Parliamentary Questions on Northern Ireland, so I know the noble Lord’s concerns. Of course, it would not be appropriate for me from this Dispatch Box to make comments on the security level or any other aspects of security. If later on today or at some time tomorrow we could have a short conversation, perhaps we could find some way forward. However, I must reiterate that there is no cover-up—absolutely no cover-up; it is just that security issues have to be dealt with in a very responsible and secure way.

My Lords, I add my voice to the condolences that have been offered all round the House. We all heard yesterday and read in the papers this morning the statements made by the various Northern Ireland parties following these appalling murders, some of them in sharp contrast to what might have been said by individuals on similar occasions in the past, and all the more welcome for that. Does the Lord President agree that the sincerity of those statements will be judged by the actions that follow, and particularly by the speed with which any information that comes to anyone’s attention about who might have perpetrated these murders is given to the police to enable prosecutions to follow as quickly as possible?

Yes, my Lords, the many comments and statements that have been made are a testament to the way in which we have moved forward and the speed at which we have moved forward. I also agree that the sincerity of statements will be judged by actions, and we look forward to those who know the people involved in these atrocities going to the PSNI. I wholeheartedly agree that the statements made are extremely important, and are tangible proof that the peace process has worked, is working and will work.

My Lords, I express my sympathy to the families of the two soldiers who were tragically killed and wish to let the families know that we in Northern Ireland admire very much what their sons were doing and how much we abhor what has happened. There is widespread distaste at what occurred at the weekend across the whole of Northern Ireland, in both communities. However, one has to say that there seems to have been a lack of security at Massereene barracks. We should not hesitate to say that. There had been a severe warning, and what kind of security existed at the barracks at that time must be fully investigated.

On the same day, 30 young policemen were killed in Baghdad. So often it is the same pattern: they were congregating or queuing up outside the entrance to a police station in Baghdad. That seems to occur so regularly in Iraq. The trouble is that in a situation in which there is a serious threat from the Real IRA, you should not be meeting or congregating outside barracks or police stations.

An incident such as this gives a resolve to politicians from all parties to ensure that the Belfast agreement proceeds successfully in Northern Ireland. However, at the same time, there is an adverse effect that must be a warning. People are concerned and become more divided when instances such as this happen. The one message that I got in Northern Ireland today, mainly from the unionist community, was that they were told that the Provisional IRA had done away with all its firearms and explosives. This new Real IRA has Semtex—and now we see that it has automatic weapons. Was that Semtex and were those automatic weapons owned previously by the Provisional IRA, or has the Real IRA imported into Northern Ireland new explosives and new automatic weapons?

My Lords, we all share the distaste which has been expressed by the noble Lord and his admiration for those young men and the way in which they chose to be part of the British Army serving our country. Security at all Army bases was increased in the week before the atrocity as a response to the increased threat levels. In addition, following any such attack, the security at all barracks is looked into again, and I am confident that that is taking place now. As to whether the Semtex was a new source or whether these were missiles or guns which had been in use in the past, I do not know. If I can, I will come back to the noble Lord in writing. I will seek what information I can and put a copy of that letter in the Library. But whether I will be able to provide that information, I am not entirely sure.

My Lords, I make an obvious point. From this tragedy, there is one ameliorating feature: the two communities of Northern Ireland are probably closer together now than they have been at any time over the past 40 years. In relation to a matter which has already been alluded to, tangentially, in the Statement, will the Minister confirm that the Government of the Republic of Ireland will relentlessly pursue the authors of this murderous episode?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the communities in Northern Ireland are closer now than they have been for many years. The resolve shown by the two communities yesterday shows us that this closeness will continue and that they will not allow themselves to be drawn apart as they were in the past. In relation to the pursuit of the perpetrators, we do not know where they come from, but I am confident that there will be proper co-operation, if necessary, with the police in the south as well as with the PSNI. I am sure that the two forces will work very closely together if it is found that the perpetrators either came from or escaped to the south.

My Lords, your Lordships will, I hope, have noticed the many supportive comments which have come in the past day or so from the United States Congress. Can my noble friend assure us that the people who made those comments will receive the gratitude in writing of her Majesty’s Government for taking the position that they have?

The only other small point I make is that I am always distressed when I see that the media use the expression that people claimed responsibility for a disgusting act. In my language, you claim responsibility for something that is creditworthy and you admit responsibility for something that is disgusting. I hope that our Government will, in future, use that sort of language. There was a slip in the Statement that my noble friend made. Also—and I hesitate to take issue with my long-time friend, the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis—these were not executions, they were murders.

My Lords, I am sure that the Government will express their gratitude to those people in the United States whom I quoted earlier—the Secretary of State and President Obama. Language is always important. I was repeating the Statement that was made in the other place, but I will certainly draw attention to the issues that have been raised. I completely understand where my noble friend is coming from. Claiming something and admitting it are very different things.

I take this opportunity to respond to an earlier question from the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. The Government have no reason to doubt the IMC and IICD reports regarding PIRA decommissioning. The IMC made it clear in 2006 that small quantities of PIRA weapons were held back by local groups in defiance of leadership instructions.

My Lords, this latest outbreak of violence has been universally condemned. I was therefore very glad to hear that its investigation will receive top priority. However, the Statement reveals that there has been approximately one such attack per month since last year by republican splinter groups. Can the noble Baroness confirm that those past incidents will receive the same kind of priority in their investigation, particularly compared with the time and effort that has been invested in so-called historic inquiries?

No one today has so far mentioned the civilian guards who are apparently looking after military establishments. Can the noble Baroness say whether these people are all armed? What are their instructions on the use of force and, particularly, the use of weapons?

I am confident that investigations into the attacks mentioned in the Statement are already receiving priority. These attacks have, to some extent, been successful, but I draw your Lordships’ attention to many attacks which have not happened, precisely because of the excellent policing of the PSNI in Northern Ireland. Too often we forget that fact.

In relation to the guards who were guarding the barracks, I understand that it is normal practice. Barracks are often guarded by security personnel rather than by soldiers. As to what their instructions were or whether or not they were armed, I do not know, but I will come back to the noble Lord in writing.