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Northern Ireland

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th April 1970.

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Photo of Mr Gerry Fitt Mr Gerry Fitt , Belfast West 12:00 am, 7th April 1970

I will leave the decision on what I have said to the community in Northern Ireland, and I mean both sides of the political line. I am certain that I shall have their support.

One of the most disastrous happenings in Northern Ireland during recent days has undoubtedly been the very provocative and arrogant attitude of General Freeland, both on television and at a Press conference in Northern Ireland. That, above and beyond all other issues, has caused such tension in Northern Ireland that standing here today I am in the throes of despair, for I believe that his speech can do nothing but further exacerbate the tensions in Northern Ireland.

What did General Freeland say and how did he say it? This is most important. He said that the British Army would shoot to kill persons involved in riotous situations. I know that the spokesman for hon. Gentlemen opposite on this issue has family connections with Irish history and has a close involvement in this matter. He must know enough of the Irish character to recognise that we will take that sort of dictation from no one.

Even the Protestant community, those who support Paisley—those on the minority side—are all incensed by General Freeland's attitude. Why he was allowed to say what he said on television is beyond my comprehension. I believe that generals should be seen and not heard. If anything, a political statement should have been made by a spokesman for either the Government or the Opposition.

We in Northern Ireland are now in an impossible position, because General Freeland's words have been taken as a direct threat not to the minority or to the rioters in Ballymurphy or the Shankill Road, where lives have already been lost, to use the big stick and to beat people into the ground. How foolish could he have been? It will be recognised that that very attitude was adopted in Ireland centuries ago, with very little success.

In his original comments, on television and at the Press conference, General Freeland said, "We have superior fire power". How can those words be interpreted other than as a direct threat to the people of Northern Ireland? I have asked and I repeat the question: has General Freeland never heard of Vietnam, where the Americans have had superior fire power and have used it, but with very little success?

There is also the question of Rhodesia. Under successive Governments, this House has had superior fire power in Kenya, Malaya and other parts of the world, but eventually we had to arrive at a political settlement in conformity with the needs of the people in those areas. I am not criticising this Government, but they should realise that those remarks by General Freeland can cause untold trouble.

I was on the telephone incessantly to the Home Secretary last August asking that British troops should be brought into Northern Ireland to defend the minority from vicious attacks by the majority at that time. I pleaded with my right hon. Friend to send troops into the Ardoyne and Hooker Street area of Belfast. It would have been destroyed with consequent great loss of life but for the presence of British troops. I applaud the Army for what it did then. It was necessary for it to be there to protect life and limb.

I realise the frustrations which now beset the British Army in Northern Ireland. It is doing an unusual job, it is fulfilling an unusual rÔle and the soldiers do not want to be there, but I recognise that it is very necessary to have them there at present. It would be absolutely senseless for anyone in this House or elsewhere to say that the British Army should be withdrawn from Northern Ireland tomorrow. If it were withdrawn, there would be absolute massacre.

I am given a problem. In this position what are the answers? I freely admit that I have not got the answers. I despair for the future in Northern Ireland. I was perturbed over the past week to hear that Protestants and Catholics were fighting each other for the occupation of corporation dwellings. That should never happen, but it was exaggerated out of all proportion by Ian Paisley in an attempt to help his political prospects in the election. Two windows were broken on the Barnsley Estate and he was able to make propaganda out of this. He got the television cameras and hired buses to bring a lot of young "Teddies" in to have this highlighted as an example of how the Protestants were being attacked by Catholics on the other side of the road. It was completely untrue.

Those windows should not have been broken. It may have been that they were broken accidently by the throwing of stones, but it should not have been done deliberately. Catholics and Protestants, not only in my constituency but all over Ireland, will have to learn to live together and they cannot be made to do that at the point of a gun.

This Government, far and away more than any Government in my memory or in the history I have read, have shown concern for Northern Ireland's problems. For my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary there is a great fund of good will in Northern Ireland. He did a tremendous and difficult job last August, September and October, when violence in Northern Ireland was at its height. That

job has not yet been completed. A lot more hard work will have to be done in resolving the difficulties which beset Northern Ireland

This Government should insist that the Northern Ireland Government should implement the reforms now on the Statute Book and which followed the confrontation of last August. They should bring into immediate operation the central housing authority. They should have a reform of local government so that justice will not only be a promise but will be seen to be done. There is a fear in Northern Ireland that if, unfortunately, this Government were to be defeated at the next General Election, and a Tory Government were elected, the new Government would not pressurise the Unionist Party.

That is the feeling among the minority in Northern Ireland. I hope that the spokesman for the Opposition will discourage it. The fear is that hon. Members opposite have so much in common with the Unionist Party that they would not be so forceful as are this Government in demanding full social justice and freedom for every citizen in Northern Ireland.

It may be that future generations will regard this short debate as one of the most important debates on Northern Ireland which has ever taken place in this House. I believe that it is not too late, but it is very nearly the eleventh hour. I ask the Home Secretary again to go to Northern Ireland, if necessary, to let the people there see that this Government still have the will to bring about reforms in Northern Ireland. The Government should let them know that they have not forgotten what happened in August, September and October last year and that they are not only concerned with the result of the next General Election in the United Kingdom but with the freedom and social justice of everyone in Northern Ireland.

I freely admit that I have not got all the answers. There is a very dangerous situation in Northern Ireland. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support the Home Secretary in whatever steps he takes to de-escalate that very dangerous situation.