Northern Ireland

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , St Marylebone 12:00 am, 7th April 1970

I find that in many ways this is a difficult debate to reply to. I was one of those, Mr. Speaker, who rose yesterday when you ruled as you did in a way to make this debate possible. I did so because I felt it was not only inevitable but necessary that this House should show its concern over the events of the past few days and not because I believed then, or that I have come to believe since I have heard the debate, that longterm or ultimate solutions would emerge from our discussions today.

We must face the fact that we are living, in a sense, from hand to mouth and from crisis to crisis and that the problem which ought to concern us all, and which certainly concerns me, and I think, my hon. Friends, is how to cope with the immediate situation. The Secretary of State for Defence made it clear that, whatever may be the truth or otherwise of what the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) has just said about the ultimate necessity of reforming abuses and meeting grievances, the events of the past few days did not—at any rate this was the right hon. Gentleman's assessment—bear a direct relationship either to the content of proposed reform or to the pace at which it was being carried out and did have and did reflect sinister influences which the right hon. Gentleman did not specifically name.

In that, I think that the right hon. Gentleman was right, and I was more impressed by the bomb incident in relation to that proposition than by the extremely obscure events which led to the riots at Ballymurphy. Somebody planted bombs in shops timed to go off in a busy street at a time when people could normally expect to be hurt. Whoever planted those bombs could not have known in advance whether the person who was going to be hurt was a Roman Catholic or a Protestant, or a Unionist or a member of the Labour Party or of the People's Democracy. It seems to me—and this was the reason I rose yesterday—that what justifies this debate as a matter of urgency is not the perpetual crisis through which we have been living in the past 18 months or more, but the particularly ugly circumstance that there are people at work, whoever they may be, who seem to hate humanity as such.

I revert to the Ballymurphy incident, which seems to me a much simpler one in a way and as ugly. The last word on this was said by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Down and Conner, who seemed to me to make one of the most moving elocutions a Christian bishop has ever said to his flock. If I may say so, I think that it was something which every Protestant would wish to say to his fellow Protestants in the situation which now exists no less than Roman Catholics to their fellow Roman Catholics.

I see the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon) sitting opposite me. I know that he is an honourable and reputed member of the Roman Catholic Church. I do not say to myself, "There goes a Papist, a child of the Scarlet Woman." I say to myself, "There is a fellow Christian"—and a rare bird that sometimes is in these wicked days. I think that what we really have to talk about is something far less fundamental than the philosophy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) or than the social proposals of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin), to whose speech, in the hope that she may be able to come back, I will refer a little later.

This brings me to the components of the present situation. I start with the Army, and do so because I think that the immense majority in this House are proud of what the Army is trying to do in Ulster [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We believe that the troops are protecting lives. They are protecting the lives of one community against the other and of both communities against rather unknown and sinister influences. We are proud of them. We think that they are good soldiers well led.

I do not think that it is any part of my business to advert to the recent appearances on television of General Freeland, criticism of which appeared to be the only common factor in some of the divergent speeches to which we have listened. But I will say this to the Home Secretary in the hope that he may pass it on. It has crossed my mind in the last few hours and, indeed, in the last few days that when statements are to be made which may have political implications—it is no criticism of the G.O.C. to say that, but it is in a sense a criticism of the Governments both at Stormont and Westminster—such statements are better made by Ministers—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—because Ministers, for all that we are professional politicians who are known to have a double dose of original sin, and for all our faults, are more sensitive to nuances than professional soldiers are. That, after all, is our job. Moreover, if Ministers make these pronouncements, we can criticise them without feeling that we are attacking a public servant.

I do not want to pursue this matter, but I ask the Home Secretary to consider whether, if statements which are liable to lay themselves open to criticisms are to be made, whether they are necessary or not, it would not be better to expose Ministers to the communications media rather than to expose professional soldiers. In the meantime, I think that one of the encouraging features of the situation is the way in which the civilianised police seem to have recovered their self-confidence and morale and the way in which the Army has discharged its duties.

This brings me to the positive factors in the situation. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) declared, both over the weekend, if he is correctly reported, and, if I understood him correctly, today, a certain element of despair about what had happened. I think that it is very easy to despair in thinking about the situation. I want to tell him why I do not despair, although I admit that the situation is resting on somewhat rickety foundations.

To begin with—and I know that the Home Secretary will forgive me for saying this—I attach a great deal of importance to a measure of agreement between the two major parties in this House. I know that it is difficult for hon. Members opposite to believe that I have no particularly bad conscience in this matter. I have not. But I am sincerely apprehensive of what would happen if the Home Secretary and I allowed ourselves to fall out over this business. I think that the consequences in Northern Ireland might be quite serious, and I would like to thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for the kindness he has shown me in the past over this matter.

At the same time, I would like to say something else. I think that the whole House understands the rather hilarious atmosphere of Prime Ministers' Questions and Answers. Prime Ministers being chivvied have every right to make a sharp riposte, but I ask the Home Secretary to convey delicately to the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister that excessive references to the shortcomings of the party of which I am a member and, indeed, to the Unionist Party, some of whose members are friends of mine, do make it more difficult for me to maintain this atmosphere, which I am anxious to do.

The second thing I see which is positive about the situation concerns the Dublin Government. I do not think that we can altogether forget the Dublin Government in this situation. One has to be very delicate about how one talks about them. It is almost impossible to talk about anybody in Ireland without annoying them. But, if I may say so, after a somewhat shaky start, which I do not hold against him because, as a professional politician, I understand his difficulties, we owe a great deal to Mr. Jack Lynch. His latest speeches were intended to be helpful and have succeeded in reducing the bad feeling which would otherwise have existed. To put the thing in the converse way, which is perhaps the less offensive way, in my opinion it would be easy indeed for an unwise Minister in Dublin to cause innocent lives to be lost in Londonderry or Belfast, and the second of the factors in the situation which has caused me not to despair is the fact that we owe this gratitude to some of the Ministers in Dublin, who have their own constituency problems, as we do ours.

I fear that all my caresses this evening are going to be treated as the kiss of death, but the other thing I want to say is about my friends at Stormont. The third thing which leads me not to despair about the present situation is that, with a great deal of personal courage, and under a hail of abuse and some efforts at intimidation, the reforming wing of the Unionist Party is still in power in Stormont. I sincerely believe that, whatever may be thought about the Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, if one removed it altogether or broke it up irreparably at this moment there would be nothing left upon which one could build any kind of even temporary stability. I believe this is also the view of the Government. It is certainly my belief.

Some people hanker after direct rule from Westminster. I was not even quite sure that my right hon. Friend did not mean that as the implication of what he was saying. One cannot govern another people—and in a sense, all British as they may feel themselves, every Ulsterman is not an Englishman—by means of the Civil Service alone, courts of justice alone, troops and police alone. There must be some kind of Parliamentary institution and an Executive which is responsible to it.

This House owes a great debt of gratitude not only to Lord O'Neill, whose political disappearance from the scene I regret, but also to the present Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and his friends, for continuing to bear the burden of responsibility as they do from day to day.

These three factors lead me to be very far from the despair which the hon. Gentleman expressed, both over the weekend and in the House this afternoon.

This brings me to the very capable speech of the hon. Lady for Mid-Ulster. Before I proceed to say anything about it, let me say something, I hope not wholly disagreeable, about her. It fell to me to welcome her on the occasion of her Maiden Speech. I said then, and I say now, that one of the things which impress me most about her is her immense personal courage. Courage is a quality which I very greatly admire. To come here after her recent operation was no small physical and moral effort. Although personally I think she may have been, in her own interest, unwise to do so, I can only respect her the more for running that particular risk.

I want to say two other things, which I hope she will not find condescending, about her personally. In the first place I think, if she stays the course, she will be a very formidable Parliamentarian. She will not expect me to say that I agree with many of her views or approve of most of her tactics, but if she will stay the course in Parliament and become—as she said she would not—a member of "this bloody club", as she put it, I think she has a considerable political future.