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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 James Callaghan Mr James Callaghan The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Treasurer, Labour Party 12:00 am, 7th April 1970

I am not saying that the hon. Lady asked for the intervention of the troops; what I am saying is that her supporters did. It is her supporters who still want them there and do not want them withdrawn. This is true of many areas in Northern Ireland.

I want to go on record to repeat what the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone said. The British troops there are undertaking a task which is unique in British history. It is a distasteful task. To put it at its most parochial, they had to have their Easter leave cancelled for 16 demonstrations. What are they supposed to think about that? I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin)—they are ordinary working chaps. They want their leave like anyone else wants his bit of fun and demonstrating. The Army is doing a magnificent job there, and it is well led.

I come immediately to the question of whether General Freeland should make political utterances or—to put it the other way—whether Ministers should not do it. Ministers did it, but the same notice was not taken of what they said. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence for Administration was in Northern Ireland last week. He gave a full Press conference on the day and evening that he left. There were substantial television interviews when he returned to London. He was interviewed on the radio, I think on Radio 4. I have a full note of what he said. If there is any criticism to be directed about those statements, it is not against General Freeland but against the Government here and the spokesmen of the Government. My hon. Friend and I will take full responsibility for what was said on those occasions, as we must do.

I must say, I think that soldiers are put in a very difficult position by the mass communications media. Any of us who have watched the television—I remember it during the last autumnal incidents—saw the television cameras and the microphones being thrust under the mouth of a young major who had had to take an operational decision only 30 seconds beforehand and who was asked to justify it before the world. This is a new feature, which I do not much relish. General Freeland's interview was, of course, a deliberate one, and what he had to say he said in a way which not everyone may approve of in this House, but which nevertheless could not be faulted in the terms in which he put it.