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Northern Ireland (Incidents)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st December 1972.

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Photo of Mr Stanley McMaster Mr Stanley McMaster , Belfast East 12:00 am, 21st December 1972

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the violence and murders in the last 24 hours in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

Since 7 a.m. yesterday, there have been 27 shooting incidents, 15 of which involved the security forces, and five explosions. The House will be aware that tragically seven civilians and a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment were killed. Thirteen civilians were wounded.

As the House will know, there was an appalling episode in Londonderry. Two masked men entered a public house and cold-bloodedly sprayed the bar with automatic fire. Five people in the bar were kill and four were wounded. Earlier, a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment was killed while working on a building site north of the City.

In East Belfast and in Clonmore, there were shootings which resulted in the deaths of two civilians and the wounding of three others.

I know that the whole House would wish to join, particularly at this time, in expressing its deepest sympathy to the relatives of these innocent vicitims of bestial, ruthless and indiscriminate murders.

I have received reports from the security forces this morning that a major cordon and search operation is being conducted in Londonderry. I have given instructions that every possible effort must be made to bring to justice those responsible.

The House will wish to know that I have agreed with the Chief Constable greatly to extend the task force operation which is having some success. This operation will be under the direction of a senior police officer and operate throughout Belfast, where, until yesterday's tragic developments in Londonderry, the vast majority of these murders have been taking place.

In the last 24 hours, the security forces have arrested nine men, including five believed to be members of the IRA and a man in East Belfast in possession of arms and ammunition. In addition they have seized five weapons, a quantity of ammunition and bomb-making material. Four men are being questioned by the police in connection with the main Londonderry incident.

Photo of Mr Stanley McMaster Mr Stanley McMaster , Belfast East

May I thank my right hon. Friend for that statement and join him in his expressions of sympathy to the relatives of those who have been injured and killed? In view of the terrible death toll in this campaign of violence, despite the efforts of the security forces—which are welcomed and appreciated by the general public in Northern Ireland—will my right hon. Friend consider steps in addition to those announced yesterday, including such things as the carrying of identification documents by everyone in Northern Ireland and perhaps some restriction on the movement of people and vehicles after midnight or even after 7 p.m.? Will he also consider whether some involvement of the general public in Northern Ireland might not be obtained by the early restoration of a democratically elected assembly in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

The possibility of carrying identification cards and of curfews on vehicles is carefully considered both generally and in particular areas. The danger of going on this road very often is that we divert large quantities of security forces from tasks which are more important in the security operation. Such matters can certainly be considered.

As for the involvement of the general public, my hon. Friend knows of the various talks and discussions which are being held. Whatever else is decided, whatever constitutional plans are made, those responsible in Northern Ireland have to deal with the security situation and there are no short cuts. I do not believe that there is any way other than the way we are seeking to operate, with a very large deployment of British forces responsible to this House.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Is not one of the basic reasons for the common approach to Northern Ireland in this House—not to the detail of policy—the common understanding that this ancient problem seems to be almost insoluble? These horrible sectarian murders of recent months, those of recent days, the shooting of the UDR man, the shooting in a Catholic pub last evening reinforce this pessimism. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that from this side of the House we are sure that we must find a way out, that we cannot wash our hands of Northern Ireland? It is in that spirit that I ask him three questions.

Will he call, on behalf of all of us, upon the leaders of Northern Ireland, religious, political and industrial, to state clearly their abhorrence and lack of support for these murders, from whichever part of the community they come? We realise the difficulties involved here. It is easier to say this here than to do so in Northern Ireland. Let them all stand up and be counted. On a practical note, will the Government look again at the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about guns? Will he call in all guns and issue limited licences where they are necessary? Will he search in both communities and have a mandatory sentence operating against those illegally carrying arms?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are glad to hear that arrests have been made but that we believe that it is important to get to the root of the question and to deal with the large number of guns being carried in Northern Ireland? Because insecurity is at the root of the breakdown in law and order, can we have the political and economic future of Northern Ireland spelled out quickly? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a lack of decision is playing into the hands of sectarian murderers?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said. Leaders of the Churches and the community have already expressed their abhorrence of last night's events and of violence generally in recent times. I am sure that they will note what the hon. Gentleman says and I entirely endorse it. There have been this morning—some hon. Members may have heard—expressions from political leaders in various parts of the community calling upon people to be calm and condemning the disgraceful outrage last night. People have spoken out clearly and I hope that they will be encouraged further to do so.

Turning to the point about the licensing of arms, there is only a limited number of arms licences. Out of a total of roughly 105,000, the vast majority, over 70,000, are for shotguns in country districts. I do not believe that it would be right to call these in and I have repeatedly said this. On the other hand, there are limited licences for people who have been given arms for their protection. These are constantly reviewed and always will be. We have to take the judgment of the police in these cases. The killings that have been taking place with machine guns and the rest are certainly not being done with any licensed arms.

Photo of Mr Michael McNair-Wilson Mr Michael McNair-Wilson , Walthamstow East

Will my right hon. Friend say whether all these murders are of a sectarian nature or whether there is an element of criminal killing? Has any thought been given to the CID from Scotland Yard going to help the Royal Ulster Constabulary?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

It would be very dangerous for me to state specifically what may be the reasons, or the motives, behind the various murders or which people are responsible for them. There are many different facets to them. I think there is do doubt that there is a large measure of sheer criminal thuggery attached to many of them, but I think there are sectarian aspects as well, and we cannot run away from them. As for the resources of the police, I should point out that very large reinforcements both of police and Army have been sent into the area concerned in Londonderry this morning. Although the resources of the Royal Ulster Constabulary CID are strained they are doing everything humanly possible to bring these people to justice. The problem of moving the CID from Scotland Yard to Northern Ireland, as I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, is that it would bring people into an area of which they know nothing and have no experience. On the spur of the moment, it would not be likely to succeed but it can always be considered.

Photo of Mr Russell Johnston Mr Russell Johnston , Inverness

May I underline the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees)? Although, as the Secretary of State said, religious leaders have condemned this particular incident and violence in general, I think perhaps what the hon. Member was getting at was that an outstanding, united statement from all the leaders across sectarian boundaries condemning violence might have some effect. If they were called upon so to do by the Secretary of State they might well respond.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I have already, on previous occasions, asked them to do so and they have made a united call. I certainly note what the hon. Member says, as, I know, will the Church leaders concerned.

Photo of Mr William Deedes Mr William Deedes , Ashford

Do not these appalling episodes, in particular the one in Londonderry, make it very clear that the Christmas holiday ahead of us, which might otherwise have been regarded as a period of comparative relaxation for the security services, must now be regarded in quite another light?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I am afraid that that is inevitably the case.

Photo of Mr Ernest Fernyhough Mr Ernest Fernyhough , Jarrow

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider his decision not to call in all the arms now in private hands? Would he not agree that a careful reading of what he said about those who are entitled to them for personal security is really a recipe for everybody in Northern Ireland to have guns? Does he believe that it will be a safer place if everyone has them? On that basis will he not reconsider, and make a determined effort to get them all under security?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

If the right hon. Gentleman reads that into my remarks then my remarks must have been wrong. I certainly did not intend them to have that meaning, particularly since where licences for arms are given for personal protection they are subject to very careful scrutiny both by the police and also by myself. I look at all the particular cases myself. I believe that, as I am responsible, that is right. As I consistently say, I am not prepared to call in licences for shortguns in country areas because I do not believe that makes any sense. I must point out that the problem of arms in Northern Ireland is that of the unlicensed arms, not the licensed ones.