Northern Ireland

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21 March 1974.

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Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South 12:00, 21 March 1974

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement, as promised yesterday by my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the House, about the deaths of the two soldiers of the 14th/20th King's Hussars in Northern Ireland in the early hours of yesterday morning.

I was in Northern Ireland myself at the time and immediately arranged a meeting at which the General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland, and the chief constable reported to me before I left on this tragic accident.

The facts are that at about one o'clock in the morning two soldiers of the King's Hussars were returning from leave to their operational location at Newcastle, together with a driver and an escort. In accordance with long-standing practice, they were wearing civilian clothes and for security reasons were travelling in a Commer van. They had travelled from the airport to their unit headquarters at Gosforth Castle where they had collected their personal arms before proceeding to their operational locations.

The vehicle in which they were travelling broke down at a place known as Shaw's Lake near Glenanne. A telephone call was made to unit headquarters at Gosforth Castle for a relief vehicle to come to its assistance. The vehicle which had broken down was parked at the roadside to await the arrival of the relief vehicle.

The soldiers concerned were outside the broken-down vehicle when an unmarked police car carrying members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who were on patrol in the area arrived on the scene. The police were wearing uniform and were armed. Their car, with its headlights on, stopped a short distance from the soldiers. There was an encounter between the soldiers and the police as a result of which one soldier, Corporal M. F. Herbert, was fatally wounded. A second soldier who was the escort was injured in the arm.

The relief Army vehicle, which was a civilianised land rover containing soldiers in civilian clothes, approached the scene of the shooting and, finding what seemed to be the results of an IRA ambush, the NCO in charge ordered two soldiers—one of whom was the unwounded passenger in the first vehicle and the other one of his own men—to drive to the nearest phone box in Mowhan to phone for help while he himself remained at the scene. While the soldiers were telephoning, a second police mobile patrol which had been alerted by the first patrol to the earlier incident at Shaw's Lake recognised the land rover from the description given to them. This second patrol was also in an unmarked police car; these police were in uniform and were carrying arms. There was a further encounter as a result of which a second soldier, Corporal H. J. Cotton, was fatally wounded.

These two incidents are the subject of joint investigations by the police and military authorities in Northern Ireland. No effort will be spared to ascertain all the facts concerning what took place and, without prejudice to the outcome of these investigations, the police and the Army have already set in hand an urgent and thorough review of procedures aimed at preventing any possible recurrence. The coroner of the area has been informed of the deaths, post mortem examinations have been made and public inquests will be held. The full results of the chief constable's investigations, as in all other cases where death or injury results from the use of firearms, will be reported to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland.

In these circumstances it would be improper for me to enter into a detailed discussion of the exact circumstances of what took place in a way which might prejudice the outcome of the official investigations and further consideration of the matter by the coroner and the DPP. I will of course again report to the House when the full facts are known. I must say at this stage, however, that there is no truth whatsoever in allegations that the soldiers involved were members of an under-cover plain clothes Army unit.

The House will, I know, wish to express its deepest regret at this tragedy and to convey its sympathy in the fullest measure to the wives and families of those who were killed.

Photo of Mr Francis Pym Mr Francis Pym , Cambridgeshire

I wish to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself with the expressions of sympathy and condolence to the wives and families of the two soldiers who died. I am sure that it is right to set up an inquiry and that the House will await eagerly the outcome of the inquiry and the further information which the right hon. Gentleman has promised.

I wish to ask him several questions. First, were the normal procedures of laison in use? If so, did they prove faulty, or were they neglected on this occasion? This is especially relevant in view of the second shooting, because presumably the Army should have been alerted by the RUC to what was happening.

Second, why were civilian vehicles used and not Army vehicles? In his statement the right hon. Gentleman said that it was for security reasons, but I trust that this aspect will be reinvestigated and reconsidered, because it may be faulty.

Third, why was there such a long delay in any announcement of the incident? Has not that led to speculation and all the unfortunate consequences of that speculation? Would it not have been better to say something very much earlier?

Fourth, can the right hon. Gentleman say how often members of the RUC open fire in circumstances when their suspicions are aroused as on this occasion? Should not they normally contact the Army or the UDR and ask them to send a patrol?

This is a tragic accident, and no stone must be left unturned in learning every lesson from it, because the confidence of the population in the security forces is so obviously crucially important at present.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

With regard to the procedures and the whole purpose of my statement, obviously there were faults. Something went badly wrong, and I am looking into the incident as a matter of urgency.

As for the use of civilian vehicles, I think that the right hon. Gentleman will know from his previous experience that in certain parts of the Province, especially perhaps in that part of it, with mined culverts and so on and with its nearness to the border, the sight of a Service vehicle is often enough to draw fire. Decisions taken over a series of years were that civilianising was a protection. I shall look at that.

With regard to the delay, I was in the Province and I heard about the incident early in the morning. I instructed that there should be a preliminary inquiry to find out what had gone on before anything was said, because of the confused reports which were coming through. Whatever had been done at that time, a confused statement would only have added to the confusion.

As for how often members of the RUC open fire, I do not know. It is one point which I am looking into as a matter of urgency. Obviously this is an aspect that I shall want to look at most closely.

Photo of Mr Harold McCusker Mr Harold McCusker , County Armagh

As the Member in whose constituency this disaster occurred, may I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy which have come from the two Front Benches

Will not the right hon. Gentleman accept that this tragedy represents a situation which has concerned many of us in Northern Ireland regarding the breakdown in liaison and communication which seems frequently to occur between the Army and the RUC?

In the right hon. Gentleman's investigation, will he determine why these people were going from Market Hill to Newcastle via Mowhan? I have never heard an explanation like that, although there are some queer Irish directions given to some people about how to get from one place to another. But I am serious when I say that no one would go from Market Hill to Newcastle via Mowhan. What is more, Mowhan is an area sympathetic to the security forces. For that reason, the right hon. Gentleman should also determine why civilian vehicles were used.

Will the right hon. Gentleman state clearly that these members of the security forces were not masquerading as members of the UFF or any other subversive organisation That is one of the unfortunate rumours circulating at the moment.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

If it is a rumour, it is wrong. I have stated the facts clearly. If the hon. Gentleman can help to squash the rumours, so much the better. He knows the geography of the area. There is no queer Irishism about it. The men were instructed to go that way by their superiors who had been informed of an obstruction on the direct road. There is not the slightest need to be funny about it, because it is not a funny matter. If the hon. Gentleman has plenty of examples of breakdown in liaison before, I shall expect to find them in the files at headquarters, because I am sure that he would not have awaited this occasion to make the allegations. If he has not made the allegations before, I ask him to let me have them quickly because I, or my predecessor, should have had them long before this.

Photo of Mr James Wellbeloved Mr James Wellbeloved , Bexley Erith and Crayford

Will the Secretary of State issue instructions today that all British Service men bearing arms in Northern Ireland in aid of the civil power shall do so wearing full uniform? Will he also take note of the fact that so great is public disquiet in Great Britain at the loss of lives among Service men in Northern Ireland that nothing short of a full independent inquiry into this incident will satisfy British public opinion?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

On the second point about public opinion on this matter, I assure my hon. Friend that the correct procedures are being followed. I will report back to the House. There is nothing to hide. However, I hope that he will take into account, from the fact that I used the words "the Director of Public Prosecutions", that we should be careful about the way in which we use the evidence that we have so far.

On my hon. Friend's point about only Service men in uniform bearing arms—I am not begging the other issue; there may be appropriate times for that to be raised—it has been thought proper, for example, that men arriving at Aldergrove coming off leave—there are 34,000 in a year—should go unarmed but in a bus or vehicle which has a weapon or weapons in it. They then go to their own units and are armed before going to subunits. Even at this stage, whatever might come out of the inquiry, there are occasions when it might be sensible for Service men not to be in uniform in Northern Ireland because they might be asking to be shot.

Photo of Mr Lawrence Orr Mr Lawrence Orr , South Down

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we sympathise with him that his first appearance at the Dispatch Box should be to give an account of so tragic an accident?

Will he please understand that the position in Ulster now appears to the general public to be of a deteriorating security situation, that this is one incident among many that gives rise to dangerous rumour and lack of public confidence, and that the best way of dispelling it would be to advise his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that we should have a debate on security in Ulster as soon as possible?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his words of welcome. I am aware that moods of depression go across the Province, which is a closely-knit community, very quickly. It was a very bad weekend and it has been a bad week. I cannot speak on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I hope that when the opportunity comes—I hope that it will be soon —we can debate the matter. It is my intention to put before the House the new administration's ideas on Northern Ireland, and the facts about the security situation are one aspect of them.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we on this side of the House also regret the fact that his first appearance at the Dispatch Box has to be in order to make such a sad statement?

Is he aware that we should like more precise information about when my right hon. Friend is likely to come to the House and publish his preliminary report on the findings in this matter? We all understand the legal difficulties, but some important questions must be answered. For example, how often is the RUC warned about the procedures relating to soldiers returning to their units? Does the RUC have a yellow card similar to that issued to the Army containing instructions on when and how to shoot? Why was there this tragic second happening after there had been the first? Why were not people more cautious and alert?

Obviously, there has been a breakdown in procedures and liaison between the two arms of the security forces. This is a matter of urgency to which attention should be paid in the security review.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and thank him for his early words. I shall have to be very careful about the precise details as to what went on because of the legal implications involved. However, there are a number of other matters of procedure and liaison between the police and the Army on which I hope to be able to come back to the House at an early date. I am aware that one of my functions, as it was of my predecessor, is to bring before the House as much information on Northern Ireland as possible, not least because, except for a small band in this place, a large number of people choose to forget what goes on there. My predecessor and I cannot do that.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith , Berwick-upon-Tweed

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy at this horrifying loss of life. We appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's caution about going into detail at this time. Will he, in addition to the points that have already been made, consider whether these civilianised vehicles—the statement referred to a civilianised vehicle—should contain means of communication, which this vehicle appeared to lack and therefore necessitated journeys to a telephone box, and whether some coded identification could be developed which might help to avoid incidents of this kind?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The RUC vehicles had RT, but I understand that the Army civilianised vehicles had not. This is an important matter at which we must look. The question of identification is also important. Anyone who has had the remotest connection with the Services at different times knows that in a situation such as this, which is not a matter between a civilian and a military force but between military forces, when things go wrong identification is an important aspect.

Photo of Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles , Winchester

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this tragic accident underlines the extreme difficulties in every way facing the security forces in Northern Ireland? In view of an earlier incident affecting one of my constituents, Corporal Foxford, which is also sub judice, which concerned identification at night, may I ask him to investigate the fundamental issue whether military forces on duty on what amounts to active service should be liable to the civil courts in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The question posed by the hon. and gallant Gentleman is different. I am not denying that it is important. It will have to be looked at, but it is part of a wider aspect in the community. I assure him that I will look closely at it.

Photo of Mr George Cunningham Mr George Cunningham , Islington South and Finsbury

I recognise that to avoid a repetition of this tragedy all changes in procedure will have to be looked at, but may I ask my right hon. Friend to be extremely reluctant about requiring all troops to be in uniform while armed? Does he recognise that this applies not only to their movements when joining their units, as in this instance, but even more so to troops in civilian clothes acting operationally? If we were to deny ourselves that facility in Northern Ireland, we should be exposing ourselves to the risk of more innocent lives, not just protecting the troops.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I shall bear in mind the two points that my hon. Friend made. There will be occasions when the wider aspects can be discussed in the House.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

May I impress upon the right hon. Gentleman the great concern that is felt about the ease with which a tragic incident can take place when men are on duty? Will he give careful consideration to the suggestion made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) about troops who, under great stress and difficulty, might seem to commit something that could be looked upon in a civil court as a crime but which, under military service, is an accident that it is difficult to avoid in such times of stress?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Yes. That is an important point. I have direct responsibilities in Northern Ireland, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is directly responsible for Service personnel, has listened to what has been said by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles).

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley Sidcup

The Secretary of State has told the House all that he feels he can communicate at this moment. However, I am sure he recognises that, by using the simple phrase "an encounter took place" on two occasions, he has not given us information as to how all this came about or how such a tragic loss of life occurred. I recognise from past experience the difficulties on the legal side, but will he bear in mind that we hope that it will prove possible for him to give the House further information on two questions: first, how such encounters come to take place and, secondly, what he and the military authorities are able to do, as a result of their investigations, to take greater precautions to prevent such incidents happening again?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for his understanding of my careful use of words, which is due to inquiries affecting this matter. He can rest assured that his points are very much in the front of my mind and that I am looking at them carefully. I had called for a full review of security procedures only on the day before the incident, although at that time nothing so ghastly as what has taken place was in my mind.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Keighley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be prudent for him to ensure that all routine patrols by the police force are in marked vehicles? According to my right hon. Friend's statement, unmarked patrol cars were involved on both occasions.

I wish to associate myself with the comments already made about the deep sense of loss and tragedy over this unfortunate incident. My remarks are concerned with trying to avoid a recurrence. My suggestion would not completely rule out the use of unmarked police cars because these would be special occasions, when presumably instructions would be given to the Army that such occasions were in force.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I assure my hon. Friend that I shall look at this point carefully. Developments of this nature have grown up over the past three or four years, often not due to a change of policy fought out in Ministries but arising out of practical experience, particularly in the border area. This may be a good reason to look at the matter carefully. However, I do not wish my hon. Friend to think that while I agree to look at this, his suggestion will necessarily be accepted.

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that these two incidents, following the sentencing of a British soldier for the shooting of a 12year-old boy, have unfortunately considerably aroused distress among not only relatives of British troops in Ulster but the population at large. Fears that the Army is being asked to perform an almost imposible task will have to be allayed if public opinion is to support the Government in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I hope that, in relation to his last point, the hon. Gentleman will take account of something which we have felt on this side. We made clear when in Opposition, that we were supporting the Government because we believed that they were going in the right direction, and it would be a pity if this were now forgotten in the confused situation here. The hon. Gentleman referred to a case which is sub judice. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is directly responsible for Service personnel, but I have a direct responsibility in Northern Ireland for the use of troops.

Photo of Major-General Jack D'Avigdor-Goldsmid Major-General Jack D'Avigdor-Goldsmid , Lichfield and Tamworth

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his frank statement. I hope he will bear in mind a point which I believe will be agreed on both sides of the House, namely, that the Army has conducted this difficult business in Northern Ireland brilliantly. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in future decisions such as those on the wearing of plain clothes should be left for final determination by the military authorities, in conjunction with the civil authorities on the spot?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The hon and gallant Gentleman will appreciate that I am new to my post, but there are others present who were involved in past decisions—that is precisely the way that policy has arisen in the past. I agree that the man on the spot understands the situation, but this House has a responsibility. We firmly support the rôle of the Army and the security forces, but the best day will be when the Army is no longer asked to aid the civilian power. Policing is best done by the police themselves. This is the aim of the Government.