Northern Ireland

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th January 1976.

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Photo of Mr Toby Jessel Mr Toby Jessel , Twickenham 12:00 am, 13th January 1976

asked the Secretary of State for Defence how many Army personnel are currently serving in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Toby Jessel Mr Toby Jessel , Twickenham

Will the Government help our forces to deal with the terrorists by asking the Irish Government to start talks to try to bring about the same co-operation between the British Army and the Irish Army as already exists between the police forces north and south of the border?

Photo of Mr Roy Mason Mr Roy Mason , Barnsley

I think that the hon. Member appreciates the problem here. We have made good progress, and the ministerial meetings that took place last week have established a much more co-operative attitude. There will be greater co-operation now between the RUC and the Garda in the South. The hon. Member appreciates the differences in the military tasks of the security forces of the North and the Irish Army, and the legal constraints which may be placed upon it in the South. It is difficult to deal with this on the Army plane.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. We debated this subject yesterday. Mr. Allaun—Question No. 4.

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the operations in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Roy Mason Mr Roy Mason , Barnsley

As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an important statement on Northern Ireland, with particular reference to County Armagh, in the House yesterday. The measures that he outlined then will, I am sure, significantly help the Army in its task, in support of the police, of combating violence and terrorism, from whatever source.

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

Before making the decision that the Prime Minister announced in his statement yesterday, did he check with the right hon. Gentleman the dispositions of the SAS? Has the Defence Secretary read Mr. Chapman Pincher's report in today's Daily Express? If it is true—Mr. Pincher has usually been shown to be a reliable journalist—does the report not show that the Prime Minister has deceived the hard-pressed people of Ulster and the whole nation—

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. I do not like words such as "deceived" to be used in the House.

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

If the report be true—and there are reasons to believe that it is true—does it not show that the Prime Minister has irresponsibly misled the people of Ulster and the whole nation with his sabre rattling?

Photo of Mr Roy Mason Mr Roy Mason , Barnsley

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has stooped to such depths to try to make a point, especially following a highly speculative and misleading article in the Daily Express. If the hon. Gentleman wants to be better informed, it is far better to ask Questions than to rely on Press reports.

Secondly, the Prime Minister and I, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, all agreed with the deployment of the SAS, that it should be announced publicly, and that there should be no covert operations by the SAS.

Photo of Mr George Younger Mr George Younger , Ayr

Will the Secretary of State please tell us how many members of the SAS are at present on the ground in South Armagh and serving as advertised by the Prime Minister? Will the Secretary of State tell us what is his target for the total forces that he intends to send there? Does he realise that unless he can give us some reassurance, and give some reassurance to the people of South Armagh, we shall begin to wonder what the Prime Minister meant when he made that important statement last Wednesday?

Photo of Mr Roy Mason Mr Roy Mason , Barnsley

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, as an Opposition defence spokesman, should seriously ask me to reveal the figures and deployment of security forces in Northern Ireland, and particularly in South Armagh—but, first, the SAS is deployed, and, secondly, it will increase in numbers. Contrary to what that Daily Express article says, the SAS will stay there as long as the GOC Northern Ireland requires it.

Photo of Mr Stephen Hastings Mr Stephen Hastings , Mid Bedfordshire

Whether or not the report in the Daily Express is true—I speak as an old SAS officer—may I ask the Secretary of State whether he is really satisfied, in view of the particular capability and training of these troops, that their numbers are in any way adequate in present circumstances?

Photo of Mr Roy Mason Mr Roy Mason , Barnsley

I give the House an assurance that we shall be increasing the numbers of the SAS as their reconnoitering is complete and as their training is complete, so that they can fully perform the job for which their skills will be of special service in South Armagh. Most of the time they will be operating in uniform but occasionally they will not be operating in uniform. This is not unusual. The security forces in Northern Ireland are allowed to do that for surveillance purposes as well. I am hopeful that the SAS, with its special skills, will, when fully deployed, make its impact, but it will not be sudden. It will take time.

Photo of Mr Martin Flannery Mr Martin Flannery , Sheffield, Hillsborough

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me that I was never an SAS officer? Will he further accept from me that, no matter with what good intentions and no matter how many troops we deploy in Northern Ireland, the answer is basically a political answer and that it must be sought in the interests of peace and to avoid any more killings?

Photo of Mr Roy Mason Mr Roy Mason , Barnsley

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for that remark. I think it is absolutely wrong that, when we have squadrons of the Special Air Service who are specially trained in surveillance, and who, with their special skills, can operate in small squads without logistic support, they should be denied this opportunity of helping to solve the problem in South Armagh.