Much effort and expenditure have already been devoted to improving, as far as is possible in field service conditions, the accommodation of Service men in Northern Ireland. There are, however, a few locations where we have to remain for operational reasons which could not, even by substantial expenditure, be brought up to the standards I would wish. These problem locations, which house about 5 per cent. of the force, are a matter of active concern.
Does not the Minister agree that it is totally disgraceful that our soldiers in Northern Ireland, who are doing such a heroic job, should have to live in substandard accommodation at any time? Beginning with some of the more difficult areas where accommodation is worst, such as South Armagh, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that their accommodation is brought not only up to standard but above it, which would be in line with the difficult and arduous tasks that our men are performing?
The first test of the accommodation for our Forces—one that I know they accept themselves—is operational. They must be in locations where they can quickly respond to security demands. In South Armagh in particular—as the hon. Gentleman mentioned —there are few places that provide adequate accommodation. Secondly, in a number of cases additional restraints of security have had to be put on the accommodation—for example, on making them waterproof—because there have been instances when they have been subjected to attack. Operational and security considerations must always prevail in matters of amenities, and the troops accept that. We recognise that the troops are in field service conditions, which by definition cannot come up to those which we should expect in peace time.
Will the Secretary of State and the Government bear in mind that Army strength in Northern Ireland, from which these conditions largely arise, was a response to an emergency, however long-continued and however tragic? As the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment constantly increase in strength, in confidence and in acceptance, will the Government keep their minds open to the adjustment of Army strength in Northern Ireland to the changing circumstances of the threat with which that strength is required to deal?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because that is another aspect of the problem. While we have made clear that we shall keep as many troops as are necessary for security reasons in Northern Ireland, if—as we hope—the continuing improvement in security circumstances permits, we should wish, subject to the advice of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to reduce the permanent forces there. That is a consideration which makes it difficult to put up permanent barracks, particularly in locations where they may not be wanted in the future. Indeed, the nature of the security threat means that we have to change people from one location to another. However, we have already vacated six poor places of accommodation in the last year and we are constantly looking for ways of improving the bad conditions that are, I know, much resented by hon. Members.
I agree that it would solve any accommodation problems if the troops were not there, but the problems that would be created in their stead would be much more serious. The Government are determined to provide Army support to the civil authorities for as long as that is necessary.