Northern Ireland

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 27 April 1987.

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Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 3:31, 27 April 1987

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the current security situation in Northern Ireland.

The House will be aware of the recent serious increase in the number of casualties which have been caused by terrorist actions. In the last week in particular, two members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, one Ulster Defence Regiment soldier and three civilians have been murdered. The civilian deaths were of the foreman of a building company, and most recently the murder of Lord Justice Gibson and Lady Gibson.

As to the details of this latest outrage, while I have not yet received the full report on it, I have had an initial discussion with the Deputy Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding, and I shall be meeting the Chief Constable and the GOC again later today. However, I can give the House some further information.

The explosives were in a blue Cortina car, which had been reported stolen a month ago in South Armagh. At the time of its theft, the car had GB number plates. It is believed to have been left only a few minutes earlier at the side of the road between the border crossing point and the security force check point. The method of detonation appears to have been by radio signal. In addition to the two fatalities, nine other people were injured.

The question has rightly been raised as to how there could have been any outside knowledge of Sir Maurice and Lady Gibson's movements. The RUC advised me of evidence that bookings were made in their own names through a travel agency in Belfast on 29 December, and that on 12 February a change was made to the date of their return. The hooking form included the description and registration number of the car. Further detailed investigations are continuing and I will inform the House as appropriate of any further information.

I know that the whole House will share with me the feelings of horror at this outrage, at the loss of a distinguished and brave member of the Northern Ireland judiciary and of his wife, and to express our deepest sympathy to their families.

But while public attention has been focused on this particular outrage, it would be quite wrong not to express our deep concern equally about the other tragic victims of this most recent and savage burst of terrorist violence. The recent and cowardly attacks on off-duty members of the security forces, coupled with murders of ploicemen in Newcastle and Portrush, the murder of a civilian prison instructor at Magee college, and the use of his body to lure two further members of the RUC to their deaths are indicative of a renewed desperation and viciousness in the IRA campaign. The security forces will meet the challenge of these new tactics by the IRA with the resolution and courage that have served them so well in the past, and the Government will give them all possible support in their vital task.

But while the role of the RUC and the armed forces is crucial in the front line against terrorism, they also need the unqualified support of the whole community in their task.

The clear purpose of the IRA at this time is to undermine the morale of the security forces, to increase tension and hatred between the communities and thus to provoke over-reaction from some Unionists and to create distrust and ill will between the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. That is their purpose, but they will not succeed.

The security forces have given abundant proof of their courage and determination to stand against terrorism. They now look to the whole community to show the same steadfastness in the face of the current campaign and for everybody to show particulatr vigilance over theit personal security. Above all, it is the time when the whole community must give its unqualified support for the RUC and the armed forces, and give the fullest co-operation in this vital fight to defeat the terrorists.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell , Middlesbrough

On behalf of the Opposition, may I add our outright condemnation to that of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland following the series of tragedies that have overtaken our fellow citizens in that part of the United Kingdom? May I also extend our condolences and deep regret to the son and daughter of Sir Maurice and Lady Gibson who, like so many others in Northern Ireland, have had their parents tragically taken from them?

The Secretary of State referred to others who had lost their lives in Northern Ireland, including two members of the RUC, one UDR soldier and three civilians over the past week. About 29 people have lost thier lives since the beginning of the year. We share with the Secretary of State the deep sense of loss and tragedy and extend to families who have lost their loved ones our deep compassion and condolences. Not for the first time, the point has to be made that the bombs and bullets of the IRA create widows and orphans, but add nothing significant to the political debate.

Sir Maurice Gibson, as Lord Justice of Appeal at the Supreme Court of Judicature in Northern Ireland, was an Irishman through and through. He dedicated his life to the community in which he was born, in which he lived and in which he has now died. His wife, Lady Gibson, was innocent of any involvement except the involvement of marriage and devotion to her husband, for which she has paid a grievous price. It should be remembered that, when Lord Louis Mountbatten died in similar circumstances, a young Irish boy aged eight or nine died at the same time. The lesson for the whole island of Ireland is that the IRA kills Irish men and Irish women, seeks to be its own judge, jury and executioner and seeks by violence what it cannot achieve by election.

The House has often been described as the mother of democracies. How long, therefore, will it take for those who perpetrate violence to understand that the House and this country will never bend the knee to terrorists and never accept submission to the bullet and that our people are as hardy now in their resistance to violence as they were during the last war? To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, what kind of people does the IRA think we are?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that half a tonne of explosives was found in County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland on 22 April and that on 23 April a further large haul of explosives was found in Donegal near Bunbeg? We accept that there has been enhanced cross-border co-operation between the Governments of the Republic and the United Kingdom since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but will the Secretary of State agree that a greater public perception of that increased co-operation is required? Will he see how the public may be made aware, without our giving away secrets to the IRA, of what is being done in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland? If the Anglo-Irish Agreement is perceived in private among civil servants and politicians to be a success, equally it must be perceived to be a success by the public. Otherwise, the IRA will indeed undermine confidence in the political process and in the agreement itself.

Will the Secretary of State review the concept of a no-man's-land between the Republic and Northern Ireland on the land border of two sovereign states and ensure that never again can cars packed with explosives be parked there to endanger the lives of those passing from the Republic to the north?

What steps are being taken to impress upon those who may be at risk in Northern Ireland that, in their daily programme of living, they should be less sanguine and less philosophical and more alert to the danger of death not only for themselves, but for their families?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, if the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, there must be vigilance for members of the security forces, vigilance for members of the RUC and the UDR and vigilance for the population?

This time of crisis must be a time of opportunity to ensure that the Anglo-Irish Agreement is strong enough to survive IRA attacks and enchance still further cooperation between the Republic and the United Kingdom in the interests of our respective democracies.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It is certainly true that there have been three major finds of explosives in recent days, one by the RUC and two by the Garda. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) sought to show, those finds put into perspective the fact that the security forces have had a number of very significant successes in frustrating other serious attacks.

I understand entirely the hon. Gentleman's point about being more forthcoming about some of the steps and arrangements that we are seeking to make in regard to cross-border security. By their nature, a number of the arrangements and the proposals that we are working on at the present time must remain not just confidential, but secret. That is one of the difficulties in getting people to understand some of the basic work that is being done in this area.

I certainly accept the hon. Gentleman's comments about no no-man's-land. There is no no-man's-land — that ground is patrolled by the Army—but it is true that the security forces vehicle checkpoint is some distance back from the border because of the problems that have been experienced. We are aware of the tragedy of 1985 and the reason why the location of that checkpoint is a little back from the border.

With regard to personal security, the RUC seeks to give the clearest possible advice to everybody who is under any threat within Northern Ireland. Its advice is well known, as is its readiness always to seek to help with measures to assist. Obviously there is a clear responsibility on individuals to pay the closest possible attention to sensible measures of security for their own persons.

Lastly, I very much appreciate the forthright way in which the hon. Gentleman spoke about the unwillingness of this House to give any quarter whatever to the terrorist threat. I talked about the need for everybody to show steadfastness in the face of that terrorist threat. Above all, it is from this House of Commons, these Houses of Parliament that that lead should come. The people of Northern Ireland should know that they have our total support in the fight against terrorism and that, regardless of party, regardless of controversy of other kinds, we are united in that matter.

Photo of Mr James Molyneaux Mr James Molyneaux , Lagan Valley

Might I explain that my colleagues and I who represent Northern Ireland feel that, in view of the gravity of the issues, it would be utterly futile to deal with those grave matters by means of superficial exchanges across the Floor of the House?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I obviously appreciate, and certainly do not dissent from, the right hon. Gentleman's expression of concern about the gravity of the position. I obviously share that concern. However, I believe that it must be a matter for regret if it is not in this House of Commons, in this House of the Parliament of the Union that we stand together, that we discuss these issues and that we act in concert to try to bring to book the real enemy that we face. This is not a matter of political division; it is the evil of terrorism against which we should act in concert.

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

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us who have opposed and do oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement wish fully to support his appeal for everyone in Northern Ireland to support the security forces in these grave times?

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, instead of recriminating over transgressions of the border by the security forces of the Republic and the United Kingdom, the two sovereign Governments should now agree to free movement across the border by those forces in pursuit of terrorism? After so many years, is it not time that the British armed forces started talking and working directly with the Irish Army and air corps.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

My hon. Friend knows as well as anybody in the House the sensitivities surrounding the matter. It is very much my hope that we can, working with the Irish Government—I much appreciate the totally unqualified support that we received from the new Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey in his statement and the Foreign Minister, Mr. Lenihan, who have promised every available support—bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime and others. To those who believe that there is no possibility of co-operation and hope, I must say that that seems to me to be a policy of despair. I believe that there is recognition throughout the island of Ireland of the damage that terrorism is doing, in terms of physical outrage in the north and without doubt in terms of economic damage and suffering in the south. I believe that there is a determination to rid the island once and for all of the scourge of terrorism. I say to my hon. Friend, without going into detail, that I take very seriously the points that he makes. I hope that we can make some progress around the issues that he mentioned.

Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill

Hon. Members in all parts of the House will want to be associated with the strongest possible condemnation of the hateful and cowardly outrage which took place this weekend. I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with what has been said.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the continued violence demonstrates the fear among extreme elements about the agreement, which represents a way in which majority and minority traditions may gradually fulfil their aspirations and obtain justice? Is it not therefore vital for the whole House unequivocally to reiterate its determination to maintain the agreement? Will the Secretary of State consider building on the agreement by establishing a joint security commission? Does he agree that it would be very helpful if Cardinal O'Fiaich and politicians from the nationalist tradition offered unambiguous support for the RUC and encouraged Catholics to support and join the force?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I appreciate very much the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Whatever view others may hold about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, from a political point of view there is absolutely no question but that the IRA fears it very much indeed because it sees that the resource of the border—the very length of it and the existence of the two jurisdictions—itself provides that advantage which the terrorists can exploit in both directions. Both Governments are well aware of that. Against that background, the IRA feels that we might succeed effectively in denying them that resource. Of course it is not something that can be achieved overnight. Those who suggest that grossly underestimate the skill and cunning of some of the terrorist organisations, and to do that would be a grave mistake.

It certainly would be very helpful in this fight if the security forces were to feel that they had the unqualified support of all the people in Northern Ireland. I look to all, particularly those in the Nationalist community, to give unqualified support to those men in the security forces who stand out day and night, often to protect their own members, against violence and intimidation. In their current challenge, it is in the interests of the majority and minority communities alike to stand together beside the forces of law and order.

Photo of Mr Anthony Kershaw Mr Anthony Kershaw , Stroud

Is it not immensely depressing to hear the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) say that he wishes to stand aside from these terrible events in his own Province? [HON. MEMBERS: "He did not say that."] Is that not an abdication of responsibility which is wholly to be condemned? Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a feeling in this country that the co-operation between the RUC and other forces — the Garda and military forces in southern Ireland—is not as good as it should be and not as good as was promised, and that it could have prevented the tragedy?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am not sure that I would go so far as to endorse my hon. Friend's latter point, but we certainly see the potential for developing further the co-operation between the RUC and the Garda. Some people talk as if it were just a matter of signing some document, and one would get instant improvement in co-operation. It has to be built upon. I draw on the professional advice of the Chief Constable of the RUC, who goes no further than to say that, in his judgment, it provides the best opportunity for the development of closer co-operation, and the best opportunity for dealing with terrorism more effectively. That is the honest and truthful appraisal of the situation. There is nothing on a plate, but that opportunity is provided. Anybody who really believes that we shall make a more effective response against the terrorists by not working in close co-operation and harmony with the Irish Government misunderstands the reality of the situation.

I should like to add this to my hon. Friend. There may have been a misunderstanding. I hope that I misunderstood slightly what the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) meant. I think that he was implying—some of my right hon. and hon. Friends may not have understood this — that it was not that he declined to use the Chamber to discuss the matter, but that this question exchange was not the occasion that he would choose.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon , Newry and Armagh

As the Member in whose constituency that terrible deed took place, on behalf of my party I should like to add our condolences to the family of Lord Justice and Lady Gibson, and, indeed, to the families of all the people in the north of Ireland who have suffered in the recent past.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there are two things that the Provisional IRA fear most? The first is the close co-operation between the British Government and the Irish Government in the search to bring about peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The second is that the Nationalist community, the Catholic community in the north of Ireland, will be weaned away from support for the Provisional IRA and leave it isolated.

Will the right hon. Gentleman further confirm that one of the aims of the Provisional IRA at present is to provoke the type of punitive reaction that would prevent that from happening? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that his Government, through himself, will be careful not to play into the Provisional IRA's hands by doing that?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

We are anxious to build the support of the minority community in Northern Ireland and closer identification with administration and security efforts in the Province. That is very important. After the recent tragedy, I am sure that many in the Nationalist community will have learnt yet further what a totally unacceptable nature and viciousness the terrorists have. It is worth remarking that whoever detonated that bomb had no scruples about the other accidents that they might have caused at that time, no matter how horrific the death of Lord Justice Gibson. Not only were there the rugby players who were travelling south and the girls who appeared on television, but there was a bus with 50 schoolchildren taking part in a sports exchange, which was travelling north. These people have no compunction or scruples whatsoever, no matter how much suffering they may cause. These people hold out no promise whatsoever for the future of people anywhere in the island of Ireland and deserve the total condemnation of us all.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

I am sure that we are all depressed by the latest wave of killings, but as it is widely recognised that the RUC is better trained and better equipped than the police force in the Republic, can my right hon. Friend say what offers of training or equipment have been made to the police in the Republic since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and how many of those offers have been accepted?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

A number of suggestions have been made and offers of help given. Some have been accepted. Further training is being undertaken in different ways. However, the point behind my hon. Friend's question is correct. I assure him that we are anxious to assist in any possible way.

Photo of Mr Roy Mason Mr Roy Mason , Barnsley Central

There is no doubt that the political wing of the Provisional IRA has had to give way to a more militant campaign since it was shunned in the elections in the Irish Republic. Therefore, its increased kill and bomb campaign is intended to terrorise the whole Province and, coincidentally, to try to smash the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Is the Secretary of State aware that that will now necessitate a higher security profile in many previously quiet areas? Will he confirm that, if need be, more British troops will be drafted into the Province? I hope that he will consider parallel patrols by the Army and RUC and that, for a time, they will increase their presence on the streets. I hope that he will also consider increasing the facilities of the British Army and of the special forces in the Province so that they can retaliate and capture more easily than hitherto. The Secretary of State must now turn the tide and retaliate more effectively against the terrorists. If he adopts some, if not all, of those measures, I am sure that he will receive the support of most hon. Members in this House.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. As he was a predecessor in my office, I listened with particular respect to his points. I accept his analysis of the split in Sinn Fein following the last Ard Fheis, its decision to stand and to take seats in the Dail, with the consequent humiliation at the polls and the advent of a new Government in the Irish Republic. I am sure that some of those factors, and their consequences, are the explanation behind the recent burst of violence. Although any death is one too many, it is fair to say that the violence of the past few weeks has followed a period when, otherwise, casualties were significantly lower than in the corresponding period last year.

The right hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not go further, but I take careful note of all the points that he has made. A number of those options must be considered and some will undoubtedly be discussed later today when I meet the leaders of the security forces.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , South Staffordshire

Is it not a fact that, throughout the United Kingdom — in England, Scotland and Wales—many people have laid down their lives in defence of the Union and, in so doing, have supported the policies that have been endorsed by the overwhelming majority of hon. Members? In those circumstances, is it not a tragedy that, for the most part those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies remain silent in this House?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Obviously, I do regret that fact. I hope that it will be recognised that this is the Parliament of the Union where such debate and discussion should take place, through official and other channels. I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend about the commitment in the whole of the United Kingdom for the rights of people in Northern Ireland to live in freedom from fear. That commitment is absolute and has been endorsed by successive Governments. I say that when my own regiment is serving in Northern Ireland—and doing so gladly—and when some of my consitituents, many other hon. Members' constitituents, and the sons of our constituents, from all parts of the United Kingdom, are serving in Northern Ireland. Obviously, people in the Province are in the front line, and the courage of the RUC and the UDR is outstanding, but the effort that is made by the whole of the United Kingdom should be recognised.

Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Sheffield, Attercliffe

Without wishing to appear to be making unhelpful premature judgments, as some Unionist Members were quick to do over the weekend, does the Secretary of State not think that there were at least two surprising and basic deficiencies in the security arrangements? First, will he inform the House why an empty car was allowed to remain by the roadside in such a sensitive area? Secondly, why were Lord Justice Gibson and his wife allowed to publicise their travel arrangements so long in advance—I repeat the word "publicise"?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I would rather not comment on the hon. Gentleman's latter point. People must take responsibility for their affairs and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the clearest guidance is given. All hon. Members, particularly those representing the Province, know of the guidance from the RUC and of the sensible, intelligent precautions to take. I would rather not comment further on that.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the road on which the car was parked carries a tremendous volume of cross-border traffic and that there is a considerable amount of parking on parts of it. Unfortunately, this vehicle was not observed in sufficent time. This has not yet been corroborated, but I understand that the presence of the vehicle had just been reported to the RUC at the time of the incident.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

Is it not deplorable that some Opposition Members seized this incident to accuse the security forces in the South of leaking information to the IRA? Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on that and to confirm that the forces in the South have been increasing the sums spent on border operations? Will he further confirm that the time has come for joint patrols between the two armies, bearing in mind that both sovereign states are dedicated to the eradication of this particularly beastly form of international terrorism?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

In tragic incidents of this type, the first stories that appear are often confused and it is unfortunate if any allegations are made before there is proper evidence. The evidence that has since appeared shows that there were several ways in which the matter could have become more public knowledge. Other aspects have not yet been corroborated, so I shall not disclose them to the House, but they might have tended practically to "publicise", to use the word of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), the journey even more.

We are certainly looking for the fullest co-operation with the Government of the Republic. My hon. Friend rightly asked about resources, and the present conditions and difficult problems of the Irish economy are no secret to the House. Obviously, bearing in mind those difficulties, we shall hope for a maximum contribution from the Republic, and we appreciate the approach that the new Government are taking on this matter.

Photo of Mr Robert Hayward Mr Robert Hayward , Kingswood

In welcoming the modest, lucid statement of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to condemn those who continue to invite Sinn Fein spokesmen to public meetings in this part of the country. including that which took place in Bristol and was chaired by Councillor Ron Thomas? At that meeting the leader of the Labour group, Councillor Roger Berry, sat uncritically while the Sinn Fein spokesman expressed support for the IRA's right to "fight for freedom".

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I join my hon. Friend in condemning such action without qualification. The apologists for the IRA pretend that there is political justification for its acts, but the whole world knows from following the election in the Republic how minuscule its support is even in the Republic of Ireland. It is now clear from recent events that its only remaining argument is terror. That is why the IRA will be defeated.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry , Banbury

Is not a reason why the IRA is committing such atrocities that it has seen its electoral support through Sinn Fein continue to plummet as a result of the success of the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Should we not continue to build on that success and to improve security to ensure there is no hiding place for any terrorist, either north or south of the border?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I believe that the IRA can see, not only in the continuing co-operation between the British and Irish Governments—continuing, moreover, during the period of a change of Government in the Republic—but in the growing international co-operation against terrorism, that they can find no support whatever from any decent or respectable corner of the civilised world. I believe profoundly that the IRA will be frustrated in its attempts to procure arms and to win support and that we shall see the net closing gradually. That is what the IRA can also see,

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I must protect the subsequent business of the House and bear in mind the fact that we have a further statement. I shall call one further question. Mr. Marlow.[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

I am sure that the whole House has the feeling that, if this level of violence were to take place in England, there would be a public outcry demanding much stronger measures than we have at the moment. Can I follow the point made by the right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason) that perhaps my right hon. Friend could give more scope to the security forces to put, let us say, the wind up the terrorists — many, if not most, of whom are known? It would seem that the risks to terrorists of terrorist action are currently insufficient.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

My hon. Friend will have heard my answer to the right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason). It would be wrong not to recognise the facts of the position, which are that earlier this year there was some reduction in casualties, but certainly now there is a serious increase; overall, the levels of violence and suffering are unacceptable. I am seriously considering any proposals from the security forces about the ways in which their efforts, which we back wholeheartedly, can be even more effective.

Photo of Mr Barry Porter Mr Barry Porter , Wirral South

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

No. I will take points of order after the application under Standing Order No. 20.

Photo of Mr Barry Porter Mr Barry Porter , Wirral South

My point of order arises directly from the last questions.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

That may be, but I shall still take it at the end.