Lookout Posts (Newry and Armagh)

Ways and Means – in the House of Commons at 9:59 pm on 15th March 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.]

10 pm

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

I welcome the opportunity to air my views about what I believe to be one of the most serious issues facing people in the North of Ireland. No doubt there will be those who tell me that there are more serious problems, and I shall probably accept that. However, if one examines the situation in South Armagh, one must reluctantly reach the conclusion that there is an artificial and optical attempt to present South Armagh as a showpiece for a military approach within the North of Ireland.

I say that with some reluctance, because I believe that there are Ministers in the Government and those in the Northern Ireland Office who are seriously and genuinely trying to solve a very difficult problem. I can come to no conclusion other than that, within the sphere of Government advice and within the Northern Ireland Office, there are those whose approach can be described only as malign. It is an approach which centres on a spurious philosophy which certainly could not succeed. It is a psychology that says that, somehow or other, there is a military solution to the problems within the North of Ireland.

I agree with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with General Glover, with Brigadier Bray and with Gerry Adams, who, individually and collectively, have said that there is no such thing as a military solution to the problem. All sides having accepted that there is no such thing as a military solution, it is entirely cynical and detrimental to the cause of peace in Northern Ireland to adopt such an approach. It has been stated publicly on numerous occasions by the Government, by me, by my party and by representatives of Sinn Fein that there is no military solution. If that thesis is accepted, to pursue and to search for a military solution would be a cynical exercise in relation to the people of Northern Ireland.

I take this opportunity to appeal once again to the Government to rethink their position. I believe that they have embarked on a course which will bring disaster to the North of Ireland. They have embarked on a course of callousness and cynicism which is dedicated to a line of approach which even they agree cannot and will not work.

It is a blinkered approach. If history has taught us anything in Ireland, if we have learnt anything from the lessons of the past 20 years, it is that one cannot solve the problems of violence by being violent. One cannot solve the problems of lawlessness by breaking the law. One cannot solve what is essentially a political problem by military and quasi-legal means. It is in that context that I wish to make these few remarks tonight.

Let me put it this way. All hon. Members represent constituencies and are familiar with the difficulties of doing so. If any hon. Member representing any constituency in this House had said to me 15 years ago that in his constituency there was a fortified Army installation for every 600 people, I would have said that it was not possible, that we were not living in that kind of world, and that we were living in a free society where such things did not happen; they might happen in Afghanistan and in South Africa, but not in our civilised society.

I represent a constituency the major part of which now has one fortified Army camp to every 600 of the population, 18 in all, if I take the word of the Minister of State in answer to a recent parliamentary question. While he did not avoid the truth in giving that answer, I think that he may have evaded it slightly because he omitted to include those camps which are police stations and which are now acting in a dual capacity. If we included them, we would have something like one armed camp to every 500 of the population.

If such a situation were to exist in any constituency in England, Scotland, Wales or anywhere else in western Europe, it is something that people would be concerned about, would marvel at and would want to examine. Is that the case here? I am afraid that it is not, because, for too long, the matter has unfortunately been ignored by the Northern Ireland Office, by the Government and, by and large, by those who choose to pontificate on all the problems that we experience daily.

Since I was elected to this House, I have consistently spoken about this issue. I made it the central point of my maiden speech. I have made request after request to the Northern Ireland Office that some of the Ministers come to visit my constituency and see for themselves what is happening. None of them has yet had the courage to move himself from the safety of Stormont castle and see how the people whom he governs exist.

I should add that the Under-Secretary of State who is present tonight is the one person who has taken himself out of his area. He has come round the constituencies in the North of Ireland. He has gone out and done what he should do, meet the community. I now take this opportunity of paying tribute to him for doing that and of asking him to continue to do so and to come where those who are responsible for security do not seem to have the courage or the interest to come. I await his response to that.

But it goes further than this. I am very concerned about the whole trend of this Government, because they are doing something that will be very serious for politics, not just in the North of Ireland but in this country as well. Politics must surely be about consensus and about arriving at solutions, not about confrontations and minor pyrrhic victories. It is not about macho tests, whether in the Health Service or in a military approach to solutions in the North of Ireland. It is not, and cannot be, about retribution. It is about getting solutions to long-standing problems. It is not about attrition. It is particularly not about the attrition that we are witnessing in the North of Ireland tonight and, unfortunately, probably tomorrow, next week, the week after and the week after that.

Politics is not simply about that. The political process is about binding wounds and solving problems, as well as creating a climate in which problems can be solved. The saying has been attributed to Disraeli that politics is the art of the possible. That is not so, as politics, if it means anything, is the art of creating the circumstances and a climate in which we can solve apparently intractable problems. But I fear that we are not creating that climate, and it worries me greatly.

The Government are not creating that climate. I fear that that is represented in my constituency by 18 of those hideous outposts, as the Minister has described them. They serve no purpose other than to satisfy the atavistic demands of those in the Northern Ireland Office and the political sphere who want confrontation and a military solution. It satisfies those in the Army and the police, who regard the outposts as a sign that they are doing what they regard as their duty.

It is a false premise. It will not succeed. We should consider what the Secretary of State has said, and what General Glover has said. We must realise that the further we go in this direction the faster we will slide down a slippery slope. There is no way back. Generations of Irish people will be forced to pay the price.

It is also significant that, since the recent appointment of the Minister of State, a new brigade has been formed to operate in the border area, which is also centred upon my constituency. In relation to that, I must ask the Minister why there is a "Gaza strip" in Northern Ireland. It concerns us greatly. Where is the primacy of the police in those circumstances? They cannot retain their primacy. It is already obvious that the Army "calls the shots" and that the sort of policing that was painstakingly built up has gone by the board.

What is this for? It is to satisfy the atavistic attitudes and approaches of some within the Government, the Northern Ireland Office and the security services. They do not have the vision and the courage to tackle the problem, in the hearts and minds of the people of Northern Ireland, where it should be tackled. They should try to create peace rather than confrontation. I ask the Minister this paradoxical question because it is worth thinking about: are the priorities and objectives to beat the IRA or to create peace? We must start to think in those terms.

This "long war", as it is called now, has continued four times as long as the previous world war. It could continue for another 30 to 35 years. There is no problem about that. The British Government have the resources to continue it and the Provisional IRA has the resources, too. The war can and will continue for another 30 years, unless someone has the courage to break the log jam.

The question of the Government's objective is central to the problem. Is it to defeat the IRA or to create peace and stability? If we take this question to its logical conclusion, it will surely lead the Government to re-examine their position and approach. They will realise that what they are doing now is laying very sound foundations for this terrible tragedy to continue for another 30 years.

I address my last point to the Minister, as he is responsible for education in Northern Ireland. Again, I pay tribute to him as he has had the courage to do what he thinks is right, not sitting in the safety of Stormont castle, but working on the ground. .I should like him to visit Cloughoge school in my constituency. Within 350 m of that school is one of the lookout posts that I have mentioned, and 350 m in the other direction is a very heavily fortified road check. If there is an attack on either of those installations, without a doubt that school will be hit. There are 330 children there. I cannot escape the conclusion that the posts were sited there simply to have the protection of that school.

I warn the Minister that it is inevitable that an attack will be made on those lookout posts, and that the school is in grave danger. I ask him to take action before there is a tragedy. At Aughnacloy the young man, McAnespie, was shot from a distance approximately the same as those guards posts are from that school. If a heavy missile is fired and misses its target, as it will, and hits the school, we would see the wringing of hands. Before that happens, we must end the callousness that we have seen for so long.

The happenings in Northern Ireland are tragic and are brutalising soldiers, policemen and members of the community, especially young people. Above all, they are brutalising those in the Government who make the decisions; who are not showing or attempting to show any compassion or vision; and who are dedicated to confrontation, not solutions.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 10:16 pm, 15th March 1988

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) does the House a service in raising a very important issue. If he spoke in strong language, I defend him, at least part of the way, against those hon. Members who do not represent areas which have suffered as his constituency has suffered in recent years.

Having said that, he will forgive me if I say that, even allowing for that, his language was a little extravagant. On reflection, perhaps he would want to modify some of the terminology that he used. He suggested that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office are malign and interested only in a military solution, and that they are brutalised and without care, concern or consideration for people who have to suffer at the hands of terrorists, week in and week out. That was an unfortunate way to make his point, and I make it clear at the outset that those charges are quite unfounded.

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

The Minister understands what I said. I did not make that point in relation to everyone at the Northern Ireland Office. The Minister of State has brought with him an attitude dedicated to a military approach, not an imaginative approach, which is clearly at odds with that of the Secretary of State and others in the Northern Ireland Office. I did not make the criticism collectively.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has clarified the point, but he would not expect me to accept what he said about my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who brings to his responsibilities a knowledge of defence matters that is a great asset to the Government in seeking to tackle the problems caused by terrorism in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member talked about a political process, the point of which is to bind wounds and find solutions. I agree with him on both points. The political process is also about combating terrorism in a democracy so that people can enjoy that most basic of freedoms, the freedom from fear, intimidation and death.

The hon. Gentleman asked a central question, from which I do not resile. He asked whether we were seeking to beat the IRA or to create peace. It is unfortunate that he put that question in either-or terms. All of us wish to create peace, but it is the view of most people in Northern Ireland, including the Government, that we are not likely to create that peace unless it is made crystal clear to the IRA that it has no role in Northern Ireland and that it cannot achieve by the bullet what it cannot achieve by the ballot.

This Adjournment debate provides the House with the opportunity to review the security situation in South Armagh. As hon. Members will know, this particular part of Northern Ireland has seen some of the worst atrocities of the terrorist campaign and has for many years proved one of the most difficult and dangerous areas from the security point of view. I should like to begin by examining the circumstances in which security force operations are conducted in this part of the Province.

South Armagh has witnessed a series of dreadful terrorist crimes. In the 10 years from the beginning of 1979 to the end of last year, 101 members of the security forces lost their lives there while seeking to counter the terrorist threat. The House will recall many of the individual incidents that have taken place in recent years, including the horrifying mortar bomb attack on Newry RUC station, which cost the lives of nine police officers in February 1985.

It was because of the terrorist threat that, in the summer of 1986, the security forces undertook the construction of a number of observation posts in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Their aim was to improve the effectiveness of counter-terrorist operations in the area and to increase the level of security afforded to law-abiding members of the community. The idea was not a new one. For a number of years the security forces have taken advantage of high ground to maintain surveillance of likely terrorist targets, but at three particular sites specially designed structures were erected consisting of fortified sangars and observation towers. A similar tower was added earlier this year on Cloghoge mountain in order to overlook the site of the new permanent vehicle checkpoint on the Belfast to Dublin road. None of those installations occupies more than about an acre of ground, although, in each case, the Army has made arrangements to use some of the surrounding farm land, and none of the towers is more than 50 ft high. I understand that it is those installations that have been the subject of some local controversy.

I want to make it clear this evening that these structures are a vital part of security force operations in South Armagh. They provide the Army with secure bases from which soldiers can mount patrols of the surrounding countryside, and they enable the security forces to maintain surveillance on suspected terrorist activity.

The towers pose no threat whatsoever to law-abiding members of the community. Their presence is a threat only to the terrorists and they will remain — I give this assurance to the hon. Gentleman—only so long as they are required to counter the campaign of the Provisional IRA. Members of the security forces, whose job it is to protect the community from violence, are themselves entitled to the best possible protection from terrorist attack.

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

I note the Minister's point. Will he tell the House how many lookout towers there are in every other constituency in the North of Ireland? If the virtues of those towers are so great, we can judge the Minister's reply, as I think I might anticipate it.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The hon. Gentleman knows the answer. He knows that there are no towers anywhere else. He will be encouraged to know that I took the debate seriously, and I inquired why that is the case. The answer is that the terrain in the rest of the Province does not lend itself to the use of towers in the same way as it does in South Armagh.

I accept, of course, that some inconvenience has been caused to local people by the erection of the towers, but many of the complaints that have been made, mostly by people who are unaffected by the installations, are out of all proportion to the problem. It has been suggested, for example, that equipment used at the towers is emitting harmful radiation. That is completely untrue. It has also been said that damage to fences has caused the spread of disease among cattle. Again, there is no evidence to support such claims.

Where damage has been caused, or where small parcels of land have been occupied, adequate compensation or rent has been paid. Soldiers on duty in the area are regularly and carefully briefed on the need to avoid such damage wherever possible. However, during the course of their operations soldiers have inevitably caused some damage to farmers' ditches, fences and crops. That is very much regretted and every effort is made to keep it to a minimum. Legitimate claims have been speedily and properly dealt with, and anyone who is not satisfied with the level of compensation offered can appeal to the courts.

The purpose of the towers is to provide the whole community with better protection against terrorist violence and to reduce the risk of innocent civilians being injured as a result of the Provisional IRA campaign.

Allegations of harassment by soldiers should be reported to the police. They will be fully investigated. Following complaints from the hon. Gentleman that printed cards had been distributed by soldiers, those responsible have been disciplined and warned that there should he no recurrence. That incident is regretted by the military authorities and I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will be writing to the hon. Gentleman.

I believe the House will accept that these observation posts are necessary for the conduct of security force operations in South Armagh. It is gratifying to note that, since the construction of those towers, the security forces have not suffered any fatal casualties. That is something that all hon. Members will welcome.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of helicopter noise. Again, having made inquiries, I know that he will be pleased to learn that shortly the Ministry of Defence is planning to introduce a scheme for noise insulation grants for houses near helicopter landing sites at Bessbrook, Crossmaglen and Forkhill. The grants will cover the reasonable costs of installing double glazing.

I have little time left, and I want to deal with the question of the school, which was raised by the hon. Gentleman. I know that it is a matter of considerable concern to him. He raised certain questions about the school with me recently. I assure him that since the checkpoint was built soldiers have not entered the school grounds, apart from the day of Mr. Wilson's visit, and they will not do so except for urgent operational reasons. Further, helicopters will not overfly the school unless weather conditions preclude any other flight paths. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that, except for the very youngest children, pupils continue to use the school grounds at break times and lunch and that the presence of the checkpoint has not prevented children from attending their classes.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was unhappy about the way in which these issues were bought to the public attention, but I am pleased that he has since raised them with me in the normal way and I have sought to respond to what I believe were his legitimate concerns. I am pleased to tell him that, as part of my usual programme of visiting schools, I intend to visit Cloghoge in the near future.

We all look forward to the day when observation posts and fortified police stations are no longer necessary in any part of Northern Ireland. I hope that all those who abhor terrorism as I and the hon. Gentleman do will recognise that the existence of the various installations in South Armagh are in their long-term interests. It is the concern of the Government that disruption to the local community should be minimised and adequately compensated for where appropriate.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will encourage his constituents to see the towers, not as a threat, but as part of their protection against against terrorism, and that he will advise them to raise any complaints that they may have with local civilian representatives.

It is our concern and the concern of the whole House to do everything that we can within the law to defeat terrorism and we will, therefore, continue to give our support to the policemen and the soldiers whose prime task that is.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.