Lookout Posts (Newry and Armagh)

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

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Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon , Newry and Armagh 9:59 pm, 15th March 1988

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.