Lookout Posts (Newry and Armagh)

Part of Ways and Means – in the House of Commons at 10:16 pm on 15th March 1988.

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

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.