Security (Ulster)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:48 am on 20th December 1990.

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Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney , Peterborough 10:48 am, 20th December 1990

I thank the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) for doing the House a service by initiating this important debate, and for the way in which he did it. He and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) hold a common view in support of the security forces and of the police. I want to begin my response, which I fear may not be as full as I would have wished, given the importance of the subject, by adding my tribute on behalf of the Government to the security forces, the police and the Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I thank them for the job that they do on our behalf in difficult and dangerous circumstances. We are immensely in the debt of the security forces, the UDR, the RUC and the reservists. They show enormous courage and make real sacrifices, and it is right and proper for us to recognise that.

It is my sad duty to tell the hon. Member for Antrim, North that the 74 deaths to which he referred have been augmented by the murder of an RUC full-time reserve officer, Wilfred Wethers, in the lane-way of his house in Waringstown road, Lurgan, just after midnight. He had served in the force for 15 years, was married and ha .d four children aged between nine and 20 years. I know that the whole House will join me in offering sincere condolences to his family in this tragic circumstance, and in expressing our utter condemnation of those who murdered him.

I have listened with great care to what the hon. Member for Antrim, North had to say, and I understand the depth of feeling and breadth of experience underlying his arguments. He was, I think, right to rehearse again for the benefit of the House the harrowing statistics that he delivered, and also to point the finger: he, and all Northern Ireland Members, reject violence from whatever quarter it may come, but there is no doubt that the hon. Gentleman was right to single out the Provisional IRA as people who glory in murder more than any other organisation.

Neither the Government nor the security forces are complacent about the current level of violence. Indeed, the Secretary of State's statement about security policy made it clear that there is no such thing as an acceptable level of violence. We are determined to eradicate terrorism, whatever its source, and not merely to contain it; we are also committed to maintaining the rule of law, defending the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and their opposition to terrorism, and creating the conditions for a just, peaceful and prosperous society.

However, we must also be realistic. The complete removal of terrorism is a difficult, complex and dangerous task. There is no quick fix, and, although many possible measures seem attractive at first sight, they may prove on analysis to be of little value, perhaps even self-defeating. That is not to say that the defeat of terrorism is an impossible task; it is not and it will be achieved. The Government are committed to ensuring that the police, supported by the armed forces, have all the resources that they need to undertake their difficult and dangerous work on behalf of the whole community. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

It is, I suppose, only natural for the media and some others to concentrate on the tragic events that occur in Northern Ireland, and perhaps even to take a downbeat and depressed view of what happens in the Province. Let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who did not fall into that trap today. There are successes. Only yesterday, for instance, the security forces recovered two AKM rifles, an Armalite, a pistol, ammunition, 5 lb of Semtex and other items of terrorist equipment. As the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, such action takes equipment out of the terrorist arsenal and saves lives. At the end of September, the security forces had recovered 167 weapons, nearly 17,000 rounds of ammunition and over 4,000 lb of explosives. So far, 288 people have been arrested and charged in connection with terrorist crimes, and 307 have been convicted.

In a sense, those finds are only the tip of the iceberg. Every day, at all hours of the day and night, in all weathers and everywhere—I repeat, everywhere—in Northern Ireland, the security forces are present. Sometimes they are visible, conducting foot or mobile patrols or vehicle checkpoints; sometimes they are not so visible. The effect of their activity is to deter the terrorist, to make him abandon deeds that would otherwise have cost lives and, sometimes, to catch him red-handed.

It is important to the security forces, and to the pursuit of a security policy in Northern Ireland, that those forces receive the backing of the law. The Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill is currently in Committee. If it is the will of the House, a new power will be given to the police and the armed forces—the power to examine documents and other recorded data found in the course of a search as far as is reasonably required to ascertain whether they contain information that is likely to be useful to terrorists.

There will also be a new offence, that of possessing items intended for terrorist purposes, and a new power to allow the armed forces to seize equipment used to reopen closed border crossings. There will be another new offence, that of making bypasses around closed crossing points. All those measures are part of the fabric of tackling terrorism.

The hon. Gentleman raised the sad and deplorable death of Mr. Robinson. Continued attacks carried out on that Killeen stretch of the A I are in the interests of no one but the terrorist. Attacks or abandoned bombs on the road not only cause inconvenience and affect the financial returns of traders in the area, but are designed to kill. I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman when he deplored all the Provisional IRA's talk about mistakes. These are not mistakes; those people set out to murder, and they did so. If they got the target wrong—in their terms—that does not make it a mistake: it is still murder, and everyone should understand that.

It will not surprise hon. Members to learn—I thinks that this is the assurance that the hon. Gentleman was seeking—that we are looking closely at how better to protect that stretch of road, and are discussing with the Irish Government possible practical measures to improve its security and that of other border roads. I know that hon. Members will understand if I do not disclose the details of those discussions, for obvious reasons. Our aim is clear, however: we want to ensure that murders such as those of Constable Robinson, Judge and Lady Gibson and the Hanna family, and the recent attack on the Cloghoge permanent vehicle checkpoint are not repeated.

The hon. Gentleman talked with feeling about what was happening in Fermanagh, and again I share his feelings. Those who have not been put in such a position should think carefully before delivering serious criticism of the actions of those who have. The Government readi:ly acknowledge and appreciate the valuable contribution of those who serve in the security forces in that particularly difficult part of the Province. They provide a service to the community—as, indeed, do others who help them in their work.

I utterly condemn the Provisional IRA's campaign of intimidation and threats aimed at the people of Fermanagh. The security forces in that area are already stepping up their operational profile to protect and reassure those who are at risk, and to deter further terrorist activity. A comprehensive range of measures is already in place to protect and support those who are at particular risk. For obvious reasons again, I will not give hon. Members the details of the arrangements, but I assure them that all possible steps will be taken.

As we approach Christmas, it is important for us all to understand that we have a role to play in supporting the security forces in Northern Ireland. There are people who know who is causing intimidation in Fermanagh. There are people with information that coulld be of assistance. Apathy is not an acceptable discharge of civic responsibility when the lives of people are at risk. I appeal to all the people of the Province to show their support for the security forces and the police, not least by making available any information that would bring those perpetrators of violence to justice, for that ultimately is the best way to secure peace, tranquillity and prosperity in the Province.

I take this opportunity to wish right hon. and hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies and who have a complexity to their lives and a pressure that the rest of us do not experience a very happy Christmas. I am sure that they will agree with me when I say that it is perhaps even more important also to wish all their constituents a happy and peaceful Christmas.