§ Mr. Neave (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he has any statement to make on the death of three soldiers at an Army observation post in South Armagh on Saturday 22nd November.
§ The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Stanley Orme)
I am sure that the whole House will join the Government in expressing their regret at the death last Saturday of three members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
At approximately 4.20 p.m. on 22nd November 1975 Fusilier Samson, Fusilier McDonald and Fusilier Duncan, all of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, were murdered when they were fired upon by an unknown number of gunmen. A fourth soldier was seriously injured in the incident. The soldiers were manning an observation point near the border with the Irish Republic, southeast of Crossmaglen. Their task was to observe and report upon cross-border movement. The gunmen used automatic weapons, apparently from positions just south of the border. The soldiers returned 19 rounds, but it is not known whether any of the gunmen was hit. An airborne reaction force and a doctor were dispatched to the area after the firing was heard. The Irish security forces were told of the incident and immediately deployed their forces in an effort to catch the escaping gunmen. The Provisional Irish Republican Army has issued a statement 487 claiming that 12 of its members were responsible for the murders.
Despite difficulties, the security forces are having increasing success in enforcing law and order. In the Province as a whole, the number of people arrested and charged continues to mount. In the last three weeks respectively 55, 39 and 36 people were charged by the police with serious security-type offences. The Government are determined that the gunmen and bombers must be brought before the courts. A total of 128 people have been charged with murder this year compared with 75 in the whole of last year, and 84 people have so far been charged with attempted murder and 311 travelling gunmen have been caught and charged.
It has been suggested that South Armagh is immune from the activities of the security forces. This is not so. Since 1st August the police have charged 30 people there with terrorist-type offences. Four more people have been arrested today and are helping with inquiries into recent crimes, including the murder of the soldiers. The ordinary law is being enforced in that region. To those who allege that in this area the normal law is not enforced, I say that 300 people have been charged there with non-scheduled offences since the beginning of September.
The border is an important part of the terrorist problem in South Armagh. The Irish authorities recognise this and are giving energetic co-operation. Their response to the incident on Saturday was full and prompt. The RUC and Garda are in close touch.
Many answers have been suggested for this difficult problem. Some have urged the Government to stop releases from detention. This would not solve the problem. If detention has to be used again, it will be used again. But it is far more effective to secure convictions through the courts. This is, and will remain, the primary task of the security forces and Her Majesty's Government. The convicted prison population has gone up this year from 1,541 in January to 2,215 today. Once convicted, a prisoner will serve an appropriate sentence, which may be long. Since 1971, by its very nature, the period served in detention has averaged only 18 months per person.
488 Some have called again for the end of the cease-fire. The cease-fire is purely the prerogative of the people who called it. The security forces will continue resolutely to deal with any violence that may occur. There is no political direction which restricts the security forces in carrying out their duties in South Armagh or anywhere else in the Province. The figures for charges I gave earlier show clearly the positive response of the security forces.
§ Mr. Neave
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we join with him in expressing deep sympathy for the families of these murdered young soldiers? These are the latest victims of what the Provisional IRA calls its ceasefire.
Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that much of what he said about the state of affairs in South Armagh will not be received very well on this side of the House, because his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said yesterday that it is bandit country where there has never been a cease-fire? If that is so, why is not the Army being given clear orders to counter-attack and clean it up?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of our astonishment at the Secretary of State's comment that his release of committed and dangerous terrorists has nothing to do with South Armagh when a great many of those detained came from that area?
Finally, when will the Government give evidence of leadership and decision in fighting terrorism, which is the least they owe to the security forces and the people of the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Orme
It ill becomes the hon. Gentleman to talk in such terms to the Government when he is playing politics with the situation. He is playing politics with the British Army which is carrying out military action. The Secretary of State, as the House knows, was in Belfast this morning discussing the matter with the security forces, including the GOC and the Chief Constable. The security forces are completely free and always have been to take what military action they deem necessary to overcome this problem. Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, there is not one shred of evidence to refute that.
489 As for the end of detention, the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that of the remaining people in detention now—well below 100—none comes from the South Armagh area. There is no evidence to show that any of the released detainees have been operational in this isue. That does not mean that this is not an exceedingly difficult problem. The hon. Gentleman and his Government had to face this problem, just as we are facing it. The Secretary of State is searching for a political solution. At the same time the Army is free to carry out its operations as it thinks fit.
§ Mr. McCusker
Is the Minister aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends support his comments expressing sympathy to the families of the dead soldiers, and also to the families of the other 30 people killed in my constituency during the past six months? Is he also aware that my constituents get little satisfaction from the Secretary of State's comments that South Armagh is somehow different from the rest of Northern Ireland?
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what representations he has made to Dublin, because these three soldiers, plus their colleague who was blown up on Friday, were killed from the territory of the Irish Republic? When will the Government turn their words into actions?
§ Mr. Orme
I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings—as does every hon. Member in the House—especially his constituency feeling about this matter. I said that co-operation between the Irish Government and the British Government has never been at a higher level. Co-operation between the RUC and Garda is at a level which it has not been previously. The Irish Government are as distressed as we are about what happens on their side of the border as well as what happens on our side. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will take all measures, including further consultations with the Irish Government, on this matter. But we do not have to press for that: we receive willing co-operation.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the operational con 490 trol of the British Army in Northern Ireland remains in the hands of the General Officer Commanding, and that the siting of observation points and the level of back-up forces to protect them is also a matter within the control of the Army?
After the comments of the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave), does my right hon. Friend recall the stalwart support given to the Conservative Government by the Labour Opposition on Northern Ireland, and agree that it is in direct contrast to the hon. Member's despicable ploy of playing party politics with the lives of British soldiers?
Is my right hon. Friend also aware that many who take my view on Northern Ireland look forward to an opportunity of debating the Report of the Convention in order that we may deploy the argument, which in my belief is supported by the majority of the British people, that a political solution should be found to the tragedy of Northern Ireland which would involve the complete disengagement of Great Britain from that troubled scene?
§ Mr. Orme
There will obviously be an opportunity in the near future for a debate on the Convention Report and all that flows from it. My hon. Friend would not want me to comment further than that. I will not comment on his second point. I will let it stand for the House to judge.
My hon. Friend asked whether the Army has operational control in all the security operations it undertakes in South Armagh or anywhere else. The explicit answer is "Yes".
§ Mr. Thorpe
Is the Minister aware that the Liberal Party, too, extends its sympathy to the relatives of these three young soldiers?
Is it not a fact that these killings bring to nine the members of the security forces who have been murdered in South Armagh within a matter of a very few months? That being so, is it not essential that the security forces should be seen decisively to reassert their authority in the area? Is it not also a fact that these soldiers were attacked by a unit some 10 strong, which is not unknown in this part of the border? Is it not crazy, therefore, 491 that soldiers should be expected to go out in groups of four? Should not the numbers be greatly increased?
§ Mr. Orme
Again, that last point is an operational matter for the security forces and, therefore, I should not like to comment on it as such.
The first point raised by the right hon. Gentleman is the very issue that the security forces have been discussing with the Secretary of State this morning, and, again, the right hon. Gentleman would not wish me to go into detail about security activity. I can only say that if the Army needs to take any action, support will be forthcoming from the Government.
§ Mr. John Mendelson
Whatever may be correct about the direct operational command of the Armed Forces, surely, as we are giving steady and continuing political support to the line taken by the Government, we are all equally responsible for the rate of our soldiers and for what befalls them over there, and we must therefore assume fully political responsibility for their fate.
Is it not equally true that, however satisfied the Government may be with the political co-operation of the Government of the Republic, the decisive issue in this tragedy of the murder of these three soldiers by common murderers, who masquerade as honourable soldiers, is that these killers can operate scot-free on two sides of a border which virtually does not exist? Is it not the duty of the Government, therefore, to get on to the Government in Dublin and to demand immediate effective measures along that border in co-operation between the two armies, however politically difficult that might appear to be to the Government in Dublin? Is that not the message that the Government must take back from us if they wish us to continue to support their political policies?
§ Mr. Orme
I understand the emotion and feeling with which my hon. Friend puts that question, but I have already told the House about the co-operation with the Government of the Irish Republic. It can obviously be improved, as, indeed, any co-operation can be improved. I am sure that the Irish Government will read with interest not only what my 492 hon. Friend has said but what other hon. Members have said about this issue. I can only say to my hon. Friend that the co-operation for which we have asked is forthcoming. It can never be complete, but we have certainly not been hampered in any way by the actions of the Irish Government.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
As the right hon. Gentleman made clear to the House that these men were ambushed by IRA men acting south of the border, in the territory of the Republic of Ireland, will he now tell the House under what orders soldiers are acting who come under attack from the South? May they fire back, and may they pursue the gunmen into the South of Ireland? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this morning there were two further serious incidents when other soldiers were fired on from the South of Ireland? In answer to the Leader of the Liberal Party, will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House that there have been 14 members of the Army—including five of the Ulster Defence Regiment—killed in South Armagh?
§ Mr. Orme
Yes, I can confirm the last point made by the hon. Gentleman, including what he said about members of the UDR.
The hon. Gentleman has raised questions of operational matters for the Army, dealing with the delicate issue of the border. It has been reaffirmed this morning that the Army is operating there in the manner in which it feels it is correct to operate as a security force. [Interruption.] I fail to see the reason for the agitation on the Opposition Benches when I say quite clearly that the Army is handling the security situation as it believes it should be dealt with, and with no restriction from the Government.
§ Mr. English
To get away from the inopportune acrimony and high politics for a moment, does not my right hon. Friend agree that we should all want to know why it took so long for these men to be supported? It is not a satisfactory answer to say their radio was knocked out, when every policemen in central London has a radio of his own. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Defence, who controls the Army in spite of what my right hon. 493 Friend has been saying, to ensure that the Minister of State for Defence puts out a statement saying exactly why—even if a mistake was made—these men were not supported in time to save their lives?
§ Mr. Orme
Support was given as rapidly as possible. My hon. Friend will recognise that one of the problems was that the other soldier who is at present seriously ill is not in a position to give information. That therefore restricts the Army's intelligence in deciding exactly what happened and how it happened. However, I will certainly note what my hon. Friend has said, and, if improvements can be made, they will be made.
§ Mr. Churchill
May I join the Minister in his expressions of sympathy to the families of the murdered men, especially to the parents of 19-year-old Fusilier Peter McDonald who was my constituent? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that no praise is too high for the courage of these young men, barely out of school, who, though outnumbered and outgunned, spurned the offer of a safe conduct from the IRA?
I should like to put two questions to the Minister. First, how much longer will the Government pretend to the existence of a cease-fire which everyone in Northern Ireland, the City of London, Manchester and elsewhere knows to be non-existent? Second, how would he explain to a 19-year-old private, let alone the bereaved parents of a 19-year-old private, that he must face terrorist bullets to apprehend thugs and murderers, and put them behind bars so that spineless and gutless politicians can betray that gallantry and betray that sacrifice by letting them out of the back door?
§ Mr. Orme
If the hon. Gentleman is referring to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myself, both of whom saw military service during the war, it is too despicable a comment for reply.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I live on one side of his constituency and represent a constituency on the other side of his. Therefore, I know the area exceptionally well. That these soldiers have died while serving in the British Army is a major tragedy. It is to prevent the continuing escalation of the trouble, and 494 to find a solution, that this Government, as did the previous Government, seek a political solution which will mean that soldiers will not be killed and that people in Northern Ireland, whatever their religion, shall be treated on an equal basis. It may take a long time, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to assist the Government in that purpose and not to utter remarks of the type he has just made.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
Does the Minister accept that the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) is a most important practical one concerning the question of radio communication between the Army post and its headquarters? There will be deep concern that it took 20 to 25 minutes for reinforcements to arrive. Can we have an assurance that exposed outposts of this kind always have radio communication, and will a statement be made later as to what went wrong on this occasion?
§ Mr. Orme
I do not want to violate the political rôle of the Government and the military rôle exercised by the Army, but plainly I shall draw the Army's attention to my hon. Friend's comments. No doubt when the Army has fully explored the matter it will make a report to the Government. At this stage I do not want to go beyond these remarks as I should be prejudging a situation that has not yet been fully analysed.
§ Mr. Biggs-Davison
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the support which he said had been given by his party to the Conservative Government when dealing with these difficult problems. Does he not recall that on many issues, including issues of security, the Conservatives were voted against? Nevertheless, we try to support the Government in everything they do to crush terrorism. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the freedom of action of the Army in South Armagh. May I ask him whether the Army has full freedom to conduct the searches it considers necessary to bring these terrorists to justice?
§ Mr. Orme
The answer to that question is "Yes". This is a country of difficult terrain, with very few people, and with a border stretching many miles which is itself difficult to define in a number of places, leading to all sorts of 495 difficulties. If the hon. Gentleman is asking a straight question "Is the Army in a position to deal with this matter?", the answer is "Yes".
§ Mr. Crouch
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to question in any way your closing of the debate on this matter. However, I particularly asked you whether I might raise the matter with the Minister of State this afternoon in view of the fact that a constituent of mine was murdered on Saturday. The incident was referred to by the Minister. I feel that this is a matter of far greater importance than the miserable Queen's Speech that we shall be debating this afternoon.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member has made his point. It is not possible for me to know exactly the reasons why every hon. Member wishes to catch my eye. On occasions such as this, it is difficult to distinguish between hon. Members. I try to do my best and to be fair. The hon. Member has now made his point that one of his constituents was concerned in this tragedy.
§ Mr. Crouch
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to press you, but I was telephoned last night by the father of the boy who was killed. He expressed to me something which I and perhaps many of us in the House had forgotten, namely, the grave concern felt by people in this country that the Army in Ulster is fast becoming a forgotten Army. That was why he particularly asked me to raise the question today.
§ Mr. Orme
Perhaps, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I can answer the hon. Member's point. I understand his feelings and certainly take note of what he said. Defence Ministers are present 496 listening to these questions and answers. I assure the hon. Member that the Army is not forgotten. That is not the way in which the Army or the Government see the matter in Northern Ireland.
§ Sir John Rodgers
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for me to ask a question seeking clarification of the Minister?
§ Mr. Speaker
No. I believe that there is to be a debate later this week, and Questions to the Secretary of State next week. I do not think we can go further today.