HL Deb 20 July 1971 vol 322 cc841-4

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the first Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether a statement can be made on the present situation in Ulster and whether further measures are contemplated in order to protect our forces from casualties.]


My Lords, it will be apparent that the security situation in Northern Ireland is serious. Although the large scale sectarian confrontations have greatly diminished and although there have been a large number of arrests and successful prosecutions, there are now frequent acts of terrorism committed by the I.R.A. The Army and the R.U.C. are exposed to dangers which are particularly difficult to counter. Measures to improve tactics, intelligence and equipment are continuously being taken, but noble Lords will understand that it would not help the security forces for me to give details.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that I ask this Question with the utmost good will towards both the Forces and the Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland? How long do Her Majesty's Government expect the Army in Ulster to tolerate being shot at, stoned, punched, kicked and subjected to all kinds of indignities, and yet remain tolerant, with both hands behind their backs? Does he consider—and perhaps he will convey this point to his right honourable friend—that the time has arrived when the functions and responsibilities of the Army in Ulster might be transferred to the Ulster Constabulary and any other police force the Government wish to create?


My Lords, I entirely appreciate the noble Lord's motive in putting down this Question. The Army have always known that this was going to be a very long haul. All experience has shown that urban guerrilla tactics cannot be defeated quickly. The important thing is to review military tactics all the time to make sure that changes meet the situation. I will certainly convey the statement made by the noble Lord to my right honourable friend, but I think that most people feel that the continued presence of the Armed Forces in Ulster is essential to the maintenance of order at the present time.


My Lords, we on this side of the House again wish to express our full confidence in Her Majesty's Forces in Northern Ireland, and particularly, if I may say so, in the Command under which they serve. While our soldiers are in Northern Ireland we on this side would always insist that they remain, in terms of both operation and discipline, under the Government in Westminster. Will the noble Lord accept that there is grave concern in our community because our soldiers are being abused. We see it on television and very little explanation is given of why they are put into this exposed position. Having said that, may I again express our complete confidence in the Command and in our soldiers in Northern Ireland.


My Lords, I appreciate what the noble Lord has said. He has the whole House with him there. I know that we all admire the restraint and conduct of the British troops in what are extremely adverse and difficult conditions.


My Lords, the noble Lord will understand that there is nothing in my Question which might reflect on the conduct or behaviour of our troops in Northern Ireland. I have the utmost sympathy and regard for the members of Her Majesty's Forces. But some of us are becoming a little tired of seeing the Army kicked around in the way it is. Though I recognise, having some knowledge of this matter, that they are expected to deal with matters of civil disorder, are they not being asked to undertake a task which at the moment is apparently far beyond their capabilities?


My Lords, while sympathising with the position of the British Forces, may I ask the Minister whether the deteriorating psychological situation in Northern Ireland is indicative of the fact that there cannot be a military solution of this problem? Is it not desirable that Her Majesty's Government should take the initiative to try to bring about a political settlement by contact not only with Stormont and the absent Opposition but also with the Government of the Republic of Ireland, so that there may be a full discussion of a settlement of this problem?


My Lords, I think that all noble Lords are aware that there can be no complete military solution to this problem, but until order can be restored and the terrorist activities can be curbed it is difficult to see how the root causes of discontent and strife in Northern Ireland can be eradicated. There are deep-rooted historical differences and only the people of Northern Ireland themselves can in the end solve this problem. Her Majesty's Government can help and guide, as we do, but lasting solutions cannot be imposed.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the anxieties expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Shinwell and Lord Shepherd, are widely felt also on this side of the House? I say that, lest it be thought to go by default.


Yes, my Lords. The consideration that we must bear in mind, as my right honourable friend has pointed out on a number of occasions, is that one of the tactics of the terrorists is that people in this country will get increasingly weary of seeing soldiers attacked, and that the strain on the Army will be appreciated to such an extent that people in this country might be tempted to turn their backs on Northern Ireland. We think that this is not an acceptable position to envisage.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that when the military forces were first sent from this country into Northern Ireland they were sent as a short-term action, and that the intention was that they would come out as quickly as possible? The noble Lord referred this afternoon to "a long haul". Is there not a great danger that by treating this as a long haul we shall make a political solution impossible, rather than make it easier?


My Lords, we should all like it to be as short a haul as possible, but we must be realistic, and we should be deluding ourselves if we felt that it was possible to withdraw British Armed Forces from Northern Ireland at the moment.