Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

House of Commons Statement [Northern Ireland (Security) (situation in Armagh)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [903/27-41]
Editorial comments: After 1530. MT spoke at cc30-31.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 5084
Themes: Northern Ireland, Terrorism
[column 27]



The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

When I visited Northern Ireland on 18th December for talks with the security forces, police and armed services, I was given an assessment of the deteriorating situation in Armagh, and informed of further measures to reinforce security services there, both from the troops already in Northern Ireland, and by the deployment of the Ulster Defence Regiment.

Since the House adjourned, the situation, particularly in South Armagh, has deteriorated further. Murder and violence there reached a new peak in the first few days of this year. No fewer than 15 people were brutally murdered in the first week of January. And this after a year in which, of the 14 Regular soldiers who were murdered in Northern Ireland, nine were killed in County Armagh as well as one Regular policeman, one reserve policeman and five members of the Ulster Defence Regiment. In 1975, 39 members of the civilian population were brutally murdered there.

The House will be aware of the killings at the beginning of last week—first, five Catholics murdered in their homes, followed by the shooting down of 10 Protestants returning home from work the following day. There were fears that a whole series of reprisal murders, from one side and then the other, might follow.

I must stress that the vast majority of the population in Armagh, as in the rest of the Province, are totally horrified and revolted by these atrocities. Their feelings were shown by the mass turnout of both religious communities at recent memorial and funeral services, and at special demonstrations for peace—outside as well as inside County Armagh.

Nevertheless, the Government are right in these circumstances in treating the [column 28]whole of County Armagh as a special emergency area.

Steps to strengthen the security forces in the area have already been set in hand.

The Spearhead Battalion has been moved from Great Britain to Armagh. Troops of the Special Air Service Regiment are joining them. They will be used for patrolling and surveillance, tasks for which they are particularly suited and trained. They will operate wherever they are required throughout the county. Extra police have already moved to the area, including the Special Patrol Group and the RUC's Anti-Assassination Squad.

I pay full tribute to the volunteer part-time soldiers of the UDR who, like the members of the RUC Reserve, so readily spare so much time to help protect their fellow citizens in both communities. Two battalions of the UDR have already been on selective call-out in the area, over and above a continuing and very considerable voluntary response. It is right that we should call on these forces to the fullest extent possible in the present situation. Like the Regular Forces of the Crown, they are under the direct control of the GOC and Chief Constable. I hope that many more people from both communities will come forward to join in this task.

The security forces have stepped up their activity throughout this special emergency area. The House will not expect me to specify all of the measures in detail, but I will give a number of examples.

First, there are more check points for vehicles and people.

Second, there is a much more extensive use of personal identity checks. I know that people resent being asked who they are and what their business is when they are going about their lawful occasions. These increased checks inevitably cause some inconvenience, but they must be accepted in the interests of the safety of the community as a whole.

Third, surveillance operations will be increased, particularly along the border.

Fourth, the existing powers under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974 to question people within a mile of the border will be used more extensively. [column 29]

Fifth, intimidation of householders has made it necessary for more house searches in the area, but there is no intention of harassing the civilian population.

Sixth, existing powers to arrest and question suspects are sufficient and they will be used to the full in this area with a view to bringing people to justice before the courts. There is no intention of arresting people at random.

Seventh, as the House knows, this border presents a special problem. Some, but not all, of the gunmen operating in Armagh escape to the other side of the border after their cowardly attacks. A number of practical steps are in hand. A new information system, based on automatic data processing, is to be introduced by the Army to handle existing records so that information can be processed and acted upon more quickly. More border roads can be closed if this is necessary for security reasons. We are studying urgently a number of other measures for the greater control over vehicle movement, including a possible system of passes for vehicles using those unapproved border roads which are being permitted to remain open. But we must be sure that any measures we take will be effective and not merely consume manpower without hindering the gunmen.

I pay tribute to the co-operation we are receiving from the Government of the Republic of Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland met Mr. Cooney, the Minister for Justice for the Republic, on 8th January this year. There is no doubt that the Government of the Republic are as determined as are this Government to stamp out cross-border banditry and murder. There is now close and valuable co-operation between the RUC and the Irish police. It is in this area of joint co-operation that the greatest hope lies of dealing with this aspect of the present Armagh situation. Action taken on one side of the border without matching action on the other side will not work. As a result of the talks with Mr. Cooney in London, the communications and operational contacts between the police forces of both sides have been strengthened and the programme of joint activity has been extended. It will be pursued with all possible urgency.

The House will be ready to pay tribute above all to the daily work performed [column 30]throughout the Province by the armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. No praise could be too great for them.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. The Government have a duty to protect all their citizens there. This duty will be discharged to the full.

I thought it right and for the convenience of the House, Mr. Speaker, following consultations with the official Opposition last week, to present this report on security as a separate statement. Clearly in the debate which follows on important issues affecting the ultimate constitutional and political situation in Northern Ireland no hon. Member is restricted in the subjects to which he alludes, but I felt that a separate statement would enable a more orderly and open follow-up by questions than, for example, the inclusion of a reference to security in the speech of my right hon. Friend this afternoon. It may have the further advantage of separating the issues of security and the constitutional future for the purposes of the debate.

But, in a wider sense, the whole House knows that a satisfactory solution of both problems is necessary to ensure peace and an ensured future for Northern Ireland. Without a solution of the formidable security problems, the necessary conditions will not exist for constitutional advance and reconciliation. But, equally, without a political solution based on give and take and aimed at reconciling the preponderant peaceable majorities in both of the religious communities, security measures alone cannot ensure the future which the people of Northern Ireland have the right to expect.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I thank Harold Wilsonthe Prime Minister for making a separate statement and for making it himself? This shows the importance the Government attach to solving the security problem in Northern Ireland. May we also join in the tribute he paid to the armed forces and the police for the way in which they have carried out their difficult and dangerous duties?

Is he aware that we support and welcome all efforts to restore law and order throughout the Province? He will know that my hon. Friends called for a special effort in South Armagh on 24th November and that since then there have been killings which have caused a wave [column 31]of repugnance throughout the United Kingdom that such terrible crimes against humanity could occur in a part of the United Kingdom. I believe the right hon. Gentleman has the full backing of public opinion for any action necessary to restore order in the Province. We believe that action must be determined and sustained and our only worry is whether the measures announced by the Prime Minister are strong enough for what he described as a special emergency area.

The Prime Minister referred to a much more extensive use of personal identity checks. Can he say what these checks will be? He referred to the existing powers to arrest and question suspects and used a rather strange phrase, which might have arisen from a drafting problem or might have wholly reflected what he meant. He said that existing powers would be

“used to the full in this area with a view to bringing people to justice before the courts” .

This has two implications. The first is that even in this area the powers have not so far been used to the full and the second is that in future they will not be used to the full outside this area. Both are serious implications and it is important that the Prime Minister should clear up exactly what is meant.

We welcome the Prime Minister's reference to the co-operation he has received from the Government of the Republic and the great co-operation from the police on the other side of the border. May I ask whether he is satisfied with the military link or would it be better if there were staff talks to ensure that the link is working with the maximum efficiency?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Lady for what she said and for her totally deserved tribute to the security forces and the welcome she gave to the strengthening of them. I thank her for what she said, and I am sure she was right in her reference to the full public support which exists for any action taken to end terrorism. She referred to what was said by her hon. Friends on 24th November. Before then and since there has been a continuing strengthening of the position on the ground in Armagh. I received a report of it when I was there. I entirely agree with her that it must be determined and sustained. [column 32]

She asked about the personal identity checks. The provisions there mean that the Army and the police will, as necessary, stop and question people about what they are doing and where they are going. I hope that she will take that question of hers and my answer to it as referring to some other of the seven points I have mentioned, including the very much speedier mobilisation of information about individuals and vehicles under the computerisation programme.

She asked about what she thought might have been a drafting point. I do not want there to be any misunderstanding of my reference to the use of existing powers to bring people to justice. What I said certainly did not mean that these powers had not been used to the full before. In the last year there has been throughout the Province an enormous increase in the number of people brought before the courts and sentenced. The figure is getting on for 40 per cent. In spite of the release of detainees, the total number actually in prison for security offences has considerably increased. I can assure the House that the words I used do not mean that we shall adopt an Armagh-concentrated policy. It will continue in the future, as in the past, to cover all areas of the Province where terrorism is operating or is in prospect. I hope that the right hon. Lady will accept that the measures taken in this special emergency area will mean a substantial increase in the forces available—the Spearhead Battalion, the SAS and in other ways—and a much more direct attack being possible in that area.

The right hon. Lady referred to military links with Ireland. She will know, as will the right hon. Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Whitelaw), who had responsibility in these matters and had the full support of the then Opposition in all he did, of the very sensitive problems which exist over military co-operation with the South. This matter goes back, as does so much north and south of the border, into remote periods of history which, for all that, are none the less real.

What was achieved last week as a result of my right hon. Friend's talks with the Republic's Minister of Justice was a further improvement, already notable in the time of the right hon. Member for [column 33]Penrith and the Border, and very much increased since, in relation to police co-operation. It is from police co-operation that all other co-operation follows.

Mr. Thorpe

We agree with the Prime Minister that too high a tribute cannot be paid to the Army, the UDR and the RUC which are now carrying out their duties in an almost impossible situation. May I deal with the position in South Armagh and the fact that the right hon. Gentleman referred only to the strengthening of contact between police forces in the talks with Mr. Cooney? Does the Prime Minister not agree that in this sphere more than anywhere else in the Province Army-to-Army co-operation is as important as, if not more important than, police-to-police contact?

For reasons which are well known historically, the Irish Army has very much less power, for example, of search, than has the British Army and the police north of the border. Have the talks gone some way to resolving that problem?

The Prime Minister referred to the possibility of all-party talks on security. He knows that we believe that they would enhance understanding of what the Government are trying to do, and we hope for all-party support for such measures. When is he likely to make a statement in that regard?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tribute which he paid to the security forces. On his central question, the talks which my right hon. Friend had with the Minister of Justice were about police co-operation. On the problem of Army-to-Army co-operation, our writ, of course, does not run south of the border. That matter was settled more than half a century ago. The whole concept of the functions of the Army in the Republic is very different from the concept of the Army here. For example, the Irish Army does not have any legislative authority to exercise powers to control terrorism. Nothing that can be done by negotiation will give it those powers. The Dail is concerned with other legislation which could be of real significance in fighting terrorism in Northern Ireland, but we are not in a position to dictate to the Republic that there should be Army-to-Army co-operation any more than the previous Government were. [column 34]

I believe that the improvement of police-to-police co-operation will help in every possible way with security north and south of the border within the limitations I have mentioned.

I have proposed—and this is not a new suggestion—that there should be talks between the main parties in this House, including those elected to represent the security interests of Northern Ireland, and that these talks should become regular. But I want to give the assurance that this would not in any way inhibit the right of any party or any hon. Member to express the strongest possible criticism of anything with which they did not agree. However, the question of security transcends party differences in this House. We are all united in our determination to see terrorism dealt with. I do not claim that any group of hon. Members, be they Government, official Opposition or anyone else, has a monopoly of wisdom and ingenuity in dealing with these matters, and I shall be more than ready to welcome the possibility of ideas being put forward.

I hope that my proposal will be accepted. I know that there will be difficulties about the extension of any talks we may have on this basis at Downing Street. I would hope, however, solely within the area of security and not of future constitutional policy, that it might be possible for elected representatives in Northern Ireland—elected as they are to the Convention because they have no Parliament—to be identified with the main Westminster parties in this vitally important task.

Mr. Molyneaux

I join with the Leader of the Opposition in expressing our appreciation to the Prime Minister for choosing to make this statement separately from the matters which we shall be discussing later. Is he aware that we all feel that there must be sustained determination to eradicate terrorism and that there must be no temptation to mark time while certain constitutional discussions are taking place, because the outcome of those discussions cannot possibly be of any interest to the Provisional IRA?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Member for what he said about making a separate statement. There is no question of our marking time while awaiting [column 35]a constitutional solution. As I have said, there will be no future for Northern Ireland without, first, effective security against terrorism and, secondly, an acceptable political solution. Neither of those without the other will give real hope to the people of Northern Ireland. That is why the House is being asked to address itself to both those questions

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that steps to increase the security of ordinary citizens in Armagh and Northern Ireland will be welcomed throughout the whole country? Is he also aware that concentration on certain areas of the border as being the main source of unrest, dissatisfaction and, indeed, of brutal murders, could divert people's attention from the real problem, which is indigenous sectarian violence from both sides of the community within the county? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the new measures will cover the whole county and all violence from whatever area it comes? Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people will welcome his strong statement today that any perpetrators of violence will be brought to justice through the courts?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right in his analysis. I do not want him to have any doubts about the meaning of what I said. I referred to the extension of security in County Armagh and to that being a special emergency area. That is justified by what has happened in County Armagh in recent months. In referring to the border I was speaking of the specific problem of people who can come over the border, commit a brutal murder and then slip back over the border.

There is reason to think that those who committed the brutal lining up and murder of the 10 men returning from their factory were not in the Province for more than a relatively few minutes, certainly less than one hour. Therefore, we must take the border question seriously without saying that we are looking only at the problems of South Armagh. We are looking at the whole question of County Armagh as well as any other areas where terrorism is rife or is in danger of breaking out again.

I want to assure my hon. Friend on one matter on which I do not think he is in [column 36]any doubt. I referred in my statement to the murder of five Catholics in their home on Day 1 and to the murder of 10 Protestants outside the bus which was taking them home from work on Day 2 and the danger of tit-for-tat reprisals of that kind. In a television broadcast recently, when I answered questions about matters that were giving cause for concern and the proposals we had announced, I made it clear that all the forces of law and order—the armed forces, the constabulary, my right hon. Friend and all concerned—are determined to root out and punish terrorism by getting terrorists before the courts of the land, irrespective of the particular religious belief or perverted religious belief which motivates their actions.

The measures announced are not a series of actions against one part of the community or one religious denomination. This is a decision. The only test we apply in taking action is between those who use terrorist methods and murder and those who want to see the problems of Northern Ireland solved by peaceful democratic means.

Mr. Heath

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while I fully support all the measures he has just announced, I must warn him that I believe that the movement of forces which he has sanctioned will be inadequate to deal with the security situation which has now developed in Armagh?

Does the Prime Minister recall that it was possible for the previous Administration to deal with the situation in Londonderry only by the use of overwhelming forces? That is why the operation was successful and why so little injury was caused to civilian personnel. Only two were hurt.

On the border, the problem is fundamentally one of having sufficient numbers of men, and to move the Spearhead Battalion plus some SAS forces is not adequate. Will the Prime Minister reconsider this position and ensure that the forces are in sufficient numbers and are able to obtain adequate information and to use the necessary weapons to deal with this brutal terrorist activity, and so carry out his determined views?

The Prime Minister

I respect the experience, wisdom and knowledge of the [column 37]right hon. Gentleman in these matters and I take seriously his warning about what he regards as the inadequacy of the movement of forces. I hope he will take it from me that his comparison with Operation Motorman is not valid. The right hon. Gentleman will not object if I say that he was good enough to ask me to go to Chequers on that occasion and to give me notice on the previous evening of what was envisaged. All of us were extremely anxious that the operation should be a great success, as it was. That operation was concerned with a city, the opening up of no-go areas, opening up the Bogside and Creggan areas. The operation was superbly organised and carried through with no casualties and with more success than anyone could have envisaged.

We are talking here about a very different operation. For example, the number involved in the action against the 10 Protestants who were murdered when returning home from work was a small handful of men whose ability so far to escape the consequences of that cruel action was due entirely to their mobility and the fact that they were able to get away across the border. I do not believe, therefore, that simple numbers will solve the problem, still less that anything in the nature of the Motorman operation, even with naval forces as well as others, has any bearing here. I certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that whatever forces are needed to make a success of this operation will be made available.

Mr. Fitt

I support the Prime Minister's view that the overwhelming majority of the Northern Irish population turn in horror and revulsion from the brutal killings which have taken place in the past few days. Will he assure the House that any actions of the security forces will be seen to be impartial in every area throughout Northern Ireland? Does he accept that there is a problem not only in South Armagh but in Armagh generally?

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is a great deal of suspicion—some people would call it mythology—about the SAS Regiment? Is he aware that in two interviews given this morning to the Irish Press, which is a national daily in the Republic, and the Irish Independent, [column 38]two former members of the SAS said that it was an unorthodox regiment which used unorthodox methods in its everyday duties? That may or may not be true, but such a suspicion can create fear in the minds of people who do not fully understand the nature of the SAS Regiment.

Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the SAS will be under strict military discipline and under the same instructions as any other regiment involved in the security forces in Northern Ireland, and so allay any fears which may be created by the Provisional IRA in its attempt to gain support for itself?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful for that further authoritative confirmation by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) that in his view, also, the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland support a peaceable solution and are becoming increasingly revolted by the actions of terrorists, from whichever side. That was one of the achievements of 1975, when there was much less participation by non-terrorist individuals in support of terrorists by providing safe havens for them, and fewer atrocities, although there were a certain number of intra-sectarian as well as inter-sectarian murders.

I want to confirm to the hon. Member that, as I have said, the forces will be used, in the capacities and deployment to which I have referred, against all terrorists, regardless of their motivation, religious background, organisation or loyalties. Anyone who decides to try to settle the future of Northern Ireland by the use of terrorist weapons and murder will be equally the target of the security forces of the Crown.

I further confirm to him—I have said this already—that we are talking of all Armagh and not South Armagh alone, though, as I outlined in my statement, the problem of South Armagh is particularly difficult.

Finally, concerning the SAS, I think my hon. Friend is right in saying that there has been some misunderstanding about its rôle, its nature, its training, its purpose in life, and all the rest of it. For example, I think he was tempted, for a moment at least, to compare the SAS with the CIA. I see nothing at all comparable between the SAS and the CIA. In as much as I understand what the [column 39]CIA does—and I find it more difficult every day—I think its official rôle in most cases is the collection of overseas intelligence. This is not, may I say, the basis of the SAS. May I tell my hon. Friend that the SAS will be employed and deployed solely under the control of the GOC as soldiers aiding the other soldiers in dealing with all the problems of terrorism in the area.

Mr. McCusker

Will the Prime Minister accept that, while I give a wholehearted welcome to his announcement of these perhaps long overdue measures, as will my constituents, the measures will give little consolation to the widows, the orphans and the parents in the homes I visited last week? Will he join me in paying a tribute to them, as well as to the security forces, because these people, by their words and their actions, did as much as anyone to take the heat out of an extremely dangerous and difficult situation in Northern Ireland last week? Will he assure us again that the measures will be sustained, and that he will combat the propaganda against them just as effectively in three months time as he is here today?

The Prime Minister

Everyone understands the position of the hon. Member as a Member of Parliament for the whole County of Armagh, including the areas which suffered so tragically in human terms at the beginning of last week. I join him, as I am sure the whole House will, in expressing sympathy—indeed, we have already done so—to the widows and families of those on both sides of the religious divide who were so brutally murdered.

I feel it right also to refer again, as I did in my statement, to the fact that those of us—most of us, I would think—who had the moving experience of seeing the television coverage of the funeral, first of the five Catholics plus one of the Protestants on the first day, and then of the others on the following day, were not only deeply moved by the tragedy but also impressed by the fact that at both funeral services it was almost impossible to distinguish between Catholic mourners and Protestant mourners. This was an indication of the good sense, anger, and sympathy of the community as a whole. [column 40]

As to the last part of the hon. Member's question, when he referred to projecting forward a further three months, if the problem is still as serious in three months' time as it is today, there will certainly be no let up, and long before that we shall have considered what further tightening and response is necessary. If the result of the action we have taken are taking and will be taking is to cut down the terrorism and to allow the hon. Member's constituents to live in much greater peace and security it will not be necessary to escalate any counter-action.

Mr. Stallard

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there will be widespread agreement with his statement about the need to deal with the security problem at the moment, and with the tributes he has paid to those who are trying to deal with this terrible situation on the ground? Will he also accept that it is impossible to divorce the security problem from the political problem, and will he therefore agree with me that as well as security measures we need a clear statement from the Government of our policy towards the permanent solution of the problem of the Six Counties, not based on the last incident or security crisis but based on a policy of an ultimate constructive disengagement of British interests from the Six Counties?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his opening words. As I said in my statement, it is impossible, in looking at the future of Northern Ireland, entirely to separate security questions from a political solution. Both are necessary, and one without the other is unlikely to bring peace and a reasonable future in Northern Ireland.

As to what that political solution shall be, and what constitutional changes are appropriate, my right hon. Friend, in the later debate, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, hopes to be able to set out the Government's position and how we should begin to approach the problems of the future.

Mr. David James

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, and also my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for supporting him. I am glad that we are maintaining all-party support on this issue. But will not the Prime Minister agree that for purely [column 41]historical reasons we are dealing—militarily, socially, ethnically and in every other sense—with an utterly impossible border? Will he consider the real possibility of approaching the Government of the Republic to see whether it is possible to do an acre-for-acre swap of the southern end of Armagh, which is totally republican in character, with the northern end of Monaghan, which would make things vastly easier for the security forces of both sides?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member is absolutely right in saying that all the problems being faced by the security forces, as well as the House, go back very many centuries in history, as we are frequently reminded by some people who have not entirely ceased to live in a period 300 years ago. As to his statement that the border has become impossible, we are more concerned with stopping terrorists crossing it than with redrawing it. I am not at all certain that the Republic of the South would be all that enamoured of the hon. Member's proposal that they should be given large tracts of South Armagh. Should the Government of the Republic show enthusiasm, it is a matter that we should not be slow to follow up, but I think that it is most unlikely. I do not think that redrawing the border at this stage would solve the problem. What we want is to stop British citizens being murdered north of the border by people who are able to escape across it.