The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry)
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing the debate. He raised a serious issue that has been the subject of much comment over a considerable period of time. In recent weeks, the allegations that members of the security forces were part of a murderous gang that killed more than 100 people in the 1970s have been given further currency in the recently published book to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.
I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has raised some points that I will not be able to address in my speech. I apologise for that, but I assure him that I will write to him with responses to as many as possible of those questions. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) mentioned the records at Kew, and I am told that those records have been made available to researchers and feature heavily in the book “Lethal Allies”.
The hon. Member for Foyle will be aware that such serious allegations should properly be dealt with by the police, so I can say little about them. It is right and proper for me to condemn all sectarian attacks, by whomsoever they may have been carried out, but I cannot comment on the accuracy or otherwise of the allegations, and it is not for the Ministry of Defence to usurp the function of the police by seeking to carry out investigations about those who may have been involved. As I understand it, the Historical Enquiries Team has investigated several cases associated with the Glenanne gang, but I am not aware that those investigations have led to any fresh allegations of specific criminal activity by soldiers that are to be investigated further. Of course, if such evidence were found and given to the police, it would be for them to decide whether any further inquiries should be made. If they decided to pursue the matter, my Department would provide every assistance to any subsequent investigation.
It is clear to me, as it will be to most Members here today, that during the long period that we refer to as the troubles, terrible crimes and atrocities were perpetrated by extremists on both sides of the community. The account by the hon. Gentleman of a number of terrible murders and killings brought back to me large chunks of my childhood. It is easy to forget that 40 years ago, such events were almost a feature of life. Here we are, 40 years on, enjoying a period of peace that we could not foresee within our own lifetimes. There were incidents of great tragedy when members of the community were innocently and accidentally caught up in events that led to serious injury or death.
Many allegations have been made about the armed forces’ role in various cases involving violent deaths during the troubles, which remain unsolved. As I have said, such allegations must be investigated. At the same time, however, it is only right for me to make the point that some of these allegations may well be untrue. The truth can be uncovered only by painstaking and professional investigation. Although I am aware of the criticisms that have been made of the Historical Enquiries Team of the Police Service of Northern Ireland—that is not a matter for me, of course—I pay tribute to the work they have done in carrying out this necessary task over a period of several years.
The Minister has made the point that some of the allegations against individuals may be untrue, but does she accept that the documentation shows that the Ministry of Defence knew one thing in private but told an entirely different story in public? Does she accept that the evidence points to the fact that the MOD dismissed the concerns that were being legitimately expressed by Members of this House, by other representatives in Northern Ireland and by other Governments?
I am in danger of repeating myself, but those are matters for the police to investigate. It would not be appropriate for me to comment. Those matters should be investigated thoroughly, honestly and vigorously by the police. It is not my Department’s intention to shy away from acknowledging or apologising when genuine mistakes or errors have been made, or where, as a Department, we have failed in our obligation properly to manage our activities in Northern Ireland. We know from the conclusions reached by Sir Desmond de Silva in his review of the circumstances leading to the murder of Pat Finucane that the Ministry of Defence made important failures in managing important aspects of our intelligence operations during the mid to late 1980s. Some reports have suggested that that situation may have prevailed for several years. We know, for example, that some members of the security forces bore responsibility for the leaking of some sensitive intelligence information to loyalist organisations. Indeed, there have been convictions as a result, and rightly so. We also know that Army weapons, as the hon. Gentleman has described, have been stolen from military establishments and used in terrorist attacks by loyalist gangs.
Those failings were totally unacceptable and should never have occurred. Equally, however, attempts to claim that such practices were endemic throughout the security forces serving in Northern Ireland are, in our view, quite unsubstantiated. Sir Desmond goes into great detail on the matter in his report, which was based on unhindered access to the archives of the police, the Army and the Security Service. He shows, to my mind incontrovertibly, that the actions of the security forces frustrated loyalist terrorists and significantly reduced their operational capacity in Northern Ireland.
I want to assure the Minister and anyone else who may be concerned that in pointing to the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that they are supported by MOD documentation, I do not want in any way to traduce or hurt the memory of many other members of the security forces, including those of the Ulster Defence Regiment, who served with honourable motives and who believed that they were serving their community. They were let down every bit as much as the civilian community was by the corruption at the heart of the process.
I absolutely agree that we must pay tribute to the majority of those individuals who served in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described. As the Minister with responsibility for veterans, I feel strongly that we owe the security forces who served in Northern Ireland a great deal of gratitude. The vast majority served with courage, fortitude, integrity and dignity, risking their lives to bring about the conditions that eventually enabled a process to take place that allowed the people of Northern Ireland to lead peaceful lives without fear for themselves or their families. Northern Ireland has been transformed since the Good Friday agreement was signed.
Devolution has brought about many improvements for the people of Northern Ireland, and the recent positive achievements such as the city of culture award, the investment conference and improved tourism, against a backdrop of relative peace, have been welcomed by all sections of the community. Although a number of people continue to pursue their aims through violence and maintain destructive links to the past, they are, thankfully, few and there is very little public support for their actions.
Is the Minister aware of, and will she comment on, an inquest that is being undertaken at the moment, which has been delayed for years, in which despite Army surveillance on the house that was attacked by the UVF—
Jim Sheridan (in the Chair)
Order. I think we may be moving into the area of sub judice.
The Roseanne Mallon case is very significant.
Jim Sheridan (in the Chair)
Order. The Minister has very little time as it is.
I would be quite happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me, which would be the proper way to raise the subject. The Chair has made a good point that the case may, in any event, be sub judice. As the representative of a Department that has, I believe, made a huge contribution to the current stable and optimistic situation in Northern Ireland, I share the hopes of many that the Executive’s invitation to Richard Haass to address a range of issues, including those arising from the past, will lead to some real progress on this difficult issue. Although we should never seek to ignore the past, I hope that there will be a great emphasis across all parts of the community on shifting our collective focus to a future shared by all the citizens of Northern Ireland. Where things have been done that should not have been done, it is right that the police carry out full, rigorous and professional investigation, and when people have done wrong, they should be brought to justice.