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1.47 pm

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) for giving us an opportunity to reflect on the Royal Irish Regiment and the exceptionally valiant service that it and its predecessors--the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Rangers--have given the Crown over the past 25 years. It is especially welcome, given that we have only just passed the 25th anniversary of the mustering of the UDR in 1970.

The Royal Irish Regiment is a young regiment by Army standards. It was formed only in 1992 by the amalgamation of the Royal Irish Rangers--itself created as recently as 1968, although with far older antecedents in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers--with the UDR. It is also the largest infantry regiment in the British Army, and contains the largest infantry battalion in the Army, the 3rd Royal Irish at Portadown.

The regiment is unique for other reasons, including its mixture of general service and home service battalions and the prominent and extraordinarily valued role played by part-time soldiers.

The operations of the Royal Irish Regiment and its predecessors have been of a quality, standard and challenge that is unique in all Army services. Its role was, and is, to serve alongside the general service battalions of the Army in their support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The regiment recruits from the local community, with service restricted to Northern Ireland. The local affiliations are clearly discernable in the structure of the six Royal Irish home service battalions, each with its own tactical area of responsibility exactly aligned with RUC divisional boundaries.

The hon. Gentleman is keenly aware that the 7th Royal Irish is based in his constituency. We therefore acknowledge his expertise in these matters. Although

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soldiers in the UDR were subject to Queen's regulations, their unique role and the nature of their terms and conditions of service meant that Queen's regulations needed to be supplemented to reflect the differences between the UDR and the Regular Army. When the Royal Irish Regiment was formed in July 1992, it became an integral part of the Regular Army for the first time.

Before continuing, I wish to pay tribute to the dedication and exceptional bravery of members of both the Ulster Defence Regiment and the home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment in performing their difficult, dangerous, but always vital, task. They have acted in a way which people on this side of the water cannot understand, in circumstances sometimes so awful that they are impossible to describe, and with such gallantry that anyone who knew his or her true history would feel humble before it. They have made a huge and invaluable contribution to bringing about the current improved conditions in Northern Ireland.

The House should never forget that home service soldiers, by the very nature of their duty, live as part of the community that they protect, possibly even sharing their daytime work places with members of terrorist organisations. They have placed themselves and their families at enormous risk in their commitment to the fight against terrorism and we must never lose sight of the fact that, over the past 25 years, 201 members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment have died as a result of terrorist action. A further 49 ex-regiment soldiers were murdered after leaving the Army and many, many more have been wounded or injured. The whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to their memory.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South said that it has been suggested that there is some kind of hidden agenda to run down the home service element of the Royal Irish Regiment. I know that that is a matter of concern to the hon. Gentleman and that he and some of his colleagues have maintained, correctly, a steady examination of our commitment to the home service battalions. He should have no fears on that count. I give him a categorical assurance that a rundown of the home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment is simply not on the agenda.

I understand, however, how the hon. Gentleman's concerns may have arisen. Regrettably, and despite all our efforts, there has been a gradual decline in strength, particularly of part-time soldiers, from a high point in the 1970s. Full-time strength has been virtually unchanged until recently, when recruiting has suffered from the same problems as affect the Army as a whole, particularly the infantry. There has, however, been a drop of about 8 per cent. in part-time numbers, amounting to a decline of about 200 each year.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the point that the Minister of State has made, but I have been told that there are applications to join the regiment part time but that the regiment cannot cope with the numbers.

Mr. Soames: If I may carry on and develop my argument, I hope to cover all the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

During the past 12 months, 57 full-time and 285 part-time members of the regiment have been discharged for all reasons, including completion of service, voluntary retirement and on medical or disciplinary grounds.

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The main burden of the hon. Gentleman's speech was connected with discharges on administrative grounds. It is a complex and difficult area and I shall try to answer in full the points that he made. He will understand that I cannot deal with individual cases. He drew attention to a number of soldiers in the Royal Irish Regiment who have been administratively discharged under section 9.414 of the Queen's regulations. That section, in common with the similar provision in the UDR regulations before it, is a catch-all for discharges that do not come under other, more clearly defined, sections.

Administrative discharge may be used in the Army's interests in a variety of circumstances, including temperamental unsuitability or failure to meet basic training or fitness requirements. It may also be invoked at a soldier's request and has been used where individuals have been misinformed about their circumstances or terms and conditions of service; or where an individual has concerns for the safety of his or her family because of the nature of his or her employment in the Army.

I should also make it clear that the section applies, like all others in the Queen's regulations, across the whole of the Regular Army, and it is always applied with great care. In every case, soldiers can see the application for discharge and individuals are given an opportunity to discuss the application with their commanding officer. In every case, soldiers are given at least 48 hours in which to take advice and consider whether to make a statement about the application for discharge. All this is carefully considered by the brigade commander before the papers are submitted to the Ministry of Defence for final decision. It is an elaborate procedure--deliberately so--to ensure that the individual's interests are taken into full consideration.

In a handful of cases, security implications may prevent full disclosure to the soldier of the exact details of the reasons for discharge. The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to go into further detail, but I give him my assurance that, on the rare occasions when they occur, such cases are given the most thorough scrutiny and must be completely justified before action is taken to discharge a soldier.

Soldiers leave the Army for many reasons, mainly at their own request. The policy on discharge is applied evenly across the whole Army according to the same regulations and policies. There is no policy to apply section 9.414 more rigorously or frequently in the Royal Irish Regiment, whether general service, home service, full time or part time, than in the rest of the Army.

In the Army as a whole, that type of administrative discharge was used in some 800 cases last year. Just four of them were in the home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment. It is a mechanism that is used when it is appropriate to the circumstance, no more and no less.

I cannot debate individual cases across the Floor of the House, not least because I do not know the details. If the hon. Member chooses to get in touch with me, I shall happily have them investigated. He mentioned pensions. Because soldiers of the home service battalions were required to serve only in Northern Ireland, their terms and conditions of service in the UDR were structured differently from those for soldiers with a global commitment to service. I recognise that the alignment of the two systems has created anomalies and problems, and I have a great deal of sympathy on that score.

Between 1970 and 1977, all members of the UDR completing five years' service were eligible for a pension payable on reaching 55 years of age. From 1977, all new

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members of the UDR and, from 1992 of the Royal Irish Regiment, have been subject to the terms of the armed forces pension scheme. Under those terms, payment of an immediate pension before the age of 60 requires completion of 22 years' service.

In normal circumstances, soldiers in the regiment can expect their service to end after a maximum of 22 years. Those with fewer than 22 years' service but more than two are also eligible for a pension, the size of which depends on their length of service, but it is payable on reaching the age of 60.

We recognise that there are problems. Where possible, we seek to ensure that individuals' needs are met through extensions of service, if necessary to the age of 60, provided that they are fit, there is work for them to do, and they are not blocking the structure of the regiment. Yesterday, I received the Duke of Abercorn and Sir Dennis Faulkner to discuss one or two of those questions, on which they made the most robust and powerful representations. We shall deal with them carefully and in detail.

Re-engagement has never been an automatic right and it has, rightly, always been at the discretion of commanding officers. It will remain necessary to balance the wishes of individuals against the needs of the service. I know that applications for extensions of service up to a total of 22 years will be dealt with sympathetically, but I would not wish to bind the hands of those in command with any general undertaking.

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However, I hope that, in future, when employability in future is considered, it will be done across the regiment rather than on a battalion basis. My Department is looking carefully at how that might be done.

I hope that I have been able to demonstrate the continued importance of the home service element of the Royal Irish Regiment in maintaining security in Northern Ireland. I have stated unequivocally that there is absolutely no policy of deliberately running down the home service strength. Indeed, I ask hon. Members from the Province to draw the attention of their constituents, male and female, Catholic and Protestant, to the value of service in the Royal Irish Regiment and the many splendid opportunities that such service can provide for the attainment of recognised qualifications.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns about some individual cases and I shall deal with those as sympathetically as I can if he will raise them in detail with me.

May I conclude with my own warm tribute to the Royal Irish Regiment? No other regiment in the British Army has a contemporary record of such gallantry and distinction. The House will wish to salute it and all its deeds.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed.

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