Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I regret that I was unable to be in the House for much of the debate today because of the ongoing negotiations in relation to Northern Ireland. We have been engaged in a number of discussions, and I am pleased that we had the opportunity this morning to meet the Secretary of State for Defence to discuss the future of the Royal Irish Regiment. I know that the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) referred to the regiment in his remarks. I pay tribute to the gallant service that the Royal Irish Regiment and its predecessor, the Ulster Defence Regiment, delivered for the people of Northern Ireland over the past 30 years.
24 Nov 2004 : Column 205

We are in discussions about, we hope, bringing to an end the transition from violence and terrorism to an entirely peaceful situation. We hope that progress can be made in the coming days to secure a new agreement that will enable Northern Ireland to look forward to a future free from violence and the threat of violence. Discussions will take place about the security infrastructure in the Province as a result of a reduction in violence. It is essential that decisions on security in Northern Ireland are taken on security terms based on criteria laid down by the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding, and that they are not politically motivated.

There are still concerns among many in Northern Ireland, particularly in the south and west of the Province, about security. There is a continuing threat from so-called dissident groups engaged in ongoing acts of terrorism such as attacks on police stations and security bases. It is essential that the police can respond to that threat and that, if they need the support of the Army, that support is available.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Is there not a major concern about the joint declaration of which the Ulster Unionist party was one of the negotiators, in that the normalisation process, as it is called, is timetabled to the calendar more than to what is happening on the ground? Is there not a danger that people will make a military commitment to remove various military installations, lower troop levels or whatever else it may be, without that having a resonance with what is happening on the security front?

Mr. Donaldson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right. We believe that the joint declaration and the section of that document dealing with security normalisation is deeply flawed, because it sets out a timetable for certain steps to be taken in reducing security that is based on political aspirations rather than on security considerations. It is essential that the Government get back to the primacy of the Chief Constable and his security advisers and the GOC in determining the pace of any normalisation. Let me be clear that the Democratic Unionist party had no part in the negotiation of the joint declaration. It is not part of any new agreement to which we will put our hand.

I caution the Government to be careful in implementing security normalisation. One aspect of their proposals that we have drawn to their attention is that in the event of an entirely peaceful society in Northern Ireland, there would be only one security base remaining in the south and west of the Province—St. Lucia in Omagh. We believe that that would be wrong. There should be other security installations in both the south and the west of Northern Ireland to ensure that there is an adequate level of security to support the police in those areas, particularly where the dissident threat is at its highest.

At present, some 6,700 soldiers remain in Northern Ireland, in addition to the Royal Irish Regiment, which has three home service battalions on duty in the Province. There is a debate about the future role of the Royal Irish Regiment in the context of normalisation. The 1st battalion, which is the general service battalion, displayed courage and professionalism in Operation Telic in Iraq and was a key part of the British forces
24 Nov 2004 : Column 206
there, and we believe that it will continue to play an important role in the British Army. Nevertheless, we have a concern about the role of the three home service battalions and believe that it would be wrong simply to discard them in the event of an entirely peaceful situation. There is expertise there. It has been proven in Iraq and Kosovo that the British Army's experience in Northern Ireland is a valuable asset that can be applied in many of the conflict zones in which our armed forces will be called upon to play a part both now and in the future. The expertise that is held by the Royal Irish home service battalions can be built upon.

Let us not forget that in many cases we are talking here about volunteers. In our meeting this morning with the Secretary of State, we impressed upon him the need to ensure that a full assessment is carried out of the future role of the home service battalions and that their expertise and professionalism may provide a basis for some form of redeployment in the event of a normal or relatively normal situation in Northern Ireland.

Some full and part-time soldiers will wish to withdraw from service and they must be treated properly. It is essential that the Government give them due recognition. May I particularly mention the part-time members of the Royal Irish Regiment? It is appalling that those soldiers have no pension provision, despite the fact that, under the EC part-time workers directive, the Government have an obligation to provide pensions for part-time workers. The MOD sought and obtained an exemption from the directive in respect of the Royal Irish part-time soldiers, claiming that they were casual workers. I cannot believe that anyone in their right mind, knowing the role that the Royal Irish Regiment part-time home service soldiers have played, could regard them as casual workers. The Government should do the decent thing and give them a pension.

When we come to the time when a decision has to be made about the future of the home service battalions, if some part-time soldiers decide to withdraw from service they should be treated properly and given due recognition both in financial terms and otherwise. I urge the Government to look again at pension provision for part-time members of the Royal Irish Regiment. The regiment should be treated properly and retained in some form in Northern Ireland as part of our future security and defence.

Having served myself with the Ulster Defence Regiment in Northern Ireland, I am familiar with the rules of engagement for soldiers, the so-called yellow card, so I was concerned to learn of the case of Trooper Kevin Williams of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, who was recently charged with murder as a result of an incident that occurred during Operation Telic in Iraq. That case is causing concern throughout the British Army. I realise that there are issues of sub judice here, so I will be careful in the comments that I make, which will be general ones; I do not wish to go into the detail of the case. But there are issues relating to the rules of engagement to which the Government should give careful thought.

Trooper Williams was involved in an incident in which an Iraqi civilian was shot. His case was considered by his battle group commander and by his commanding officer, and both concluded that he had acted properly within the rules of engagement. However, for some reason his case was referred, and passed to the Crown
24 Nov 2004 : Column 207
Prosecution Service, which decided to charge him with murder. That has created a lot of concern for soldiers serving in Iraq and in other conflict zones, and for soldiers who will serve in such zones in future.

It caused concern, too, for commanding officers, especially those who looked at Trooper Williams's case and believed that he acted within the rules of engagement in the incident. It is important that the Ministry of Defence review the matter urgently; our soldiers need to know, and to have the confidence to know, that when they act according to the rules of engagement they will be protected by the law.

We know that our soldiers are subject to the law, which was the case in Northern Ireland, but the case of Trooper Williams is causing a lot of concern. I cannot understand why his case was referred, and why he has been charged with murder, if it is the judgment of his superiors that he acted within the rules of engagement. The matter must be clarified quickly.

Soldiers in the battle zone, on the field of conflict, have to take snap decisions—instantaneous decisions—under the rules of engagement. If there is a serious doubt in their minds when they are operating that if they open fire there is the potential for them to be charged with murder, it puts them at risk. I ask the Minister to look very seriously and carefully at the issue.

We hope for better times in relation to Northern Ireland. We hope that the commitment of soldiers in the Province will not be as intensive as it has been in the past and that we will move into a new situation, where the threat from terrorism will be reduced and, we hope, removed altogether.

I pay tribute to the soldiers who have served in Northern Ireland over the years; many of them lost their lives and many have sustained serious injury. The people of Northern Ireland will not forget their sacrifice. I hope that sacrifice has not been in vain.

To those who can take decisions about ending their violence for good and removing the illegal weapons that continue to blight our community, I say tonight that I hope they will take the right decisions in the coming days, and move to bring an end to a conflict that has brought much heartache to the people of Northern Ireland. That is what we all want.

6.17 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page