29 December 2005

Doomsday plan for 100,000 refugees

Daily Ireland

Irish government papers reveal fears that Belfast pogrom would follow British ‘disengagement’

Jarlath Kearney

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Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave

Six months after the ending of the Ulster Workers Council strike in July 1974, the Irish government made top-secret contingency plans to accommodate up to 100,000 Northern refugees in the South.
The plans – which anticipated the need to hospitalise 1,000 seriously injured people – are detailed in papers from 1975 released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule.
During the height of the UWC strike in July 1974, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had drawn up short-lived plans for his government to ‘disengage’ from the North in a so-called ‘Doomsday’ scenario.
Following the success of the UWC strike in smashing the fledgling power-sharing executive agreed at the Sunningdale talks, the political conflict in the North degenerated quickly.
Northern republicans were also concerned about the possibility of loyalist pogroms similar to those of 1969. In 1974, the IRA’s Belfast Brigade O/C Brendan Hughes was captured in possession of detailed plans for the widespread defence of Catholic communities across the city.
The IRA plans were alleged to include the option of razing whole streets to the ground in order to create buffer zones at interfaces.
The new papers released by the National Archives now confirm that the Irish government was also preparing for a serious escalation in the conflict throughout the North.
Food, bedding and medical supplies were all stockpiled in the South as part of the preparations.

Among the Irish government plans prepared in 1975 was an option to transport 100,000 refugees from Belfast to the South within four days.
Up to 6,000 of the refugees would have been accommodated at Mosney holiday camp, and the Department of Health was prepared to open an emergency headquarters in Dublin at the Customs House. 1,000 seriously wounded people would have been hospitalised at facilities around the border counties and in Dublin.
However, the plans also reveal that Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave personally over-ruled the Department of Defence’s advice by halving the contingency planning in terms of scale. This meant the Irish government only intended purchasing enough supplies for 50,000 potential refugees.
“It was considered that the placing of orders on that scale would not lead to any significant degree of speculation about the purpose of the orders and would avoid the possible adverse consequences," a confidential memo to the Taoiseach recorded. Despite apparent budget considerations restricting the resources available to fund the plan, the government also ruled out asking the International Committee of the Red Cross for assistance to prevent any perception that Ireland was “in a state of war”.
The government feared that any leaking of the top-secret contingency plans could destabilise the political situation in the North. For that reason, knowledge of the plans was confined to a small number of government ministers, officials and just two health board chief executives.
However, by April 2005, there were just enough blankets to cope with 500 refugees and it was estimated that supplies for 50,000 would take at least six months to acquire.
In the memo to Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, the urgency of implementing the plans was stressed:
“The Government would be subjected to considerable criticism, at a time when maintenance of its authority and of support for its policies was of the highest importance, while the refugees could suffer great hardship.”
The memo also highlighted the positive economic benefit that proceeding with orders for the contingency plans could generate:
“Orders for the quantity of the blankets involved would represent a significant amount of business for the woollen mills which would help to mitigate current employment difficulties.”
Despite noting that the Diocese of Down and Connor had already commenced its own programme of stockpiling supplies provided by the North’s Health Department, the Irish government ruled out any possibility of providing supplies directly to people on the ground in the North.
“The implications of trying to provide this type of protection inside Northern Ireland would be extremely serious," the memo to the Taoiseach stated.

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