30 December 2005

National Archives - 1975: Year of crisis, kidnapping and chaos

Irish Examiner

29 December 2005
By Caroline O’Doherty

ELABORATE secret plans were drawn up in 1975 to cater for 100,000 refugees that the Government feared would flee from the North if the Troubles worsened.

Secret meetings were held with senior hospital and health officials, gardaí and defence experts, and blueprints were prepared on how such an influx would be accommodated, provided with medical care, and policed.

A covert survey of private properties was carried out and accommodation for 99,000 people identified, while the need for basic supplies such as blankets and powdered soup mix was quantified and priced.

CIÉ was consulted and a plan to cancel commuter services and redeploy rolling stock made, so all the refugees could be brought out of the North within four days of a crisis erupting.

In 1975, Northern Ireland was still in a state of chaos, with a shaky IRA ceasefire and frequent attacks on Catholics by loyalists. The IRA was also infiltrating its "Balcombe Street Gang" into Britain for a bombing campaign that would lead to more than 100 incidents before the end of the year.

A garda assessment of the security implications of the crisis was also sought and the commissioner at the time returned a grim prediction.

"Even in the most optimistic light, a mass exodus ...would tax the resources of the security forces in the Republic to the limit. Looking at the situation less optimisticallysome areas could become virtually uncontrollable and the involvement of the Garda Siochána in security matters would be such that normal policing of the country would be practically non-existent," he warned.

The Cosgrave-led Fine Gael-Labour coalition of the time had the previous year considered, in general terms, the possibility of a massive refugee influx in a "doomsday" scenario where the British made a sudden and complete withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

The Government's top-secret contingency plans were based on the assumption that 1,000 people would require treatment for serious injuries, and that they could be treated in Border area hospitals and in Dublin.

State papers, released by the National Archives today, show that while that threat had subsided by 1975, the Government believed that another upheaval could spark a mass flight from the North and that detailed plans had to be formulated in response.

Officials were asked to examine refugee situations in Pakistan, Palestine and Cyprus to see if any tips could be gleaned for dealing with a similar situation in the Republic. Secrecy was stressed at all times during the discussions for fear of adding to the political difficulties in the North if the Government's preparations became public.

But the Cabinet also faced the dilemma that if they did not acquire properties and buy supplies in advance, they would be hopelessly ill-equipped if the disaster struck.

One official said purchasing should begin immediately and that it would be possible, if the public got wind of what was happening, to claim they were for the Department of Defence's everyday needs.

The papers are among tens of thousands of previously undisclosed memos, briefing documents, letters, notes and Cabinet minutes from key Government departments, released today under the 30-year disclosure rule. Traditionally released on January 1, the date has been brought forward to coincide with the early release of papers from Britain and Northern Ireland. British papers, meanwhile, also published today, show the actual and potential influence the Vatican exercised on politics in Northern Ireland.

British diplomats were particularly concerned about criticism of Britain's role in the North, and pointed the finger of suspicion at the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Gaetano Alibrani, who was seen as the prime source of such criticism.

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