Govt stockpiled supplies for Troubles refugees

The Irish Government began stockpiling food, blankets and hospital supplies 30 years ago to deal with a potential influx of up to 50,000 refugees from the North.

The continuing violence, which had already caused the deaths of 1,000 people, meant that the Government feared in 1975 that there might be a further worsening of the political situation.

Its top-secret contingency plans were grounded on the assumption that 1,000 people would require treatment for serious injuries and that they could be treated in hospitals in the border areas and in Dublin.

The Department of Health was preparing to establish an emergency headquarters at the Customs House in Dublin and properties had been identified across the country which were capable of holding up to 100,000 people.

This included the Mosney holiday centre in County Meath, which had a capacity for 6,000 people and is now used as a refugee centre.

The newly-released material from the National Archives shows that the Government believed that 100,000 refugees could be evacuated from Belfast by train in four days, if the rail network was operational.

Although the Department of Defence thought provision should be made for 100,000 refugees, Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave was conscious of a warning from his civil servants that large purchases might expose the plans.

“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,” said a confidential memo to the Taoiseach.

He decided that provision should be made for 50,000 refugees at a cost of 800,000 pounds (€1m).

Only two health board chief executives were informed of the plan due to the overwhelming need for secrecy.

The Government feared its contingency plans might be misconstrued in the North and would result in serious consequences “on the political plane and in violence”. In 1975, the North 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, which would lead to more than 100 incidents before the end of the year.

The “grave budgetary situation” at the time meant that the Government was not able to afford to buy provisions for more than 50,000 refugees. It considered looking for assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had helped provide blankets, beds and tents to refugees in Cyprus the previous year.

But it was felt that this might be politically unwise because it might affect Ireland’s international standing and also imply that the country was in a state of war.

The need for urgency was stressed in a report to the Taoiseach in April 1975, because there were only enough blankets for 500 refugees and it would take up to six months to stockpile an adequate number for 50,000 refugees.

It also warned of the consequences if the Government was found to be unprepared for the situation.

“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.”

On the positive side, the memo pointed out that the stocks of blankets purchased would not be wasted if an influx of refugees did not occur because they could be used by the army and the local authorities instead.

It added: “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.”

The report noted that the Diocese of Down and Connor was the only one to have begun stockpiling supplies in the event of a breakdown in the situation. The Northern Ireland Department of Health had secretly provided some of them without encountering any opposition from the IRA.

The report did not recommend sending any supplies over the border because it was virtually certain these would come under the control of the IRA or loyalist paramilitaries.

The only way to prevent this would be to use the Irish army.

“The implications of trying to provide this type of protection inside Northern Ireland would be extremely serious.”

In the end, the feared influx of refugees did not occur and the plans were left to gather dust on the shelves.


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