LONDON, Jan. 2 (UPI) — Britain considered 30 years ago ceding Roman Catholic-dominated parts of Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic to try to halt the violence that killed nearly 500 people in one year, newly released official documents show.
In addition to redrawing the map of Ireland, the 1972 plan also proposed that some 300,000 Catholics be shifted from Northern Ireland into areas to be handed over to the republic and that about 200,000 Protestants would be moved from the ceded regions into a newly formed Northern Ireland.
The 10-page document, “Redrawing the Border and Population Transfer,” was drafted by civil servants after then-Prime Minister Edward Heath, appalled by the violence in the province that left 472 people dead in 1972, ordered them to prepare a “worst-case scenario” for dealing with the crisis.
The paper was among state documents released to the Public Record Office under terms of the so-called “30-year rule” that allows their disclosure. It was contained in a file marked “Top Secret: UK Eyes Only,” among Heath’s personal papers.
But government sources told reporters that other documents relating to the Northern Ireland crisis of that year, including Heath’s own comments and reactions, had been withheld from publications and that there was no indication as to when — or if — they would be released.
The redrawing of borders in Ireland and the shifting of Catholic and Protestant populations was examined and debated by Heath and his Cabinet but abandoned as impractical and unworkable.
An official record from a secret prime ministerial briefing showed the government decided the plan would offer only “faint hope for success” and “would demonstrate to the world that the (British) government was unable to bring about a peaceable solution save by expelling large numbers of its own citizens.”
By mid-1972, London authorities were stunned by the escalating violence in Northern Ireland, including a series of car bombings by the Provisional wing of the then-outlawed Irish Republican Army. Heath went in search of possible routes to a solution, and sought out his civil servants.
“We have, as requested, specifically discussed the feasibility and implications of a redefinition of the border and compulsory transfers of population within Northern Ireland or between the Six Counties (comprising the province) and the Republic (of Ireland),” read an introduction to the newly released document.
“We have been asked to consider whether it would be practical to move the dissident republican (largely Catholic) population out of Northern Ireland, retaining only the Unionist (pro-British) population,” it added.
The paper had an attachment containing rough maps of the province showing areas dominated by Catholics and included shaded areas for their possible transfer. The plan would have left only the heavily Protestant regions in Northern Ireland’s northeast relatively untouched.
The proposal appeared to falter on the sheer numbers involved.
“There would be a need to move 200,000 to 300,000 Catholics from other parts of Northern Ireland to the ceded areas, and to bring 200,000 Protestants out of the ceded areas into the rest of Northern Ireland,” it said.
This would have meant shifting one-third of the province’s population, and the paper suggested that “such a mass movement would not be peacefully accomplished” — plus, its authors added, the idea could be a breach of European human rights laws.
Without becoming public at the time, the proposal was quietly dropped, as was an alternate plan under which Britain would have recalled large numbers of troops from bases in Germany and deployed them to Northern Ireland, as a “violent shock” to try to force the province, and its protagonists on both republican and Unionist sides, into submission.