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EDITIONS
 Wednesday, 1 January, 2003, 16:10 GMT
Plan to 're-draw' NI borders revealed
A secret document setting out Northern Ireland after the removal of Catholics in 1972
Secret plan: Officials redrew the map

Plans to "transfer" most of Northern Ireland's Catholic population south of the Irish border were secretly considered by Whitehall officials during the worst violence of the early years of the Troubles.

It would demonstrate to the world that the government was unable to bring about a peaceable solution save by expelling large numbers of its own citizens

Secret prime ministerial briefing on Catholic transfer, 1972
Papers released under the 30-year-rule reveal Sir Edward Heath's 1972 government considered moving hundreds of thousands of Catholics if they could not stop the worsening sectarian violence.

The plan, one of a number secretly considered, was rejected as unworkable - along with proposals for a one-off "violent shock" against both Protestants and Catholics.

By the end of 1972, almost 500 people had died amid continuing political and sectarian violence as the local Stormont government and civil rights movement collapsed.

Such was the fear of complete civil breakdown, Cabinet secretary Sir Burke Trend warned Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath he had perhaps one chance to restore peace.

Open in new window : Moving Catholics
How officials considered redrawing the border

Prime Minister Heath was presented with a series of options including a 10-page paper called "Redrawing the border and population transfer".

It looked at whether republican violence could be stopped by:

  • Transferring areas with a Catholic majority to the Republic of Ireland
  • Moving individual Catholic families to the Republic of Ireland

    The authors drew up maps of how it could work - only to find the areas identified for transfer included huge numbers of Protestants.

    "To transfer the whole of the territory west of the River Bann would put 238,000 Catholics and 227,000 Protestants into the Republic," the report said.

    In addition, the authors admitted they had no idea how population transfer could be applied to the majority of Catholics living in Belfast or other urban areas.

    An excerpt of the secret plan
    Rejected: Simply not feasible, said officials

    "Though republicanism is often equated with Roman Catholicism, the two terms by no means cover the same ground," said the report.

    "Many Catholics prefer the union with Great Britain and many more feel only an emotional attraction to the republican ideal."

    The IRA need relatively small quantities of arms and men to maintain an embarrassing level of violence - there is no reason to believe that even a major operation could stop them from doing so

    Sir Burke Trend
    Going further, the report warned land transfer would not solve the problem as the government saw it.

    "People would have to be moved as well. This too would raise formidable difficulties.

    "Assuming it were undertaken, the Republic would surely not accept 500,000 Catholics without land for them to live on. About one third of the population of Northern Ireland would be on the move.

    "If voluntary or induced movement failed, would compulsion be practicable? It would raise in an even more acute form the definition of who should move."

    The report concluded the plan would breach the European Convention on Human Rights, have no effect on the IRA and, potentially leave those Catholics still within Northern Ireland in a worse situation.

    "Any faint hope of success must be set against the implications of a course which would demonstrate to the world that HMG [Her Majesty's Government] was unable to bring about the peaceable solution of problems save by expelling large numbers of its own citizens - and doing so on a religious basis."

    Military options

    At the same time, Prime Minister Heath received proposals for military action against both communities.

    1972: KEY EVENTS
    30 Jan: Bloody Sunday
    22 Feb: Aldershot bombing
    24 Mar: Direct rule imposed
    26 June: IRA ceasefire
    7 July: IRA meet Whitelaw
    21 July: Bloody Friday bombing
    31 July: Operation Motorman; Claudy bombing
    The GEN 79 strategy meeting of 23 July 1972, the top committee dealing with the crisis, told Sir Edward the Ministry of Defence had prepared a "secret contingency plan for the worst consequences".

    The Army would place the entire province under a state of emergency and, with huge numbers of troops brought over from Germany, "put an end to violence and give them a violent shock in the hope of avoiding anarchy and of forcing them to agree upon a solution."

    Full details of the plan and the prime minister's response are not known as the papers have been withheld from publication.

    What is clear is Sir Burke Trend separately warned the prime minister in an additional memo the plan would "so completely alienate the Roman Catholic community from the British Government as to destroy for many years any remaining prospect of re-establishing a stable society within the UK".

    "The IRA need relatively small quantities of arms and men to maintain an embarrassing level of violence," he concluded.

    "There is no reason to believe that even a major operation could stop them from doing so."

    While the strategy was eventually shelved, on 31 July, the Army began Operation Motorman to remove the so-called "no-go areas" in Derry and Belfast, one of the most contentious security operations of the Troubles to this day.

    The government did however press ahead with a border poll, held in March 1973. The vote overwhelmingly supported the status quo after the SDLP led a nationalist boycott saying the result was a foregone conclusion.

    Ulster Unionist peer Lord Kilclooney said it was not a surprise.

    "You must remember that we had good friends within the Conservative Party and so we were well aware that within the Conservative Party there was consideration being given to changing the boundaries of Northern Ireland and also that they were in talks with the IRA," he said.

    "There will be no reaction to this, because Unionists throughout Northern Ireland generally had this understanding, that the Conservatives were considering redrawing the boundaries.

    "Of course, it was an idiotic idea. It would have meant the movement of half a million people."

  •   WATCH/LISTEN
      ON THIS STORY
      The BBC's Mark Simpson in Belfast
    "The cabinet papers show how the border scheme would have worked"
      BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport
    "These are some of the government's most sensitive papers"
      Ulster Unionist peer Lord Kilclooney:
    "It would have meant the movement of half a million people"
    Papers released under the 30 year rule reveal Heath government plans to expel hundreds of Catholics from NI and create a Protestant-only province

    NI secrets revealed

    Previous revelations

    Background

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