Page last updated at 06:56 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

Heated memos over Northern Ireland Cold War data

 Soviet army tanks take position in Budapest
Soviet army tanks take position in Budapest in 1956

It was 1956, Soviet troops had marched into Hungary, Britain, France and Israel seized the Suez Canal and Elvis Presley released Heartbreak Hotel.

But in Whitehall bureaucrats were becoming exercised over an American request for intelligence on Belfast.

The United States Military Attache had written to the Ministry of Defence seeking details about the infrastructure of Northern Ireland's capital for US intelligence staff for "defence planning purposes".

The information requested ranged from a list of sewerage treatment plants and the output capacity of the city's gasworks to how much refuse was collected and how many taxis there were in the city.

The details are contained in a series of memos recently released under the Freedom of Information Act by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.

The papers do not detail what the Americans were specifically planning for, but with questions about transport infrastructure and storage capacity of the city it seems clear that any US deployment following war, nuclear or conventional, with the Warsaw Pact would be making use of the city.

Lieutenant Colonel E. R. Sword from the Ministry of Defence in London relayed the request to the Northern Ireland Liaison in London A. J. Kelly.


In a confidential memo he said that the Americans had assured him the information would be disclosed only to those with "a need to know".

Mr Kelly relayed the request to Sir Robert Gransden, head of the Cabinet Secretariat at Stormont, with a stinging critique.

He described it as "a piece of utterly preposterous Pentagon planning" and that the UK's armed forces would defend Northern Ireland.

However, he said that it would be hard to refuse the request on the grounds that collecting the data would be "excessively laborious".

World opinion forced the British, French and Israelis to withdraw troops from Egypt
World opinion forced the British, French and Israelis to withdraw troops from Egypt

He raised concerns that it may have an impact on Northern Ireland's internal security.

"The compilation and and circulation of this kind of information could prove exceedingly harmful to Northern Ireland, if by mischance it fell into the hands of, and were used by, any of those disaffected and disloyal individuals or organisations who would be prepared to use force to damage or destroy public services whether a state of emergency existed or not," he wrote.

The request, and its associated briefing notes, found their way to the desk of J. W. E Cathcart at the Ministry for Home Affairs.

He replied that his minister, W. W. B. Topping, had no objection to the US military receiving the information and civil servants in Stormont began compiling it.

Amongst the data on Belfast making its way to the Cold Warriors in the Pentagon was the daily water usage figures for Belfast, 19,200,000 gallons domestically and 7,100,000 industrially.

One possible reason for the tough line from Whitehall may have been the US reaction to the Suez crisis.

Anglo-America relations were strained by the crisis, with the US opposing the invasion.

World opinion, especially that of the US, together with the threat of Soviet intervention, forced Britain, France and Israel to withdraw their troops from Egypt.

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