Northern Ireland in the early 1980s was a security nightmare. The IRA was gearing up for arms shipments from Muammar Qaddafi’s government in Libya. Republican prisoners were on hunger strike. Amid the continued terrorist attacks by republican and loyalist paramilitary groups, Margaret Thatcher’s government had direct rule of the province and there was no evident middle ground for the beginnings of a political solution.
While Northern Ireland was an immediate, daily, and pressing concern for the British government, there was a longer-term question hanging over another province: how to handle the scheduled 1997 transfer of Hong Kong back to Chinese rule.
It has now emerged that a senior public servant at the time made the astonishing suggestion that both problems could be solved in one fell swoop, by resettling all 5.5 million residents of Hong Kong to Northern Ireland.
The revelation is contained in British government documents released today, The Guardian reports.
There’s no indication the proposal, raised by Northern Ireland public servant George Fergusson with the British Foreign Office, ever reached ministers for discussion, but its merits and some of the technicalities were discussed in detail among public servants.
What’s not clear, however, is how serious they were being at the time about the plan which would have involved moving 5.5 million people almost 10,000kms around the world, to resettle in a country with a population of around 1.3 million and just as many problems.
“We are undecided here whether the arrival of 5½ million Cantonese would make government policy [on devolution of power from London] more or less easy to implement. Arithmetically, recognition of three identities might be thought more difficult.
“On the other hand, the newly arrived ‘third’ identity would be hard not to recognise and this in turn might lessen the scale of the problem in recognising the other two.”
To head off any pesky queries about acclimatisation, Fergusson pointed to the successful settlement of 50 families from Vietnam in Northern Ireland. “It has at least established that the Chinese do not find the Northern Ireland climate objectionable and that they can get on reasonably well with the current inhabitants,” Fergusson wrote.
So that’s one potential hitch out of the way then.
One official at the Foreign Office said there were “considerations to which we shall want to give careful thought”.
Then he added, with dark humour, that it could solve the Irish question once and for all. “My initial reaction, however, is that the proposal could be useful to the extent that 5½ million Chinese may induce the indigenous peoples to forsake their homeland for a future elsewhere. Arrangements would, of course, have to be made for [the Chinese] to retain their UK nationality.”
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