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Thousands of Northern refugees streamed over the border in the 1970s - some were called "ungrateful"

The situation is detailed in a memo to Government from 1973.

Northern Ireland Troubles Riot police in Derry, 1969 Source: Peter Kemp

IN 1969, REFUGEES from Northern Ireland began to stream across the border to the Republic to escape the violence of the Troubles.

How the State reacted to this is detailed in documents released in a file in the 1984 State Papers.

The memorandum for the Government on catering for Northern Refugees was sent to them on 26 January 1973, accompanying a bill for the care of displaced persons.

The memo reveals:

  • The number of refugees was unprecedented
  • Some refugees were ‘demanding’
  • Local authorities butted heads with the Department of Defence
  • Some refugees thought they were going on ‘holiday’

The document details how refugees were put up in more and more army camps as the “refugee problem” grew.

“Streaming” over the border

PA-8647620 Women and children stand near an armed British military soldier patrols a street in Belfast, 1972 Source: AP/Press Association Images

The memo states that the problem “erupted” when refugees “streamed over the border” from the North in August 1969.

It was decided that the army authorities would house and feed all refugees in two camps, Gormanston and Finner, and other centres would be opened in necessary.

The Irish Red Cross was charged with collecting money and relief supplies for the refugees. It also supplied them with pocket money and gave them food, clothing, washing machines, first aid, organised school buses, brought patients to hospital and more.

The Red Cross paid for all the transport and the free travel vouchers people were given to return to their homes.

Counties “convenient to the border” were alerted to the possibility that if large numbers of refugees continued to arrive, local authorities would have to get involved.

“Ominous numbers” of refugees

Northern Ireland Troubles British soldiers stand guard behind a barbed wire barricade, Derry, 1969 Source: Peter Kemp

Then in the summer of 1970, more refugees arrived. While 720 arrived in 1969, the peak figure in 1970 was 1,558.

In July 1971, refugees arrived “in somewhat ominous numbers”, but by the second week of August 1971, they began to arrive in “unprecedented numbers” and the capacity of army refugee centres at Gormanston, Finner, Kilworth, Coolmoney, Kildare, Kilkenny, Waterford, and Tralee were soon greatly exceeded.

The Minister had to call on the local authorities for help, and communities and religious leaders put their facilities and services at the refugees’ disposal.

  • Six hundred refugees were even accommodated for a short time at the training depot in Templemore by An Garda Síochána.
  • At its peak, 1,695 people were being catered for by the Army, and 2,714 outside of army centres.

It was even allowed that civil servants who were members of organisations like the Civil Defence and Irish Red Cross could be granted special leave to give their time voluntarily to help.

Local authorities asked to step in

Northern Ireland Troubles Local people walk past British troops on guard in the streets after violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969. Source: Kemp

Then, in 1972, it was decided “for military reasons” that the army would not be asked to look after any future refugees, so local authorities were asked to make contingency plans.

“Every Local Authority was expected to take a quota of refugees,” says the memo. The Health Boards were asked to help, and the responsibility for general direction and co-ordination of the refugees rested with the Department of Defence’s Civil Defence Branch.

The Vote for Defence bore any costs, except transport and “comforts”, which the Irish Red Cross looked after.

Nearly 10,000 refugees in 1972

In 1972, more refugees arrived, and the number didn’t go below the 2000 mark until August of that year.

“Approximately 9,800 refugees in all were handled during the months of July and August 1972,” says the memo.

The operation was a major one, but was “accomplished with considerable smoothness”.

Northern Ireland Troubles Wreckage of houses and shops in the Falls Road area of Belfast, Northern Ireland in March 1972. Source: Laurent

Each year’s influx of refugees brought “with it a number of social problems cases who would be misfits no matter where they were”, says the memo.

Another difficulty was “casual people” arriving and declaring themselves refugees. The memo warns that “many who have no good reason to leave their homes in the North inevitably do”.

It also says that as long as there was unrest, there was the possibility of refugees.

“Ungrateful” refugees

BRITISH TROOPS GUARD BEACH British troops on a beach near Belfast, 1972 Source: AP/Press Association Images

The memo notes that the first refugees, from 1969 – 1971, came due to fears about their personal safety:

most of them came on the spur of the moment and in great haste, bringing with them only what they wore.

By 1972, this had changed.

“The refugees on this occasion had obviously made preparations in advance for a holiday in the South,” says the memo, adding most of the children had swimming gear, tennis racquets and fishing rods in their possession.

It describes how in Waterford, one group reported they were not actually refugees but “had understood that they were being sent down on a holiday to hotels, private houses, etc” – and there were similar stories coming from Cork and Dublin.

It was reported that groups were collecting money for thes “holidays”. There were worries this situation could be “exploited by extremists” or unscrupulous people.

Refugees are not always just frightened people who are thankful for the assistance being given them. Some of them can be very demanding and ungrateful, even obstreperous and fractious – as well as, particularly in the case of teenage boys, destructive.

Northern Ireland Civil Rights Crowds participate in the Catholic Civil Rights protest march at Newry, February 6, 1972 Source: Laurent

But irrespective of their attitudes, government policy “has been interpreted… as requiring that they should all be accepted without question and treated to the best of our ability as groups of Irish people in need of help at a very difficult time”.

It also notes that due to the “holiday” reports, “the reality of the need of the refugees for a respite from the unnerving atmosphere of the North was not always fully appreciated locally”.

The memo details fears that there could be a “major crisis situation arising at any time of the year involving numbers of refugees vastly in excess of anything experienced hitherto”.

This situation could even lead to closing all boarding (and perhaps other) schools – it was discussed that powers of compulsory acquisition of accommodation on a temporary basis might become essential.

Bloody Sunday Aftermath The aftermath of Bloody Sunday in 1972 Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Minister for Defence drafted a general scheme of a bill to enable legislation to be drafted and held, in case the temporary acquisition of accommodation for refugees was needed.

With no legal onus on local authorities to look after refugees, it was “only by the exercise of much persuasion and tact on the part of the Civil Defence controlling staff in the Department of Defence that all County Managers were eventually prevailed upon to undertake responsibility for the accommodation and care of Northern refugees”.

“They appear to convey the impression that they are being unduly imposed upon in this matter”, says the document.

But the Minister for Defence felt that if any special legislation in relation to Northern refugees was introduced, it should also provide for the imposition on Local Authorities the duty to provide for their accommodation, maintenance and welfare.

National Archives 1984 2014/32/2058

Read: The Troubles and the Disappeared: ‘Another chapter closed in the tragic saga’>

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