At the height of bloodletting in Northern Ireland, the British government considered trying to end the sectarian conflict by forcibly moving hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics to the Irish Republic, according to records released today.
But the top-secret contingency plan -- dated July 23, 1972 -- was rejected out of concern that it would not work unless the government was prepared to be "completely ruthless" in carrying it out, and that it would provoke outrage at home and abroad, especially in the United States.
"Any faint hope of success must be set against the implications of a course which would demonstrate to the world that [the government] was unable to bring about the peaceful solution of problems save by expelling large numbers of its own citizens and doing so on a religious basis," the document added.
The plan came to light in a batch of formerly confidential papers declassified after 30 years and released by Britain's Public Records Office. The plan is contained in a report commissioned by the government of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath at a time when Britain was on the verge "of losing control" in Northern Ireland, the document says.
Almost 500 people were killed in 1972, more than any year since. On Jan. 30 of that year -- now known as "Bloody Sunday" -- British soldiers shot and killed 13 unarmed Catholic protesters in Londonderry.
Signed by Cabinet Secretary Burke Trend, the plan called for a "massive reinforcement of troops" in the province accompanied by "searches, interrogation and possibly internment" aimed against Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups.
If that failed, another suggested solution involved redrawing the border or a "compulsory transfer of population."
More than 200,000 Catholics would be moved from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic or "into homogenous enclaves within Northern Ireland." A similar number of Protestants living in lands ceded to the Irish Republic would be moved into what remained of Northern Ireland.