Belfast Telegraph

State papers: How atomic war would have laid waste to Northern Ireland

By Adrian Rutherford

People wandering the streets in an aimless and confused state, starving and hostile; homes obliterated; democracy suspended – this is how officials imagined Northern Ireland in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb.

In a chilling depiction of a world on the brink of destruction, Belfast lies in ruins while thousands of refugees have fled to neighbouring towns – frightened, angry and disorientated.

The terrifying dossier was drawn up by civil servants at Stormont in the 1980s as the threat of nuclear war between East and West loomed.

Although the world had become used to living under the shadow of The Bomb, previously classified files show how a nuclear conflict seemed more likely in 1983 than almost any other moment in our post-war history.

US President Ronald Reagan had described the Soviet Union as the "evil empire", had deployed medium-range nuclear missiles to Europe and begun the Star Wars project.

As the threat grew, officials drew up a highly detailed and sophisticated, but completely fictional, account of the lead-up and aftermath of a Soviet attack on Northern Ireland.

The paper, marked 'restricted', states: "The following narrative is entirely fictional. It is not intended and should not be taken as a realistic description of how events might develop.

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"It is designed solely for the purpose of creating a setting in which plans and procedures might be formulated and tested."

The detailed narrative begins in April 1982, and describes how a tense situation arose in Europe. The Soviet bloc was mobilising on the border with Finland while a strict military regime was established in Romania, which had been developing economic ties with the West.

Relations became more and more strained and, by mid-August, there had been sporadic outbreaks of conventional war.

Several military sites had been hit in the UK and, as fears grew of a nuclear exchange, people began evacuating major cities, including Belfast.

"This was disorganised and gave rise to traffic problems, lawlessness and instances of panic," the briefing paper states.

The dreaded attack finally came on the evenings of September 6 and 7. The UK suffered more than 50 nuclear bursts, two of them in Northern Ireland. The bombs hit Belfast and Derry. A strong wind took fallout from the Belfast blast across Holywood, Carrickfergus and Whitehead. The fallout from the Derry attack spread to Portstewart, Coleraine, Ballymoney and Limavady.

The following morning an aerial reconnaissance provided a snapshot of the devastation.

Central Belfast had been destroyed, with widespread flooding in the harbour estate. Fires could be seen in Holywood.

Sketchy "situation reports" were arriving from other towns.

"The local population in Lisburn and Hillsborough is more or less intact but has no cooking facilities. Privately held food supplies are nearing exhaustion," the dossier adds.

"Reports indicate there is more severe damage at Dunmurry. There is a large refugee population from Belfast – probably as much as 25,000.

"Many of these people have physical injuries, others are starving and hostile. The RUC is experiencing harassment in Lisburn town centre."

With Belfast in ruins, refugees had flooded into Bangor.

"Large numbers are assembling in the town centre. Many are clearly ill (radiation sickness?). There is anger, disorientation and outbreaks of violence."

The dossier, of course, wasn't needed. But officials clearly spent a considerable amount of time and effort preparing for the worst.

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