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Nuclear attack on Northern Ireland viewed as ‘possibility’ after 9/11

There were calls for decontamination units to operate at capacity while protective clothing and supplies of antidotes, needles and syringes must be ‘built up’, senior civil servant urged

A nuclear attack on Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks was considered a “possibility” by Stormont, confidential state papers reveal.

The most senior civil servant at the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Clive Gowdy, said it was their “working assumption” that a “more unconventional campaign” of terrorism could be unleashed on the local population through the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

There was a need to “stockpile sufficient supplies of materials” in Northern Ireland, Gowdy wrote on September 26th, 2001, in response to an email from the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, Gerry Loughran, who two days earlier sought assessments from permanent sectaries on the “potential impact and possible consequences” of 9/11 for their departmental services.

Anthrax, smallpox, botulism and nerve gases “such as sarin” were identified as the main risks by Department of Health colleagues in London, the previously undisclosed files from 2001 show.


The concerns were raised in the same month junior minister Joe Jacob gave an infamous RTÉ radio interview in which he struggled to answer questions on the Republic’s preparedness for a nuclear fallout.

After repeated probing by Marian Finucane, he gave assurances there were enough iodine tablets stored by health boards – when in fact many had no stocks at all – to protect the nation in the event of an aircraft striking the Sellafield nuclear plant across the Irish Sea.

North of the Border, there were calls for decontamination units to operate at capacity while protective clothing and supplies of antidotes, needles and syringes must be “built up”, according to Gowdy.

Planning for “conventional attacks”, such as bombings, shootings or the “use of planes or other vehicles to attack heavily populated areas” was also required.

“The implications for us are essentially the difficulties of having to handle mass casualties with all the problems of capacity in our hospitals and on both the Ambulance Service and the Blood Transfusion Service. The Fire Service would also be heavily involved,” the September 26th letter states.

“The second possibility is that we would be faced with some form of nuclear attack. In this scenario, the nuclear device might be exploded directly within the Province (NI) or we might suffer the after effects of the radiation discharged from a nuclear device exploded across the water in Scotland or England.

“As before, the hospitals, Ambulance Service and Fire Service would be heavily involved and there would be a need for protective clothing and antibiotics and antidotes to whatever agents were used.”

Fears about the “nature of the transmission procedures” used for the agents in question were also outlined as well as potential risks for staff using chemical weapons.

“For example, a chemical or biological weapon released into the air in a crowded area would create different circumstances from a weapon of this type released into the water supply or released by airborne transmission over a wide area.

“What is clear is that we will to need to stockpile significant supplies of material for combating these various possibilities... we also need to ensure that staff are properly trained to deal with the possible weapons and outcomes they might face.”

A draft paper dated October 3rd, 2001, summarised the wider global impact as well as the Northern Ireland impact, with the North’s aviation sector under threat – hundreds of job losses were projected for Belfast Aerospace firm Shorts – and the ending of the British Airways London-Belfast route.

Concerns about the awarding of so-called “peace monies” by the European Commission to the North’s ex-prisoner groups in the wake of 9/11 were also documented by a senior civil servant, with the “Colombia incident” referenced.

Alleged IRA members Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley, who became known as the Colombia Three, were arrested at Bogotá airport the previous month. They were charged with travelling on false documents and training Colombia’s largest guerrilla group in bomb-making techniques in a case which threatened to derail the North’s peace process.

“The events of September 11th will inevitably heighten the European Commission’s sensitivities as to how its funding policies under the PEACE Programmes might be portrayed,” Andrew McCormick wrote on September 26th, 2001.

“We will be expected to ensure there are rigorous systems in place to ensure that the EU funding provided to ex-prisoner and other groups is carefully targeted and monitored.”

McCormick noted that allegations had been made from “time to time” that EU structural funds, and specifically PEACE programme monies, have been used to “assist those in Northern Ireland/Ireland engaged in terrorism (including the recent Columbia incident).”

He wrote: “[This incident] is where allegations were made that one of the alleged IRA members arrested in Columbia had been a member of a Republican ex-prisoners’ group also funded under the PEACE programme, albeit from the South in this instance.”

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