Priest brought Biafra refugees to Wicklow without permission – and other strange tales from Dublin and London files

Records released by Irish and British archives include details of a ‘republican’ artefact thief and a ‘radical’ UK proposal to hold asylum seekers on a Scottish island

A missionary priest brought 11 young refugees from Biafra to live in Wicklow in 1970 and 1971 without the approval of any authority including his own religious order. State records transferred to the National Archives in Dublin show how Spiritan priest Fr Dermot Kavanagh ignored orders from his own superiors to repatriate the group of young men, aged 16-25, to Nigeria.

He brought nine of the young men into Co Wicklow in 1970 with two following in 1971. Most lived in a mobile home on a farm, which was owned by the priest’s sister.

The young men all belonged to middle-class families of the Igbo tribe. They attended local schools and some worked on the farm, with others working at night in a hotel in Ashford, Co Wicklow.

The local curate in Rathnew expressed disapproval of the young men being located in the community and contacted authorities to highlight what he saw as the risk of “one of them getting involved with some local girl”. He also raised the possibility of them taking drugs.

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However, a local sergeant said none of the young men had come under unfavourable notice during their stay in Co Wicklow. He said while they did not mix with the local community, they all appeared happy and were always immaculately dressed.

The Nigerian embassy in Dublin also criticised Fr Kavanagh’s actions, describing them as completely unacceptable.

Fr Kavanagh died in January 2021 at the height of the Covid pandemic. He was one of 10 priests from the Spiritan order – formerly known as Holy Ghost Fathers – who died that month, eight of them having tested positive for the virus.

Refugee camp on Scottish island mooted under ‘radical’ Blair plan

Tony Blair’s Labour government considered setting up a holding camp on the Isle of Mull in an attempt to drive down the number of asylum seekers entering in the UK, newly released official papers show.

The plan, put forward by one of the prime minister’s closest aides, was part of a “nuclear option” for tackling the asylum issue and would have seen illegal migrants put back on the aircraft they arrived on with little or no right of appeal.

Drawn up just months before the US-UK invasion of Iraq, the scheme also called for the creation of a series of regional “safe havens” in countries such as Turkey and South Africa – where refugees who could not be returned to their own country could be sent.

Though the plan did not go ahead, it echoes the debate still taking place more than 20 years later around Rishi Sunak’s plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The proposals, contained in files released by the UK national archives in London, reflect Mr Blair’s frustration that “ever-tougher controls” in northern France had not had an impact on the number of asylum claims, which reached a new monthly high of 8,800 in October 2002.

“We must search out even more radical measures,” Blair scrawled in a handwritten note.

Following a brainstorming session with senior officials and advisers, the prime minister’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell produced a paper entitled Asylum: The Nuclear Option, in which he questioned whether the UK needed an asylum system at all.

“As an island, people who come here by sea have by definition already passed through a safe country. And very few of those who apply at airports are genuine refugees,” he wrote.

“So in fact what we should be looking at is a very simple system that immediately returns people who arrive here illegally ... Ideally we should not have an asylum hearing at all, simply a decision by an immigration officer to return someone followed by a one tier fast appeal against that decision if that is necessary.”

Powell said officials in the office of the attorney general had suggested setting up a camp on the Isle of Mull in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides where people could be detained until they could be removed.

“I doubt that is going to work because of the nimby factor, but we have commissioned work to look at tagging, detention etc, to help deter people and ensure we are able to return them as soon as their appeals have been heard,” Powell wrote.

Elsewhere, officials suggested claimants could be sent to the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic. Powell said they were also looking at establishing a series of “safe havens” in Turkey, South African and Kenya, where asylum seekers from Iraq, Zimbabwe and Somalia could be returned to.

Artefact thief caught in FBI sting claimed to be raising money for republican cause

The case of a modern-day Irish “pirate” who tried to sell early Christian burial stones at an American university is detailed in declassified files in Dublin. Peter Kenny from Roscommon sailed into Miami in early 1990 and contacted Boston College offering to sell priceless stones from a 9th century monastic site to the college.

Records from the Department of Foreign Affairs that have been declassified set out the elaborate operation that was put in place to catch Kenny. The records also disclose that he planned to give some of the proceeds to Noraid, the US-based group which raised money for republican prisoners and had a close connection with the IRA.

Kenny brought a substantial booty of stolen artefacts aboard the vessel he sailed into Miami. They included three early Christian gravestones with Latin inscriptions, and crosses. He also had coins, rifles supposedly used in the 1916 Rising, as well as an old Viking anchor.

Kenny contacted Boston College and offered the artefacts at a price of several million dollars. The college contacted the Irish consulate in the city, who contacted the National Museum in Dublin.

Having established the items were in all probability stolen, the FBI mounted a surveillance operation on Kenny. It culminated with a meeting between him and several undercover FBI agents, who posed as representatives of Boston College and as a benefactor.

Kenny took three of the gravestones with him. The original price was reduced to circa $400,000 and a down payment was paid.

Kenny was arrested in a motel shortly afterwards and was later sentenced to four months imprisonment before being deported from the US. The artefacts were returned to Ireland and taken into possession by the National Museum.

A confidential report compiled by the Irish consulate in Boston in May 1991, recorded how Kenny had told the FBI that he was “going to give Noraid a portion of the money he received for the artefacts”.

Downing Street press office lost ‘all credibility’ under spin doctor Campbell

Prime minister Tony Blair was warned that the No 10 press office had lost “all credibility” under his combative communications chief Alastair Campbell. Papers released by the UK national archives show Blair’s private secretary, Jeremy Heywood, advised him that his authority was being undermined because Downing Street was seen as a “politically-dominated spin machine”.

The warnings followed a series of bruising rows between the Labour government and the BBC over its coverage of the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.

After Campbell announced he was standing down after nine years as one of Blair’s most trusted aides, Heywood urged the prime minister to take the opportunity to carry out a complete overhaul of the No 10 press operation.

“The No 10 press office has lost all credibility as a reliable, truthful, objective operation. Even respectable journalists treat it with caution – part of a relentless politically-dominated spin machine,” he wrote.

Campbell’s departure came after months of increasingly acrimonious relations between the government and sections of the media amid the failure to uncover Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, which had been the justification for the invasion.

On March 19th, the day the invasion began, Blair sent BBC chairman Gavyn Davies a blistering letter complaining about the corporation’s coverage.

“I believe, and I am not alone in believing, that you have not got the balance right between support and dissent; between news and comment; between the voices of the Iraqi regime and Iraqi dissidents; or between the diplomatic support we have, and diplomatic opposition,” he wrote.

“I have never written to you or your predecessor in this way before, but I have heard and seen enough to feel I should do so now.”

The papers also show Campbell suggested threatening the BBC with legal action over a Radio 4 Today programme report that the government had “sexed up” an intelligence dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction issued in the run-up to the conflict to strengthen the case for war.

“If the BBC remain belligerent, I think the rhetoric has to be stepped up, up to and including the threat of putting the issue in the hands of lawyers,” he wrote.

Return of Elgin Marbles to Greece mooted in return for Olympic bid support

Tony Blair responded enthusiastically to a proposal to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece in an attempt to boost support for London’s bid to host the Olympic Games, according to other files released in London.

Records show No 10 advisers believed the Marbles – also known as the Parthenon Sculptures – could be a “powerful bargaining chip” in the race to host the 2012 summer games.

However, they warned any attempt to reach a sharing agreement with Athens could face stiff resistance due to the “blinkered intransigence” of the British Museum, where they had been housed since the 19th century.

The return of Marbles, controversially taken from the 2,500-year-old Parthenon – the greatest surviving monument of Classical Greece – by the Scottish peer Lord Elgin, was a long-standing demand of the Greeks.

With the approach of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the campaign was entering “a more energetic phase” with the Greeks hoping to make them the central exhibit in a new Acropolis museum, which they planned to open to coincide with the start of the games.

The idea that a new treaty allowing the two countries to share ownership could help London’s bid was first put forward by former foreign secretary David Owen, who said he believed the idea had “real legs”.

Blair liked the idea, suggesting Owen should be entrusted with the negotiations with the Greeks.

“He has clout and could probably help with the BM while distancing it a little from government,” he wrote in a handwritten note.

Others in No 10 were, however, more cautious. Andrew Adonis, the head of the policy unit, warned it would need “very careful handling”.

The files contain no evidence that Owen was contacted by No 10 and, in the event, the proposal came to nothing.

In July 2005 the IOC announced that London had been chosen to host the 2012 games in a run-off against Paris.

Disagreement between Britain and Greece over the marbles continues, with Sunak last month accusing his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis of using a trip to London to “grandstand” over the issue of the Parthenon sculptures. – Additional reporting PA

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