Files reveal Britain's 'plan' to move Hong Kong residents to Northern Ireland

Prince Charles (Left) during a visit to Mount Stewart House and Gardens near Newtownards, Northern Ireland on May 22, 2015.
Prince Charles (Left) during a visit to Mount Stewart House and Gardens near Newtownards, Northern Ireland on May 22, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Weighed down by the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, British officials jokily discussed the possible benefits of relocating the entire population of Hong Kong to the province, newly released documents showed on Friday.

Government archives reveal how a proposal by an English academic to set up a new city state for Hong Kong's 5.5 million inhabitants prompted some creative correspondence between ministry officials.

In the Belfast News Letter in October 1983, a lecturer at the University of Reading, Dr Christie Davies, warned that when Britain handed over control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, its residents' future would be in doubt.

He suggested they should be resettled in a new city-state to be established between Coleraine and Londonderry, saying the move could revitalise the stagnant economy in the British-controlled province.

After seeing the article, Northern Ireland ministry official George Fergusson wrote a memorandum to a colleague in the Foreign Office, declaring: "At this stage we see real advantages in taking the proposal seriously."

He said it could help convince the pro-British population in Northern Ireland of London's commitment to the province, which was locked in a sectarian conflict between Catholic Republicans and pro-British Protestants.

"If the plantation were undertaken it would have evident advantages in reassuring Unionist opinion of the open-ended nature of the Union," wrote Mr Fergusson.

"There would be corresponding disadvantages in relation to the minority community (and Dublin)," he said.

He received a response two weeks later from Mr David Snoxell, an official at the Foreign Office, suggesting it might send Northern Ireland residents heading in the opposite direction.

"The proposal could be useful to the extent that the arrival of 5.5 million Chinese in Northern Ireland may induce the indigenous peoples to forsake their homeland for a future elsewhere," Mr Snoxell wrote.

"We should not underestimate the danger of this taking the form of a mass exodus of boat refugees in the direction of South-east Asia.

"On the other hand, the countries of that region may view with equanimity the prospect of receiving a God-fearing, law-abiding people with an ingrained work ethic, to replace those that have left."

Even worse, he added, the proposal could have serious implications for Britain's dispute with the Irish government over the sovereignty of Lough Foyle, an estuary on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

"The Chinese people of Hong Kong are essentially a fishing and maritime people," he wrote.

"I am sure you would share our view that it would be unwise to settle the people of Hong Kong in the vicinity of Lough Foyle until we had established our claims on the lough and whether these extended to the high or low water mark."

Mr Snoxell, now retired, said he was surprised the exchange had been preserved in the National Archives, saying it was "a spoof between colleagues who had a sense of humour".

"Sadly, it's impossible to make jokes like this any more, the Diplomatic Service has lost its sense of humour," he told the BBC.

"I think that's a shame because it's through humour that you build relationships, with other departments, with other diplomats at home and abroad."