‘Refugee Problem’, 1970

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), News, Volume 9

When the North of Ireland exploded into violence in August 1969families began to cross the border to seek refuge in the South. TheIrish Army sought to cater for the refugees’ ‘elementary needs such asfood, shelter and sanitary facilities’ at various military camps. By1970 the military authorities were satisfied that the army had actedwith speed and effectiveness in dealing with the initial influx ofrefugees. It was also believed that in the months after the arrival ofthe first refugees ‘substantial improvements in the accommodation andcomfort of the refugees have been achieved and various additionalamenities have been or are being provided, a number of them inco-operation with voluntary agencies’. However, by 1970 there was agrowing unease at the army’s role in catering (literally!) forrefugees. The existence of ‘permanent’ refugees in active militaryfacilities was viewed as ‘unsatisfactory’ from both a security and anadministrative point of view. There were fears that a ‘hard core’ hademerged availing of ‘a safe and accessible refuge mainly for women andchildren on a rent- and maintenance-free basis’. A report from one campin May 1970 stated that it was ‘possible that climatic conditions inthe coming summer months will attract additional refugees and indeedone family in Belfast has expressed the wish to the Red Cross to bookin ‘for the first fortnight in July’.
Gormanston Camp, County Meath, had been a refugee centre sinceAugust 1969 when the ‘the hutments in the camp were reconstructed intheir interiors and suitable emergency accommodation was provided tohouse family units’. The maximum number of refugees catered for in thecamp ‘at any one time was 63 male, 108 female and 292 children’ and byMay 1970 it was reported that this number had fallen to ‘6 male, 10female, 27 children and some one or two males join that number onweekends’. Medical Officer Commandant B. Sullivan, in a letter dated 20May 1970 stated that if it was ‘proposed to continue to use this campas a refugee centre this summer, I recommend that a final decision onthe total numbers allowed be taken’. He considered that as a result ofthe experience gained in August/September 1969

an upper limit of two hundred (200) refugees housed as family units isthe accepted limit from the viewpoint of individual health and welfareand the public health of the camp as a whole. In the harshness of thewinter this figure should be reduced by half…The fact that we did nothave acute epidemic disease last year does not mean that we will escapethis year if we overcrowd. An epidemic of acute gastro enteritis ininfants and children or of polio or infective hepatitis would be a poorand thankless ending to the very good hard work carried out by allsections of the army since the refugee problem started.

He concluded by recommending that ‘in the interests of both health andmorale of both military and refugee population that only genuine casesbe admitted so as to prevent those families familiar with the campabusing its facilities during this summer time’.
On 30 June 1970 the Deputy Quartermaster-General, Col. R.H.W.Bunworth, made it clear that ‘for possible future refugee commitments,it was ‘proposed to plan for refugee camps at Gormanston, Finner[County Donegal] and if required, Kilworth Camp[County Cork]. It wasalso made  clear that a proper servicing of refugee requirements wouldrequire a substantial deployment of army personnel including theprovision of a camp quartermaster and assistant, a catering officer,welfare officer and staffs for cooking, dining hall work, welfare andrecreation, transport, medical, engineering work involving theconstruction of accommodation to cater for family units—teenagers,single adults and unaccompanied children, if any—and camp staff andvoluntary workers. This was considered a nuisance in military circlesbecause it drew officers, NCOs, and men from other army units thusweakening them. However, on 14 July the Adjutant-General, Col. Emphystated that in compliance ‘with government directions refugees arrivingin the state will continue to be catered for officially by the Army.

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