Dealing with crisis: Stormont campbeds, staffing a post-nuclear government, & scramblers #20YearRule

Towards the back of an inch-thick government file CENT/1/19/44A [selective scans] recently released under the 30/20 Year Rule is a minute of a meeting on 10 November 1986 which considered “the prospects of political action during the Anglo-Irish anniversary period”.

A year on from the 15 November 1985 signing, plans were made to bring beds out of the emergency store and set them up in Dundonald House and potentially a number of other buildings on the Stormont estate to accommodate the teams who would “need to oil the administrative machinery at Central Government Level” during any crisis.

One woman attended the otherwise all-male planning meeting. The minute records that she asked for an indication of numbers to facilitate the catering. What is clear from the government papers released under the 30/20 Year Rule is that the NI Civil Service was male-dominated, with minutes of meetings attended by 15 or more men and no women quite normal.

While the main threat in 1988 seemed to come from within Northern Ireland – and possibly from Russian satellites above our heads – the need for continuity of communications links was being considered at Stormont with a briefing circulated to highlight the fallback Emergency Manual Switching System (EMSS) that BT maintained in the basements of six telephone exchanges in Ballymena, Portadown, Belfast, Coleraine, Enniskillen and Londonderry.

If the normal trunk dialling (STD) system was disrupted, authorised users could dial 100 and be manually connected by operators to three categories of high priority lines.

The CENT/1/19/44A file indicates that in the event of an all out war, nominated people would fill the top posts in the NI Regional Government Headquarters (RGHQ) in the Ballymena nuclear bunker, as well as the Reserve RGHQ in the west in case the primary HQ “became inoperative”.

“A small cadre of 40 high level specialist staff” were required to help the NI Commissioner (likely to be the Secretary of State) “exercise control over all goods and services in a post-nuclear situation”. The commissioner was assumed to be male:

“He will be faced with very difficult decisions which will have to made quickly and without the benefit of the normal machinery such as background briefs, discussion documents”.

Designated civil service officers would help the commissioner discharge his duties:

“[They] may have to live in closed bunker conditions, perhaps for up to 60 days [and therefore] should be of sound health, in particular be able to stand up to stress, free from serious physical disability, degenerative disease or the need for regular medical attention or special diets … [They] preferably should not have abnormal domestic ties.”

Another recently released file, this time from the Department of Environment ENV/13/1/69 shows that in light of the 3 March 1986 ‘Day of Action’ demanding the ending of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Transport Division’s Emergency Operations Room decided to install scrambler phones in key transport officers to “provide the Government with a communications link to the main Transport bodies, Ulsterbus, Citybus, NI Railways, Shipping companies and NI Airports at Aldergrove”.

Heavy agricultural machinery had blocked the road into the airport, which slowed the reopening of the route. Central government’s handle on the transport situation seems to have been weak during the 24 hours strike.

The privacy device proposed had “an in-built scrambler (although not very sophisticated)”. After pages and pages of correspondence between the department and the airport, there’s a note which discusses whether on not voices could actually be heard clearly on these phones, and whether or not an alternative and more effective device should be procured instead!

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