Thursday 19 April 2018

Moving Hong Kong to Derry? Diplomats only sharing a joke

Hong Kong
Hong Kong

Dean Gray in London

A former British diplomat revealed last night that a bizarre plan to relocate the entire population of Hong Kong to Northern Ireland was a joke between government officials.

David Snoxell says he's shocked that anyone took his exchange of letters with fellow diplomat George Fergusson seriously.

Mr Snoxell says the exchange - revealed yesterday in a release of 1983 documents by the national archives - "relieved some of the tension" at a time when Northern Ireland was wracked by insecurity following hunger strikes by republican prisoners.

The idea also illustrated anxieties at the time about Hong Kong's future. Then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had begun talks with China on the subject in 1982.

The letters showed the officials joking about resettling 5.5 million Hong Kong people in a newly built "city-state" between Coleraine and Derry.

Mr Snoxell never thought anyone would look realistically at the option in the uncertain years before Britain handed back the former colony to Chinese rule, formerly classified government files showed.

The released documents showed British officials discussing the zany proposal.

Mr Fergusson, an official at the Northern Ireland office, was inspired by the notion which would supposedly revitalise the local economy as well as save Hong Kong, which the lecturer believed had "no future on its present site".

"At this stage we see real advantages in taking the proposal seriously," Mr Fergusson wrote in a memo to a colleague in the foreign office.

At the time it wasn't clear if Mr Fergusson was writing tongue-in-cheek; the droll reply he received showed that it wasn't taken seriously.

"My initial reaction ... is that 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," quipped Mr Snoxell.

"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."

An official scribbled in the margins: "My mind will be boggling for the rest of the day."

Though outlandish, the idea illustrated real concerns at the time about the future of Hong Kong.

Ms Thatcher began talks with China on the topic in 1982.

Two years later, the two sides agreed that the city would return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Irish Independent

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