Northern Ireland was at potential risk of being targeted by a nuclear or chemical weapons attack in the aftermath of 9/11, archive files from the time suggest.
Officials were alerted to the need to stockpile medical supplies as they were warned of the possibility of a nuclear bomb being detonated within the region or the nerve agent Sarin being deployed against the civilian population.
The grave assessment was relayed to senior civil servants as they made plans to equip public services in Northern Ireland for the feared global consequences of the terror attack in the US in September 2001.
Clive Gowdy, who was then permanent secretary of Stormont’s Department of Health, outlined the potential scenarios the region could be facing following the targeting of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
The document he prepared is included in files newly released from the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.
Mr Gowdy was responding to a request sent on September 24 2001 from the then head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Gerry Loughran, who had asked his various departmental permanent secretaries to “urgently assess” the potential impact and possible consequences of 9/11 on the region.
Mr Gowdy, who had responsibility for health, social care and the fire and rescue service in Northern Ireland, circulated a detailed reply to Mr Loughran and colleagues two days later.
He said local firefighters had been particularly affected and felt a sense of “solidarity and bereavement” with counterparts in New York.
Mr Gowdy said senior fire chiefs had been assessing whether there were any lessons for firefighting and rescue efforts if a similar attack happened in Northern Ireland.
“They are already familiar with all major buildings in the Province and have a good understanding of the structural characteristics etc so their level of preparedness is good,” he said.
The senior civil servant then went on to outline the potential consequence for the region resulting from any US follow-up action “to root out terrorism in the aftermath of this atrocity”.
“While it is still unclear what form of action will be taken, there must be speculation that it will range from action of a conventional war-like-kind, such as the Gulf War, to more widespread and unconventional attacks which have world wide implications and, in either scenario, there is the very real threat of reprisals and retaliatory action,” he stated.
He said a conventional war would result in the possible call-up of auxiliary military personnel, including medical, nursing and paramedic staff from Northern Ireland who were members of the Territorial Army Medical Corps.
However, he said the department’s “working assumption” was the potential for a “more unconventional campaign” and, as a result, its focus of attention was on dealing with “possible attacks on the local population”.
“In planning to deal with this latter scenario, there are a number of possibilities to be addressed,” he continued.
“The first is that we would be subject to conventional attacks, such as bombing, gun attack, or the use of planes or other vehicles to attack heavily populated areas.
“The implications for us are essentially the difficulties of having to handle mass casualties with all the problems of capacity in our hospitals and on both the Ambulance Service and the Blood Transfusion Service. The Fire Service would also be heavily involved.”
Mr Gowdy then raised the potential for a nuclear attack.
“The second possibility is that we would be faced with some form of nuclear attack,” he wrote.
“In this scenario, the nuclear device might be exploded directly within the Province or we might suffer the after effects of the radiation discharged from a nuclear device exploded across the water in Scotland or England.
“Again, this would raise issues of capacity in our hospitals and in the Ambulance Service and Fire Service.
“There would also be issues around the use of protective clothing and decontamination units.
“The third possibility would be the use of chemical or biological weapons.
“From our contacts with the Department of Health in London, the main risks identified here are anthrax, smallpox, botulism, and nerve gases such as sarin.
“As before, the hospitals, Ambulance Service and Fire Service would be heavily involved and there would be a need for protective clothing and antibiotics and antidotes to whatever agents were used.
“There would also be issues around the nature of the transmission procedures used for the agents in question. For example, a chemical or biological weapon released into the air in a crowded area would create different circumstances from a weapon of this type released into the water supply or released by airborne transmission over a wide area.”
Mr Gowdy said there was a “clear” need to stockpile sufficient supplies and materials “for combating these various possibilities”.
“We will need to build up our supplies of antibiotics and antidotes, needles and syringes and protective clothing etc,” he said.
“We will also need to ensure that we have sufficient decontamination capacity and that staff are properly trained to deal with the possible weapons and outcomes they might face.”
The permanent secretary said there was also a social services dimension to the planning for a mass attack.
“The need for temporary shelter for those displaced from their homes will be a major consideration,” he wrote.
“There will also be a need for meals and clothing. If the attacks are substantial, there will be the need for counselling both at the time and subsequently.
“Our social services staff have built up quite a reserve of expertise on these issues over the years of the troubles here.”
Mr Gowdy concluded by making clear he currently did not have the budget to make the preparations for the scenarios he had outlined.
“We do not have the money to stockpile on the scale which may be required,” he stated.
“A judgement would have to be formed as to the scale of the stockpiling undertaken, but we understand from our colleagues in the Department of Health in London that they have been given an extra £15m for the stockpiling of supplies there.”
He said a “rough estimate” of the equivalent figure in Northern Ireland would be £750,000.
“We would also face clear difficulties in coping with the increased level of demand in our hospitals and we would need to bring in extra nursing and medical staff,” he added.
“Ideally, we would prepare by creating some new capacity, particularly in Intensive Care Units and in isolation units in the event of biological devices being used.
“We simply cannot afford to do any of these things on our present budget and I would wish to flag this up as an issue at the outset.”