Northern Ireland news

MoD considered buying Co Antrim farmland, records show

Files held by the Public Records Office but released under the 20-year rule show consideration was given to buying the 27,500 acre site between Ballymena and Larne
Lesley-Anne McKeown, Press Association

THE Ministry of Defence considered buying up huge swathes of Co Antrim farmland to use as a training ground during the 1980s, confidential papers have revealed.

A massive 27,500 acre site was identified between Ballymena and Larne.

Files held by the Public Records Office but released under the 20-year rule show serious consideration was given to the proposal and a discreet in-house feasibility study was carried out by officials of the Northern Ireland Office, Central Secretariat and Departments of Agriculture and the Environments.

The plan was to use the land to train resident infantry battalions and local territorial units.

One document, marked "secret", stated: "The Army have identified an area of some 27,500 acres, mostly above 800ft, in the high country of Co Antrim between Ballymena and Larne.

"The area would be used for infantry field firing and other training at up to battalion level. It is not intended for use by other arms such as armour or artillery.

"The only vehicles that would be used would be landrovers and wheeled lorries up to a max of 4 tonnes and the largest weapons, infantry mortars.

"The area would be divided by the Ballymena - Larne Road (A36) into a live training area north of the road and a dry training area to the south."

The area comprised of 320 holdings, including the Greenmount Agricultural College and was valued at between £10 and £12 million.

The population was "mostly Protestant", it was noted.

A proposal to set up in the Sperrins was almost immediately ruled out because it was "in short too staunchly republican".

Officials added: "If the great majority of the land was purchased by the MoD, compulsorily or by agreement, there would potentially be some £10-£12 million injected into the Northern Ireland land market.

"This would be likely to increase land prices in the small regional market to a disturbing extent."

The proposed training ground would also include a live firing zone and the "sizeable safety margin" would have put a large part of the area out of bounds to people and animals.

Reasons for the military proposal included the over subscription of training grounds in Great Britain and a reduction in patrols with the police.

An official wrote: "The Army has always suffered from the lack of a training area in Northern Ireland but two recent developments have made the problem particularly acute, leading them to the conclusion that a local solution must be found.

"Fist has been the increased demand on existing training areas in Great Britain which have resulted from the withdrawal of 2nd Armoured Divison from BAOR to York and the rapid expansion of the TA.

"Secondly with the resident battalions in NI now rather less committed to supporting the RUC in anti-terrorist operations there is a much greater demand from these units for training in their primary role."

Questions were mooted about nationalist objections over the potential threat to Irish neutrality if the land was opened to Nato troops and there could also have been a potential backlash from unionists over the encroachment on good farmland, it was claimed.

The MoD decided against buying the land until there were "real signs of stability and a sustained period without terrorist violence".

When the idea was revisited at a later stage, it was also rejected because of interest from hydrocarbon exploration companies in the area.

"If a choice has to be made hydrocarbon exploration should take precedence over military training," the Secretary of State was told in a letter.

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