Declassified files: Secret plan for 27,500-acre Army training area in foothills of Slemish

The massive live training area would have extended close to ' or even included ' Slemish Mountain. Picture: Kate Madden
The massive live training area would have extended close to ' or even included ' Slemish Mountain. Picture: Kate Madden

In 1984 the Army considered buying 27,500 acres between Ballymena and Larne for a large training area, part of which would be a live firing range, previously secret Government papers have revealed.

The Government estimated that it would cost between £10 million and £12 million to buy the land, but it also considered leasing the area from the 250-odd landowners.

A map in the declassified file demonstrates the scale of the area under consideration

A map in the declassified file demonstrates the scale of the area under consideration

Details of the proposal are contained in a file which this week has been declassified at the Public Records Office in Belfast under the 30/20 Year Rule.

Most of the area was – and still is – used for hill farming and it was considered that sheep could continue to be grazed on the land as they were happy to be in close proximity to explosions, whereas cattle would not cope with such an environment.

The Cold War plan, according to one secret memo in August 1984, was to use the area to train for “global war”, rather than for Troubles-related operations and would have seen it used by infantry but not by tanks or artillery.

Concerns were raised about the security of such a vast military site.

But the memo said that there were “virtually no Catholic farmers in this area at all, and Protestant farmers are usually fairly robust about this sort of thing [intimidation from the IRA]”.

The author of the memo, Paul Buxton, responded to a colleague’s concerns that the soldiers could become targets for the IRA by saying: “I think they could take care of themselves.”

Another official, AJ Merifield, was wary of the plan, saying that it was “fraught with danger politically”.

The site lay “roughly between Slemish, Upper Glenarm Glen, Shane’s Hill and Battery Bridge, and straddling the Ballymena/Larne road for about six miles”. The area would have at least bordered – and possibly included – Slemish Mountain.

A secret 1984 feasibility study, carried out “discreetly”, noted the religious and cultural significance of Slemish and warned that “many would find it offensive to have [Slemish] placed out of bounds ... it could either be excluded from the [training area] altogether, being on the edge of it, or closed off only during periods of live firing”.

The entire live firing area would have been within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The live firing range would have been divided from the rest of the area by the main Ballymena to Larne road.

Officials surveyed the area, alongside senior Army officers, from the air by taking a flight in a Gazelle helicopter.

Knowledge of the proposal was restricted to “the smallest possible circle” within government.

The Army had previously considered a similar site in the Sperrins, but ruled it out because it was 500-700 feet higher than the Co Antrim site.

Colonel JFW Wilsey, the Army’s chief of staff in Northern Ireland, told the NIO that the Sperrins would “suffer from cloud cover for much of the year”.

He added: “This cloud cover would severely limit field firing facilities which require good visibility to ensure safety.

“Glenarm, being substantially lower, suffers little from cloud problems.”

He also said that the Sperrins site was largely “one long barren feature devoid of cover and largely without road or substantial trackway crossing it”.

And he said that the Sperrins population was “strongly nationalist and is likely to remain so”, leading to a “lack of sympathy for Army training”.

The plan was shelved and resurrected on several occasions. It is not entirely clear from the file why the plan was abandoned, but it was clear that there was resistance from the NIO, despite the enthusiasm of the Ministry of Defence.

There were concerns among Northern Ireland civil servants that a Government buy-out of land worth up to £12 million would increase land prices in what it described as a “small regional market” to a “disturbing extent”.

And there were later concerns that companies exploring for hydrocarbons in the area could be put off by the possibility of large Army operations around them, something which officials feared could lead to some companies believing that the area could become more of a target for the IRA .