How many Hongkongers does it take to repopulate Northern Ireland?
How many Hongkongers does it take to change a light bulb? No seriously, how many Hongkongers would it take to repopulate Northern Ireland?
That was reported as a British proposal in the early 1980s by some wire services such as the Associated Press as a solution to the return of Hong Kong to China. The story quickly became one of the best read stories on the scmp.com website yesterday. Sadly, it turned out to be no more than a bit of an in-joke among British functionaries showing more a flair for humour than formulating a real plan.
The British National Archives released last week the "bombshell" file from the Foreign Office. The 1983 government file was titled "Replantation of Northern Ireland from Hong Kong," which showed British officials discussing a plan to settle 5.5 million Hong Kong people in a "city state" between Coleraine and Londonderry.
The exchange was started by a junior officer at the Northern Ireland Office who apparently got the idea after reading it in a Belfast newspaper. The article was written by one professor Christie Davies, whose Wikipedia biographical page describes him as a retired academic used to specialise in criminology and the sociology of morality, censorship and humour. He was also a president of the International Society for Humour Studies. One of his sub-specialities was Jewish jokes.
According to the BBC, the professor's suggestion about Hong Kong, probably in jest, got a wider airing when it was sent to David Snoxell, a more senior official at the Republic of Ireland Department of the Foreign Office.
But Snoxell warned his overly enthusiastic colleagues.
"The arrival of 5.5 million Chinese in Northern Ireland may induce the indigenous peoples to forsake their homeland for a future elsewhere," he wrote. "We should not underestimate the danger of ... a mass exodus of boat refugees in the direction of Southeast Asia."
Responding to the BBC this week, Snoxell said it was all a joke.
"It was a spoof between colleagues who had a sense of humour," he told the BBC. "You can see it wasn't intended seriously."
Monty Python wasn't just running the Ministry of Silly Walks back then, but the Foreign Office as well.