Access to foreign state papers only real way to look at Ireland’s sealed years of 1984-1998

Analysis: the perspectives of overseas powers can add context to Ireland’s past

US ambassador to Ireland Margaret Heckler presents her credentials to president Patrick Hillery at Áras an Uachtaráin in January 1986. Photograph: Pat Langan

US ambassador to Ireland Margaret Heckler presents her credentials to president Patrick Hillery at Áras an Uachtaráin in January 1986. Photograph: Pat Langan

 

Ireland has a strange quirk to its access to information laws. The now well-known Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1997 and allows citizens access to records from various public bodies through a formal request procedure. Records can be refused on various grounds. A new Bill proposes to replace this Act with the Freedom of Information Bill 2013.

One element of the current Act is it only allows citizens to request information from 1998 onwards, except in limited cases. The new Bill proposes that for any of the new bodies to be brought under the remit of the new legislation – such as the Central Bank or An Garda Síochána – only records from April 2008 on will be obtainable. This leaves out some pretty interesting years.

What about all the records from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s? Under the “30-year rule”, some government records, such as cabinet documents, become available .

But this leaves us with the somewhat quirky position of documents from 1984-1998 being almost entirely secret. They will only gradually become available as each year passes.


Other jurisdictions
One way to try and get around this is to obtain records from other jurisdictions, where laws may be less onerous and where documents may be more easily obtained.

With this in mind, I requested records from the US state department surrounding the politically tumultuous year of 1989. The US embassy in Dublin would have been tasked with closely monitoring political events in Dublin and would offer a unique perspective.

The formation of the PD/FF coalition in 1989, the allegations around the beef processing industry that year (and indeed beef exports to Libya), events in Northern Ireland and the impending presidency of the European council in January 1990, were all significant events. But you don’t know what you might get until you ask. And often the perspective of outsiders of our own political upheavals can add context to our understanding of history.

Like many countries, the US has an access to information law, known there as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Internationally, the US was relatively early – at least at a Federal level – to implement access to information rights. FOIA was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, despite his own misgivings, in 1966. Since then the Act has been amended multiple times, most recently by George W Bush in 2007.

Access to information laws internationally, including US FOIA, rely on the principle that popular sovereignty in a democracy depends upon the consent of the governed and that such consent “is not meaningful unless it is informed consent”. FOIA was an attempt to rebalance the information monopoly of government.

US FOIA applies to all Federal agencies, including the US state department, the department of defence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice.

Submitting requests is not limited to US citizens. While in Ireland we charge €15 for every request made, the US does not charge upfront for requesting information, even from non-citizens. However, bodies sometimes charge for searching for and retrieving records.

Waiting times for obtaining records can often be lengthy, depending on which body you are seeking information from. According to the latest data, the department of homeland security has the largest backlog of pending requests, at nearly 30,000. The state department comes in second at nearly 11,000 requests.