Mary Minihan: Past collides with present at this time of year

National Archives afford fascinating glimpse into events of 30 years ago

Dick Spring: “If you hang around for long enough, you’re bound to pop up again.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Dick Spring: “If you hang around for long enough, you’re bound to pop up again.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

My father had an old school friend who looked like Dick Spring. Everyone said so.

Back in the 1980s, our family went on a rare trip from Derry to Dublin. While us kids were busy marvelling over the green double-decker buses and “big smoke” atmosphere, Dad popped into a shop. And who was at the counter but his pal, Dick Spring’s double. In Dublin, at the same time as us! He couldn’t believe it.

“Well, will you look who it is!” my normally reticent father exclaimed from the shop door.

The slim, moustachioed figure completed his purchase in silence and glared at poor Dad as he left the premises. Of course, it had been the man himself.

No one wanted to hear a Northerner bellowing at them in the 1980s, particularly so if they were involved in sensitive negotiations in what must often have felt like a futile quest for peace.

Dad was a tolerant man in intolerant times, and quickly understood how his uncharacteristic outburst, delivered in an unadulterated Northern accent, might have sounded somewhat threatening to someone in Dick Spring’s position.

You couldn’t just run after Dick Spring to tell Dick Spring you thought he was someone else. He would never buy it. So Dad left it. Still, we often teased him about it, and “Well, will you look who it is!” became a family catchphrase for a while.

I thought of that when I bumped into Dick Spring in Leinster House recently.

Resisting the temptation to shout “Well, will you look who it is!” for old time’s sake, I introduced myself and told him I’d just been reading about his time as tánaiste in secret documents at the National Archives.

Spring smiled and shrugged. “If you hang around for long enough,” he said, “you’re bound to pop up again”.

As happens every year, the media was invited to preview the confidential 1985 files, being made available for research by members of the public under the 30-year rule from January 4th, over three days at the beginning of December. Pity the overstretched staff at the National Archives, who only received many of the records from Government departments late on the day before the preview.

They will have to reel in the years even faster in future, since the Cabinet has agreed the three-decade rule for keeping sensitive State papers under wraps should be phased out in favour of moving towards a 20-year time limit.

20 years and counting

Irish archivists have to play catch-up with their British colleagues, who began the process of unveiling files from 1983 – a key year in Anglo-Irish relations – in the summer of 2013. They now release more than one set of documents every year.

Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys has argued that going for the earlier release will “ensure our shared history with the UK is presented in a balanced fashion”.

In common with archivists across the world, our experts are also dealing with the challenge that modern-day electronic communications presents to traditional record-keeping systems.

To my eye, those documents we were given a sneak preview of in early December appeared antiquated.

We were cosily cocooned in the National Archives building on Dublin’s Bishop Street as Storm Desmond tried to do his worst outside. Just around the corner was the hipsterish hubbub of the Aungier Street area, with its class of 2015 students and trendy nightspots.

Inside, we were transported back three decades as we opened what were essentially paper time capsules stuffed with typewritten documents that read like what they were – something from another era.

Forbidden from using our mobile phones and armed only with pencils, notebooks, and the occasional laptop, we sought out nostalgic nuggets.

Some of the files contained hardy perennials: controversies over gender quotas and non-jury courts will always be with us, it seems.

Others revealed fascinating and previously unseen notes of conversations between once-powerful figures, now deceased, including Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald.

The late Ian Paisley, who died in September 2014 at the grand age of 88, would surely have chuckled to hear how he was assessed by a senior government figure in 1985. “The steam has run out of Paisley,” was the incorrect assessment of then foreign affairs minister Peter Barry.

Northerners will enjoy Paisley’s contemporary assessment of Thatcher, also contained in the files: “She is supposed to be the Iron Lady. She is only a tin-foil cutty” – a young girl.

Some of our journalistic colleagues attending over the three days were re-reading their own work after 30 years.

It must surely have been strange for broadcaster John Bowman and Stephen Collins, political editor of The Irish Times, to see transcripts of their interviews and reproductions of their articles after all that time.

I’d recommend a visit.

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