Not everyone happy with development on State papers

Dust will barely have time to settle on documents now before they are released

They might say a week is a long time in politics, but 20 years is surely a mere blink of an eye when it comes to history.

The tradition of historians and journalists gathering at the National Archives every December to study musty State papers which have been kept secret for three decades is changing.

Dust will barely have time to settle on documents before they are released, after Cabinet this week agreed to begin phasing out the long-standing 30-year rule and move towards a 20-year time limit.

Irish archivists are playing catch-up with their British neighbours, who began the process of unveiling files from 1983 – a key year in Anglo-Irish relations – in the summer of 2013.

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Not everyone is thrilled with the development.

Politician historian Ronan Fanning, who has published a new biography of Éamon de Valera, A Will to Power, said Ireland had to follow suit to ensure the version of history gaining public acceptance was not entirely based on British papers. "But 20 years is a disaster for historians because it's too early. The general trend towards immediate releases means we are less likely to get the truth. The job of the historian gets harder and harder."

British records were closed for 50 years until prime minister Harold Wilson, who coined the dictum that a week was a long time in politics, reduced the term to 30 in the 1960s.

Followed lead

Liam Cosgrave’s government followed the British lead in the 1970s “but that was a matter of grace and favour”, according to Prof Fanning, until a National Archives Act was introduced in 1986.

The truncated 30-year timeframe continued to extend beyond the careers, and sometimes lifespan, of most civil servants and politicians, although Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and the late former DUP leader Ian Paisley could beg to differ.

Prof Fanning expressed concern the approaching relative immediacy of release would provoke an ubercautious approach by civil servants when it came to note-taking.

“This compounds the disaster for historians that has been brought about by the Freedom of Information Act,” he said. “It’s very depressing. People won’t write things down and in a certain sense you can’t blame them. It used to be a 25- or 27-year-old could write stuff down and know it would never see the light of day in their career.”

His experience of attending the National Archives in Dublin’s Bishop Street in past years was that it was a “fun” pursuit because files were “full and comprehensive” and participants enjoyed an annual sense of uncovering truths that had been hidden for decades. “That will still be the case, but it will be much more sterile,” he added.

Others take a more benign view. Former secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs Dermot Gallagher, a key behind-the-scenes figure in negotiations leading to the 1998 Belfast Agreement, has welcomed the development wholeheartedly.

Good sense

“I wouldn’t be apprehensive in the least. It’s only right and proper. It makes compelling good sense and it’s fair to everybody,” Mr Gallagher said.

“It would be a bit distorting if you had material from one of the guarantors of the agreement and not the other. You need access to all sources. It’s basically common sense for the documents to be released pretty much simultaneously.”

The first tranche of 20-year-old records that went on view at the British National Archives in Kew, West London, in August 2013, contained numerous nuggets.

The British authorities were concerned in 1983 that “subversives” held positions in Irish media, for instance.

Details of the start of the process that would lead to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 were revealed, with records showing then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s deep reluctance to get involved in talks with Dublin.

Jonathan Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and author of several books on Irish politics, sounded a note of caution.

The British experience was that a lot of information could now be held back for security reasons, so the material could be “anodyne and banal rather than fascinating and revelatory”, he said.

“I don’t want to put a damp squib on it as it’s better to have at least some of this information in the public domain, but the knowledge that documents will be released relatively soon will have an impact.”

However, Prof Tonge said the information released would help counterbalance growing numbers of “self-serving” political memoirs, and the move would certainly improve knowledge of the peace process. “We are looking at the release of details of the political negotiations leading to the Good Friday agreement. We’ll find out who bartered hardest, and why.”

Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, who has promised the National Archives additional resources, confirmed restrictions would apply to material being released, "within reason", and the Data Protection Commissioner would be involved.