Data protection concerns should not hinder transparency over peace process

State papers subject to 30-year rule while Britain set to apply a 20-year rule

This year’s batch of revelations about the State papers made interesting reading, as ever, but for those of us with a political and historical interest in contemporary Irish history, it was like watching a production of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

The reason is not far to seek, and it is of particular significance as the political relationships on this island, and between this island and Britain, have entered a new and, to a degree, unpredictable phase in the aftermath of Brexit.

There are three dimensions to this problem. The first is that, under our national archives legislation, all the documentation dated later than 1990 detailing the Irish government’s policy in relation to Northern Ireland, and discussions between Irish politicians and civil servants with their counterparts in Northern Ireland and Britain, are barred from public or political view for 30 years.

The second is that the equivalent legislation in Britain, on which ours (a personal project of Garret FitzGerald as taoiseach) was partly based, initially created a similar 30-year rule.

The problem can – like Gaul, in Julius Caesar's analysis – be divided into three parts

However, pressure in Britain from historians and policymakers alike has resulted in a progressive reduction of the “closed” period for UK archives, with the intention that it will soon be finally reduced to 20 years. It is already close to 20 years, although different archives may be proceeding towards the 20-year disclosure at different speeds.

Not much imagination is needed to realise the implications of this not just for history, but for policymaking and, indeed, for politics on this island. We must therefore ask how much longer our policymaking and, in particular, the public awareness of the roots and the implications of various policies in relation to Britain and Northern Ireland, be shielded from view while the attitudes and agendas of the other major players in this intense and all-important dialogue are given pride of place?

As I understand, the problem arises from the fact that these records will contain the names of all the participants at various meetings and briefings that normally inform both policy formation and international agreements. These will of course include the names both of public servants and political figures involved.

Personal rights

It may therefore be the case – although I am unaware of the rationale that may have been advanced for any such decision, and certainly none has been made public – that the Data Protection Commissioner has concluded that to permit the release of these documents would infringe the personal rights of such named individuals under the legislation for which that office is responsible.

Such concern is, of course, right and proper, and in principle is in accordance with the legislation. But should that be the end of the story, particularly if an overly narrow interpretation of the legislation could possibly militate against the development of public and political understanding of the issues involved, and contribute to a misinterpretation or an inadequate understanding of Ireland’s position on one of the most substantial key issues facing us today?

The problem can – like Gaul, in Julius Caesar’s analysis – be divided into three parts. First, there would appear to be little objection to releasing documentation in which the only people identified have died. Second, a similar latitude could be applied to the names of those retired public servants (or others) still alive but whose involvement with key Northern Ireland policy matters as serving officers was marginal or non-existent.

Third, there are those public servants (and others) who may have been involved in key policy developments in the period since, say, 2000 (the 20-year closed period towards which the UK system is moving).

Disadvantaged participants

This problem has to be resolved if our policymakers, and indeed the public, are not to be left seriously disadvantaged as participants in the wide-ranging national and international discussions which will continue to have a major influence on the political, social and economic future of this island.

There is no ready-made, hand-me-down solution to the problem. The first step, however, is to accept that it is a problem which not only can but must be amenable to a sensible solution which respects national legislation and the rights of all those involved in equal measure.

The Office for Data Protection is a vitally necessary participant in this process. But there are others, with genuine concerns about the international appreciation of our position and role, about the role of history, and about the development of informed public debate about our future relationships on this island, who also have a legitimate role.

A structure should be devised to factor these voices fully into the discussion before any final decision is taken. This is not a time for turf wars, but for national co-operation in the national interest.

Prof John Horgan is a former member of the National Archives Advisory Council