A vital glimpse into the past

State Papers

The annual release of government archives under the 30-year rule has provided illuminating insights into the process that led to the historic signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough on November 15th, 1985. The papers reveal a range of fascinating exchanges between then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. What emerges clearly is the vital role in the process played by the cabinet secretary Dermot Nally and his British counterpart Sir Robert Armstrong.

They were aided by teams of dedicated public servants in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin and the foreign office in London and by extension the embassies of both countries. The dogged hard work and dedication to the public good on display from both politicians and officials should give those who are so cynical about democratic politics some pause for thought.

Among the other issues dealt with in this release are the ongoing crisis in the public finances in 1985, the Dunnes Stores strike against apartheid and the controversy over Barry Desmond’s Family Planning Bill which finally brought Irish law on the issue into the modern world.

One cause for concern is that while Irish archives are being released 30 years after the events they describe, the British government has decided on a 20-year rule and is moving steadily towards it. While the Irish archives for 1985 are now being made available, the UK archives for 1987 and 1988 are being made public.


In response to the British move, the Government here decided last October to begin a move to a 20-year rule on a phased basis beginning with the papers from the Departments of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs, Justice and the Attorney General’s office. However, it is not expected that any progress towards implementing this decision will be made over the next 12 months. So for the next few years at least the time gap between the release of papers in the two jurisdictions is set to widen. This will result – at least temporarily – in an incomplete understanding of the events to which they relate.

Another serious problem is that aside from the four departments mentioned above, no other government departments are meeting their current legal obligation to make their files available under the 30-year rule. For instance important papers from the Department of Health providing details of the process that led to the family planning legislation have not been made available to the National Archives.

This is a disgrace. To make matters worse nobody at official level seems very concerned about the failure of so many departments to obey the law. Considerable extra resources are required to bring the rest of the government apparatus into line with its current obligations, never mind to implement the decision to move to a 20-year rule.