State papers: shedding light on a very different Ireland

How to cope with digital files and emails will be next big test

 

The latest release of state papers under the 30-year rule contains a raft of fascinating information, from the high politics of the exchanges between then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the colourful and quirky everyday events such as a row over a one-eyed dog killed by a Garda car.

Some of the files like those dealing with the tragic case of Ann Lovett give us a glimpse of a very different Ireland 30 years ago while some deal with issues still very current, such as the view of the then Attorney General John Rogers that the system for appointing judges needed reform.

The conversations between FitzGerald and Thatcher are contained in one of the many files dealing with Anglo-Irish relations and Northern Ireland which reveal the enormous amount of time and effort devoted to the search for peace. Even a cursory look at the files is enough to rebut the all too pervasive and cynical view that leading politicians and civil servants are either incompetent or simply interested in looking after their own interests.

The determination, attention to detail and political risks taken by the Fine Gael/Labour Government and the senior officials who served it ensured that the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 translated into concrete achievements and paved the way for the Downing Street Declaration of 1994 and the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

The British move to a 20-year rule for the release of official documents has led to a position where the Irish side of the story in Anglo-Irish relations is already lagging a few years behind that emanating from London. That has prompted Minister for Arts and Heritage Heather Humphreys to start work on amending the National Archives Act 1986 to reduce the release date for State papers from 30 to 20 years. The heads of the amending Bill were discussed at cabinet before Christmas and the legislation should come before the Dáil in the coming months.

The change will pose a challenge for the National Archives which has had to cope with a shortage of resources and space for a number of years. The space issue is now being addressed with provision for extra storage in the process of being delivered. This should enable files from all government departments and not just those from the Taoiseach’s, Foreign Affairs, Justice and the Attorney General’s Office to be transferred to the National Archives on time.

Another big challenge facing the National Archives in the years ahead will be how to cope with digital files, particularly in light of the decision to reduce the time limit for release to 20 years. Emails were already commonplace in 1997 so finding a method of storing and retrieving electronic official files in a way that complies with the data protection legislation will be a big test.

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