The Lessons Of The Past


History allows us an opportunity to learn from the past and, in that regard, the recently released State papers for the period 1968-69 demonstrate a serious failure in political preparation, planning and analysis in relation to Northern Ireland. The contrast between the British and Irish archives is stark. At Westminster, detailed preparations for direct rule and the modification of Northern Ireland society were being considered long before Dublin was fully aware of the pressures that were about to wrench established relationships asunder and engender thirty years of violence.

A lack of security intelligence may explain part of the failure. But it cut far deeper than that. Having engaged in fruitless anti-partition campaigns for decades, Dublin politicians appeared to have given up on the ideal of a united Ireland and had largely confined their activities to rhetorical flourishes. It was little different in Belfast where unionist ministers opposed minimum reforms advocated by Terence O'Neill and believed the old, sectarian mechanisms were still viable.

Structures that might have contributed insights, intelligence reports and creative analysis to Irish government deliberations had atrophied. As the North lurched towards civil unrest, the government of the day was divided in its approach; working largely in the dark and responding to events, rather than acting to a coherent, carefully considered set of options.

The disappearance of key Government files from the period August/November, 1969, simply adds to public concern over past political behaviour. An inquiry into this matter has been promised. And the Fine Gael leader, Mr John Bruton has demanded a Garda investigation. It would appear that files containing information about the events of August, 1969, leading up to the arms crisis and the sacking of Mr Charles Haughey and the late Mr Neil Blaney from government in 1970, are no longer in the possession of the Taoiseach's Department. Given the paucity of official information concerning Cabinet deliberations in this country, it is nothing short of criminal for historical records to be winnowed in this fashion.

Available records provide evidence of political and planning failures. Economic and social projections in 1970 warned of the need to invest heavily in "a creaking infrastructure". They advocated a housing programme to deal with a rapidly rising population. But our planning system failed to deliver and house-price inflation now poses a threat to our economic welfare. In the same way, the Government is only now revisiting proposals made thirty years ago in the Buchanan Report on "Regional Studies in Ireland".

The need for planning and careful analysis has been given greater weight in government since we joined the EEC, now the European Union. Economic growth and constructive inter-governmental relationships at European level have helped to engender confidence and maturity. But the rapidity of our economic transformation in recent years has taken many people by surprise and official thinking may not have kept pace. In particular, investment in social cohesion projects and in the reduction of poverty at this time of large budget surpluses must be carried through. The archives from thirty years ago provide a useful benchmark of public attitudes and thinking on Northern Ireland and demonstrate how much has changed in the intervening years. `Parity of esteem', `consent', `powersharing', `peaceful means', are just some of the bricks in the new political edifice that is being constructed on this island.