EVERY DECEMBER, THE National Archives release the State’s confidential documents from 30 years ago.
Unlocked for a three-day preview, journalists get a sneak peek at what the Government of three decades past was discussing.
The year under review this month was 1982. The topics? Abortion, a Royal Baby, a tough Budget, and ministers’ expenses. Yes, we did say 1982, not 2012.
Most striking when examining the reams and reams of paper was that, while most of this will be electronic in 30 years time, the issues which will pop up during the 2042 review will be largely the same.
Letters to the Taoiseach, internal memos and briefing notes reveal that other than the major incidents of the year (the Falklands conflict and the Troubles and), the biggest issues for Irish people were abortion and divorce.
While divorce is less of a hot topic thirty years on, abortion is probably still the most divisive subject matter on this island. In 1982, the Government was preparing for a constitutional referendum which would see the life of the unborn child put on an equal footing to the life of the mother. Thirty years on, the Government prepares for new legislation which will offer clarity for doctors who say they need it as a result of that constitutional change.
An internal memo prepared by the Department of Justice in 1982 – ahead of the following year’s referendum on inserting an explicitly pro-life clause into the Constitution – predicted that the Constitution would come under the scrutiny of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Earlier this month, the Government had to respond to the court, which ruled in late 2010 that the human rights of Irish women were being breached by the government’s failure to introduce legislation offering clear guidance on when abortions can be administered.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks because they feel that fresh legislation will not go far enough – or indeed that it will go too far, a step towards ‘abortion on demand’ in the State.
A tough budget
In a time when emigration is a necessity and not a frivolous privilege of the young and the word recession has almost lost its meaning because of it’s longevity, harsh Budget cuts can mean the difference between food on the table and a roof over a family’s head. In 1982, the straw that broke the camel’s back and brought the whole ship down was the so-called ‘shoe tax’. Finance Minister John Bruton saw his Budget defeated in the Dáil as a result and the Fine Gael Government collapsed on the night of 27 January 1982.
Nothing so dramatic this year, but there are parallels to be drawn with the Fine Gael/Labour coalition slashing the Child Benefit Allowance across the board and cutting the Respite Care Grant by a massive €300.
The Budget for 2013 also saw the introduction of a Property Tax, something that a Dublin resident suggested to the Government in November 1982 as an alternative to higher income taxes. The writer says that the benefits of a Property Tax would include a simple administration and a tax that is “independent of the level of economic activity”.
The normalcy of emigration has returned this decade, something that was a characteristic of Ireland in the 1980s as much as big glasses and big hair. Living abroad can give Irish eyes a different perspective and a letter, dated 30 January 1978 but kept in the 1982 files, points out that Ireland’s family laws were making it “the laughing stock of the progressive world”.
Describing himself as a young Irishman living in Australia, the writer says, “approximately 50 per cent of Christians in Australia adhere to the Catholic, however, their Church’s laws have been greatly reformed or relaxed regarding civil divorce, contraceptives, homosexuality and so on and therefore live a healthy life, both mentally and physically.”
He goes on to ask, “One wonders how and why the Church in Ireland has a ‘different set of rules’?”
Women at Work..and in Advertising
Last year, Hunky Dory released another series of its controversial but, it has to be said, popular advertisements featuring its rubgy- and football-playing ladies. In 2012, the ASAI banned the latest instalment of Club Orange’s ‘bits’ ads.
The body said the imagery of the ad, where oranges were intended to represent women’s breasts, had been combined with the suggestive headline of ‘the best bits’ to use sexual innuendo “merely to attract attention, as there was no tangible link between a pair of women’s breasts and the brand Club Orange”.
This ruling came 30 years after a feminist movement, entitled Campaign Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) complained to Government about the portrayal of women as “sex objects” in advertising.
One Bertie Ahern was asked to respond to the group about their concerns. He agreed that “further measures have still to be taken to combat the more deep-rooted prejudices which exist and the Government accept that the cause of equality between the sexes and indeed can lead to the reinforcement of stereotyped roles for both men and women”.
On the Government’s behalf, he committed to “remedy the situation”.
At least some of the obsessions of previous government’s have been rectified. Documents show that throughout the 1970s, the State was preoccupied with the notion of women having to wear slacks if they were working for An Garda Síochána or peacekeeping units. So much so that they has asked the advice of the NYPD and other police forces around the world.
Next year, graphic health warnings will be required on all cigarette packages. The wheels for the now less-than-controversial move (similar moves have been taken in various jurisdictions across the world) were set in motion by a staunch non-smoker, Charles Haughey. He wrote to his Health Minister Michael Woods in 1982, starting a campaign against tobacco advertising – and the habit in general. It was also noted that a number of his TDs got a slap on the wrist for being photographed while enjoying a cigarette.
Spending watchdog Brendan Howlin has promised Ministers and TDs less money next year for expenses but new legislation is required before he can limit the pocket money. Back in 1982, the Finance Department were keen to limit the money spent by deputies and Cabinet members on chauffeur-driven cars.
Internal notes show how the idea of taking a taxi did not sit well with some Oireachtas members, but the Taoiseach’s Department failed to secure a general exemption from regulations which the Finance Department said “must be applied equally”. Although it was allowed to justify certain expenses incurred, the Taoiseach’s office did concede that it needed to assemble a file on “financial control procedures”, citing rather cryptically “a difficulty” it had in relation to the purchase of a brief case “some time ago”.
Today, just three of the Cabinet (Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and Alan Shatter) enjoy the luxury of a State-supplied, chauffeur-driven car.
There are threads still entwining this decade and the 1980s but progress has been seen in some areas. The imminent arrival of a royal baby will not bring about the internal fighting seen when Prince William was born on 21 June 1982. At the time, an official strongly disagreed with Department of Foreign Affairs advice for the President not to send the Royal Family a message of congratulations. With the successful visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2010, it would seem likely that there will be no reluctance on the part of Taoiseach Enda Kenny or President Michael D Higgins in sending the nation’s good wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge next year.
But on the lighter side of things, escapism still seems to be the order of the day for many. Documents about the use of the State Apartments at Dublin Castle reveal how a showing of E.T. had to be moved to Dublin Castle because of the number of people who accepted invitations from the Red Cross. The movie was the biggest hit at the global Box Office in 1982. This year? Comic book adventures with Mavel’s The Avengers. Times are not really a-changing all that much.