NOVEMBER TIME THIRTY years ago, the 23rd Government was coming to an end. The third General Election in the space of 18 months was about to take place. Haughey, Fitzgerald and Spring fought over differing policies and promises, with the latter two leaders ultimately offering a platform for five years of stable government. This was a turbulent time then. We live in similar times now, and I believe that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. This is where I believe the National Archives and the 30-year rule have an important role to play.
The National Archives are set to make public previously unreleased State Papers from 1982. The 30-year rule on the release of State Papers allows for this. The documents will likely reveal a much greater insight into our past, into the turbulent times of 1982, and how our Government viewed events back then. As an advocate of transparent government, as someone who believes that our shared history informs our present circumstances, I think that 30 years is too long to wait. I know I am not alone in that view.
The general trend, with countries which have similar restrictions as Ireland, is to loosen the limitation periods. Indeed the UK is the most recent country to have done so. I do realise that a balance needs to be struck between the confidentiality that is needed for good governance and that of renouncing unnecessary secrecy. I do not think the 30-year rule strikes that balance appropriately.
With that in mind I introduced a Bill, the National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2012, with a view to reforming this archaic rule. The Bill seeks to halve the period of time, from 30 to 15, so that state records can be transferred sooner to the public domain. This time period was also the one recommended by an independent review body in the UK. The safeguards on maintaining confidentiality would still stand. These are already outlined in the National Archives Act 1986 and allow that records will not be released if they are; required or in regular use by a Department; would be contrary to the public interest; constitute a breach of statutory duty or breach of good faith; or if they cause distress or danger to living persons.
I think, then, that this move would be a positive step in the direction of transparent government. I think too that given the move by the UK to release its papers at an earlier date, it would be beneficial to do likewise, so that a fuller picture of Anglo-Irish relations can be presented. However, I am aware that the National Archives are struggling with the resources they have at present. I also visited the National Archives on Bishop Street and saw for myself the work that was being carried out to preserve records in varying states of disrepair. The amount of work that goes into ensuring the transfer into the public record of appropriate, and relevant State Papers to meet the 30-year rule is quite significant. I know that achieving this deadline every year requires resources that are being pushed to their limit.
I also know that there are concerns at the lack of an adequate digital repository to meet the needs of a modern society where increasingly less paper records are kept. I think the Department of Arts needs to do more to provide these adequate resources. The National Archives is under-staffed and struggles for space. I worry about the approach the Department is taking to our cultural bodies, I worry that the mandarins there have too much control, that power is too centralised. I am concerned that in a push to ‘gain efficiencies’ we’ll do lasting damage to our heritage.
At about this time, ninety years ago, an explosion and consuming fire destroyed much of our history when the Public Record Office was destroyed in the Battle of Dublin at the outset of the Civil War. As a nation we lost so much of our shared past, our society, as it then was. It is within the interest of the public that our past is documented, preserved and made accessible for future generations. We should adequately support the work that our cultural bodies carry out, including the National Archives – it is the responsible and right thing to do.
Anne Ferris is a Labour Party TD in Wicklow and East Carlow. Last month, Deputy Anne Ferris asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, that the number of State papers, older than 30 years, that have not been released as a result of exceptions to the 30 year rule, if he would provide a breakdown by year for department and agency. Deputy Deenihan said he does not have statutory responsibility for the withholding of official records over 30 years, and this lies with each Department under the National Archives Act 1986.