The annual release of State papers has become more complicated in recent years.
In order to keep up with Britain, which has moved to make confidential documents public after 20 years rather than 30, the Irish Government now releases material relating to Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations after 20 years.
This year, we are looking at material up to 2003, a time when Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair were trying to keep the Northern political institutions going.
But files relating to other areas of Government activity are still released after thirty years – so they only go up to 1993, when Albert Reynolds was Taoiseach, in coalition with Dick Spring’s Labour Party.
The mass of material is incredible, and while the volume grows, the nature is also changing. We are starting to see, in material from the early 2000s, printouts of emails rather than letters, and news stories downloaded from websites rather than newspaper cuttings. Goodness knows what we’ll see when the Government files of 2023 are eventually released – transcripts of TikTok videos, probably.
A total of 13,200 files from five departments was transferred to the National Archives this year. Some are from 1993, some from 2003, some from points in between, some from even earlier.
Given that range of dates and material, it can be difficult to find a common theme. But there is a kind of pattern in the documents we are looking at today, a pattern which illustrates the changing relationship between Ireland and Britain, based in part on the good chemistry between the leaders of the two countries, in part on the common agenda of bedding down peace in the North.
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It was a time when British Prime Minister Tony Blair bumping into an Irish official visiting 10 Downing Street, could breezily say: “It’s a pleasure to work with you guys!” It’s difficult to imagine any of his predecessors saying that. Or his successors, come to think of it.
Even when there were disagreements – for instance, over President McAleese’s attendance at a memorial service for the victims of the Omagh bombing, which the British feared would highlight the Queen’s absence, or over the Irish government’s insistence that early release under the Good Friday Agreement would not apply to the killers of Garda Jerry McCabe – those disagreements were dealt with in a friendly and courteous manner.
One of the older files released harks back to a much different era, a time when the Irish Head of State would turn down an invitation to a Royal Wedding because of the parlous state of Anglo-Irish relations.
Among the issues from other parts of government illuminated by the latest release is the question of decriminalisation of homosexuality, which happened thirty years ago.
And of course, there are plenty of other nuggets found in the papers, including an ambassador fuming over a television programme, and the mandarins in Finance begrudging a few dollars spent on hamburgers and beer.
Where possible, we’ve given the reference numbers for the files containing the documents we’ve quoted. All of those files – along with plenty more! – are available to the public in the National Archives in Dublin when they reopen in the New Year.
By David McCullagh and Shane McElhatton