Declassified files reveal government thinking about years leading up to 1991 #20yearrule

Under the 30/20 Year Rule, the release of official files that were closed in 1991 have now been released and are available for public viewing from 9am this morning down in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland in Titanic Quarter.

If you want to view the papers for yourself, head down to PRONI: registration is simple and free (bring photo ID the first time you visit). You can see all of Slugger’s coverage under the 20yearrule tag.

Some older files are included in the 791 files opened today, some with personal details and other information redacted. A further 94 records remain closed, mostly individual prisoner files.

Over the next few days, Slugger O’Toole will dip into the declassified files that we previewed a week or so ago and explore their contents in posts that recall events from the late 1980s and early 1990s and show how the civil service perceived and processed the policy issues of the time.

1991 was the summer that the Tall Ships first visited Belfast, with US broadcaster Walter Cronkite sent over to cover the story. Junior Minister Richard Needham championed the transformation event and spoke to Slugger about his memory of the maritime festival. File ENV/45/1 discusses the infrastructure plans for the event that was forecast to require up to 10,000 extra parking spaces to accommodate the predicted crowds that would flock to this once in a life-time event of “great spectacularity”. In Sir Richard Needham’s opinion, today in 2017, Belfast is “hobbling along” and “in real danger of being left behind” compared with similar sized cities.

Much political gossip is contained in the papers with NIO officials documenting differences of opinion between Hume and Mallon, Paisley and Robinson in discussions about the ongoing political talks. A government press officer used less diplomatic language in a note to the head of the NI Civil Service (CENT/3/209A) when he referred to “some dickhead in West Belfast”.

Vatican diplomats were keen to explore how the Pope could positively intervene in the Troubles (CENT/1/16/23A) while church leaders in Northern Ireland were less than enthusiastic about government requests to become more involved with peace building. Three priests were taken to dinner by the NIO and their perception of SDLP effectiveness, IRA activity and planners was recorded in a four page note of the encounter.

In 1991 Emergency planners envisaged “panic” is the IRA threatened to explode a nuclear or biological device (NIO/28/1/12A). Five years previous, they had arranged to get the camp beds out of the Stormont storeroom in case there were protests on the first anniversary of the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement. And a ferry strike in 1988 threatened the paper supply for University of Ulster examinations.

Some vivil servants grappled with the the tricky issue of how best to represent Northern Ireland on the back of a new issue of £1 coins (CENT-1-15-33A). Others documented how the lack of hotel rooms was harming Belfast’s conference hosting ambitions.

The newly released files also contain reminders of what life was like back in 1990 and 1991. Post-It notes were starting to litter the declassified files!

Belfast Gas was no more and its sites were being checked for contamination and there was speculation that parts of the network of pipes could be reused as water mains, or to carry telecommunication cables.

A report planned for 95 minute non-stop train journeys on the Enterprise between Belfast and Dublin (ENV/34/1/8 and ENV/24/1/9).

Back in 1990 the possibility that Rathlin Island could be a tourist destination was considered in a Department of Economic Development Report. (DED/3/372) It wasn’t until July 2008 that the island was plugged into a reliable mains electricity supply. Another DED file (DED/3/466A) shows that women made up just 1 in 6 of public appointments by that department in 1989.

Border passes and ID cards were being discussed by the MOD in London in 1989 (NIO/10/9/5).

The Secretary of State asked the government departments to tell him about excellence in Northern Ireland … their answers are recorded in ENV/37/24A. It was still controversial back then to withdraw funding from an Irish language group, with Protestant language learners writing to complain (CENT/1/18/34A).

Older papers also continue to document the legal action and investigations that followed the bankruptcy of the DeLorean Motor Company in 1982 which kept its colourful chief executive in the headlines for many years.

In the late 1980s, the privatisation of Northern Ireland Airports Ltd was on the cards, as were proposals to build an airport hotel at ‘Aldergrove’ as it was still called. Earlier papers from the 1970s only released now in the ENV/13/1/68A file discuss security at Aldergrove airport, the refusal of BA pilots to stay overnight in Belfast, and forty years on contain letters of complaint from journalist Chris Ryder and replies from the airport and department officials.

And papers finally released from 1975 and 1976 (CONV/7/114) document the Constitutional Convention held after the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1974.

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