Government papers released under the 30/20 year rule (DED/22/234) document a flurry of activity around 1994 as departments tried to calculate the possible ‘peace dividend’ in terms of new employment from inward investment, exports/cross-border trade and tourism, though officials cautioned that there would be heavy job losses in the security sector if there was a “sudden cessation of violence” in Northern Ireland.
A pink file full of government papers released today marked the opening of the last new Great Victoria Street station on 30 September 1995, itself resurrecting a transport terminus which had been shut in 1976 with the opening of the optimistically-named Central Station. Just a handful of residents were invited to the official opening, a mistake that hopefully won’t be repeated when the new transport hub opens around 2023.
This morning, 702 files of government papers have been fully (530) or partially (172) declassified under the 30/20 year rule. As always, the files detail the political talks and developments of the time, set against a background of ceasefires, discussion about possible prisoner releases, and a normalisation of security measures. The possible peace dividend was being calculated, along with the potential cost of closing Harland and Wolff. And there was much head-scratching about Joe Hendron’s 1992 General Election victory over Gerry Adams in West Belfast and worrying about the subsequent election petition that threatened to unseat him.
Official papers released under the 30/20 year rule document government analysis of the reasons for Joe Hendron’s West Belfast victory in the 1992 General Election, record a spot of SDLP infighting as election agent Tom Kelly airs his views on Seamus Mallon and John Hume ahead of a crucial court judgement on an election petition challenging the result. Voter fraud and personation was also under the spotlight, along with a decision to continue to exclude Sinn Fein from consultations about electoral spending.
Government papers just released under the 30/20 year rule (DED/22/231) detail how officials back in the late 1980s conducted an analysis of the cost to close the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Back in 1988, 4,000 jobs would have been made redundant. Despite not having made a profit for 20 years, continued public support was calculated to be cheaper than the closure costs. (In the end, H&W was sold in 1989 to a management/employee buyout in partnership with Fred Olsen.)
On the day of his retirement after 38 years in the NI Civil Service, Sir Ken Bloomfield circulated a blunt assessment of mistakes made in Northern Ireland in a valedictory memo that is made public this morning under the 20 Year Rule: the Anglo-Irish Agreement was “flawed”; the distinction between the “legal” Sinn Fein and the proscribed IRA was “farcical”; as well as his views on the delay implementing Direct Rule between 1969 and 1972.
A slim green file AG/15/60A (selective scans) released under the 20 Year Rule and available to peruse at the Public Records Office deals with the vexed issue in 1986 of milk being illegally imported across the border from the Republic of Ireland and sold in Northern Ireland shops. Buttermilk wasn’t covered by the same import ban!
Between 1989 and 1992, local civil servants responded to two requests for Northern Ireland to offer accommodation for refugees from two regions of the world: Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia. In the second instance, the internal response lacked enthusiasm with officials unwilling to state publicly that they were willing to accept in families to NI as part of the UK-wide programme.
Peter Robinson’s influence on unionist politics can be clearly seen in government papers that were recently released under the 20 Year Rule. In one file the NIO considered that Robinson was worried that his party leader Ian Paisley was in the pocket of UUP leader James Molyneaux as they analysed a constituency speech that was forcefully in favour of devolution.
A civil service file released under the 20 Year Rule shows how the potential bilingual publication of a report about Irish Medium eduction provoked one civil servant to comment that “given the small and gossipy world of serious Irish language enthusiasts in Northern Ireland, I think we could assume that a refusal to publish this report in Irish would leak sooner or later”
One single buff-coloured file, three or four inches thick, contains the stapled minutes of NIO meetings with political parties in May 1991 as they negotiated about the strand one, two and three talks. While perhaps the single most frustrating file I’ve flicked through in PRONI over the last couple of years, the level of detail in the civil service minutes of meetings is incredible, and the retention of humorous asides provides a lot of colour about the characters involved and their relationships.
Files released today under the 20 year rule contain Sir Kenneth Bloomfield’s August 1989 proposals for ‘a model of consensus government’ – with a structure ’management committee‘ to help set departmental policy under direct rule – included a damning assessment of the Alliance Party, “their usefulness as a party has been as a catalyst rather than a main player”.
The pressure group – The Monday Club – for which membership of either the Conservative Party or the UUP was a prerequisite to be a member recommended in 1990 to the Secretary of State Peter Brooke that there should be a two month amnesty for terrorist activities (short of murder) and that the Union should be made permanent as the provision to leave only encouraged terrorists.
THE CAMPBEDS were brought out of the Stormont store in preparation for any disruption marking the first anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In a post-nuclear situation, civil servants without “abnormal domestic ties” would have helped run NI. And phone systems and scramblers occupied the NI Emergency Committee according to papers from the late 1980s released under the 30/20 Year Rule.