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7 January 1999 Edition

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Another look under history's carpet

By Eoghan Mac Cormaic

By the First of January every year, most of us are just about ready to hang out a Do Not Disturb sign on our lives, in the hope that no one will come bothering us until an appropriate period of time has elapsed to allow recuperation from the Christmas season. Myself, however, I believe that the Festive Season isn't truly over until the Thirty Year papers have been released and the Irish News has carried its annual two page feature by Dr Eamonn Phoenix delving into the Stormont shoe-box while The Irish Times and British media offer insights into, respectively, Leinster House and Westminster records of the day.

The thirty year, or fifty year rules give those old enough to remember a chance to reflect again on the great issues of their day and while the papers rarely give any startling new information there's nothing more enjoyable than coming across some juicy line in a previously unpublished correspondence, or some major admission (in 1968, 1948 or whenever) that bears out what we all knew to be the truth in any case.

Some of what is revealed in Cabinet papers tells us more about the politicians themselves however, than it does about their politics. This year, for example, we learned that Harold Wilson took no less than seventeen drafts of a letter before finding the magic formula which would gracefully accept the resignation of one of his ministers. Thirty years from now it may be of some comfort to Peter Mandleson to `discover' Tony Blair going through the same angst saying farewell to his minister of spin.

In the Stormont Papers very little `new' came out. Thirty years ago the north was in the throes of the Civil Rights campaign. Unionism was secure, so secure, in all its glory in the statelet we have struggled so hard to ensure never returns.

Mind you, there is as much to be learned from the withholding of some cabinet papers as there is from the release of others. Anonymous civil servants in the Public Records Office act as the conscience of the state in determining what is safe and prudent to release, and what is dangerous or too embarrassing to be revealed. The papers released are always limited to what is considered safe with the passage of time. For Unionism, however, time stood still and so one of the advantages of being a Unionist seemed to be that you could happily say in public what you felt in private without any fear of embarrassment later. Because of this the Thirty Year Rule is no more than a simmer period after the boil. In the Stormont papers we get the same brew now, thirty years later, and the cabinet secrets prove to be no secret at all.

When we marched to `Sack Herr Craig' and when we chanted `SS RUC' in `68, Craig went on the telly to defend the Specials and RUC as a fine body of men... The Cabinet Papers record that after 5 October 1968 he attended a Cabinet meeting in the old Stormont to defend the behaviour of the RUC in Derry and to state that the violence had been started by the marchers. Hmm. We didn't have to wait thirty years to know that. Craig would say - and maybe even believe - that propaganda spin.

Perhaps the only surprise from the papers was in O Neill's reaction, warning his cabinet that the day's events had given them (the Unionists) very unfavourable media coverage. In the glory years of Stormont there was no `bad press'. There were only newspapers and nationalist/republican newspapers with the latter category being considered the enemy in any case. Once the supposedly neutral BBC or the British newspapers began reporting (even without comment) the behaviour of the RUC, or of examining the causes of the Civil Rights campaign, the Unionists felt under attack and immediately bunched the media in with the republican hordes storming the gates of Unionism. The reaction to that seems to have dictated the pace of Unionist/media relations over the next three decades.

A full and frank release of Stormont Cabinet Papers might act, you'd assume, to remind revisionists of just how much the Unionist monolith kept power to itself, and of how suspicious they were of any attempt at change or reform. An optimist might hope, too, that a rereading of the decisions then might inspire today's Unionists towards flexibility, openness, change. Unfortunately hopes like that remain unfulfilled, since the system of vetting what can and cannot be released acts in a perverse way to hide from the unionists themselves the causes of their own predicament today.

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