Papers show cooperation got us further faster

By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

No startling revelations in the documents officials in Dublin, London and Belfast allowed to be released to public view this new year.

What you can be sure, however, is that there is some horrible stuff concealed in the files kept closed until 2057 or 2066.

Do you not think it’s typically insolent and presumptuous of civil servants to decide what the public may see about the past?

Raises again that hackneyed oxymoron ‘civil servant’.

Officially, and what does ‘officially’ mean except what officials decide, it’s the lord chancellor in the British system who decides what to release but of course in practice the relevant NIO minister just rubber-stamps whatever the civil service ‘weeders’ decide is in ‘the best interest’ of the government.

The relevant ministers rest content in the knowledge that their officials will not allow anything to be officially divulged that could be embarrassing.

It’s a bit different in the Republic, which doesn’t have quite the same approach as Britain, traditionally one of the most secretive states in the world.

Remember, until the 1980s the British wouldn’t even admit ‘officially’ that an agency called MI6 - ‘officially’ called the Secret Intelligence Service - existed, never mind reveal the name of the man in charge.

In Dublin officials seem happy to release material which embarrasses politicians and allows us to see what British ministers were up to when they met the Irish.

What do we learn from the current batch of documents?

First, they confirm what a crowd of duds British Labour governments have always sent over here.

No sooner had the weak, hand-wringing, dithering Merlyn Rees been promoted beyond his ability into the Home Office by his friend Jim Callaghan than Roy Mason strutted onto the stage here accompanied by Don Concannon, two men from mining backgrounds who turned out to be among the most right-wing Labour MPs in Westminster.

What a curious duo they made.

At 6ft 4 or 5ins Concannon was the tallest MP in the Commons and one of the thickest, which is saying something, while at about a foot shorter Mason was among the smallest.

No wonder they were seldom seen together - they looked like two early comic strip characters, Mutt and Jeff.

It would have been difficult to get them into the same frame for a photo, what with the height of Concannon and the size of Mason’s head.

Mason bought the NIO-cum-Ministry of Defence line completely, namely that the IRA were just criminals, Northern Ireland was a security problem and if there were more jobs there would be no problem here.

It took years to turn the British around from that bone-headed approach.

It was Mason who formally authorised the SAS deployment in south Armagh, though they had been operating secretly earlier.

It was Mason who zealously pursued the criminalisation policy in the jails, provoked the blanket protest and set the scene for the hunger strikes.

It was Mason and Concannon who were sold a pup by DeLorean and lost the taxpayer millions.

In short, every single one of Mason’s policies either made matters worse or failed completely, or both.

By the way, guess what happened to any of the civil servants who advocated these policies to the new ministers?

Do you think any of them was sacked or promoted, and which do you think it was? Correct.

We also learn from the documents how unwilling British officials and politicians were to take any advice from Irish politicians.

The Irish tended to be exasperated with successive northern secretaries while the strongly unionist NIO officials were determined to prevent Dublin having any influence on the north.

The one clear lesson which emerges from the documents is that any time Irish officials managed to persuade the British to follow a line of action it was a success.

The Irish knew what they were talking about.

Unfortunately it took another seven years and a different regime at Westminster for the penny to drop, namely that when the two governments acted jointly rather than competitively there was progress.

Sadly it would be 20 years before that policy became the norm.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News