The annual release of State Papers once they have reached a certain “best by date” is really a bit of a gimmick. No state is ever going to allow historians, never mind anyone else, read about how such and such was a police informer, or that the head of the department was watching cartoons in the hotel when they agreed the finer points of the fishing deal.
As anyone who has conducted historical research knows, the best one can hope for, especially with regard to anything that happened in the past 150 years or so, are tantalising glimpses. It is no secret for instance that successive guardians of sensitive documents in Dublin spanning both the British administration and the first Free State governments were careful to excise particularly sensitive material.
It would be nice to think that documents regarding the 1916 Rising for instance might someday be dumped on someone’s desk at the end of another time limit but it is unlikely to happen. The really good stuff one suspects was long ago ‘thrun into the fire’. That probably applies even more so to some of the discussions that took place in the 1980s and 1990s when an end to the northern conflict was being constructed.
Another aspect of modern research that has yet to be fully comprehended is the extent to which the use of electronic communication will have altered the entire nature of what is left for source miners in the future. We have already seen evidence of this where important people’s phones and laptops and email caches have accidentally on purpose ceased to be, making Nixon’s taping erasures appear quaint in retrospect.
So, the upshot is that you are not going to be told something really important about what happened 20, 25, 30 or even 50 years ago. What is mostly released is not even newsworthy and what is released about people and events that were or maybe still are of such value is mostly trivia. People who have become betes noir like Charlie are an endless source of anecdotes gleaned from internal gossip about dessert and wall fixings.
The people who are considered the good guys amongst those who write about such matters have decided are the good guys will have amusing tittle-tattle published about how they adopted a rescue hamster or skipped the port so that they could donate a tenner to a clinic in the Upper Volta.
The sort of people who channel all of this are obsessed with the British Royal family, as the Dublin bourgeoisie especially those of the arriviste strain have been for almost two hundred years now.
My late Da was somewhat obsessed, but his fixation manifested itself in getting us to turn down the telly on Christmas Day at 3 o’clock so that he could listen at the wall to hear if one of the neighbours was watching Her Nib’s speech. He also became briefly the object of abuse when he was working in the bar of the Traders and turned off the racing when the Queen Mum, as she was affectionately known to the Dublin proletariat, trundled down the centre of the Ascot mile in her carriage, not doing any good at all to the better ground towards the far rail, which was my main concern.
Today you can read of the unbounded joy that overwhelmed Irish ruling circles when then Ambassador to London Ted Barrington reported back that not only had he been allowed take tea with the servants in the kitchen at Buckingham Palace (okay, I made that one up) but that “one of the elderly footmen, dressed in a red cloak, and a white hat, bade us good night, saying “Oíche Mhaith, slán agus beannacht.” Let’s hope Teddy got the wrinkled retainer’s autograph.
On another occasion the said Queen Mum told someone who had met one of the others at a party – which was only fabulous – that she was “Dying to go” to Ireland, so she was. Perhaps I am grown cynical in my dotage – surely not you cry! – but there’s just a hint of the “Lakota Chief is guest of President Teddy Roosevelt at World Series” about all of this.
Then again, perhaps it is I who have internalised our strange relationship with the English monarchy. After all, they have long since ceased to be active players in the fraught interaction between our islands, and the current crowd are only tangentially connected to the Tudors who were seriously problematic.
There is also the question: “With whom would you have preferred to spend the evening at the dog racing: The Queen Mum or your man from Galway?”
I rest my case.