Achievable and effective political reform through public access

Posted on 30 December 2010

The release of the 1980 State papers in the UK and Ireland under the 30 year rule sees the media’s annual review of events past begin to fill column inches and airtime. Post-wikileaks and in post IMF/ECB Ireland, this now seems more like an established pageant with infotainment as a primary output. To add context to the released papers, broadcasters will supplement presentation and discussion with content from their own copyright protected and monetized archives (skillful editing and production can backlight context but getting drawn into the ‘reeling in the years’ vortex may prove irresistible).

While the National Library of Ireland have been canny enough to recognize the marketing opportunities of this particular news cycle and announce the discovery of the Orpen Letters the more important backstory of public access to the paper trail of the Irish state has been strangely muted. At the beginning of 2010 the crisis in the National Archives of Ireland and the proposed legislation to merge the National Archives of Ireland and the Irish Manuscripts Commission into the National Library of Ireland was highlighted by Peter Crooks in the Irish history blog ‘Pue’s Occurrences‘. This was followed by a symposium in Trinity College Dublin with contributions from Catriona Crowe, Fintan O’Toole, Eunan O’Halpin and Diarmaid Ferriter. The delusion that a crude underfunded programme of rationalisation can somehow produce a fit for purpose service is bad enough but it’s only one part of a deeper malaise. The right of access guaranteed by the National Archives Act (1986) and The Freedom of Information Act (1997) have never been presented as pivotal pieces of legislation acting as cornerstones of Irish participatory democracy. Instead they have been begrudgingly implemented or as is the case with FoI, amended on the premise of lessening the bureaucratic burden through the introduction of a toll.

While much has been made of the need to radically reform the Irish political system in terms of the legislature and electoral system little has been said about strengthening the rights of public access to the record of the state. It was telling that at the beginning of the Christmas holidays the first judicial test of the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 saw the commercial sensitivities clause in section 60 evoked and the hearing on the further injection of €3.7 billion of public funds into Allied Irish Bank held in-camera. This draconian piece of legislation was rushed through the Dáil in four hours and rubber stamped by the Council of State which to all appearances engaged in a futile piece of political choreography. It’s difficult for a public worn out by political spin and mendacity not to be skeptical about the timing of all this falling as it did on the quiet news day of the 23 December – and just to make sure the press were barred from attending. As it stands we may have to wait another 30 years to get to the heart of this matter.

For many Irish citizens desperate to make sense of the country’s tailspin, 2010 marked a shift away from the passive consumption of reporting and opinion forming as practiced by the Irish media establishment toward a data-centric and largely politically neutral analysis presented by economists, political scientists and journalists built upon open content and distributed via social media. Many found themselves driven to this out of necessity. The continued co-opting of the Irish media into making excuses or not properly questioning one disastrous policy decision after another eventually drove us to seek the light elsewhere. One knew all was not well when analysis from The Financial Times or The New York Times proved time and again more cogent and inciseful. My hope for the new government of 2011 is that something like the private members bill introduced by the Labour Party on the 9-10 November 2010 will form a platform for a complete overhaul of the apparatus of access to the public record. All that’s at stake is the future of an effective and transparent republic.

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