Effectively, that is the same as the historical position on records. One could get any record if the period was reduced to five years. That is too short although I accept that 30 years is too long. I have little involvement with the 30 year papers but they are organised in my Department each year. To do that for five year papers would be wrong and I will give an example with regard to that. Later today, I am dealing with Northern Ireland matters and the Good Friday Agreement which was negotiated five years ago. If the papers were available about the same issues being negotiated today, there would be major difficulties. It is not possible to reduce the period to five years when one is dealing with the same people, process and issues.
I am not arguing that the period should be 30 years. The Act came in and I did not take issue with it at the time but five years is too short. On all other matters, no matter how inconvenient, such as how many telephone calls I made or what restaurant I went to, if I had lunch with somebody, or how much petrol my car uses..
So said former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 2003, during the change to the FOI legislation. He is referring to an amendment that made significant changes to the legislation, one of which was the increasing by five years of the expiry of Section 19 of the Act – records relating to Cabinet and interministerial communications.
It would appear that not only have the opposition failed to see the political import of the availability of Cabinet records from 1998 and 1999 (and now January/February 2000), but so have the media. Section 19 of the Act no longer applies to records that are over 10 years old. This 10 year limit started on April 21, 2008, and is a rolling process. For every day that passes in 2010, another day of records becomes available from 2000.
The Government that is in power now is more or less the same that existed in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Some new ministers, some old, musical chairs on the rest. Why would it not be political interesting for journalists and the Opposition to look back at decisions made in 1999 for example? The Redress board scheme was planned in 1999, the apology to victims was made in May 1999.
The Opposition in 2003 were quite vocal about the changes being made to increase the five year rule to 10 years. Enda Kenny even penned an Irish Times opinion piece, arguing that Bertie Ahern was increasing the limit in order to save embarrassing documents being released surrounding Ray Burke (the Fitzwilton payment came to light in the summer of 1998) among others.
I started the process of examining the issue of Cabinet records some months ago, and have requests pending with the Department of the Taoiseach. It is important to try and understand how such records are held in order to more accurately request information – this also involved trawling what made the headlines in 1998 and 1999, to remind myself what was scandalous, and what was newsworthy over that period.
Of course it is also important to read the Cabinet handbook to understand exactly what the records are called and what their purpose is. As a result of this process I have requested, and received, some initial records from that period. I will begin publishing them today, and all of next week. First up is the agendas for all Cabinet meetings between April 21, 1998, and December 31, 1999. These agendas only became FOIable after the 10 year rule had expired in 2008. I will upload them as I scan them, which will take some time.
Agenda for Cabinet, April 21, 1998: