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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Vol. 258 No. 6

National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I have pleasure in welcoming the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and I call on her to address the House.

I am pleased to introduce the National Archives (Amendment) Bill to the Seanad. In February, the Bill completed its passage through Dáil Éireann following positive and constructive engagement with Deputies.

The National Archives Act 1986 established the national archives to preserve the archival records of central government and also transferred it to the papers of the Public Record Office and the State Paper Office, both of which were abolished. In 1992, the headquarters of the National Archives moved from the Four Courts to the former Jacob's biscuit factory in Bishop Street, Dublin 8, which was one of the 1916 battlegrounds.

The National Archives occupy a key position in the cultural and intellectual life of the nation and hold the records of the modern Irish State, which document its historical evolution and the creation of its national identity. In keeping with its mission statement, the National Archives secures the preservation of records relating to Ireland which warrant preservation as archives and ensure that appropriate arrangements are made for public access to archives.

These archives are key to informing Government policy and assisting research into the political, economic and social forces that have shaped our nation.

Over the past decade, the National Archives has been in the vanguard in embracing digitisation. Senators will be aware of the transformative effect of digitisation and the provision of free online access to the 1901 and 1911 censuses. This has driven an unprecedented increase in the interest in genealogy, as evident from the many workshops and evening classes cropping up in every corner of the country. The 1901 and 1911 census project is, however, only one of the many digitisation projects that have been undertaken by the National Archives. As a consequence, the National Archives website has become a cornucopia for historians and genealogists.

Under the National Archives Act 1986, records of Departments and agencies are transferred to the archives when they are 30 years old. This is known as the 30-year rule. The purpose of this Bill is to reduce from 30 years to 20 years the time limit for the deposit of certain departmental records with the National Archives. In 2010, after an extensive public consultation process, the UK Government changed its law to provide for public access to Government records after 20 years, rather than 30. The reduction, which began in 2013, is being phased in over a ten-year period by the UK National Archives and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. This allows for the release of two years' worth of records every year over a ten-year transition period. It will be completed in 2023, when UK records for 2003 will be available to the public.

In Ireland, the statutory period for the transfer of departmental records remains 30 years. As a result, in January this year the National Archives released records for 1987. At the same time, the UK agencies released records for the period up to and including 1992, five years ahead of us. Traditionally, the Irish and UK media devote extensive coverage to the release of official Government records during the quiet news period between Christmas and the new year. Increasingly, Irish historians and political commentators are looking towards British records as source material for Anglo-Irish history and events in Northern Ireland, so the Irish Government recognises the importance of synchronising the release of certain records between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly those records relating to Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish issues in general.

The proposed legislation would allow for the early release of records if the relevant Minister and the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, who has responsibility for the National Archives, agree that the early release of the records in question is warranted by virtue of their historical or public interest value, or to facilitate fair reporting of matters of common interest to the State and other jurisdictions.

I am conscious that the proposals will have resource implications for Departments, and any changes will have to be managed within already constrained budgetary allocations. For this reason, the change will be implemented on a phased basis, starting with those offices and Departments that hold a significant number of Anglo-Irish and North-South records. These are the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Justice and Equality, and the Office of the Attorney General. The intention is to move to a full 20-year rule for all Departments over time as resources permit. A phased implementation approach will assist in terms of the inevitable resource implications for Departments, while providing flexibility for the early release of records, where appropriate. As part of the process of implementing the 20-year rule, the National Archives director will be writing to all Departments to ascertain the number of files over 30 years currently being stored by Departments, offices and the courts, and the cost of doing so. If the need for off-site storage were reduced, savings could be made across the entire system.

The lack of a records management policy is also an issue when it comes to the accumulation of records in Departments. I am very pleased my predecessor was in a position to provide additional resources to the National Archives in 2016 and 2017 to assist in the work the archives is doing on a public sector records management policy in conjunction with the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

This policy aims to provide universal guidelines for the public sector regarding the management of records and, in particular, digital material. Crucially, it will also scope out the requirements of the National Archives in starting to accept digital records from Departments and to commence the task of making these records available to the public.

As stated, records of Departments and agencies are transferred to the National Archives when they are 30 years old. This annual statutory intake means the volume of archives is continually growing with an attendant demand for storage space. I am only too aware of the limited physical capacity which the National Archives has to store archives, and its buildings have been full since 2013. There are, however, exciting developments ahead for the National Archives in this regard. The development plan will see the provision of a secure, environmentally-controlled archival repository in full compliance with internationally accepted archival storage standards. The existing storage space will be converted from a large, single-storey warehouse to a two-storey archival repository that will increase the National Archives' storage capacity by two thirds. The new storage capacity will enable the progression of the 20-year rule and will support the transformation of ancillary spaces for exhibitions, education and engagement facilities for the visiting public. The Office of Public Works is working with the National Archives and my Department to deliver the repository and I expect the project to be tendered later this year. As the centenary of the destruction of the public record office approaches in 2022, the new National Archives repository will be available to house our State archives and this will be an appropriate response to the loss of so much of our cultural heritage in the destructive fire in 1922.

I will now turn to the main provisions of the Bill. Sections 1 and 2 deal with general provisions such as definitions of words and terms in the Bill. Section 3 amends the National Archives Bill 1986 by inserting a definition for relevant records, that is, those records for which the National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017 applies in order to provide for early release of a particular class or particular classes of departmental records. Section 4 provides the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with the power, by order, to have records transferred to the National Archives from a Department after 20 years rather than the current 30-year transfer limit. An order will only be made under this section once the Minister has the approval of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and the relevant Minister responsible for the record set to which the order will apply, and after consultation with the director of the National Archives.

Section 4 also provides the policy and principles under which the Minister would make an order to transfer records over 20 years but less than 30 years old. They are: where the records concerned are of significant historical or public interest such as to warrant their transfer to the National Archives; where the transfer of the records concerned to the National Archives would facilitate the balanced and fair reporting of matters of common interest to the State and other jurisdictions; and where the arrangements for such transfer are adequate. This final provision is particularly important. It mirrors a provision in section 8 of the principal Act and relates to the protection of the records of the State which are in our care. In many cases, there will be no copies of records and it is, therefore, imperative that records are protected at all times, both in storage and in transit. Storing records in inadequate conditions would put our collective history and heritage at risk.

Section 4 also provides that the Minister may make an order where he or she is satisfied that the arrangements for the transfer of all departmental records more than 20 years old to the National Archives are adequate. This will remove the need for further legislation in the event that the Government decides to move to a 20-year rule for all Government Departments at some point in the future. Section 4 also provides that if a Department had already transferred records between 20 and 30 years of age to the National Archives, they will not be required to do so again. Sections 4 and 5 also provide for the amendment of section 8 of the National Archives Act 1986 to insert the term "relevant records" where necessary. Section 5 provides for the deletion of section 10(6) of the National Archives Act 1986 as this section is no longer necessary.

Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 11 of the National Archives Act 1986 to insert the term "relevant records" where necessary. Section 7 provides for the Short Title and commencement of the Bill.

In conclusion, given our shared history with the UK and Northern Ireland, I believe it is really important that the synchronised release of official records should to the greatest extent possible be restored, where appropriate. I am satisfied that this Bill provides the flexibility to do so when a record set is of sufficient historical or public interest value. I am pleased to bring this Bill before the Seanad and I look forward to hearing the contributions of Senators throughout Second Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Fianna Fáil will be supporting this Bill. I am taking this debate on behalf of my colleague, Senator Ned O’Sullivan, who is at a Seanad reform meeting.

We are supporting this Bill because it promotes overall Government transparency and will ensure that the Irish Government releases records in tandem with Northern Ireland and the UK. As the Minister has alluded to, the British and Northern Ireland archives have decided to release documents to the public after 20 years instead of 30 years. This will clearly include extensive correspondence between agencies and Departments in the UK and Northern Ireland and those in the Republic of Ireland. As the Minister has already stated, because Ireland does not release Government records until 30 years after their publication, this prevents historians, scholars and other interested parties from accessing Ireland's version of events until ten years after the release of UK documents.

As we are all aware, British and Irish relations are of a significantly complex and often contentious nature, even to this day. We believe it is very much in the public interest to ensure that the full picture is presented to the public. As it stands, Ireland's departmental records are not transferred for public release until 30 years after their creation. It is also true to say that many Departments do not release documents which the public is entitled to see even after the 30-year rule. This is something we as a party would like the Minister to look at to ensure documents are released to historians and other scholars and interested parties as a matter of priority.

Another difficulty we understand exists concerns the insufficient space or facilities to store information within the National Archives. Perhaps the Minister might comment on that. It does require significant investment. We are in total agreement with and supportive of this Bill. We will be encouraging the Minister to take it through this House as a matter of priority.

I very much welcome the Minister to the House. Through its work in managing and preserving all of the public records in the State, the National Archives is one of our most important cultural institutions. The archives allow people to maintain a link to our past. In addition, the archives contain information that is vital for policy making and research.

The reduction in the delay period of 30 years to 20 years for the deposit of State papers into the National Archives is very positive. It will allow us as Irish people to be more informed about events and decisions that were taken in the past and continue to shape our future. This Bill will bring us into line, as the Minister has said, with the 20-year rule that has been in operation in the UK since 2013. Given the close ties between our two nations and our mutual history, it is important that our files are released at the same time as those of the UK in order to allow people to be better informed. The Bill also allows for the early release of records if the Minister believes such documents should be released early due to a particular historical or public policy value.

The Bill complements other ongoing initiatives right across the country to improve our collective archival record. In that respect, I am very much mindful of a visit by An Taoiseach to the General Register Office headquarters, which are based in Roscommon town, when he was Minister for Social Protection . On that occasion, we met with staff involved in the digitisation of Ireland's civil registration records. It is an extremely extensive project involving such matters as the storage of records. It is extremely labour-intensive and requires a high level of skill and great attention to detail but it is very important work. We have a unique and varied history in this country and it is incredibly important that we learn the lessons of the past in the development of future policies.

I welcome the introduction of the National Archives (Amendment) Bill to this House. We should always strive for the greatest level of transparency possible. It is extremely welcome that the delay period for the release of State papers will now be reduced from 30 years to 20 years.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I am speaking on behalf of my colleague, Senator Warfield, who is also at the Seanad reform committee.

I commend the general objectives of the Bill, which are most welcome. Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill on Second Stage. However, we feel a number of issues must be addressed at later Stages so that we can move fully to a 20-year rule as oppose to a 30-year rule. We believe that bringing our legislation in line with the British legislation is a worthy effort. At many stages, the British Government has released state records to which this State could not give an effective response due to the imbalance. The release of State records is a crucial tenet, particularly in dealing with the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

While I am on the subject, I also note how the British state's refusal to release crucial state records in many legacy cases has denied justice to many truth campaigners in Northern Ireland and I reassert on behalf of Sinn Féin the importance of their release and the insistence of this State on their release in any dealings with British diplomats.

Sinn Féin is concerned about certain aspects of this legislation. First, there is much ambiguity about the term "relevant records". The legislation could lead one to believe that the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht of the day will have the final say on what records are deemed appropriate. This is not responsible legislating. There is no accountability regarding these decisions and no transparency. As a result of this, the 20-year release or denied release of these documents could be down to political reasoning, which I cannot fully trust. Surely a simpler way of doing this would be by mirroring the current legislation which encompasses all records created, regardless of age, which are then transferred to the National Archives when they are 30 years old and we simply reduce that to 20 years old.

Furthermore, the current release of records is ascertained by the director of the National Archives whereas the current legislation proposes that the 20-year release will be subject to a ministerial order after consultation between the Minister and the director of the National Archives. The director is apolitical and independent in the role and has a duty to appraise records and decide whether they should be retained or disposed of. That role could be construed as being undermined in this instance. The arms-length principle here is of utmost importance.

The Bill further gives power to the Taoiseach to amend or revoke an order designating records as "relevant records" but no criteria for this decision are given. Where a future Taoiseach finds State records that could be potentially damaging to his or her party but that are in the public interest, that Taoiseach could potentially defer the release of such records. This move would not be open to public scrutiny and the decision would be unknown to the wider public. I would strongly assert that this section should be reviewed.

The release of these records would enrich our heritage and allow historians to portray a truer sense of a previous generation. Any archivist will know of the destruction of the public record office in the Four Courts during the Civil War and the immense damage it caused to our national memory. When certain historical records are lost, they leave a missing jigsaw piece in the picture of our heritage. Some of the most vital records destroyed were the census records of the 1800s. If they had been retained, we would have insight into pre-Famine Ireland and would gain far more insight from what is now lost. I am somewhat disappointed that this Bill does not include provisions to reduce the release time of the census records we do have.

I am somewhat disappointed that this Bill does not include provisions to reduce the release time of records held in the centre. Currently, it is 100 years but there has been a strong campaign to release the 1926 census records. This was the first Free State census. In 2012, the then Minister, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, had stated he had received Cabinet approval for legislation to release the records earlier than prescribed under the 100-year rule. This was six years ago, and this Bill would have been a fitting place to allow for the release of the 1926 census records. This has long been sought by genealogists and it would definitely enhance our tourism as the access to our diaspora's roots improves. I hope the Minister strongly considers amendments to achieve this on Committee Stage given previous Government promises that have been left unfulfilled.

Sinn Féin will support the Bill on Second Stage but many amendments are needed on Committee Stage.

I thank all the Senators, including Senators Wilson, Gavan and Hopkins, for their contributions. I listened to them with interest. The various issues raised will be considered further in my Department as the Bill makes its way through this House.

Ireland's unique and varied culture is a source of immense national pride that gives us a common sense of purpose. Our culture is an all-encompassing, evolving force that helps us to express and celebrate who we are as a diverse, modern nation. Providing for an accurate reflection of our history and our journey to modern Ireland is critical.

National cultural institutions help to provide access to the arts and culture and Ireland's rich heritage. Such access is vital in preserving our society and national identity and in helping to promote Ireland's image abroad. The arts, culture, heritage and creative industries make a major contribution to our economy, to sustaining and creating jobs, and to the rebuilding of Ireland's reputation on the international stage.

The role of the National Archives is key in preserving our history and providing the necessary records to assist with research into the political, economic and social forces that have shaped our nation. It is one of the State's most important institutions. The records held by the National Archives document the historical evolution of the Irish State and the creation of our national identity. For this reason the Government decided that, notwithstanding the challenges, it is important to provide the flexibility for records to be released after 20 years if there is a strong case for their historical or public interest value.

Our shared history with the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, cannot be underestimated. The Government is of the strong view that it must provide for the protection of the Irish perspective on that shared history. I have carefully considered how to move to a 20-year rule. I am of the opinion that, notwithstanding the significant resourcing issues involved, it is important to provide for the early release of records of significant historical or public interest value. The approach adopted in the Bill provides a way forward so records can be released while taking due account of the resource issues.

Without a change to Irish legislation, it should be pointed out that, as Britain and Northern Ireland continue to release records after 2023, those jurisdictions would be releasing records ten years ahead of the Republic of Ireland. As a result, the British and Northern Ireland perspectives on shared issues would be recorded first.

Senator Gavan raised an issue concerning the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach will not have the power to amend or revoke an order designating records to be relevant records. He has certain powers under the existing legislation and his powers relating to records and archives under the existing legislation, namely, those over 30 years old, will not change. At section 4(b), the new legislation would provide a consultation role for the Taoiseach along with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the director of the National Archives for the transition period in regard to getting records between 20 and 30 years old.

I thank Senator Hopkins for her reference to the General Register Office in Roscommon. My Department has a partnership with the GRO and it works with it on genealogy.

Some interesting issues were raised by the various Senators who contributed to this debate. Officials have taken note of what has been raised. I will examine what is being proposed and I hope that we can assist Senators in their consideration. I ask any Senator who intends to submit an amendment to the Bill to give the departmental officials sight of it at an early stage in order that, where possible and appropriate, it may be given due consideration in a decent timeframe. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 5 June 2018.