By Kevin O’Sullivan
Fintan O’Toole showered praise on those foregoing the Grand National. Nuns sat on stairs. Historians peered over shoulders at the back. It was, Diarmaid Ferriter told the audience, highly commendable that so many had given up the first rays of summer to sit in a dark windowless room and listen to historians rambling on about the travails of history and ‘forgotten’ archives. But dark, windowless rooms are the historian’s natural habitat, and the 250 or so packed into Trinity College’s Emmet Theatre on Saturday afternoon exuded an energy born of their collective concern at the state of Ireland’s archives.
Immediately after the event, Pue’s cornered its chief organiser, Dr Peter Crooks of the Irish Chancery Project, allowed him a brief respite to gather a box laden with pens, notepads and flyers in one hand, a bunch of fresh daffodils in the other, and began an impromptu interview by asking if he felt the event had been a success. Crooks’s response was characteristically understated; he was happy, he ventured, that it turned into something more than a ‘professional whinge’. But even his natural reticence could do little to hide his enthusiasm at the levels of awareness the meeting had raised, far beyond even the positive indications they had been receiving since posters and flyers for the event had begun to circulate in the last month or so.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s assertion that this is an ‘issue of national importance’ found an echo in Crooks’s reflections on the day’s proceedings. A number of important revelations had come out of the meeting: that nobody knows exactly what is in the government’s merger proposal; that Freedom of Information requests from the Irish Society for Archivists received such a paltry response; that the government has breached legislation in failing to convene the National Archives Advisory Council; and, importantly, that the ‘issue is so much bigger than just the merger … Nobody knew the extent of the problem’.
Crooks became aware of it in November 2008, when the initial merger proposals were touted, and had initially expected such an important issue to prompt ‘someone to do something’. In the midst of the growing economic crisis, however, the event was buried further and further from the public eye. It took January’s crisis in the National Archives over the accession of material released under the thirty-year rule to resurrect it, bringing responses from Fintan O’Toole and others in the national press. Deciding that the situation was too urgent ‘to wait for other people to do things’, Crooks made contact with a variety of individuals in an effort to stimulate a public and professional response. He was, he stated, merely a catalyst; under state legislation, staff at the National Archives were unable to initiate debate, but when prompted by Crooks’s inquiries they, as members of IMPACT, the Irish Society of Archivists and other bodies, were freed to act.
The group convened as a troop in search of a plan in early February, and the choice of Trinity and 10 April as the venue and date for a public meeting helped to crystallise the campaign, now involving an ever-widening circle of individuals. Their efforts were geared towards creating a broad base of discussion and involvement. Diarmaid Ferriter, Catriona Crowe, Fintan O’Toole and Eunan O’Halpin led the debate, and the others who contributed from the floor – Cecile Chemin, Louis Cullen, Paul Garry, Jacinta Prunty, Liz Mullins, Raymond Refaussé among them – represented not only a wealth of experience and first-hand knowledge, but added to those with a direct interest in the consequences of the government’s decision.
For the organisers, Crooks reiterated, it was also vital that this was not just a ‘Dublin thing’. In the course of Saturday’s comments session, Eunan O’Halpin stressed the need to draw on a wide geographical spread of interests. There were members of the audience from Belfast, Cork, Limerick, and elsewhere. Every library and archive in the greater Dublin and east coast area was informed of the event. It was important, too, that the interests of the tourism and heritage industries were represented, and that several members of the audience wondered at an economic solution to the crisis. But while Crooks admits that the campaign will probably be won or lost on economics (‘unfortunately’), he reiterated Fintan O’Toole’s argument that each Irish citizen has a fundamental right to view records created by the state. There are, he concedes, some services that might generate income, ‘but that is a smaller question within the larger debate’.
The next step is the difficult one: to harness the energy from the Robert Emmet theatre into a constructive and pro-active campaign for action. In the short-term, Diarmaid Ferriter will act in an ad hoc capacity as convenor of a subsequent committee meeting of representatives from the various interested bodies. A ‘public interest chairman’ (not a representative of one of the bodies) will be appointed to lead it. And the committee will then decide on a course of action – including the dreaded cost-benefit analysis – and petition to meet ministers, political parties, senators, TDs, and other prominent public personae.
But what of the ordinary historian, genealogist or concerned member of the public? Peter repeated his call for individuals from all backgrounds, including those not represented or whose interests were not voiced at Saturday’s meeting, to get in touch with him and pass on their proposals for action. It was, he said, imperative to bring together all the comments and local knowledge under one umbrella, to begin to compile it and use it to present a well-informed case when lobbying the higher echelons. Crucially, the group must capitalise on the forward momentum built up by yesterday’s debate; ‘in a sense the burden is now on the committee to respond to the energy that was in the room and be an advocate group.’ It would be a positive step, he added, if the government re-appointed the National Archives Advisory Committee, but it would also be helpful to have an independent, non official group as a voice in the ongoing debate.
On that optimistic note our interview, spanning a lecture theatre, a lift, and six floors of the Trinity Arts Building, came to an end. Crooks headed back to his office, box of paraphernalia under his arms, his mind on these future matters, and pressed, no doubt, by a desire to leave Pue’s and join the rest of his rabble-rousing comrades in that other favourite haunt of the historian – the public house. He left us with a sense that the right momentum and such vocal backing could take the issue far, perhaps to have some serious progress to report by the time the next public meeting is convened in the autumn. Watch this space.
Anyone with suggestions, comments or nominations for the committee, or who would simply like to be kept in touch with the Archives in Crisis debate, can contact Peter Crooks at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read Peter’s previous posts for Pue’s on the issue here.