Northern Ireland exempt from end to 30-year rule on documents

Belfast Telegraph 08/01/11

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Secret Government documents about Northern Ireland will remain confidential for a decade longer than those covering the rest of the UK.

In a major speech on civil liberties Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg promised to “resurrect liberties that have been lost” under Labour and insisted he would not be “wasting any time undoing the damage of 13 years”.

That includes ending the practices of “closed and secretive Government” by increasing Freedom of Information laws and changing the 30-year rule so historical records are released to the National Archives after 20 years.

Mr Clegg said: “We are getting rid of the 30-year rule. Where sensitive Government records can currently be kept secret for 30 years, we will cut that back by a decade.

“Surely it can only strengthen our democracy if we reduce the time people have to wait in order to find out the full truth about the Governments they have lived under, and the events they have lived through.”

But Ministry of Justice officials confirmed that while the reduced time-lock on records will be extended to other exempted areas such as court documents, an exception will be made for some cabinet documents concerning Northern Ireland.

The presumption will be to release all records but any document that can be shown to contain “information prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs in Northern Ireland or to the work of the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly” will be held back for 10 years longer.

A Ministry of Justice official said: “It will have to be shown that the public interest in withholding it outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.”

Work is set to start on releasing documents under the earlier time scale from 2013 and will take a decade to complete.

Over Christmas documents from 1980 were declassified and revealed details of letters from Margaret Thatcher to the Pope urging him to condemn the first hunger strike carried out by IRA prisoners in 1980 after John Paul II asked her to resolve the “tragic” stand-off.

Mrs Thatcher set out her case for not making any concessions such as granting them political prisoner status, writing: “To do so would be to accept that political motivation in some way excuses such serious crimes; it would encourage the use of violence as a means of obtaining political objectives, and it would be likely to provoke a violent confrontation between the two communities in the North.”

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