Ulster kept in dark by Whitehall secrecy

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The Independent Online
The Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Royal Ulster Constabulary are systematically being frozen out of access to ultra-sensitive Whitehall files dealing with the province.

Official guidelines on public records have revealed that after direct rule was introduced in 1972, the Government replaced the long-standing classification "UK Eyes Only" - withholding disclosure even from allies such as the United States - with a refinement which restricted certain files to British eyes only.

Drawing an information curtain down the Irish Sea, files are now being marked, "UK Eyes B" or "UK Eyes A". Those so marked contain "information not to be released to any other country, and which, within the UK Government service, is confined to UK-based members of the UK Armed Forces, Home Civil Service (excluding Northern Ireland Civil Service), the Diplomatic Service, the Police Forces (excluding the Royal Ulster Constabulary) ...".

Even within Northern Ireland, some files are being marked with a further block on disclosure: the "Perimeter" classification, under which some officials can be kept in the dark about sensitive policy issues.

The guidelines, declassified and disclosed to Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, by the Ministry of Defence, also state that the Cabinet Office has imposed a 100-year closure on any Whitehall files relating to Northern Ireland from August 1969, when the troops went in.

While the general presumption of the Public Records Acts is that official files will be open to public inspection after 30 years, items of special sensitivity are regularly withheld for 40 years or 75 years.

Only in cases of the most acute sensitivity are files kept back for 100 years, as, for example, those relating to the abdication in 1936 of Edward VIII, closed until 2037.

The guidelines also spell out categories of "sensitivity" under which official files can be withheld beyond the 30-year rule.

They include files that reveal possible war crimes committed by British service personnel, and the identification of people who have acted as informers or "collaborated with enemy occupying powers".

The guidelines say that file reviews need to watch out for "Breaches of the 'laws of war', eg. the provisions of the Geneva and Hague Conventions, in circumstances where British/Commonwealth or allied nationals might be considered to have been seriously at fault in such matters as ... the treatment of enemy wounded or prisoners of war; the status and integrity of the Red Cross (eg the misuse of hospital ships); the treatment of neutrals and of their property (eg the sinking of neutral shipping)".

Sensitivity checks are also made on records showing any "action, or communication, by a member of the Royal Family which might be considered unconstitutional, eg. expressions, or indications, of personal views which criticise, or conflict, with Government policy".

But the guidelines reveal that a relaxation took place in 1993 under which "records concerning financial arrangements and other personal matters affecting the British Royal Family are now subject to normal personal sensitivity rules".

Previously all such royal files were closed for 100 years.

The guidelines also relax curbs on files about Unidentified Flying Objects, saying: "Hitherto it has been the policy not to release the internal distribution on UFO reports.

"In the light of greater openness it has now been agreed that ... this information need no longer be considered defence security sensitive and may now be released."

UFO files will now be released for public inspection after 30 years.

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