Access denied

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Letters, Volume 29

Sir,—I would like to congratulate History Ireland on its recent Hedge School podcast, ‘“Spies and informers beware!”—intelligence and counterintelligence in the War of Independence’ (, scroll down). The panel, chaired by Tommy Graham, of Andy Bielenberg, Cécile Gordon, Eunan O’Halpin and Gerry White provided a nuanced analysis of what is undoubtedly a complex subject.

I was particularly intrigued by a brief discussion towards the end of the podcast relating to infiltration of the upper echelons of the revolutionary movement. This discussion led to the question being raised as to whether there is untapped intelligence-related material in the UK archives. Professor O’Halpin asserted that intelligence records were not so much being held back by the British government as being ‘lost, destroyed or just weren’t kept’. However, I think it is worth pointing out that there remains at least some material in the UK National Archives (Kew) that is being specifically withheld. As illustration, one file from the period that I requested had details of ‘individuals identified as informants for the British including addresses of where they were working/living’. Access to this file was refused. When a Freedom of Information (FOI) request was submitted, access was again denied. The rationale for this decision is worth quoting: ‘… memories of the Easter Uprising, the War of Independence 1919–1921 and the Irish Civil War that followed are still raw, especially in rural Ireland’. A key argument against releasing the file was a fear that dissident republicans ‘could at best ostracise a family for a distant relatives’ beliefs or at worst cause them physical harm’. The conclusion to the FOI ruling was that ‘the release of the information in this file would be likely to endanger the physical health and safety of individuals’.

Even when these additional intelligence files are released, we will of course still be dealing in the realm of ‘known unknowns’, as the podcast’s panellists also seemed to conclude. However, it is still worth recording that at least some archive material is being retained.—Yours etc.,



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