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|CAIN Associate Programme (2021-2022)
|Programme Organiser: Dr Brendan Lynn
PRONI and CAIN: Using Conflict Archives
This paper is based on the presentation delivered as part of the Ulster University Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) Associate Programme on 22 April 2021. It comprises an introduction to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), looking at its founding legislation, history and statutory functions. The paper also highlights some key public records relating to the Northern Ireland conflict available via CAIN and reviews the 'PRONI on CAIN' partnership (https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/proni/index.html ).
The Public Record Office inhabits a landmark building in Belfast's Titanic Quarter and currently holds over 55 kilometres of records reflecting the community memory of this place. However, to understand its unique archival function, it is necessary to go back to the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Under this act, the administration of Irish public records was a reserved power, with responsibility being retained by the Westminster parliament, but it included a provision that gave power to both new states in Ireland to establish separate record offices.
The Public Records Act (Northern Ireland) 19231 established a public record office for Northern Ireland. When the legislation was being developed, Ministers and civil servants discussed whether the office should simply acquire government records, or if the new record office should be able to acquire other historical documents to fill gaps in the historical record following the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland at the Four Courts in Dublin in June 2022. 2As a result, the 1923 Act contained provisions that would allow PRONI to collect historical records, not just transfers from government departments. The wording of the Act was broadly framed so that PRONI could receive records from Ministries, local authorities, existing and future non-Departmental public bodies, and documents in private ownership. Therefore, in effect, an integrated archival service was created: a Public Record Office for government records, a six-county record office transferring local government records, and a national library acquiring historical manuscripts from private individuals, businesses and churches that could all be accessed by researchers at one location.
This paper concentrates on the public records of government. In 1976 the then Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees, moved the release of public records from a 50-year rule to a 30-year rule, bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom (UK). By the 1990s, PRONI was on an annual basis releasing hundreds of Stormont government files from the 1960s3. These records provide unique insights into the decisions, views and thinking of politicians and officials during a decade that saw Northern Ireland erupt into open conflict. PRONI printed guides and catalogues were beginning to open up some of these key research resources and the development of a PRONI website also increased accessibility to the archives.
However, it can be argued that it was in 2009 when a step change occurred, as PRONI and the Ulster University (UU), via CAIN, initiated a partnership to identify, digitise and make available a selection of documents from the official files relating to the conflict and politics of Northern Ireland. Since the first 'PRONI on CAIN' online release in October 2010, with key documents dating from 1968 to 1979, there have been regular additions to the CAIN website. At the time of writing, it contained digitised documents up to 1996 searchable by year, author and title, and by key word or phrase, comprising approximately 3600 public records representing over 15,000 pages of information4. This selection of material covers many of the key official classes of records held by PRONI including the Cabinet Conclusions, Cabinet Secretariat, Office of the Executive, Northern Ireland Office and Central Secretariat. Taken together they provide an insight into the key political developments, security matters, community relations and wider socio-economic issues that largely dominated events during this period.
As well as noting their value to researchers, both local and international, the documents also demonstrate the level and quality of record keeping maintained by civil servants. The detail and fullness of the accounts of meetings, especially during exploratory talks between Northern Ireland Office (NIO) officials and Republican and Loyalist representatives is astonishing. They are rich in their description of the personalities and the matters being discussed. It is important to reflect that the documents are not dry or turgid but can contain wonderful prose with colourful anecdotes included. PRONI as the national archive places great importance on the written record, but it must be recognised that these written records are only one important source that must be reviewed in conjunction with oral history, printed material, ephemera, etc.
The ongoing collaboration with UU/CAIN has been beneficial to PRONI as the CAIN website is a trusted online resource for anyone wanting to find out more about the conflict. In addition, the selection of key documents provides a valuable historical perspective, and links the Public Record Office into a wider network with Ulster University and ARK.
In conclusion, PRONI records and the CAIN resources offer unique opportunities to examine and sift historical facts, and to consider the consequences of past events and actions. PRONI and CAIN have worked together in opening up archives to wider audiences. It is critical that the vast array of records that are available online and in physical spaces continued to be used. The archives help users to engage with a range of perspectives, to understand why decisions were made, and enable learning from the past.
David Huddleston is currently Acting Director of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). He has worked at PRONI for over 25 years including Head of Records Management, Cataloguing and Access at PRONI as well in a variety of other roles including private records, official records, records management, and dealing with matters relating to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 as well as the Data Protection Act 2018.
CAIN (cain.ulster.ac.uk) is an on-line Archive of resources related to the Northern Ireland conflict, peace process, and politics in the region. CAIN is part of the ARK (www.ark.ac.uk) research centre within Ulster University and Queen's University Belfast. CAIN is known and used internationally by academics, journalists, policy makers, students, and the general public.
The CAIN Associate Programme
The CAIN Associate Programme was established to showcase how CAIN has underpinned and supported the work of a range of scholars, journalists, community sector practitioners and others. Each Associate was invited to give a seminar (due to COVID this became a webinar) and then produce a short paper to accompany the seminar.
2. Eliza McKee (2019) The origins and development of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, 1922–1948, Archives and Records, 40:2, 164-178, DOI: 10.1080/23257962.2018.1550715