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Its a modern New Years tradition that the National Archives gives the media privileged access to the next batch of Government files to be released into the public domain under the thirty year rule. So far there has been the odd story about Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands war, all of which has been a bit of a damp squib. Why? Because most of this stuff has been in the public domain for many years. Just five years after the event I was interviewing John Nott, the former Defence Minister, and Admiral Leach, the man whom it could be argued really kicked off the effort to recover the Falklands. They were as disparaging of each other then as they were before the crisis started. I also met senior figures from Aerospatiale, the French Arms company who told me candidly that if they had continued to supply Exocet anti ship missiles to the Argentine armed forces the consequences for them would have been severe. It was not, one of them said, just a diplomatic warning.
It is also no secret that part of the US Administration, spearheaded by Jean Kirkpatrick, was pressing Ronald Reagan to support the murderous bunch of torturers than ran Argentina, while others, notably Lawrence Eagleburger, were bending over backwards to provide whatever military assistance the British Armed Forces requested. The official historian of the war, Professor Freedman, was allowed access to most government documents ten years ago to produce a detailed and long account of the various aspects of the conflict, both diplomatic and military.
Furthermore, using requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and interviews with all the participants, I published the truth about HMS Conqueror sinking the Argentine cruiser in my book “Sink The Belgrano”, seven years ago. So the impact of the thirty year rule is now very much diminished, and will continue to be so in the future. It would however be a mistake to think that the Governments hold on its secrets is slipping. New inquiries into Bloody Sunday and the Hillsborough disaster prove how much of a struggle it can be for ordinary people to get at the truth. And there’s another case to add to the list.
Acting on behalf of four Kenyan citizens who were tortured by the British during Operation Anvil, the effort to crush the rebellion against Colonial rule, the law firm Leigh Day forced the Foreign Office to reveal that they had 9,500 files from the colonial era stashed away in a secret archive. These files, from 36 former colonies were extracted from the colonial administration and flown to the UK usually a few days before independence. Around 1500 of them are relevant to the actions of the British Government and the administration in Kenya during the emergency, but the Foreign Office denied their existence not once but twice, in 2005 and 2006, after two separate requests by Leigh Day under the Freedom of Information Act. Sadly this revelation about the conspiratorial secrecy of the Foreign Office has not caused the outcry that it deserves. Even now the files are being released piecemeal and in disorganised tranches, as if the Foreign Office is continuing to be as obstructive as possible to the legal advisers and historians trying to piece together the narrative of the concentration camps and torturers the British Government was responsible for in the 1950′s.
Funnily enough the release to me of HMS Conquerors war diary, the patrol report, that recorded her voyage from the Irish Sea to the Falklands, with all the dramatic events that took place along the way was held up for several months. Not as one might expect, by the Royal Navy or the Ministry of Defence. No, it was the Foreign Office who objected to its release. I know why. And it had nothing to do with the Belgrano.
At the moment I’m carrying out some research in Berlin, in the archive of the former East German Secret Security Service, the Stasi. There are a few problems, mainly to do with language, but also because safeguards have been imposed to prevent personal information about ordinary citizens being made public. Sometimes, when I receive an unhelpful answer from an archivist its tempting to mouth off about German bureaucracy. Then I ask myself how I would feel if I was a poor eighty year old Kenyan seeking justice for injuries I suffered at the hands of British torturers more than sixty years ago. Its a sobering question.