The ping in my inbox made my heart flutter: an update on a long-awaited Freedom of Information request that’s been sitting with the Northern Irish authorities for months. It’s a simple ask, or seemed to be: I need access to ten specific case files of long-ago adjudicated gun possession cases from Belfast, from 1975. My American brain saw this as an easy ask — in the states, of course, I could probably just walk into a courthouse and request the indictment. Bright-eyed and naive, I had launched off the FOIA requests to the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland last summer, waiting for the response like a kid on Christmas.
And now, an update. I was giddy, clicking through to the email.
[Context: Hey, I’m Ali, and I’m on leave from my job at The New York Times for my Mitchell year, where I’m getting my Masters in creative writing and writing a book for Little, Brown, on American gun running to Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I don’t just launch off FOIA requests for fun. Usually.]
Anyway. The email.
“Although PRONI does hold the information which you requested, we are unable to complete your request at the present time, in the absence of the ‘appropriate Northern Ireland Minister,’ which is to say, the Minister for the Department for Communities…PRONI will therefore be temporarily suspending the completion of FOIA requests until a new Minister has been appointed.”
I laughed out loud when I read this. Then I read it again, and laughed out loud again. Then I threw things and yelled so loudly poor Abby Barton poked her head into my office to make sure I hadn’t had a stroke.
It’s done. The end of the road, the last remaining FOI avenue after many others have already been denied. I’m not getting the court papers anytime soon, if I get them at all, at least not through a Freedom of Information request.
There is something maddening about knowing answers exist, and then knowing I can’t get them. One minster’s not around so the whole country’s FOIA process grates to a halt. Simple as that. It’s easier, I think, when they don’t have the paperwork — frustrating for its own reasons, to be sure, but easier. This, though, to know the information exists, just somewhere I can’t reach — it makes me nearly apoplectic.
Some facts you should know: The court documents in question resulted in convictions, in which the defendants’ names and charges are publicly listed on a government website. All occurred in the mid-1970s. My interest in them is not to shame the convicted — it’s to find them, to reach them. How can they even be given an opportunity, if they want it, to reclaim their narrative, if the Northern Irish authorities won’t provide details on their cases? That’s assuming the defendants are alive, at all.
It’s got me wrestling so much as a journalist, as a citizen, as an expat. What do nations lose, when they are so sternly delicate with reckonings? Is there value, in being so careful with the past? I tend to be an absolutist with transparency and institutions — governments should be accountable to their citizens, and agencies should err on the side of disclosure, especially when developments have aged out of acute impact.
And yet, there’s another part of me that understands the instinct, to hold close dark chapters, particularly when they are often one-sided retellings, void of context, and could thrust otherwise private citizens into spotlights. America is by no means a beacon — it has sanitized and twisted and hidden its own complicity in generations of abuse and violence, both at home and abroad.
To confront this in Ireland is pushing me to live the mantra I’ve intended from the day I took on this book — while the thrust of my reporting is anchored in America, this story is not a purely American retelling. There is value, in understanding the deep, complex nuances of this country, and to respect them. My friends at the FOI office are forcing me to wrestle it, though I refuse to believe any country benefits from such sanitized, secretive handlings of a fraught past.
At any rate, I remain in limbo, because of a silly bureaucratic hurdle. There’s a familiarity to it, really. My last FOIA denial from the F.B.I. made absolutely zero sense, and I don’t think the C.I.A. — whose interface looks like it predates Whitesnake —even responded to the last one I sent. The problem with FOIA is that it’s a toxic lover. I hate it. It wastes my time. It makes empty promises and stands me up at dinner and forgets important dates and never apologizes. Half the time it never even responds to texts or emails or phone calls or carrier pigeons.
And then, right as I’m on the cusp of walking away, it shows up with flowers and thousands of pages of unredacted peace offerings. PRONI says its denial is only temporary. Damn that glimmer of hope. As that hot new band says, here I go again.