The real 1984 was more Flann O’Brien than George Orwell

State papers from 30 years ago depict a country more disorganised than dystopian

Nineteen Eighty-Four conjures up a world of Big Brother, thoughtcrime and doublethink. George Orwell's novel, completed in 1948, imagines the triumph of a tightly controlled militarised state.

The dystopian vision was never realised – in Ireland at least – and the newly released State papers underline just how far Orwell was wrong. The Ireland of 1984 appears less Orwellian and more like something from a Flann O’Brien book.

The Fine Gael-Labour coalition government was struggling to assert its authority after defeat the previous year in the anti-abotion referendum. Deflated by the tepid response to his New Ireland Forum and mired in the clientelism that characterised much of national politics, taoiseach Garret FitzGerald admitted in September 1984 that his constitutional crusade was in “cold store”.

‘Garret the Good’

As for the government dictating people’s thoughts, it was more accustomed to being lectured by the citizens. The files are bulging with correspondence from priests questioning the morals of Garret the Good.

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In Orwell’s novel, technology has advanced to the point where surveillance was universal. Even if the government in 1984 had the desire to spy on every aspect of people’s private lives, it hadn’t the capacity either in expertise or hardware.

The Garda Síochána had its professional side but it also consulted clairvoyants and diviners to try to solve one of the biggest cases of the time, the theft of Derby winner Shergar in 1983.

The phone- tapping scandal also showed a degree of ineptitude, whatever about malice, within the governing apparatus. A legal action initiated against the State in 1984 for breaches of privacy because of the bugging would prove successful in the High Court three years later.

Some of the quaintest material to emerge from the files relates to technology and here the whiff of Flann O’Brien is strongest. Papers prepared for Budget 1984 reveal that one of the biggest concerns at cabinet level was the planned withdrawal of a subsidy for rural telephone kiosks.

It was pointed out that people had to wait at least three months to get a telephone installed at home and any attempt to halt the provision of kiosks – even though they were underused – was “likely to evoke strong reaction”. So the subsidy stayed.

Search engines

In a reminder of life before search engines, Fianna Fáil minister Michael J Noonan forwarded to the taoiseach’s department a letter he received from a young constituent.

“Would you kindly tell me how many articles are in the Constitution?” the Co Limerick schoolboy wrote. “I have asked teachers and well educated people and they don’t know.”