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State papers provide remarkable insight into turbulent past

At this point of the year it is traditional to look back, not just at the previous twelve months but also past decades as the release of state papers in Belfast, Dublin and London discloses fresh details on political developments and events from the time.

These documents invariably yield information of interest and claims that can cause astonishment such as the report from the Israeli ambassador to the UK that Ian Paisley had contacted him ''to obtain arms''.

This remarkable claim, contained in declassified documents from 1985 released by the National Archives of Ireland, was relayed to Noel Dorr, the Republic's ambassador in London during a conversation at a function.

Mr Dorr felt the request had been possibly misinterpreted but unfortunately we are left with little further explanation or answers to the questions raised by this particular episode.

Other notable claims contained in this year's batch of documents includes a rumour passed on by Fr Denis Faul that Gerry Adams had 'set up' the IRA gang shot dead by the SAS in Loughgall, a suggestion which has been dismissed by Sinn Féin.

Another incredible file relates to a letter sent by the UVF to Taoiseach Charles Haughey alleging the organisation had been approached by an MI5 officer. ''He asked us to execute you'', claimed the UVF, which went on to say they had refused to do so.

While these files are a rich resource for historians, political observers and journalists, the public may be surprised at how casual remarks and even rumours can find their way into official papers.

It is also not clear if the people speaking to officials were aware that their conversations were being recorded to be filed away in an archive that would one day be made public.

And although it is fascinating to look back at the 80s and 90s at what was a turbulent time in our history, the year just ending is also one that has had more than its fair share of political intrigue and upheaval.

From the collapse of the Stormont institutions to the assembly election which saw unionism lose its majority to a Westminster poll that saw the DUP emerge as the unlikely saviours of Theresa May's weakened government, 2017 has been a landmark year in political terms.

All this has taken place against the backdrop of the Brexit negotiations which took until Christmas to move on from phase one, which dealt with the Irish border, and which are set to dominate the political landscape throughout 2018.

The question for the DUP and Sinn Féin is whether 2018 will see a restoration of the Stormont assembly or if we are in for further stalemate and the absence of a fully engaged devolved administration at this crucial period in our history.

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