Do Historians Help or Hinder when Dealing with the Past?

What role might historians play in addressing the legacies of Northern Ireland’s troubled past? That was the topic of a seminar hosted today by Healing Through Remembering, Do Historians Help or Hinder?: Preparing for a Decade of Commemorations.

The role of historians is seemingly hot on the British Government’s agenda, with Secretary of State Owen Paterson recently floating the idea that historians are better equipped than lawyers to sort through the events, stories, and traumas of the Troubles.

Those who are suspicious of the British Government’s motivation for championing historians might see it as an attempt to wiggle out of state responsibility (and therefore accountability) for what happened during the Troubles.

Be that as it may, the main speaker at the HTR event, Ian McBride, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern and Irish History at King’s College London, provided some food for thought on the role that historians might play in such a process.

At the start of his remarks, McBride asked us to consider whether historians can be healers. Here, he admitted that this idea might seem at first absurd, but asked us to bear with him …

McBride then said that he liked the idea of community story telling – much of which goes on within Northern Irish communities and much of which has been facilitated by grassroots groups like HTR. He said that the telling of stories can have a ‘levelling’ effect, because they encourage people to identify with others’ human experiences.

He said this process was about ‘truthfulness,’ where people had the chance to tell their story and have it listened to by others with (hopefully) open minds. He said this had the potential to promote empathy for different perspectives on a contentious and troubled past.

At the same time, McBride said that academics were the worst sort of people to facilitate a storytelling process. For him, where academic historians come in is standing at arms’ length from all these various stories, and relating them to one another.

But McBride cautioned that we can’t expect historians to produce a tidy narrative about the Troubles. He said that historians would inevitably offer up open-ended verdicts, emphasising that violence has many causes, and that this would produce no straightforward lessons. He pointed out that historians routinely disagree with each other, which would further muddy the waters.

This open-ended perspective on history does not fit in with the agenda of some groups and parties that want to use the past to ‘blame’ others or to have their version of history confirmed. This also raises questions about whether the historians of this generation have sufficient distance from the Troubles to sort through the competing stories and versions of the ‘truth,’ and to offer some sort of weighing up – and assigning of various degrees of responsibility – for what happened.

McBride’s perspective actually seemed to fit quite neatly with what Paterson has (albeit unofficially) proposed – a documentary centre that would collect stories about and perspectives on the past, which historians could then evaluate. As Paterson has said,

“There might also ultimately be a role for a panel of historians to interpret all the available material with a view to producing the authoritative history of the Troubles.”

McBride’s discussion was set in the context of the upcoming decade of commemorations, which includes the 1912 Ulster Covenant*, the 1916 Easter Rising, and the Battle of the Somme. There was a sense among those attending the seminar that while the commemoration of those events has the potential to be divisive, they also represent an opportunity to think more deeply about the past. This would mean that those who are celebrating the events who have to think critically about their own ‘side’s’ shortcomings and biases. They would also have to consider the perspectives of those who do not see those events as something to celebrate.

The meeting was facilitated by Queen’s University’s Dominic Bryan, a lecturer in Social Anthropology. Initial responses were provided by Karen McCartney of the Ulster People’s College and HTR member Laurence McKeown.

* Thanks, Nevin, for catching  my error, I’ve now replaced Solemn League and Covenant with Ulster Covenant …