If history is war by other means, is truth the first casulty?

There’s a fascinating exchange on Will Crawley’s Sunday Sequence programme yesterday (begins about half way through). It talks about the Boston College oral history archive (which is still ongoing). Danny Morrison just before the end notes that history, so far as he is concerned is ‘war but by other means’.

If this year’s state papers anything to go by that may be a battle Sinn Fein must brace itself for on a yearly basis.

As luck would have it, history is exactly the subject of Alex Kane’s column in the News Letter today, who has a rather different history in mind (which roughly paraphrased runs something like, “it was constitutional reform wot won it”):

The changes in housing allocation, employment rights, mandatory power sharing, local government reform, equality legislation et al, were either completed or well in hand by the late 1970s. The Stormont Parliament had been prorogued in March 1972 and any return to a unionist dominated administration had been ruled out in the autumn of 1972. And none of this had anything to do with the IRA, however much they would have you believe otherwise.

Yet, all of this raises another very interesting question, namely, why did successive British governments refuse to use their very clear military and intelligence superiority to wipe out the IRA? Well, what long term purpose would it have served? History would suggest that republican terrorists, if knocked down, always regroup, rebuild and reappear again further down the line. Indeed, the end of every phase of the armed struggle, from the first day that British troops set foot in Ireland hundreds of years ago, could have been greeted with the conclusion — “they haven’t gone away, you know”.

So how, Kane asks, did the British get the IRA to go away:

To paraphrase Machiavelli: “sometimes neither death nor shackles will destroy your enemy, so make him believe that he has won”. And as far as British governments were concerned that meant back channel communications with the IRA (which opened within months of the Provisionals emerging) and infiltration of the organisation at just about every level. It also meant convincing Sinn Fein that the only hope they had of Irish unity lay in proving that they could ‘do’ proper politics in the North.

One can obviously question the morality of a strategy which meant that British intelligence was aware of IRA operations and yet chose not to prevent them: but maybe the long term view was that an ‘acceptable level’ of violence would allow Sinn Fein to be steered in another direction.

That direction was towards an answer to the Irish Question – short of unilateral British withdrawal – that all sides could buy into. Yet, at the same time as the IRA was being infiltrated and Sinn Fein mollycoddled, the British were also making it clear to unionists that any political deal – while it would be built around the constitutional guarantee – would involve sharing power with both nationalists and republicans.

It remains to be seen what history is to reckon from these fuzzy dealings… That judgement is more likely to revolve  around what happens next than what has already happened in the fraught, some might say hysterical, days of the 1970s and the 1980s…

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  • Skinner

    “Danny Morrison just before the end notes that history, so far as he is concerned is ‘war but by other means’.”

    Danny Morrison has a habit of telling us the Sinn Fein strategy that the less transparent in his party would rather we didn’t know. Remember ‘the armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other’? Well now we have his revelation that Sinn Fein sees history itself as up for grabs. Yes, just change everyone’s account of history and you’ve changed history itself. Tell everyone the war was legitimate and it will become legitimate.

  • I’m having a problem with the Sunday Sequence link. Perhaps this one will work. Conversation begins about 47 mins in.

  • “Well now we have his revelation that Sinn Fein sees history itself as up for grabs.”

    No you don’t, you have Danny’s personal thoughts on the matter, no more, no less and regardless of whether or not there is any merit in what he says.

  • Skinner

    Handy that, being able to dissociate from it when it’s a little too revealing.

  • John Ó Néill

    Surely this is more of a case of everyone (Danny Morrison being only one of many, many protagonists here) seeing history as up for grabs? I don’t see, other than this being on slugger, how this is just an issue for SF. Do unionists, British govt, Rusty Nail etc, loyalism etc, have no interest in history?

    History (ahem) suggests otherwise.

  • Mick Fealty

    Agreed John.

    I’m just pointing out there is a certain incompatibility in the belief that you can fight comment war over history and expect that history will take that into its eventual reckoning. Comment, after all, is free. But facts are sacred.

    It’s facts that determine at least the skeletal outlines of history. And those are not always amenable to needs/wants/etc of any individual faction.

  • John Ó Néill

    Facts or factoids, Mick? The first casualty in the historical narrative wars tends to be the idea that there is such a thing as factual history. Even individual memory can be influenced by time and personal recollections can shift around depending on people’s subsequent experiences. There is a whole French historical school (Annalistes) that consider the timeframe as being significant in how you relate events.

    The only valid perspective (in my opinion) is to try and get different takes on the same events from different angles – not to reconstruct what happened, since that is merely a fetish and unachieveable: but to see what people (a) believed was happening; and (b) to see how they interpreted what was happening.

    There isn’t really a truth out there – just the past. In that sense, I agree with Danny Morrison – the past only really exists, anywhere, as a current/contemporary political narrative. How, why and what you want to remember is to engage in an active process that is very political.

  • @Skinner
    I personally don’t think it is very revealing at all as it’s pretty obvious people will attempt to have their view of history accepted as truth, hence Kane’s article the various comments and blogs on this site. Thankfully even if history is written by the victors, it will be written by those with a detachment from events by people experienced in historical analysis, not by Kane, Morrison, bloggers or commentors.

    All that aside, the simple fact is Danny hasn’t been an active member of SF for a few years now, so your attempt to link his view on this as reflective of SF “strategy” is just wrong. Now that may not be historical “fact” but given the reasoning you have used to come to the conclusion, there is no reason to believe you are correct.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Yes, just change everyone’s account of history and you’ve changed history itself. Tell everyone the war was legitimate and it will become legitimate.

    Skinner
    ‘Everyone’s account of history?’

    I’d love your account of Plantation, the Penal Laws, famine, Home Rule campaign, Curragh Mutiny, Arming of the UVF, Easter Rising, establishment of the northern state (we could go on, but I’m hoping you’ll get the point….)

    The first casualty in the historical narrative wars tends to be the idea that there is such a thing as factual history.

    John and Mick

    I think the on-going row involving the French, Armenians and Turks gives a lie to the idea that a factual history can stand above and beyond the reach of historical narratives which lend themselves to one interpretation or another (even by omission.)

    There is an attempt presently by some unionist political leaders and commentators to fight a historical war- hence the oft-repeated mantra that republicans are attempting to “rewrite” history.
    Of course, it is nonsense and owes more to the fact that a peace and political process which has elevated republican spokespersons to the highest local political offices has meant that, where once there was a dominant political narrative repeated through the official organs of state and broadcasters, the levelling of the political field has meant that two narratives now compete prominently in a manner that was previously not the case (in fact there are many more than two….)

    It is also somewhat strange to hear unionist politicians and commentators use the term “revisionist” in such a disparaging manner, not least because it was the (mostly southern led) revisionist historical narrative which took hold of academia in the past generation to articulate a line very critical of Irish nationalism.

    It is the prerogative of historians to study and analyse events using both the historical and contemporary contexts to provide interpretations which will doubtlessly remain contested in this region- hence Morrison’s rather appropriate observation.

    There are many skeletal facts in Irish history. Deciding which ones carry the greatest weight is where the battle of narratives kicks in.

  • Decimus

    Danny Morrison just before the end notes that history, so far as he is concerned is ‘war but by other means’.

    Is this Morrison’s belated attempt at justifying the fact that he has been found out to be bullshitting about the past? Are the drones supposed to shrug their shoulders and say “Well obviously he was lying through his teeth, but that was just another weapon in the ‘war’.”

    Good luck with that one.

  • between the bridges

    If history is war by other means, is truth the first casulty?
    yes.

    we first learn our ‘own’ history, later we might learn ‘others’ history and eventually you wonder what ‘really’ did happen…

  • Mick Fealty

    I can see why people are motivated for the fight. But some facets of history are not always amenable to influencing posterity. Even historians blow in and out of fashion. Does anyone read AL Rowse any more?

  • Alias

    “If history is war by other means, is truth the first casualty?”

    Whatever about the answer, the question is brilliantly phrased.

  • BluesJazz

    In the trial of the accused of the murder of Constable Stephen Caroll today we learn ‘undercover soldiers’ were tracking the car of one of the accused. So the Army (real one) haven’t gone away, and are in operational mode.
    That means we still have a conflict here, and operational military, overt (SRR) and covert (MI5, ..)
    SF are signed up to support the legitimate military force here – The British Army and Security Services.
    Yet they keep quiet.
    Fair enough, quiet support will suffice the Westminster government here.

  • Framer

    Truth was long ago a casualty where Republicanism is concerned, way before history. Propaganda is and was all. How else can you run a 30-year war where your opponent makes innumerable concessions except by grotesque exaggeration of the level of hurt and discrimination experienced. This was designed to maintain the inordinately high level of rage and anger in the SF community. No rage no recruits.

  • galloglaigh

    Is this Morrison’s belated attempt at justifying the fact that he has been found out to be bullshitting about the past?

    That’s a strange comment from you Decimus, given the library books you read as a teenager 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • galloglaigh

    ..

  • Pat Mc Larnon

    To answer the question posed in the OP, if it is not the first then it is probably near the top.

  • Skinner

    “…where once there was a dominant political narrative repeated through the official organs of state and broadcasters, the levelling of the political field has meant that two narratives now compete prominently in a manner that was previously not the case…”

    There has been no levelling of the political field. Sinn Fein’s vote increased as they turned away from their illegitimate war. What they are now trying to do is to use that support as a platform to legitimise something most of the electorate clearly saw as illegitimate. They know that the more years there are between their illegitimate war and the present, the more they can spin, as an increasing proportion of the electorate are too young to have experienced the horrendous reality of it.

  • Decimus

    Skinner,

    Don’t forget that they got their first big turnout at the ballot box when they were at their murderous height in 81.

  • Skinner

    In Fermanagh & South Tyrone I assume you mean? That was due to very specific conditions (a good deal of hysteria and significant voting fraud). The ‘support’ evaporated as the decade rumbled on and particulary when their war saw them blowing up pensioners at a remembrance ceremony. Which reminds me, didn’t their version of the truth tell us it was the British army that triggered that bomb?

  • Decimus

    Skinner,

    My point is that the nationalist defence that they did not vote Sinner when PIRA were butchering people is simply untrue. They were voting Sinner in the aftermath of, and in the midst of some of their worst atrocities.

    They did indeed try to claim that the British triggered the bomb, but the producing of the evidence that the bomb was on a timer was the proof of that particular lie. Even the Soviet Union condemned them for their barbarity on that occasion. Quite an achievement.

  • A similar saying by spymaster Emory Leighton Hunn is that, on the road to survival, conscience is the first sacrifice.

  • Alias

    About 40% of ‘nationalist’ voters voted for the Shinners irrespective of their violence. The only difference is that circa 20% of voters jumped from the SDLP to the Shinners in the period during which the Shinners were seen as better than the SDLP at extracting concessions for the tribe from the British state, coinciding with the period after their ceasefire but hardly conditional on it from the point of view of those voters.

    http://www.ark.ac.uk/elections/gallsum.htm

  • Decimus

    Alias,

    There can be no arguing with that.

  • galloglaigh

    Decimus

    Why did so many unionists vote for the DUP, given the fact that they started their own terror group, and sold weapons technology to South Africa in return for loyalist murder weapons? You’re such a hypocrite!

  • Decimus

    Any poster on this site who thinks he is going to goad me into getting a yellow card by posting errant nonsense is barking up the wrong tree.

  • Mark

    Going back to 81 , IMO the Unionist community along with their Establishment have never really gotten over the fact that 30,000 Nationalists voted for Bobby Sands and Owen Carron ..

    In Bobby’s case , it was sold as a vote for the 5 demands and the conditions in the jail .

    In Owen Carron’s case , it was a vote for Sein Fein . And Unionists have been trying to figure out exactly what that meant ….. and still means .

  • galloglaigh

    Decimus

    I only ever point out the fact that you’re a hypocrite. I’m not goading you, but clearly annoying you. Think before you type; think what people see in your comments; think about how someone like me might comment in return. If history is written by the victors – why do unionists fear a rewriting of our collective history?

    Let me give you an example:

    The continued glorification of the ‘old UVF’ by loyalist parading organisations, and the many referenced books praised by the likes of Dr. Eamon Phoenix, which tell the real story of the sectarian campaign the men you deem honourable, meeted against the innocent Catholic population of Ulster during the partition period of our history.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Galloglaigh
    or….you could try mentioning the fact that commemorating the 12th July- and singing of The Sash (Dolly’s Brae)- involves celebrating the murder of men, women and children and also the subjugation of the Irish through the subsequent Penal Laws, instilling a visceral hatred of catholicism which continues to manifest itself at street level (see the appalling attack in the Village last weekend.)

    Indeed, hasn’t the passage of history worked well in concealing the horrendous reality of so many battles fought before now?

    We could really go on….and on….and on, but ultimately the conclusion we’ll have to settle for is accepting that there are contrasting interpretations of historical events, and that there can be more than a kernel of truth in the interpretations of others.

    That doesn’t mean we should close our minds or ears to other viewpoints and perspectives, but searching for that triumphant victory will remain an elusive one and involve too many people wasting too much time crouching in foxholes when there’s more productive things to be doing.

  • Skinner

    Interesting to see nationalist posters on this thread referring to a history 100 years or more ago and unionists referring to a history that they can vividly recall.