From Arkiv to Haaas. A way out of the deadlock for dealing with the past


It’s heart warming to find  some of the ideas I’ve been grappling with being taken forward with real authority and integrity. As reported in the Newsletter  a  firm and positive set of  proposals for dealing with the past has been submitted to the Haass talks by a group of historians calling themselves Arkiv.

The idea that dealing with the past is a task that can be agreed and dispatched within a given period is not simply an insult to the victims of violence, it is politically and historically naïve….. The current arrangements for governing Northern Ireland are centred on two parties with less than glorious historical records during the Troubles and much of the on-going problems, manageable though they may well turn out to be, resides not in the past but in the present interests, tactics and strategies of these parties. Left to themselves they may continue to be unable to come to any agreement on these issues.

It is the responsibility of London and Dublin to take the lead on dealing with the past.

The group including the historians and political scientists such as Henry Patterson and Arthur  Aughey declare:

A commission of historical clarification, if appointed by both governments and consisting of British and Irish historians under the chairmanship of an independent and internationally recognised historian and provided with access to British, Northern Irish and Irish archives, could do a massive amount to produce a comprehensive and above all balanced account of the past. Professor Richard English of St Andrews University has well summed up the role of such a commission:

It is not that historians are free from instinctive bias …but the detailed knowledge available from scholarly historians, and the rigour ensured through adherence to proper rules of historical research, might provide one part of the foundation on which can be built a measured and sane approach to Ulster’s bloody past.[

Their  analysis will command widespread respect:

There is a cross-community consensus that more needs to be done to address the needs of victims but little beyond that. There is a chasm between the general unionist view that there is a clear distinction between victims and perpetrators and Sinn Fein’s opposition to any ‘hierarchy of victims’.

…the current landscape is, in our opinion, dangerously slanted towards narratives of broadly shared blame and the effective equivalence of state and non-state forces. It has, for instance, been common to look to international examples of truth and reconciliation commissions as possible solutions for Northern Ireland. However there is a major difference between Northern Ireland and the vast majority of international examples of truth recovery processes: whereas in the South African and Latin American examples, which are those most referred to by those making the case for a local truth commission, it was the state and its agents which were responsible for the vast majority of deaths and traumatic events, in Northern Ireland republicans were responsible for almost 60% of deaths and loyalists 30%.[1]

It is illegitimate to claim that no distinction may be made between innocent victims and those who perpetrated crimes. The political effect of failing to make these distinctions is to skewer the movement of transition towards ideologically advantageous grounds. Thus, while in South Africa there was a broad consensus that the transition was legitimate and the settlement had majority support,[2] in Northern Ireland, truth recovery has become almost synonymous with a drive to legitimize political justifications for the Troubles.

However not everyone will be in full  agreement that the following is the last word:

The storm of opposition to the Maze conflict resolution proposal is the most recent example of the existence of dissenting unionist/loyalist voices which are deeply suspicious of the whole language of conflict resolution and truth recovery. While this may in part reflect an ingrained pessimism and an unwillingness to acknowledge Unionism and loyalism’s own responsibilities in Northern Ireland’s violent past, it also reflects a reaction to a truth recovery paradigm which is heavily biased towards state violations and crime. These are legitimate areas of inquiry but they are dwarfed in historic significance, morally and politically, by the actions of paramilitaries.

Does this assertion invalidate calls for individual justice and campaigning lobbies  like the Pat Finucane Centre and the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice group whose criticism of the Historical Enquiries Team have struck home?. Apart from the framework of law, the fundamental issue of principle here is whether the standards of behaviour  required from the police officer and soldier are the  same as for the citizen, or in some way higher. If higher, that would explain the apparent “skewing”.

By chance today, Gerry Kelly’s plugs for his new book as in this interview with David  McKittrick, give us an ideal focus of debate on these issues. Is he the incarnation of evil or the exemplar of people you can continue to do business with – and maybe even warm to?

“I’ve tried to do what I did with integrity. People might baulk at that, but I think I’ve come through life with some integrity. You might think everything the IRA did was wrong but I don’t. If you’re asking if I have regrets in a general sense, ‘Do I regret  having been in the IRA, do I regret my life?’  then I have to answer ‘No’.”

I am committed to the peace process and moving forward – I believe in conflict resolution, I believe in all of that. But neither am I going to hide from history, because I do not think we should.

“Some unionists have a certain image of me because I do think that the struggle has to be defended. But I don’t want people to relive history.”

Among those who accept his political bona fides are republican splinter groups who are still involved in occasional bombings and who more than once have threatened his life. “I’m the first person out condemning these so-called dissidents,” he says. “They think I’m the worst quisling.”

What did he and the IRA hope to achieve with the Old Bailey bombing? “I was 19, I was a civil servant,” he  recalls. “I don’t claim I was intensely politically aware, but I was aware of what the British Army was doing on our streets.

“And we said, ‘We’re not taking any more of this.’ The intent was to bring the message home to the door of the British.”

It will be pointed out that this group of academics tend to be  unionist-leaning, although  their first common factor is association with the University of Ulster. None of that in the least compromises the respect they enjoy throughout academe and beyond. A next move should surely be to hook up with similar scholars in for instance IBIS, the Institute for Irish-British Studies which is much involved in exploring the issues in this decade of commemoration.

And a possible outcome?

Legislation based on the societal benefit of commemoration could be designed and would cohere with the defining principle of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement that the best way to honour the dead is to cultivate a political culture of tolerance and peace.

The Newsletter editorial supporting Archiv  is in its way as much part of the problem and does Archiv  no favours. It serves no kind of truth to dismiss charges of collusion merely because they can used as republican propaganda.

Of the many difficulties facing unionism, perhaps the gravest crisis is the rapid rewriting of history.

Nor does  it help to exaggerate the significance of history like this, correctly identified by Archiv as unionist pessimism. What  partisans and obsessives fail to realise is that while the past casts a long and dark shadow, it imprisons Northern Ireland only if we want it to. There are other contrary pressures although they  so far lack the powerful impulsion of the past.

On Archiv’s proposals  much is left to be worked out. I expect they will receive a cautious  welcome from both governments and the local parties. Something like this has been courted by Whitehall for a long time.   The protocols would be many and complex.  How far would access to official files extend and to whom would they be made available?  Would criminal process be set aside while historians deal with the evidence of collusion? How could that be done while commanding public confidence? Lawyers and campaigners are unlikely  to support exclusive access to historians.

All the same these are proposals whose time has come.