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.



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  • redstar2011

    I dont really get this.

    Unionist academics put forward their version of our history and by virtue of their academic standing we are all supposed to take that as THE definitive account.

    Bottom line is there is no definitive account. No one can force a view of history on others nor should there be any attempt to do so.

  • Whatever else happens with regard to analysis and records, which is in itself a really important task to be undertaken, the key is that each side acknowledges 1. the role they played in causing, maintaining the conflict and 2. the impact they had on the other side. This is not to say one accepts blame and the other accuses, but to acknowledge that each, whatever the justification, harmed the other.

    The State should be in this as well because as was pointed out they should be held to a higher standard of account than anyone else. Indeed they have started this process with the apology for Bloody Sunday.

    After the declarations of acknowledgement there will be space and freedom to list and discuss the details of various incidents.

    I always fear that the biggest bogey in this work is the State given that it was a dirty war and we will never have full disclosure or ever trust that what is being told is clean information. With their overview of both sides intentions they were in a place to manipulate and seemingly did so fully and consistently. It’s ironic that you trust the paramilitaries of both sides more than the state.

  • ThomasPaine

    “How far would access to official files extend and to whom would they be made available?”

    For proper truth and reconciliation, an agreement must be put in place between Republican paramilitaries, Loyalist paramilitaries, the RUC, the Irish government and the British government to tell the absolute truth. All files from each organization in turn must be made available to everyone.

    “Would criminal process be set aside while historians deal with the evidence of collusion?”

    Yes. I realise this is remarkably easy for someone like me who never had a mother/father/brother/sister/husband/wife murdered due to collusion or the IRA to say. But I think immunity is the only way to get the truth from all sides, which would answer your last question:

    “How could that be done while commanding public confidence?”

    I understand this very thought would be sickening to so many people, to so many victims and their families, and in all probability would never be supported by the parties, particularly those of a unionist persuasion.

    But I suggest if we are ever to move on, to ever establish the facts, to ever finally understand and respect each others points of view, this is the only way it can happen.

  • ThomasPaine

    As some sort of disclaimer to my post above, I will state I had an uncle shot dead by the IRA, a grandfather interned and beaten for no other reason than he was Catholic – the same man had his life saved from a protestant friend who told him that he was going to be killed by the UDA on his next delivery to the Woodstock road – and I have a cousin damaged after being shot with a plastic bullet. He was in a coma for days afterwards.

    So as with most people my family has suffered during the Troubles.

  • son of sam

    By chance,I was reading Jude Collins’ blog today.If I read him correctly, he seems to be strongly opposed to this rewriting of history.But then academics do differ occasionally .

  • Mc Slaggart

    What I find interesting is the narrowness of the “historians” definition of responsibility.

    I fully support the view that those who take any action such as shooting someone are responsible for that action no matter who give an order.

    It does not follow that the conflict arose and was driven by the people who took military action.

  • “Unionist academics put forward their version of our history and by virtue of their academic standing we are all supposed to take that as THE definitive account.”


    I assume they will also recruit historians from a nationalist background, either from the North or from the South.

    “Bottom line is there is no definitive account. No one can force a view of history on others nor should there be any attempt to do so.”

    No one can force a view of history on others: it will be more a matter of establishing a history based on evidence as opposed to competing folk beliefs based on ethnic solidarity.

  • Charles_Gould

    Peer review will determine history.

  • between the bridges

    meh, apart from the fact that the SF/IRA narrative should be challenged, it’s merely a group of ‘intellectuals’ jumping on the peace gravy train… if we ever do get ‘peace’ we will need another conflict to keep the ‘peace’ brigade in employment…

  • Charles_Gould

    ” if we ever do get ‘peace’ ”

    You have peace.

  • between the bridges

    Charles we have LESS conflict we do not have peace…

  • Charles_Gould

    btb you have hardly any violent conflict.

  • Brian Walker

    Thomas Paine, I’m sorry for your terrible losses.

    A lot of comment so far misses the point. This is not about a one stop shop to reconciliation or confessions or staging a sort of Wimbledon tournament between two sides. It’s about providing accounts that embraces all the themes as objectively as possible within the definition supplied by Archiv. Their purpose is to question, by reference to the public record, reducing the past to any one dominant narrative. For example, though it is true that so-called armed conflict was distinctive of Northern Ireland’s recent past it was never representative of it. A history which would diminish in its account the majority within nationalist and unionist politics, churches and society who did not subscribe to violence is an example of what Lord Bew, in a report in the Newsletter, termed an ‘infantilised view of history’.

    Incidentally Archiv will affirm their cross community approach to the Newsletter tomorrow. That approach will not be particularly contentious .Anyone familiar with contemporary Irish history will know that it is conducted generally with a framework of acceptance of all traditions and regret for the level of violence. It long ago outgrew the limits of the creation myths… That doesn’t mean all historians agree; far from it; but it augurs well for the project.

    The writing of history seldom settles all arguments but at its best it is based on a common approach to facts and carrying out analyses. There will be no bland authorised version. But a panel of diverse historians stands a chance of eliminating lies and myths and providing politicians and others who in then want a way through with better arguments.

    Lawyers and campaigners will be suspicious. But if governments think any historian is likely to be involved is up for a whitewash they’re sadly mistaken.

    As for the irreconcilables or the terminally damaged in spirit, for those who believe the moon landing took place on a Hollywood back lot or the Jews were responsible for 9/11, the best we can hope for is that they are further marginalised. They are in an unhealthily large minority but not a majority. In the heat of controversy this is often forgotten. I cling to the thought that the people are not fools. Nor are most of those who are on opposite sides of the elemental arguments about nationality. They know in their hearts that the only way to prevail on nationality and keep society stable is to win the tolerant acceptance of the other side.

  • Charles_Gould

    Thomas Paine

    I am sorry to hear of those losses in your family.

    The troubles did not affect my friends or family at all, thankfully.

  • Barney

    The only honest way of dealing with the past is for full disclosure from all involved and that necessitates a truth and reconciliation process.

    If a utilitarian approach is needed I’m sure Archiv will oblige, I’m not exactly filled with hope after reading their blog.

  • between the bridges

    Charles perhaps you could lend me those rose tinted glasses so i can review the flag protests and riots on one ‘side’ and the 1200 plus terrorists incidents since the GFA and riots on the other ‘side’…

  • MrPMartin

    Commissions like Haas et al mean well and will no doubt do work but there is not a silver bullet to heal the minds and wounds that many in NI have. All that we can hope or expect is the passage of pwrhpas decades of the absence of violence and for new generations to spring forth, tainted less and less by mothers milk bitterness until eventually by say 2100 we may have a chance of being a normal society at ease with itself

    Cold comfort for us all present who will be long gone by then but being human, we do foolishly expect to witness solutions before our own living eyes. All that we can be are dying gardeners, carefully planting the seeds of future peace and reconciliation but alas not living long enough to see those flowers bloom but that’s we what should expect of ourselves

  • Charles_Gould


    2100 seems a bit unambitious. I think we are already seeing attitude shifts in many parts of the population.

    Look at the sex revolution. Young people come out as gay at school these days with no problems whatever. One generation ago they wouldn’t have.

    The two things needed to speed up the circle is integrated housing and integrated education.

  • MrPMartin


    I hear the rabid horrible sectarian name calling between kids of lower Ormeau and lower Ravenhill and I wonder sometimes. You are right about integration but in whose political interest is it to do this amongst DUP/SF ?

  • Charles_Gould


    Sovereign government (Westminster and Dublin too) has to push the integration. Local parties need to be pushed. My own neighbourhood seems very mixed, and more grammar schools seem to have a better mix of religions. So its all moving forward to my eyes. Lower Ormeau – go down the road southwards a bit to see how things get better.

    Housing: public housing should aim that no housing area should be more than 70% of any one religion, so that quotas are introduced ensuring this.

    Education: same except replace “housing area” with school..

    Private housing seems pretty mixed to me in a lot of places.

    The so called “peace walls” are a total embarassment and all need to be pulled down. The NI government has set a target of 2021 for this I believe. Ambitious, so they need to start doing things to get there.

  • Dixie Elliott

    “Throughout the past week I have been reflecting back on that traumatic week 20 years ago.

    At that time, a group of us in the leadership of Sinn Féin had been engaged for sometime in trying to pull together the strands which would ultimately become the Irish Peace Process.

    Gerry Adams and John Hume had been the public face of these efforts.

    Myself and others were also involved in a back channel to the British Government.

    And there was opposition to all of this.

    The objective we had set ourselves was enormous and, for many, it seemed an impossibility.

    The terrible events of October 1993 could have resulted in our efforts collapsing.

    Those involved in attempting to build a viable Peace Process could so easily have walked away. Thankfully, they didn’t. The terrible cycle of violence had to be broken…”

    By deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MLA…
    Who played a leading role in what he now terms…”The terrible cycle of violence…”

    This is what he was telling the IRA and the rest of the world…

    From Ed Moloney who was scorned when he wrote that Adams was secretly seeking peace while publicly agitating war…Clearly here he is referring to McGuinness:

    “…He also played a part in the more tragic death of IRA informer Caroline Moreland, a 34 year old woman from West Belfast whose offence was, so I have been told, to betray an arms dump containing a single rifle. (Maybe if she had just said that it was an act of anticipatory decommissioning she would have lived. But she didn’t.)

    She was killed in July 1994 just a month before the first peace process, IRA ceasefire was called. When the Army Council met to decide, inter alia, whether to confirm her death sentence, IRA and Sinn Fein leaders were faced with a dilemma. Her offence was relatively minor and the war was about to end, so what the hell, maybe she should be spared. But if the leadership let her live then it would have sowed suspicion in the ranks of those in the IRA who still believed the leadership line that the peace process was merely a tactical device to wrong foot the Brits and not a plot to go constitutional. The dissidents-in-waiting, if you like, would have been needlessly alarmed.

    And so poor Caroline Moreland was given the thumbs down by those seven men in a room. There was a brief discussion on how to handle her killing. One person suggested that she be disappeared, that is killed, her body dumped in a secret grave and lies told to her family about what had really happened. Who came up with the idea? Well, put it this way, it wasn’t Gerry Adams.

    The idea was dismissed by one figure on the Council, someone who was aware that the whole issue of the disappeared of the 1970’s might well return to haunt him and that it would be foolish to add to that problem. And who was that? Well let’s just say it wasn’t Martin McGuinness.

    The point about all this history telling is this. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness played roles in the development and selling of the peace process that was a little akin to Mutt and Jeff, the good cop, bad cop routine. Adams was the good cop, whose role was to interact with John Hume and be the public face of diplomacy in dealings with governments, the White House and so on.

    McGuinness’ role, a suitable one since he had the active service record and Adams didn’t, was to be the bad cop, to reassure the IRA grassroots that there would be no sell out while he was running Northern Command and that if Martin backed the peace process then there was nothing to be worried about…”

  • Coll Ciotach

    It seems to me, that this is too important to get wrong, in fact it is so important that experts such as academics should not be allowed near it.

  • “It seems to me, that this is too important to get wrong, in fact it is so important that experts such as academics should not be allowed near it.”


    So who should handle it–the DUP or SF appointed culture minister? Professional politicians are always interested in finding and telling the truth, don’t ya know.

  • DC

    great idea – hope this offer is taken up and progressed.

    get something down on paper that academics can pick over and narrow the gaps in differences over time. something like this needs done.