Arkiv: “in the real world pre-existing themes will skew the integrity of investigation, putting ideology before history”

In an early critique of the Haass proposals (version 7), Brian identified, as a potential problem, the “role [] envisaged for academics and experts especially historians”.

A great role is envisaged for academics and experts especially historians, reporting to an Implementation and Reconciliation Group of political nominees .  However the academics are  naively treated as an on tap resource to be tasked like school pupils for a project . These proposals would need to be redrawn for any hope of implementation. [added emphasis]

The Arkiv group of academics has also taken issue with the proposals on the past.

It has been claimed that the outline of these proposals on ‘contending with the past’ were broadly acceptable to the parties at the Haass Talks. Until these parties complete their consultations on the draft as a whole and make clear either concerns or support it is difficult to come to a judgement about their political acceptability. (It would also be useful to consider draft seven in relation to the other six drafts). What can be identified is a critical moment when paradox may be said to slip into contradiction. This is the section in the document dealing with themes or patterns.

It is argued (correctly, we suggest) that only ‘through gaining the fullest possible picture of what happened during the conflict and why can Northern Ireland begin to constructively confront its past’.  Again, (correctly, we argue) it is understood that the ‘process should be conducted with sensitivity and rigorous intellectual integrity. Its purpose is to understand context and contribute to public awareness of history, both now and for subsequent generations’ (though it is noticeable how in this instance the ‘past’ becomes ‘history’). It is for this reason that ICIR staff (again, correctly we argue) ‘should have backgrounds that draw on similar analytical skills, including lawyers, historians, and other academics’. If Arkiv was given to manifesto-style, these values would certainly be included. The thematic justification (which found previous expression in Eames/Bradley) is presented in this way.

Suggested themes are not prejudgements but questions to be asked and answered through evidence. It may be that different assessments are made with different levels of confidence; if that is the case, the report will say so. Likewise, it may be that the evidence does not support a particular hypothesis or suggested theme; if that is the case, the report will also say so. If further information is uncovered about those themes, or if additional themes are brought forward for consideration after the report is completed, the unit will issue amended or additional reports as the evidence warrants. If the ICIR is not able to issue a full report within three years, it will issue a status report on its work, explain the reasons for the delay, and provide an expected timeline for publication of its full report.

Similarly, this corresponds to the sort of analytical work which historians would recognise as integral to their day job. Moreover, the authors of the draft are clear that ‘process should be conducted with sensitivity and rigorous intellectual integrity’. This is essential since the purpose is not only momentary but also ‘to understand context and contribute to public awareness of history, both now and for subsequent generations’. That is a purpose worth supporting. Nevertheless, the concern Arkiv has with thematic accounts is their very real potential to politicise the past and to achieve the reverse of what Haass and O’Sullivan intend: that they do imply prejudgements (they already pre-exist the evidence); that they contradict the engagement to consider only what the evidence obliges one to believe; that there will be intense political pressure to support particular hypotheses; that this will encourage ideological-led rather than investigative-led history; and as a consequence the ‘past’ will not be taken out of politics but drawn very much in to the centre of it. There are a number of elements to this concern.

First, one may concede that themes are ‘what tie individual events or actions together into a comprehensible and meaningful history of those years’. At the same time one may contest the claim that ‘they also provide a vehicle for facilitating acknowledgments by perpetrators of violence, as they permit a broader level of accountability than do individual cases’. It has been well-said that to ‘universalise is to minimise’ ( and this is something at which some victims and victim groups might baulk.

Second, the draft identifies ‘two avenues through which themes can best be selected. First, the ICIR theme unit will, in the course of its study, identify themes through their assessment of the body of information before them. And second, civic society and political representatives, through the Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) can suggest hypotheses for the ICIR theme unit to analyse’. This is the where the contradiction is most plainly stated. The potential for political manipulation seems plain and the intimation is of a breach between the distinct responsibilities and roles of the institutional architecture, a breach which could threaten the stability of the whole edifice. The contradiction lies in this.

In a previous post Pravda and Istina (corrected link) – which was a response to some of the speculation in the media – we identified the problem. That post argued that for all its use of the term ‘history’, what is proposed often has little to do with history but a lot to do with the ideological past. We claimed that no self-respecting historian would entertain the validity of the contradiction in the ICR – the close examination of detail while others (IRG) decide on themes to be explored. Appearing as a balance between ‘civic society’ and historical investigation, in the real world pre-existing themes will skew the integrity of investigation, putting ideology before history. [added emphasis]

Of course, read the whole thing.

And keep it in mind when assessing the reactions of the various political parties.  Because there appears to be a fundamental disagreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP on what happens next.  Here’s the NI First Minister, the DUP’s Peter Robinson on 31 December 2013

We each must identify, not only areas where improvements are being sought, but also, how the problems identified by others can be accommodated in a way that does no injury to our own deeply held positions.

I will recommend to my party colleagues that they support the suggestion made by Dr Haass that a “working group” be established to see how agreed elements can be taken forward while seeking to resolve areas where disagreement remains.

We must not lose the momentum and we each should take care that areas of agreement are not allowed to unravel.”

And, in contrast, the NI deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, today

In recent days I have heard talk about the  establishment of a working group on the Haass proposals. The negotiation has ended. The only purpose in establishing an all-party working group  is to ensure the implementation of the document as it stands not to  reopen negotiations on its contents.” [added emphasis]

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  • jthree

    That piece would have a bit more credibility had it not linked to the ‘One hundred thousand Christians will be massacred this year because of their beliefs’ piece.

    The ‘100,000 martyrs per annum’ was thoroughly debunked by More or Less earlier this year.

    There are also those who might think Arkiv’s somber entreaties against ‘putting ideology before history’ is a little bit rum

  • Mick Fealty

    I’d much prefer to hear a cogent defence of themed investigations (which is the subject after all) than yet another tedious ‘don’t listen him’ ad hominem attack.

    My understanding is themes are popular with SF, SDLP and APNI, and not popular with Unionists.

    So let’s hear a persuasive case that themes are not just another opportunity for carving yet more politics out of past conflict?

  • Mc Slaggart

    I like history but I don’t trust historians.

    Its not that they are evil its just they are human. Even Pilate pondered when Jesus said he was “witness to the truth”.

    Without a clear framework for investigation it will turn into an endless round of polite “whatabout this aspect”

  • Brian Walker

    I have my own low life analysis of the “contradictions.” The parties were a cleft stick. Academics suddenly became magic bullets they could fire to get them out of all sorts of jams and solve contradictions.

    At the same time they wanted to control the process in case the same academics got it wrong and sold the pass. They therefore threw in wish lists (very incomplete as it happens), of themes to try to make sure their own babies weren’t buried. But they also recognised – dimly perhaps – that objectivity is necessary and that they may have to surrender control at some level.

    While there are basic contradictions that have to be resolved I doubt in the end that they will present much of a problem. They can be tackled by an appeal to best practice, by invoking the two governments’ necessary and contingent approval for a major inquiry and by stating the obvious, that reputable academics from any discipline would not touch the political dirigisme of the Haass document with a barge pole.

  • Pete Baker

    You might be right, Brian.

    Particularly on the parties’ desire to control the process – and not hand it over to someone who could slaughter hitherto sacred cows without the batting of an eyelid.

    Those “experts”, at the same time, would also give the parties an appeal to authority when they pointed at their still extant sacred cows. Even though all knives had been confiscated at the door to the process.

    But I’d be more convinced of a possible resolution if,

    a) there was evidence of a similarly pragmatic approach by the parties elsewhere – [Adds Here’s the most recent example I can think of].

    b) the currently stated views of all the parties allowed for a flexible approach to the Haass document “as it stands” – see Martin McGuinness’ comments quoted in the OP.

    c) there was some evidence from the parties that they recognised that the currently stated proposals on the past are a problem – to the extent “that reputable academics from any discipline would not touch the political dirigisme of the Haass document with a barge pole”. Alliance Party, I’m looking at you on that one, in particular.

    That, of course, doesn’t address the issue of disreputable academics…

  • Barney

    “this will encourage ideological-led rather than investigative-led history”
    What is non ideological history?
    I’ve yet to read a history without a theme.

    Brian is probably correct when he comments on reputable academics and barge polls for the simple reason that documentation will not be released by a higher power.

    Martin mcGuinness is correct Haass is over.

  • Brian Walker


    The point is that a mixed disciplinary group of academics could accept a broad brief on the usual terms of inquiries – independence – to examine the causes and outcomes of the Troubles set in context – beginning with the basics of what happened and why and where possible, “who,whom” . Cases studies, themes, call them what you will, would follow on and be decided by the academics – and journalists – themselves as they go through the evidence. They could helpfully keep all of us informed of progress and answer some of our questions. But for politicians to set a detailed brief and supervise them would be a gross conflict of interest.

    What would be the point of the exercise? Partly as Arkiv says, to provide correctives to myth and memory and to address the abuses of history present in politics.

    Of course it is true that no history is value free or leads inexorably to a single” correct” conclusion. That is propaganda and ideology not history. There is indeed a stretch required to write history as contributions to an undefined if avowedly benign political purpose.

    But aside from making obvious correctives, most value lies in the example offered to politicians and polemicists by the integrity of the exercise, the weight given to facts, the quality of the analysis and the open discussion of differences.

    Despite all the understandable cynicism over the Haass process, I still find it encouraging that all five parties invoked the objective study of history as part of the way through their difficulties. If the project went ahead in some form the lessons of history could provide willing politicians with arguments for making progress. If however they thought they could dictate to academics, the project is even more doomed than its critics have claimed.

  • Pete Baker


    “The point is…”

    Yes. I did understand that point. It’s, partly, why I blogged the Arkiv post in the first place.

    “Despite all the understandable cynicism over the Haass process, I still find it encouraging that all five parties invoked the objective study of history as part of the way through their difficulties.”

    Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. As both Arkiv and I’ve indicated.

    “If the project went ahead in some form the lessons of history could provide willing politicians with arguments for making progress.”

    See points in previous comment.

    “If however they thought they could dictate to academics, the project is even more doomed than its critics have claimed.”

    Indeed – see Implementation and Reconciliation Group.

  • Pete,
    Most history or social science gets written with a theme. This is because the historian either belongs to a particular ideology or academic school or because in his or her initial reading of secondary sources certain patterns are noticed that lead the historian to formulate a hypothesis. Now a good academic will be aware of his or her possible bias(es) and will guard against them. A good historian can start out with a particular hypothesis and change his mind because of the evidence not supporting it.

    I would hope that these themes are organized in an open rather than a closed fashion. An open fashion would be to look at security force or intelligence–paramilitary interactions in general. A closed fashion would be to look solely at collaboration–especially only on one side of the communal divide.

  • sean treacy

    arkiv can have no role in dealing with the past.They are fatally compromised by the past political associations of some of their members.Particularly those associated with a party/movement which lied its way through the troubles from start to finish.

  • David Crookes

    Real scholars don’t need to be commissioned or assembled into groups.

    Real scholars do their own research, pick their own themes, and write their own books or articles.

    If I may use a supremely ugly vulgarism, they refuse to be ‘tasked’.

    Intelligent readers don’t expect to find some great Hegelian Absolute called ‘The Truth’ in any one book, or in the books of any one school.

    Academics get enough money already. Let’s not waste public money by allowing non-scholars to choose a group of academics, to pay them well, and to guarantee them free publication.

    We need to teach our fellow-countrymen that the NI problem is in world terms worse than trivial because of the smallness of NI’s population. The more attention we secure for NI, the more we shall inflate the lunatic self-importance of many of its citizens. The necessary humility and sense of scale may come to us when we admit that we have the population of a single big city, and that life is not all that frightful for most of us.

    Don’t think that academics will help to solve the problem. Most academics are interested only in the furtherance of their own careers. Their craven-hearted reverence for the current lodge doctrines means that even if they go and talk to the Twaddell caravaneers, they will see and express everything in terms of some twit-brained postcolonial or conflict-studies paradigm. Result: more twaddle, more money for academics, and fewer nurses in NI’s hospitals. The rubbish of academe may be useless, but it has to be paid for in real money.

    Let’s not get a small group of people who take themselves far too seriously to study a large group of people who take themselves far too seriously.

  • Mick Fealty


    “arkiv can have no role in dealing with the past.”

    That’s like saying Slugger can’t either. Writing official histories that everyone must agree with is the sort of thing they do in North Korea, and we’re not quite there yet, I think/hope!

  • latcheeco

    Good luck with that! Paisley and Robinson can’t even agree on what happened, and they were in the leadership of the same party.

  • latcheeco

    Oh, and what David said!

  • sean treacy

    Members of Arciv couldn’t tell the truth during the troubles,how could they be trusted to do so now.Their history would be presented as the impartial version which it would certainly would not be