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]