Henry Patterson is half right, but dealing with the past must be broadly based

. Henry Patterson, a historian of high repute from the unionist tradition has entered the debate sparked by the Panorama on collusion, Britain’s Secret Deals. He laments what he sees as unionism’s “parochialism and defensiveness “in failing to challenge the republican narrative  of the Troubles as a struggle for freedom and  justice in common with similar struggles elsewhere.

The recent publication in the News Letter of a graph detailing deaths caused by paramilitary organisations and the state (showing that deaths by the state were far, far lower) was yet another reiteration of a widespread unionist feeling that the narrative of the Troubles has been effectively seized by republicans, and that the bare facts of relative culpability for the Troubles will in some way challenge and even help to displace this republican domination.

I am afraid that it won’t. Facts, even ones as powerful as these, do not speak for themselves.

With the support of a large supporting cast of journalists, clerics and non-governmental organisations, republicans have focused on broader explanatory frameworks which emphasise longer-term structural factors, eg discrimination, sectarianism and institutional culpability, eg the issue of ‘collusion’.

They have also linked their own essentially ethnic narrative to broader international discourse of human rights, transitional justice and ‘reconciliation’.

Unionism’s parochialism and defensiveness has been incapable of rising to this challenge

Regrettably, part of the blindness to the unionist case is due to the deep  frustration outsiders felt at the  same “parochialism and defensiveness”  which held unionism back from making a political deal with constitutional nationalism decades ago. Unionism is too historically compromised to  provide a strong enough platform to counter ” freedom struggle ” narratives, even  in these days of jihadism where the  face of struggle is too repulsive to explain  away. But telling the full story,  including the story of unionists the people, is a different matter.

This is a complaint of substance, which  Patterson himself so powerfully contributed to addressing in  for example  “Ireland’s Violent Frontier, “ his gripping account of  the IRA’s sectarian murder campaign on the border, which was underplayed  at the time and since. More of the same is needed, complemented no doubt by fresh political critiques which explain rather than only sneer at unionist defensiveness.

Patterson draws attention to the Basque government’s  decision to appoint a group of historians to produce an analysis of violence in the Basque Country from 1968 to the present. He calls for the appointment of a similar group here .

The proposal is aimed at providing an over-arching periodisation of the conflict and bears some similarity to the Historical Timelines Group proposed in the final version of Haass/O’Sullivan proposals. It is only by embracing ideas and proposals like these that our politicians can begin to move beyond using the past as a resource for current political objectives.

Despite the modest Haass and now the SHA proposals, so far sterling efforts to get such a project going have run into the sand of British government stalling.

I differ from Patterson if he is suggesting that the perspective for historians is to provide a counter case to republican propaganda. That would strangle the project in the womb.  It will not exist unless it enjoys cross community and intergovernmental backing.   It is also a mistake to assume that the  transitional justice approach with its arguably unreachable  standards  must only feed the republican cause. The only viable approach is to let the fullest possible facts speak for themselves. Paradoxically this  can work well in Northern Ireland, where people are expert at filtering  the politics in or out, according to taste.

But Patterson ‘s idea that republicans have it all their own way is exaggerated. Look at the impact of revisionism in the south, most recently  the fascinating debate over thwarting Sinn Fein’s attempts to position themselves as keepers of the national patriotic flame . In Britain  true, the legacy is mixed, but  since the emergence of jihadism, such gilt as there was, has worn off  Irish republicanism’s  gingerbread, by forensic and factual reporting  by  the likes of Peter Taylor and  Ed Moloney. There’s a lot more to come, if access to the archives is granted.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London