How historians can provide correctives to “memory wars” in dealing with the past


The Ulster-born, Oxford-based historian Ian McBride has published what I take to be the essence of his evidence to the government’s consultation on dealing with the past. He discusses the potential role for professional historians in the proposed institutions prescribed for dealing with oral history, information retrieval and identifying themes and patterns in events.  He takes for granted that Sinn Fein are winning the battle of the narratives. This is hardly surprising. In a new era where “equality” between peoples and traditions is a legal requirement, unionists persist in playing a zero sum game they’re bound to lose, in which every nationalist or republican gain is written down as a unionist loss. The answer is not merely to provide a contrived balance but to tell fuller stories with an open mind. Thus, the exposure of collusion is complemented by an account of success in infiltrating the IRA.

While the suggested list of themes is far from exhaustive, it goes straight  to the heart of many controversies and follows the line of the best investigative journalism. However while concentrating on the causes celebres on all sides of the conflict,  he fails to mention the essential political contexts behind them, without which many of them might seem “random” or “mindless”. The absence of other than self serving insider accounts of state strategy and tactics is also  a yawning gap waiting to be filled.

McBride argues for a bigger role for historians than the  government envisages.  They have prescribed fairly tight control by government or government appointees for all the usual reasons, plus the additional one of  trying to allay fears that the local parties would lose all control over the process.

While McBride incidentally challenges  these restrictions, he is  more concerned here to establish historians’ credentials than describing the essential requirements for exercising them. His appeal is professional and non-partisan, while insisting (over- apologetically perhaps, to head off partisan retorts), that everyone brings a background to their work, consciously or not. His case can credibly  be set alongside the high reputation of the writing of contemporary Irish history. His one anxiety is that a professional approach would be too dull (my word) for the general reader and register little impact on political debate. He would redress this in part by being unafraid to make moral judgements – in other words, concluding who on the basis of the evidence in different cases bears the greater blame. Risky as this would be, it brings the themes down to human level. But it raises the fundamental question: can history, especially recent history,be dispassionately  remembered without being swamped by arguments about moral equivalence to gain political advantage? The answer must be yes. There’s nothing like uncomfortable facts to puncture moralistic certainty; and there are enough uncomfortable conclusions to go round.

McBride’s initiative succeeds an earlier campaign by Ulster historians conducted via their website Archiv five years ago in the wake of the Haass framework which the government has largely adopted. That initiative died the death due to omerta among state and paramilitary protagonists, political deadlock and a refusal of the state to reduce or even discuss, the chilling effect of national security in accessing records.

McBride doesn’t deal here with the conditions under which historians require to  access the material they need to do the job – such as immunity from prosecutions to allow protagonists to speak out and access to sensitive official records. He does however suggest some themes for historical investigation which they and not the state or state appointees should prescribe.

The basic aim of historians Ian McBride contends, is not to deliver an impossibly definitive, unchallengeable account, but within the limits of anyone’s objectivity to acknowledge the moral dimension in coming to judgements and to “limit the range of permissible lies.” It remains an open question whether historians – and I would add, investigative journalists who are often as well or better qualified- will ever get the opportunity to break the tedious cycles of whataboutery. In our time at least.



Unionists might be forgiven for feeling that the tide of history is against them. It is true that republicanism as a revolutionary project has collapsed, and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom seems secure.

But Protestants seem to lack either the ideological resources or the cultural confidence to match the younger, more dynamic representatives of northern nationalism. One of the peculiar features of the memory wars in Northern Ireland, moreover, has been the withdrawal of the state from the battlefield. As the Brexit referendum emphasised, ‘the state’ inhabited by the Northern Irish is still the United Kingdom, capable of removing them from the European Union against their wishes…

But the overriding priority of the British state has always been to insulate itself from the violence of the six counties; and the processes of insulation have been so successful that even those British politicians who care most about the Anglo-Scottish union seldom speak about the other union, that of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Consequently, the most powerful actor in Northern Irish politics has demonstrated little interest in constructing an official narrative of the ‘war’ or trying to control the meaning of the disputed events whose anniversaries matter so much to the people of Belfast or Derry….

The most active and sophisticated campaigning groups in Northern Ireland’s memory wars – such as Relatives for Justice and the Pat Finucane Centre – are focused entirely on inquiries into state abuses, of which there are an alarming number. One of the more moderate voices in Unionist politics is Jeffrey Donaldson, a Westminster MP who speaks for the DUP on victims’ issues:

“There has to be some moral line that you create here, because if you don’t create that moral line what you say to future generations that, well actually it’s okay to go out and kill people, it’s okay to engage in criminal and terrorist activity because eventually you’ll be almost absolved of it, and you yourself are a victim.”

There is nothing absurd or unreasonable about Donaldson’s determination to remember ‘the enormous price paid by the military and the police in standing in the gap during the period of the Troubles, protecting the community and enabling the space to be created wherein political progress could be made’….

(Polls suggest no group, from politicians to churches, can run a Truth Commission)

This is hardly a propitious environment in which to raise the question that forms the focus of this essay: what about academic historians? Isn’t it their business to sort out the real history from the myth and propaganda? Isn’t it the job of history to correct what Tony Judt once called ‘mis-memory’?

(Truth commissions such as South Africa’s  tend confuse legal conclusions which tend to be binary, with the more complex approach of historians)

It is hardly encouraging, in this light, that the Stormont House Agreement envisages that a major task for its academic experts will be the construction of a ‘factual historical timeline’…..

The time has come to return to the jaundiced citizens of Northern Ireland and to try and put ourselves in their shoes……

Bearing in mind the bitter divisions that result from the legacy of the Troubles, let’s contemplate the following question: can historians be trusted to deal with the past? Are their specialist credentials any more impressive than those of judges, community groups or clergymen?

The Stormont House Agreement has become a fixed feature of the political landscape. In any future discussions of ‘truth and reconciliation’ in Northern Ireland. it will most likely be assumed that both oral history and archival research will form a key part of that process. As this essay suggests, however, the greatest difficulties Northern Ireland faces do not derive from deficiencies in academic understanding of the Troubles. In 90% of cases, as one submission to Healing Through Remembering commented, we know which organisation was responsible for the killings that took place and why they were carried out: ‘What many people are actually seeking is to be able to apportion blame…’

Disputes over the nature of the conflict exist within the academy as well as in the Stormont Assembly or the local media. The most important concepts and categories that historians work with have an inescapably political dimension. One outcome of academic training is precisely the realisation that there is no neutral definition of the political concepts we all employ. In all societies the meaning of key political terms –democracy, nation, self-determination, terrorism – is contested.

Consequently, it is vital to distinguish between the kinds of public questions historians can answer satisfactorily and those they cannot. One way of making this distinction, perhaps, is to consider three separate levels of inquiry, the first of which is straightforward empirical research. Even at this fundamental level there is much valuable work to be done. The Stormont House Agreement does not itemise the ‘themes and patterns’ likely to form the subject of academic inquiry.

But it is widely anticipated that they will include longstanding allegations about collusion between the British government and paramilitaries, the operation of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy by the security forces and the mistreatment of detainees and prisoners.

The release of archival material by the Ministry of Defence and the British intelligence services might serve to restrict the spectrum of opinions on this subject, just as the Saville Inquiry has produced a widely shared narrative of what happened on Bloody Sunday, albeit one that leaves many important questions unanswered. This might be an appropriate moment to recall Michael Ignatieff’s famous remark: ‘the function of truth commissions, like the function of honest historians, is … to narrow the range of permissible lies’….

Surely it is also part of the historian’s job, however, to test the concepts and categories employed by public figures, particularly where they depend on simplified or distorted representations of the past.

One of the most nebulous concepts in current Troubles debate is collusion, which can mean any of the following: (1) the failure by the security forces to investigate loyalist attacks, for a variety of reasons; (2) the existence within the security forces of individuals who were also members of loyalist organisations; (3) the involvement in terrorist offences of loyalists who were simultaneously agents or informers of the intelligence services; (4) the deliberate manipulation of paramilitary groups as proxy agents in a dirty war.

At this second level of historical inquiry, the analysis of ‘themes and patterns’ will force the historian to make judgements about the relative weight to be attached to a variety of causal factors. Achieving a consensus among a team of scholars will certainly be harder (and ought to be). Another example addresses the flipside of collusion: how far was the extensive infiltration of the IRA by the security services responsible for redirecting the republican movement towards the peace process?

This is also the arena where history – ‘analytic, critical, attuned to complexity, and wary about generalisations’ – clashes with memory, as depicted on gable walls and banners, embodied in commemorative rituals and rehearsed in the graveside oration.65 Purists will stay clear of this confrontation altogether, and perhaps they are wise to do so. The typical historian is probably happier being a lie detector than some kind of truth finder. As we have seen, however, some of our most admired scholars believe that historical writing has a moral dimension.

This essay suggests that many scholars believe that good historical writing is also a matter of imagination, empathy and moral sensibility. Although this view is rarely expressed with philosophical sophistication it is nevertheless both widespread and persistent.68 If Northern Ireland is to engage with its past these skills and qualities will be necessary, albeit not sufficient.

The alternative is to continue with two antagonistic histories running along parallel tracks, one anti-republican and one anti-British. If that happens, we will lose sight of the areas where the experiences of unionists and nationalists intersected and overlapped. We will fail to do justice to those individuals and groups who struggled during the thirty years of the conflict to maintain a moral space in which the pressures of communal solidarity could be weighed against other commitments.

And finally, we will have to abandon the hope, so central to the making of the Good Friday Agreement, that the two main political blocs in Northern Ireland might achieve an agreed framework of values that would enable them, for the first time in their long history, to engage in creative dialogue with each other.

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