Professional historians will be wary of terms like these for writing an official History of the Troubles


The Daily Telegraph reports…

An official history of The Troubles will be commissioned under government plans, amid fears the narrative of the conflict is being distorted by republicans.

It would also focus on the role of the British Government and Armed Forces in the 30-year sectarian conflict, including the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, when 13 civilians were shot dead by troops.

 If signed off, the official history project would sit alongside a package of measures announced earlier this year to move away from prosecuting crimes committed before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and towards information recovery and reconciliation for the victims.

 Approached for comment on Saturday night, Whitehall sources insisted the official history would be independent of ministers and would involve historians being appointed to produce a balanced historical record.

t is expected to provoke a backlash from Sinn Fein, the nationalist party, which was historically associated with the IRA during the Troubles.

It also risks further souring relations with Dublin, which has already claimed that the Troubles “amnesty” risks undermining the peace accords and could face a legal challenge being brought in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

 Under the plans devised by the Northern Ireland Office, a group of historians would be appointed by the Government on privy council terms to undertake the project.

The Telegraph understands that ministers are also considering asking the Northern Ireland centenary historical advisory panel, chaired by the historian Lord Bew, to lend their expertise.

If these terms are described correctly,  the project sounds politicised from the start.  Few historians  – none that I know of  – would accept terms that adopt the flawed and frankly ridiculous approach  of merely counteracting the Sinn Fein narrative. The writing of Irish history for almost a century  has been excellent because it has been genuinely independent. It’s never been the writing  of professional  history that has been the problem; it’s  the use or abuse that has been made of it by rival sides.

But let’s not go overboard.  Access to state files could be more open if accompanied  by a de facto amnesty provided the identities of the living were protected and informants were exempt from civil action . That would be the trade-off. Is that what the government have in mind?

How” independent” would  it be?  “Privy council terms” means  agreeing to  keep secret details secret if you have been given a sight of  them for corroboration purposes. Some restrictions provided they were declared,  would be inevitable  to protect identities and national security methods which are still in operation.  And  national security is no longer the blanket ban it once was.   However the UK government has refused consistently to define the limits of national security over collusion allegations. For this project to stand a chance , they would  have to  come clean.

The UK official histories  of wartime  enjoy a high reputation .  They are never the whole story from two sides but exploit home sources.  A history of the Troubles is bound to be different. Rival sides  have already supplied  plenty of material while retaining  plenty of secrets .  So can we have greater openness all round?

What  use  would be made of the long stalled report of the Commission on flags,  identity, culture and tradition  that covers  Northern Ireland itself beyond the view form Whitehall?

Lord Paul Bew is named as a consultant.  As a pillar of the establishment – he is currently chair of the Lords Appointments Commission – he is presumably trusted in Whitehall . While unionist –leaning  he is  highly respected  in his professional capacity as  professor emeritus of politics at Queen’s  with a high reputation as a contemporary historian that  I’m confident he would never jeopardise. It will be very interesting to learn how he responds.

Bloody Friday photograph 

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