Irish Times columnist and distinguished historian Diarmaid Ferriter dismisses the British government proposal for an “official” British history of the Troubles. Although it could hardly be the last word, this is a project I believe is well worth exploring if it means opening state archives to independent historians. If an amnesty of some sort is passed, greater access to state records would be part of the deal, to accompany the end of prosecutions. While such a deal would produce furious controversy, the project is nevertheless worth considering on its own merits. The finished work would inevitably reflect UK sources and expose the incompleteness of the account. Ferriter is too quick to reject the proposal but he poses the right questions.
.. under what terms could such a commissioned history have any credibility? Is it not just a diversion from awkward questions around amnesties and demands for inquiries and accountability that have been continually thwarted by the British government in response to repeated requests by families and indeed, the Irish Government? What records would be accessible and by whom? And if it is privileged access how can that history be transparent or properly peer reviewed? It is a myth, of course, that history writing, official or otherwise, can be entirely “neutral”, or that archives contain all the answers to difficult questions, but for a British government to sponsor a project along the lines reported would suggest an embarrassing level of self-interest at a fraught time…
Arranging for those affected by the more recent Troubles to record their experiences would be a similarly worthy endeavour, but alongside that, what is needed is not “official” history, but a decision to properly open sensitive archival material to facilitate the writing of evidence-based history. The political will to facilitate that is highly unlikely to materialise.
What Ferriter seems to think the UK government want is an account of IRA dastardly deeds and the valiant attempts of well intentioned UK governments and security forces to contain them. Such a one dimensional approach would convince no one. It also raises what would be Irish government’s contribution to recent history and the legacy generally. Their proposals are keenly awaited.
A focus on victims is frankly the easy bit for historians. But even this can be politicised because for many unionists, victims’ testimony undermines what they and some neutrals insist is the dominating thrust of the republican narrative. That aim is not of itself unhistorical. There is nothing like the testimony of cruelty whether casual or targeted to take the shine of the idealistic appeal of armed struggle or the freelance so-called defence of the state. This in turn prompts insistent questions like “was your armed struggle really necessary?” and “ did your government behave justly?,” which lie at the heart of the vigorous debate about revisionism and anti-revisionism in Irish history south and north . Were the nationalist revolutions beginning in 1916 and 1970 part of the same armed struggle? How were they justified at the time? Was “not an inch” unionism’s only choice to protect its position? . What did the British think they were doing? These and other existential questions can be tested in the light of evidence.
Ferriter’s questions about a British exercise are very relevant. What access would be given to state records and to whom? An authorised history of MI5 written by Christopher Andrew was published to mark its centenary in 2009. Many other files were released in 2014. They confirm that there was a right wing plot against Harold Wilson which was not finally discredited until 20 years after Wilson left office in 1976. An official history would be worthwhile if similar access to MI5 and other security files was granted, If many MI5 files were released within 20 years of the end of the Cold War why not files more than 20 years after the formal end of the Troubles, with suitable safeguards for the living? Operation Kenova into Stakeknife is on the direction of travel. Without such disclosure, Ferriter is surely right.
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