This report considers the contribution that historians and social scientists can make to the task of ‘dealing with the past’ in Northern Ireland. Specifically, it examines the role of academics as envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement from the perspective of experienced practitioners of the relevant disciplines.

The report is the outcome of a workshop held at Hertford College, Oxford on 19 October 2016. Recognising the need for clearer information about the potential contribution of historical research to reconciliation in Northern Ireland, we have set out:

  1. informed comments on the proposals in the Stormont House Agreement for (i) an Oral History Archive; (ii) a timeline and (iii) statistical analysis; and (iv) a report on themes and patterns;
  2. ways of distinguishing between problems that historians and social scientists cannot solve and those matters of public concern where academic research and analysis can bring greater clarity and understanding;
  3. recommendations on how to ensure that the overall process is ‘conducted with sensitivity and rigorous intellectual integrity, devoid of any political interference’.

Three Key Points

  • The proposals for an Oral History Archive, for further statistical analysis of the conflict by academics, and for the examination of ‘themes and patterns’ present valuable opportunities for promoting a fuller understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland, including its wider British and Irish contexts;
  • If the academic components of the legacy process are to enjoy public confidence their development and implementation must involve independent researchers who are recognised as experts in their fields;
  • If the process is to meet the highest standards of academic rigour and to be free from political interference, we recommend that the selection of academics, or teams of academics, be made in consultation with independent scholarly bodies with a proven record of promoting high-quality research and thereby contributing to public debate and policy making.

The Hertford workshop included a dozen established scholars working in departments of History, Politics and Sociology in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Britain:

Dr Huw Bennett (University of Cardiff); Dr Maire Braniff (University of Ulster); Dr Anna Bryson (Queen’s University Belfast); Professor Marianne Elliott (University of Liverpool); Dr Katy Hayward (Queen’s University Belfast); Professor Ian McBride (Hertford College, Oxford); Professor Fearghal McGarry (Queen’s University, Belfast); Dr Marc Mulholland (Oxford); Dr Niall Ó Dochartaigh (NIU Galway); Dr Simon Prince (Canterbury Christ Church); Professor Jennifer Todd (University College Dublin); Dr Tim Wilson (University of St. Andrews).

For further details of the participants please see Appendix 1.

1. Responses to the Stormont House Agreement

In the Stormont House Agreement (December 2014) Northern Ireland’s political leaders renewed their commitment to dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. The Stormont House Agreement (SHA) proposes the establishment of an Oral History Archive relating to the conflict, and envisages that academics will be involved in producing ‘a factual historical timeline and statistical analysis of the Troubles’ to accompany it. The SHA further provides that, after five years, independent academic experts will be commissioned by the Implementation and Reconciliation Group to write a report on any patterns and themes that emerge from the various legacy mechanisms designed to examine Troubles-related deaths. This process is to be ‘conducted with sensitivity and rigorous intellectual integrity, devoid of any political interference’. We turn now to examine these provisions.

(i) The Oral History Archive

Storytelling and oral history initiatives have long been acknowledged as an important and distinctive element of peacebuilding and reconciliation. In the absence of a formal truth and information recovery commission, academic and community oral history and ‘storytelling’ projects have provided an important outlet for victims and survivors. The creation of an Oral History Archive presents an opportunity to capture unheard voices – to reach out to a wide range of victims and survivors in Ireland, North and South, and throughout Britain. In time these individual perspectives can illustrate wider patterns and themes including gender, mental health, intergenerational dynamics, and rural perspectives. Providing opportunities to hear other voices can ultimately contribute to the complex work of reconciliation.

Numerous challenges must first be overcome. The Boston College Tapes affair continues to unfold, fuelling cynicism and fear. The default position of many individuals and groups is to reserve judgement and ‘say nothing’. In order to address these fears and to facilitate comprehensive engagement it is vital to ensure that the Archive is ‘independent and free from political interference’ – as stipulated in the Stormont House Agreement. Unlike the other historical components of the SHA, the proposal for an Oral History Archive has already been the subject of academic discussion, as detailed in Appendix 3.

The development of an Oral History Archive offers a potentially important means of bridging scholarly understanding and wider public engagement with history. In particular, an Oral History Archive offers a more inclusive means of addressing the past than a body of research narrowly focussed on state security forces and paramilitary groups. The stories of those who have suffered bereavement, injury and intimidation as a consequence of the conflict must be central to the project.

The aim of historical research is to construct as complete a picture of the past as possible. If we are to understand what happened in Northern Ireland we need to explore not only the dynamics of conflict but also those individuals and organisations who worked to restrain violence, to overcome division and to improve trust and cooperation between communities. A comprehensive account of the conflict would include the experiences of nurses and surgeons, community workers, school-teachers, the clergy of all denominations, lawyers and journalists – of all those whose occupations and social positions brought them into contact with the consequences of violence. The oral history of the Northern Ireland conflict must encompass the various ways in which people dealt with civil breakdown, polarisation, violent upheaval and militarisation in their everyday lives.

Academics have a vital role to play in outreach – in drawing on Irish, British and international precedents to engage the public in an oral history enterprise that must belong to everyone. In this respect, and in others, valuable lessons can be learned from the successful commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising in the Republic of Ireland. The Irish government framed historical reflections on the centenary in a pluralistic fashion, and worked with the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland governments to ensure that commemoration occurred ‘in a spirit of historical accuracy, mutual respect, inclusiveness and reconciliation’. Widespread public engagement was enabled by museum exhibitions, community research projects and public talks and conferences. The digitisation of archival sources, such as the Bureau of Military History and the Military Service Pensions and Census, proved a successful means of promoting public engagement by democratising historical research.

It should be noted that organisations such as the Community Relations Council, and local government Good Relations bodies, have developed considerable experience in Northern Ireland in dealing with the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ that could form the basis for community engagement with the far more contentious history of the Troubles.

(ii) Timelines

The purpose of ‘a factual historical timeline’ is unclear. The CAIN web service already offers a detailed ‘Chronicle of the Conflict’ along with many other resources for those who wish to understand the causes and development of the Troubles. Another detailed timeline can be found in Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles (2nd edition, Dublin, 1999). Richard Deutsch and Vivien Magowan produced a four-volume work entitled, Northern Ireland, 1968-73: A Chronology of Events (1973-75), while Fortnight magazine ran a monthly chronology throughout the conflict. David McKittrick and David McVea’s Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict (2012) is a widely admired, concise textbook, with a chronology stretching over 79 pages.

Greater clarity about the purpose of a timeline is necessary. Otherwise we risk creating misunderstandings among the wider public about the nature of academic research. One advantage of historical scholarship is precisely the lack of importance attached to polemical arguments over ‘who fired the first shot?’ Dealing with the past in Northern Ireland will require engaging with more complex questions of causation and responsibility.

(iii) Statistical Analysis

A large volume of statistical analysis relating to the conflict is already available. An excellent example is Marie-Therese Fay, Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth, Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs (1999) which categorises the victims of the conflict by religious affiliation, social background, geographical location, gender and age. The authors also examine the perpetrators of violence, identifying the organisations responsible for deaths. One difference between Northern Ireland and other divided societies is that extensive research was conducted in Northern Ireland from 1968 right through to the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement. The results of many attitude surveys and participation observation studies were summarised in John Whyte’s concise Interpreting Northern Ireland (1991). More recently Bernadette C. Hayes and Ian McAllister have produced a systematic analysis of academic public opinion surveys during the entire span of the Troubles, in their book Conflict to Peace: Politics and Society in Northern Ireland over Half a Century (2013).

Much work nevertheless remains to be done. Almost all statistical analysis so far has focused on the number of deaths because they provide a clear and unambiguous measure of conflict. It is likely that a systematic mapping of other indicators of violence, using newly-available archival sources, including military situation reports, will contribute significantly to understanding the context for individual attacks, and the intentions and strategies of the various parties involved. Other important areas in which our statistical data is unsatisfactory are on levels of detention, charging, conviction and imprisonment for offences related to the conflict, and on levels of participation in the security forces over the course of the conflict. These new possibilities for statistical analysis will provide valuable background and context for the writing of the thematic reports.

(iv) Themes and Patterns

The Stormont House Agreement does not offer examples of the themes and patterns likely to form the subject of inquiry. But the final draft of proposals given to the parties by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan suggested the following possibilities: alleged collusion between governments and paramilitaries; alleged ethnic cleansing in border regions and in interface neighbourhoods; the alleged UK ‘shoot to kill policy; the targeting of off-duty UDR soldiers, prison officers, and reservist RUC officers; the degree to which, if at all, the Republic of Ireland provided a ‘safe haven to republican paramilitaries; intra-community violence by paramilitaries; the use of lethal force in public order situations; detention without trial; mistreatment of detainees and prisoners; the policy behind the ‘disappeared’; and the sources of financing and arms for paramilitary groups.

Many of these themes are already being addressed albeit in a piecemeal manner. A historical report on patterns and themes can accommodate multiple voices while at the same time testing assertions in a disciplined, evidence-based way. Such an approach will avoid constructing hierarchies of victims or implying a simplistic equivalence among all the protagonists. As Michael Ignatieff has remarked, ‘the function of truth commissions, like the function of honest historians, is … to narrow the range of permissible lies’.

The themes outlined by Haass and O’Sullivan are urgent and important precisely because they are so central to the struggle to establish and undermine the legitimacy of key parties to the conflict. It is important that thematic analysis be more than simply a matter of fighting old battles in a new arena. Issues such as collusion or ethnic cleansing require detailed factual investigation. But they must also be understood in relation to the broader forces of violence and legitimacy, coercion and order, territory, nation and state, culture and identity.

2. Academic Research and the Northern Ireland Conflict

(i) The Limits of Historical Research

It should be noted at the outset that many of the difficulties Northern Ireland faces in dealing with its past do not derive from deficiencies in academic understanding of the Troubles. The problem is rather the strength with which partisan narratives are held by the public and, in many cases, promoted by political actors invested in one-sided interpretations of the conflict. Previous attempts to deal with the past have been obstructed by fundamental differences over the legitimacy of the campaigns of paramilitary organisations, with most attention focusing on the IRA. No amount of archival research or academic analysis will resolve those disagreements. Attitudes to paramilitary violence are in turn shaped by differences over how far Northern Ireland was undemocratic or incapable of peaceful reform. Once again, it is hard to see how deeply held political beliefs about such matters can be either proved or disproved by historical research. What divides the people of Northern Ireland is not so much disagreement over particular facts as clashing perceptions of the responsibility for violence, the motives of the principal agents in the conflict, and the meaning of victimhood.

There are disagreements over the nature of the conflict within the academy as well as in public discourse. Historians and social scientists work with concepts and categories that 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, as the historian and literary critic Stefan Collini has observed, ‘all attempts to understand aspects of human life, no matter how disciplined they may be in their analysis of concepts and their handling of evidence, will reproduce some of this fundamental lack of agreement’.

We share the general wariness among historians and other academics of proposals for ‘official’ or ‘agreed’ histories. Indeed the manipulation of the past by political and social elites has been a major theme of historical study since the 1980s. Scholars understandably fear that in state-sponsored history the complexities of past experience are liable to be sacrificed in the interests of political expediency or therapeutic goals. One of Ireland’s most respected historians reminds us ‘to avoid the use of simplistic and exclusive dichotomies, or facile attributions of motive; the task of the historian is rather to ‘raise awkward issues and, above all, seek to broaden the terms of debate’. The purpose of academic research is not to close down public debate but to inform it.

(ii) Objectivity

All writing in History and the social sciences embodies assumptions about the nature of political and social life. But a fundamental part of the training of historians consists of adjudicating between competing accounts of the same event or phenomenon, and defending such judgements on the basis of rational, evidence-based argument. Most historians would recognise Mark Bevir’s description of objectivity as resting upon ‘a combination of agreement on certain facts, an extensive use of criticism, and a comparison of rival views in relation to clearly defined criteria’. These include the traditional criteria of accuracy, comprehensiveness, and consistency, but also – and crucially – a refusal to avoid uncomfortable facts. Professor Bevir is a philosopher who teaches Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. But his views correspond closely to those of Mary Fulbrook, a historian of modern Germany based at University College London. In her book, Historical Theory (2002), Professor Fulbrook identifies three essential precepts of good historical practice:

  • commitment to basic honesty and integrity rather than deceit;
  • absence of wilful distortions or omissions;
  • commitment to accepting the possibility of revision of particular interpretations in the light of further evidence.

It will be apparent that these principles resemble a code of ethics rather than a scientific procedure for determining the truth. Detachment is vital to all of them. These values are sustained by the process of peer review used by academic journals and publishers, by promotion panels, by national research councils and international funding bodies.

(iii) Resolving Conflicts over the Past

Establishing facts and assessing the veracity of competing accounts is an essential aspect of the discipline of history and the related social sciences. Empirical research is the foundation of historical inquiry. Often the kinds of events that interest historians are mental events: they ask not only what happened, but how contemporaries understood their actions, and how far the meanings of those actions changed over time. But the assembling of factual information from source material, archival or otherwise, is fundamental to historical understanding. Historians are accordingly trained to ask questions about the institutional and political contexts in which sources are produced, about the ideological assumptions embedded within source material, and about the intended and unintended processes of destruction that have created imbalances and gaps in the surviving evidence. The compilation and critical evaluation of evidence is an indispensable part of confronting the legacy of the conflict. It enables historians to test the claims and categories employed in the public sphere, particularly where they depend on simplified or distorted representations of the past.

But the most distinctive concern of historians and social scientists, separating them from other fact-seeking enterprises such as journalism and the law, is to bring fresh analytical perspectives to bear and to unsettle simplistic and entrenched narratives of the past. Scholars are at their best disaggregating the assumptions and beliefs that underpin rival perceptions of the past, and in breaking controversial questions into their component parts. On some questions – such as the extent of discrimination that existed under the old Stormont government – academic research has achieved a measure of consensus. Even in the more heated debate concerning the role of sectarianism in the IRA’s campaign academics have brought the key issues into sharper focus and narrowed the scope of disagreement.

(iv) Archival Sources

The Conflict Archive on the Internet project (CAIN) has shown how obscure records can be made available to wider publics. At present the Stormont House Agreement proposes to make the Oral History Archive as accessible as possible to the public. An equally important initiative to promote historical knowledge and public understanding would be to make available archives and other sources bearing on the conflict. Both the UK National Archives and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland already have outreach units: their expertise should be exploited to increase public use of archival material in relation to the Troubles.

If historians and social scientists are to contribute effectively towards new statistical analyses, or to report on themes chosen by the Implementation and Reconciliation Group, then access will be required to a wider range of archival sources.

The precise number of relevant records held by government departments is unknown, but the Northern Ireland Office, Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Cabinet Office hold thousands of files relevant to the writing of thematic reports. For example, only a handful of records created by Headquarters Northern Ireland are open at the National Archives. British government departments hold several hundred thousand records beyond the normal provisions of the Public Records Act, whereby files are released 30 years after they were created (by 2022 this will have changed to a 20-year period). Normally records that are too sensitive to release within the standard timeframe are listed on the National Archives catalogue as retained, with the Lord Chancellor authorising the extended retention period. Several thousand files relating to the conflict are listed as such on the catalogue. However, there is also an unknown volume of records which have not even been through this filtering stage and are sitting in various government repositories.

The opening up of government records will not inevitably lead to one-sided accounts concentrating exclusively on the security forces. Official records also contain extensive information on paramilitary organisation and activities, because they were a central focus for the state. Furthermore, archives created by other non-state actors are essential for understanding the conflict. Records created by various churches, peace campaigners, political parties, and international organisations such as Amnesty International can be drawn upon when the thematic reports are being written.

There are two basic impediments to making more archival material available. The first concerns resources. Government departments have faced real difficulties in moving towards the new 20-year rule for releasing records to the National Archives, which have been compounded by the increase in work caused by the Freedom of Information Act. However, progress is possible where the political will exists to devote resources to the task. Following the Mau Mau court case in 2013, when it was revealed that thousands of records on the British Empire had been lost for decades, the Foreign Office appointed 37 additional sensitivity reviewers, aided by an academic adviser, Professor Tony Badger. The reviewers managed to review and release over 20,000 government files within a few years: a remarkable achievement that shows what could be done in relation to Northern Ireland.

The second obstacle relates to information that might result in criminal prosecution, damage to national security, or injury to living persons. Whilst there is a direct conflict between the desire for criminal prosecution and the willingness to release information in the Stormont House Agreement, both state and non-state archives could be used by researchers in a parallel process that would circumvent this roadblock. In writing the statistical analyses and thematic reports, personal details found in archives are unlikely to be essential. They could be redacted by security officials in advance before release to researchers; alternatively the reports written by researchers could be vetted after drafting. The best method of reassuring both academics and the public about the decisions to disclose or withhold such information would involve an independent review process, in which historians and archivists would be represented. For the Stormont House Agreement and its academic components to have credibility, compromises must be reached on releasing as much material as possible to aid understanding, without endangering people’s lives.

3. Academic Independence

The Stormont House Agreement rightly emphasises the need to protect the independence and integrity of academics from political pressure. If academic research is to make any contribution in the public realm we must first and foremost insist on this basic principle. We therefore make the following recommendations:

(i) Academics should be selected on the basis of their scholarly credentials rather than their political complexion. It would be a misunderstanding to suppose that Irish historians can be divided into rival unionist and nationalist schools, or that academics from Britain or the Republic are reluctant to criticise the role of their own governments. Academics do not speak for their communities in the way that politicians represent their constituents. To select a panel of historians or social scientists along the lines of the d’Hondt method would be inappropriate. ‘Balance’ in academic writing requires sensitivity to divergent political perspectives and a commitment to capture past experience in all its complexity. These qualifications are best judged by the academic community itself and specifically by those professional organisations whose role is to promote excellence within their disciplines.

(ii) In Ireland the Royal Irish Academy constitutes an independent, all-island forum of peer-elected experts. Drawing on the expertise of its members, North and South, the RIA seeks to make a significant contribution to public debate and policy formation on issues in both science and the humanities. Similarly, the British Academy is an independent body of world-leading scholars and researchers in the humanities and social sciences. Its aim is to support new research and to provide a forum for debate and engagement within the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. Both these national organisations contain members/fellows from Northern Ireland’s universities and others with expertise in the relevant aspects of British and Irish History. So too does the Royal Historical Society, which exists to promote vitality of historical scholarship in the United Kingdom. Representatives of these and similar bodies are best placed to advise on the selection of academics capable of achieving the highest scholarly standards and of enjoying the esteem of the wider academic community in Ireland, Britain and internationally. A large part of the day-to-day work of these bodies, after all, consists of ‘peer review’ – of making judgements about the quality of research.

(iii) As proposals for the implementation of the legacy mechanisms are more fully developed, we recommend that academics be fully involved in discussions over how research into the contentious aspects should be framed and organised. We recommend that an independent advisory panel containing academics be established to examine further proposals, and to ensure that their professional expertise can be utilised in a manner consistent with scholarly integrity. One of its primary concerns should be to establish how far academics will be consulted in the identification of themes and patterns by the IRG and how the precise parameters of such exercises are to be defined. Another must be to clarify and agree the terms, if any, under which academics are given access to the material gathered by the Historical Investigations Unit and the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval. The academic membership of this panel should ideally be nominated by independent bodies such as the Royal Irish Academy, the British Academy or Royal Historical Society rather than governments or political parties.

We see great potential for the academic components of the Stormont House Agreement to draw together what might otherwise become a series of disjointed investigations and processes. It is only by connecting and contextualizing the findings of the various investigatory bodies that they can become an important resource for the promotion of the central goals of the Implementation and Reconciliation Group as outlined in the SHA: enlarging our understanding of the past, thereby promoting reconciliation and reducing sectarianism. Ownership of the process as a whole must rest – and be seen to rest – with the public. But the academic components of the process, if they are to enjoy public confidence, must also involve independent researchers who are recognised authorities in their fields.

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