Appendix 2: Historians and Dealing with the Past: The Background

Academic analysis of the past has played a part in conflict resolution in a variety of divided societies. In Northern Ireland itself both the Bloody Sunday Inquiry (1998-2010) and the De Silva Report (2012) appointed historical advisers whose role was to provide background and context to Bloody Sunday and to the killing of Patrick Finucane on 12 February 1989. The seven members of the Opsahl Commission of 1992-93, whose recommendations anticipated central features of the peace process, included three prominent academics – a historian, a political scientist and a leading academic in social policy.

In other parts of the world, too, historians have helped societies to confront past injustices and divisions, often employing their expertise to deal with highly technical questions or specialised forms of evidence. Examples include the employment of historians by the Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand, established in 1975 to make recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to Crown actions which breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi; the vital role of historical research in the 1997 report into Australia’s ‘Stolen Generations’ – the Aboriginal children who had been removed from their parents between 1910 and 1970; and in the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation which investigated abuse in residential schools (2008-2015). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa employed historians and sociologists as researchers between 1996 and 2001. Their brief was to provide ‘as complete a picture as possible’ of the human rights violations that took place before the end of Apartheid, including the perspectives of victims and the motives of perpetrators. A number of the academics involved in these projects have published valuable reflections on the challenges they encountered.

In Northern Ireland, the difficulties of dealing with the past have been explored in a series of consultation exercises over the last fifteen years. These include the reports of the Healing through Remembering project (2002), the Northern Ireland Affairs committee of the House of Commons (2005) and the Consultative Group on the Past (2009) chaired by Robin Eames and Denis Bradley. History features in all of them – if only because many sections of Northern Irish opinion fear that history is being ‘rewritten’ to exclude their own experiences and perspectives. It has been alleged by some Unionists and representatives of the security forces, for example, that republicans seek to exploit public inquiries to portray the British state as the chief aggressor in the conflict and to legitimise their own resort to violence. Republicans and nationalists, on the other hand, often point to the resources the British state devoted throughout the conflict to ensuring that media coverage was as favourable as possible to the state. Another common suggestion is that clashing perceptions of history are fundamental to communal divisions in Northern Ireland, and that the healing of those divisions will require a shared understanding of the past, perhaps promoted by a Troubles museum, by storytelling projects or an agreed textbook to be taught in schools.

The role of academic historians was given more serious consideration in Making Peace with the Past (2006), an extensive report on Truth Recovery written by Professor Kieran McEvoy for Healing Through Remembering. As an alternative to a Truth Commission, Making Peace with the Past discussed the idea of a Commission of Historical Clarification – a panel of specialists in Irish and British history whose job would be to devise ‘an independent, authoritative, historical narrative’ about the Northern Ireland conflict and thereby ‘to encourage a broader sense of collective (rather than individual) responsibility for what occurred.’

The obvious strengths of this option, as presented by Professor McEvoy, were that (i) a historical commission would be comparatively inexpensive; (ii) an objective history of the Troubles would challenge the simplistic, monocausal explanations of communal violence put forward by the main individual and institutional ‘players’; and (iii), like the Opsahl Commission, a Historical Commission would generate public debate about the mistakes and abuses of the past. The main disadvantages suggested were twofold. First, a scholarly report might appear remote from the concerns of ordinary people and in particular from the needs of victims. Secondly, any attempt to assess individual and organisational responsibility for violence would be hampered by the absence of legal powers of investigation. Neither of these objections applies straightforwardly to the proposals of the Stormont House Agreement, which combines historical research with ‘bottom up’ oral history as well as the Historical Investigations Unit and the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval.

In 2013 the idea of a Commission of Historical Clarification was taken up by Arkiv, a group of scholars in Northern Ireland who sought to challenge the politicised narratives of the past that they believed were being used to justify violence and glorify past abuses. A key aim of this collective initiative was to counter the structural biases and historical inaccuracies in recent debates over the legacy of the conflict. Arkiv has argued that demands are being made on the UK state and on victims that are not balanced vis-a-vis other important political and paramilitary actors. They highlight the distortions that result from applying to Northern Ireland models derived from South Africa or Latin America where the state was the major perpetrator of violence. In their submission to the Panel of Parties (2013) Arkiv called for a commission of ‘independent, professionally trained historians’ to produce a comprehensive and balanced account of the past. In a post entitled ‘Towards an Historical Clarification Commission’ Arkiv capture neatly the difference between legalistic and historical approaches:

Courts offer judgments on whether the law was upheld or broken and hand down penalties in the case of the latter; historical inquiry offers assessment of the choices that were made or deferred, the socio-cultural triggers, and the power-relationships that drove conflict.

The references within the SHA to the academic components of the legacy process have been kept to a bare minimum, but they have presumably been informed by the earlier reports and submissions summarised above. To date, however, there has been no response to these suggestions from academic groups.

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