Appendix 3: The Oral History Archive

Storytelling and oral history initiatives have long since been acknowledged as an important and distinctive element of peacebuilding and reconciliation. They have assumed added significance in Northern Ireland where a lack of consensus on the causes of conflict and the appropriate mechanisms for dealing with the past has, to date, precluded the establishment of comprehensive and over-arching transitional justice mechanisms. 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 prosecutorial and information recovery mechanisms proposed under the terms of the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) cannot meet the needs of all victims and survivors. As noted by Pablo De Greiff in his recent report, case-based judicial procedures inevitably lead to ‘fragmentation’. Indeed concerns about the dominance of ‘legalism’ within transitional justice have been much discussed elsewhere. Dangers identified have included: overselling state capacity to deliver for victims; squandering precious resources; disempowering the ‘silent majority’ who do not have access to ‘elite’ political, legal and academic circles; and thus ultimately failing those most directly affected by past violence.

The creation of this 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. These individual voices and perspectives can help to document and explore hitherto neglected themes such as the gendered dimensions of conflict. Providing opportunities to hear ‘other’ voices can ultimately contribute to the notoriously complex work of reconciliation and ‘non-recurrence’.

In the political negotiations that followed the SHA, Northern Ireland politicians agreed to task the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) with the development of a model for the Oral History Archive (OHA). The model that evolved placed the direction and control of the OHA firmly in the grasp of PRONI. There was limited consultation on the wisdom of this model beyond the confines of political and official circles. By its very nature the Public Records Office tends to be passive rather than proactive in terms of its acquisitions policy. It is not therefore generally associated with outreach to community and voluntary groups, or indeed with the curation of audio or audio-visual material. Moreover, as an agency of one of the devolved Departments of state (the prevailing devolved Minister is the ‘Keeper’ of its Records) concerns have been voiced about how far the Archive as proposed could be both ‘independent and free from political interference’ and suitably creative in terms of its vision, inclusivity and dissemination.

The leaked legislation that emerged just over a year ago proposed a top-down model that placed the Archive ‘under the charge and superintendence of the Deputy Keeper’ of PRONI. He/she was granted sole discretionary power ‘to decide which oral history records are to form, or are to cease to form, part of the archive.’ There was no mention of the obligation to engage in outreach and engagement; rather the function of the OHA was limited to the vague and passive prospect of ‘inviting the contribution of oral history records’. Coupled with a consultation deficit this fuelled fears of a Tesco or Walmart effect – the notion that a well-resourced state-sponsored model might threaten and diminish rather than assist and complement existing oral history groups and organisations.

In 2015 a group of academics at QUB and Ulster University, together with staff from the Committee on the Administration of Justice, set about developing a ‘model bill’ for the SHA legacy mechanisms, including the OHA.

With regard to the latter they acknowledged that PRONI could play an important role in the curation and preservation of the oral history records but they proposed a more pluralistic and inclusive model of both governance and engagement. To avoid a narrow and inward-looking approach and to ensure meaningful participation from agencies ‘throughout the UK and Ireland’, it was proposed that the Archive would be established by the First and Deputy First Ministers, acting jointly, and that it would be governed by three independent Executive Directors (one of whom would be appointed in consultation with the Dublin government). A strong and diverse Advisory Board would speak to the principle of ‘shared authority’, representing the interests of existing oral history projects and networks such as the Healing Through Remembering Stories Network. It would also play a vital role in developing strategy and policy, objectives and priorities – bringing experience, expertise and creativity to bear on an unfolding vision for both acquisition and dissemination. This pluralist body would oversee complaints, financial regulation and the submission of reports to the Implementation and Reconciliation Group. The day-to-day work (research, outreach, interviewing, archiving and administrative support) would be undertaken by an appropriately trained secretariat.

To ensure adherence to international best practice at every stage of the process the group made provision for a detailed code of practice (with particular guidelines for work with specific groups such as victims and young people). They acknowledged the need for adherence to robust ethical and legal guidelines but suggested that the Archive should enjoy a degree of flexibility and creativity in terms of its modes of engagement. The ‘Model Bill’ group thus proposed a ‘training the trainers’ model. This was partly to facilitate and enable the good work that has been done and continues to be done by existing oral history groups. It also speaks to the reality that many individuals and victims in particular will only agree to participate if they can speak to a familiar and trusted interviewer.

Having acknowledged the need to facilitate a ‘bottom-up’ and suitably flexible approach to collection, the ‘Model Bill’ highlighted the role that a well-resourced repository could play in safeguarding our oral heritage. The INCORE Accounts of the Conflict project made a valiant attempt to bring together existing digitised oral history accounts, but that project has come to an end and many valuable collections remain scattered in remote locations, at risk of becoming obsolete. In the view of the ‘Model Bill’ team, the creation of the OHA presents a welcome opportunity to preserve existing collections for future generations. Again, the need for checks and balances to guarantee independence are key. There must, for example, be a clear understanding and a relationship of trust between the OHA and all individuals and groups seeking to deposit accounts whether in ‘closed copy’ pending release from a local archive, or donated directly.

Issues of moral, ethical and legal probity are clearly of paramount importance but the “Model Bill team were nonetheless anxious to mitigate the possibility of the Archive becoming an anodyne repository of ‘safe’ and unchallenging narratives. They thus proposed that the Data Protection Acts and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 would not apply to contributions until such times as accounts have been approved by interviewees and deemed suitable for publication. This was not designed to encourage information about crimes that have not been processed and fully determined by the courts – the code of practice and training programme should make it abundantly clear that no such information can be accepted. Rather it simply acknowledged the considerable sensitivity of ‘experiences and narratives related to the Troubles’ and the need to encourage and facilitate as a wide a range of contributions as possible.

Whilst it makes sense to ensure that the archive is for the most part accessible online, the ‘Model Bill’ group suggested that opportunities should also be provided for people to hear and share their respective stories in a central, inclusive and welcoming space. Drawing on national and international exemplars, they urged that consideration be given to possibilities for adapting testimonies for use in creative and artistic outputs and productions. Finally, they emphasised the importance of ensuring that the work of the OHA complements and informs that of the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.

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