How to present and control historical accounts raises crucial questions about personal experiences, privileged access to records and contemporary political agendas. There was much coverage last week of a suggestion the British government is considering commissioning an “official” history of the Troubles, referred to vaguely in a statement by a UK government spokesman as possibly part of “a package of measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles that focuses on information recovery, so that families can know what happened to their loved ones, and promotes reconciliation”.
But 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.
In 2014, the Stormont House Agreement stated: “The Executive will, by 2016, establish an Oral History Archive to provide a central place for people from all backgrounds (and from throughout the UK and Ireland) to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles . . . A research project will be established as part of the Archive, led by academics to produce a factual historical timeline and statistical analysis of the Troubles, to report within 12 months”. That, to my eye, reads differently from the idea of an “official” history, so what has changed and what agendas are at play now?
Many students of the 1913-21 period now use the statements of the Bureau of Military History; they are not definitive or wholly reliable and form just part of an extensive release of sensitive material into the public domain in recent years to enable us to confront some of the issues and legacies of that period, including violence and its impact.
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.