Towards an Historical Clarification Commission

Amidst the furore surrounding his interjection in the debate over dealing with the past the Attorney General, John Larkin, made a number of telling references to the role that historians could play in coming to terms with Northern Ireland’s recent history. In previous posts on this site, Arkiv has advocated similar possibilities. This post seeks to outline what a historical clarification commission might look like and raise some issues that Dr Haass and our political representatives might wish to consider in this regard.

Politically speaking, Mr Larkin’s proposals have created space for discussion about moving forward in Northern Ireland. In other words, the backlash against his de facto amnesty proposal has helped to extend the debate beyond lawyers and transitional justice. His proposal to institute historical clarification should, in our view, be taken seriously. While we do not necessarily endorse Mr Larkin’s proposal to end the juridical attempts to deal with the past, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of his rationale:

What I am saying is take the lawyers out of it. Lawyers are very good at solving practical problems in the here and now, but lawyers aren’t good at historical research […] The people who should be getting history right are the historians … (Belfast Telegraph, 29.11.13, p.7).

As Arkiv has previously mentioned, a Commission of Historical Clarification would not be a panacea, and we are aware of some of the central objections to our idea.


One key objection to the proposition is that it seeks to provide an ‘official’ history which would claim to be the only legitimate record of the past. The sceptical objection is one which the historian ATQ Stewart made a decade ago when he criticised the trend towards seeing history a social service or some form of collective therapy. He thought that those who would try to use history to enlighten us out of our situation are for the most part sincere and well-intentioned but that their quest is a hopeless one (Stewart 2001, p. 184). As Stewart understood it, ‘people simply assume the political attitudes of the community into which they were born. They rarely choose their political attitude after mature deliberation’. Moreover, since each community ‘identifies itself from the myth it takes from Irish history’ then each side ‘wastes its breath in trying to persuade the other to adopt its view of the situation (pp. 179-80).’ If that were the objective then Stewart-like scepticism would be valid. But that is not the objective. Moreover, Stewart is not speaking of history but of collective memory, of political narrative. This is the stuff of history but not history itself, confusing the analytical with the practical.

In what would seem to be confirmation of Stewart’s view the neurologist Oliver Sacks observed recently in the New York Review of Books that memory, personal and collective, can be resistant to evidence:

Even if the underlying mechanism of a false memory is exposed… this may not alter the sense of actual lived experience or reality that such memories have. Nor, for that matter, may the obvious contradictions or absurdity of certain memories alter the sense of conviction or belief.

The reason, thought Sacks, has to do with what might be called colloquially a ‘reality check’:

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true…depends as much on our imagination as our senses.

Consequently, once ‘a story or memory is constructed, accompanied by vivid sensory imagery and strong emotion, there may be no inner, psychological way of distinguishing true from false—or any outer, neurological way’.

Sacks was far from being fatalistic about our predicament. Indeed, the opportunity seems to lie in the problem. ‘Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds’. Communally, that intercourse is limited to political reinforcement out of which springs the narratives (of the Troubles) which Stewart thought were incommensurate.  According to Sacks, ‘in the absence of outside confirmation, there is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested, between what the psychoanalyst Donald Spence calls “historical truth” and “narrative truth.”’

Here is the point of the Historical Commission – to open up the stories of the recent past to the intercourse of many minds and to provide ‘outside confirmation’ in order to measure ‘narrative truth’. It is intended to achieve context and relation, rather than abstraction and self-reference. In short, to the historian the various narratives of the past are neither self-standing nor self-explanatory but part of a complex encounter of many minds. The task of a Historical Commission would be to explore the predicament of the past, forcing on our attention historical complexities which single narratives ignore. If there is any therapeutic outcome it may be a new sensitivity on the part of future generations to the very existence of different truths.

It is common, after Alfred Korzybski, to claim that the map is not the territory, i.e. that the mental or memory maps we have of the world are not accurate representations of the world. Our vision of the Historical Commission reverses that proposition: its purpose is to map the contesting territories of understanding onto the record of historical evidence. An oral archive could be an integral part of that process.

There is a related objection. Would not the Historical Commission come up with its own partial narrative? How can it avoid the limits of historical understanding itself? That is a good question and there is no definitive answer. What one can say is, as Larkin intimates, that historians can take a broader view. History is disciplined thinking about the past and, as G. M. Trevelyan argued, ‘does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it’. (cited in Evans 1997, p. 250). It operates according to its own rules – the technique of scepticism, impartiality, immersion in the sources and critical weighing of the evidence – and given the public status which a Commission would have, it might counter the temptation towards ideological propagandising by tying it firmly to the public record. As Malachi O’Doherty has pointed out, this would not stop debates about history, but it would delimit flights of sectarian fantasy: ‘Those who point the finger at one party or cause need to have evidence and need also to accommodate, if only to refute, alternative perspectives if they are to be credible. There is a stark absence of that kind of thinking in Northern Ireland’.

A further objection is that such a Commission would reside in the ivory tower of the academy, simply transferring the role (and the financial reward) from lawyers to academic historians. That concern, of course, captures a very real possibility; one that was recently parodied as an International Independent Legacy Body that would be ‘populated by safe academics and journalists who will dig for the truth of the past but only so much and their work will be dominated mainly by discussion of what is and is not ‘helpful’ to the process rather than what did and did not happen’. However, that does not need to be the case.

Furthermore, it could also be argued that the proposal is no different from the five-year Legacy Commission advocated by the Consultative Group on the Past’s Report. There are crucial differences. The Historical Clarification Commission would address one of the basic flaws of that proposal (that was incidentally echoed in Larkin’s ideas) – namely, the virtual impossibility of securing cooperation from loyalist or republican paramilitaries. Such cooperation would not necessarily be required from a Historical Clarification Commission given that its work would be based on the public record. The point should not be underestimated and goes some way to answering critics of the idea who wonder about the lack of balance about opening state archives without a reciprocal gesture from the paramilitaries: evidence of paramilitary activities remains in the marked and unmarked graves across the island of Ireland and in the under-reported histories of intra-communal repression, exclusion and ‘punishment beatings’ which that record identifies.

Another political objection is that a Historical Clarification Commission could not satisfy the positions of the parties to the talks. We think the opposite is true and might bridge the gap between republicans and unionists: it would be independent and international, and establish an archive. It could establish a museum based on historical research as in Salamanca, but would avoid the objection which frustrated the Maze project – that it might become ‘a shrine to terror’. It would represent a check on popular mythology and help to offset the tendency towards an ethnic commemoration and memorialisation, which Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan are also looking into.

Finally, it may be criticised as elitist and expensive. However, unlike the untidy, Legacy Commission process advocated by the Consultative Group on the Past which proposed to overhaul structures that were democratically mandated in the 1998 referendum, the idea of a Historical Clarification Commission is economical, comprehensible and democratic: It would be much less expensive, we think, than the estimated £400 million for the Consultative Group’s proposal; would publish a comprehensive report; and it will create an archive accessible to the public.


A Historical Clarification Commission would result in two main products:

  1. A narrative based on the public record. The point of this is to neither condemn nor condone what occurred, but rather to offer a contextualised, evidence-based assessment. Importantly, this would not be an ‘official’ history, but rather an assessment reached by independent, professionally trained historians.
  2. An archive of all relevant evidential material. In the first instance, this information would most likely need to be released on a selective basis – to the commission and to families and victims and survivors who are affected in some way by the evidence. However, it would also serve as a site to study and reflect on Northern Ireland – not only on violence and its effects but also on the political initiatives to end violence. Moreover, the violence which was distinctive of Northern Ireland’s experience must also be understood in the context of what was also representative of it, the peaceful conduct of everyday life.

Mr Larkin expressly queried the relevance of setting up an archive based on the Spanish Historical Memory Documentary Centre, which is housed in Salamanca, on the grounds of it being unnecessary and expensive. Yet, such an archive would, arguably be radically democratic in nature. The rationale for the Spanish centre is to collect all relevant material relating to Spain’s troubled history which can be used by the citizens, directly, by consulting the original documents in the Centre building, or indirectly, by requesting the required information through the Centre’s information service. The Centre is also entrusted with copying, conservation, description and promotion tasks, in order to guarantee the permanency of a part of the nation’s documentary heritage and offer the citizens the enjoyment of assets that guarantee their rights and the knowledge of the most recent historical past.

The reason for Mr Larkin’s scepticism may be linked to his emphasis on state papers. Indeed, part of his advice was that there should be ‘a huge public facilitation of access to state records’. This has led several commentators to query the usefulness of his intervention.

However, as pointed out above, state records are not the only evidence of the Northern Irish conflict. For example, historians have been meticulously mining political party records housed in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, and in archives in Dublin and England; and staff at the Northern Ireland Political Collection at the Linenhall Library have been carefully archiving all published material relating to the conflict for four decades.

Limiting documentation about the Troubles to state papers is a rather reductive way of approaching the violence and does a disservice to victims whose experiences and traumas have found partial articulation in other forms of evidence beyond Cabinet Conclusions and departmental memoranda.

Of course, the combination of a narrative record with an archival centre might go some way to accentuate the voice of victims of the conflict: the narrative record would help to redress the sense that the popular history-making process is balanced in favour of perpetrators of violence, while the archival material would restore individual voice and acknowledgement of suffering that could resonate at a societal level.

Mr Larkin’s dismissal on economic grounds seems also rather short-sighted when one takes into account the potential of such a centre or archive for rationalising Freedom of Information costs and the legal and departmental battles over access to papers that currently constitutes much of the truth recovery process in Northern Ireland. Selectivity and sensitivity of release would, it would seem, need to remain in place given personal safety issues, however, these criteria apply to all archives and would not necessarily constitute a major impediment to access, which could also be increased under established precedents such as the 30-year rule.

If archiving and memorialising of the Troubles is to move beyond mere cultural expression and promote practical, positive and tangible steps towards reconciliation and social improvement then some kind of concrete way of working through Northern Ireland’s past will be necessary.

Amidst the amnesty debate there were several calls for victims to enter into a ‘mature debate’ about moving forward: the development of an archive and a Historical Clarification Commission avoids such condescending sentiments and would allow victims to continue to engage in the process of working through the past in a proactive and dignified manner.

Further Questions

There are several issues that would require decision in order to create and sustain such a body, including personnel, location, remit and funding.

Funding could be provided by the public body charged with overseeing the Commission. Given that all the main parties in Northern Ireland are signed up to support the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, the British-Irish Council may be one authority that could take charge of administering the Commission and be responsible for establishing a location and appointing personnel.

The Commission’s remit would not necessarily infringe upon or conflict with juridical processes. The two types of inquiry are substantively different: 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 distinction may be linked to alternative conceptualisations of responsibility: Broadly speaking, the Law seeks to attribute liability; culpability for an action or omission requires an individual or corporation to be legally answerable. Broadly speaking, historians understand responsibility to be linked to a moral accountability and which is answerable to society. The effect of the first understanding is a mechanistic determination of guilt, the second, a societal obligation to acknowledge agency and consequences (see our posting on Agency).

Crucially, our vision for the Historical Commission would not be on the model of a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission. The differences between Northern Ireland and South Africa vastly outweighed any purported similarities. Indeed, most of the other states with which it is frequently compared, are inappropriate too. In Northern Ireland the vast majority of people lived their lives against the backdrop of violence but were not victims; while repression and injustice and violence occurred, the vast majority of people refused to subscribe to the ethic of violence. In an article supporting Mr Larkin’s intervention, Willie Kealy raises the very likely scenario in any South African-style model (to illustrate with only one example) of ‘Gerry Adams taking part in a truth and reconciliation session’: ‘You would get very little truth, based on his performance to date, and damn-all reconciliation’ (Sunday Independent, 24.11.13, p.31). While a Historical Clarification Commission would consider oral evidence, the scenario of hear-say and testimonial obfuscation would not present the immediate problem of legitimacy that is encountered within a truth and reconciliation commission.

The creation simply of an oral history archive involves similar risks. Extrapolating this insight to Northern Ireland, there seems to a great deal of potential for an oral history archive to simply supply people with the political arguments that confirm their views on the past. To repeat: A report or a narrative history ought therefore to accompany any such project. Indeed, the necessity for such a report is seen in the idea that the past can be dealt with through establishing some sort of museum. This is because museums are based on what historians uncover. A narrative report by a Historical Clarification Commission logically precedes and ought to predate them.

Memories of violence inevitably have both a personal and social resonance – social insofar as they cry out to demand recognition, redress and reparation. Balancing that social aspect with the need to respect individual’s and families’ private grief is central to any process of working through a divided past. The Report and the archive could offer future generations some insight into the values that inspired the conflict and, as such, provide alternative ways of thinking about division, identity and politics in Northern Ireland.

A Historical Clarification Commission would not meet victims’ demands for material compensation and judicial redress, however it would help rebalance the stories we tell about the past. It would help to bring them into line with what the public record obliges us to believe. The Commission’s Report will not capture every historical nuance but it will help to fence-in and delimit the potential for telling stories about the past that are not reflected in robust interrogation of the available evidence.


In the light of the revisions of the past and against the temptation to decontextualise evidence to suit contemporary political purposes, a Historical Clarification Commission would restore a measure of historical accountability and accuracy to debates about the past in Northern Ireland and help to cut through the circular ‘whataboutery’ that characterises much of the debate. While not meeting all of victims’ demands and rights, it could amplify the articulation of their experiences while offering the opportunities to access information. And while not being a panacea to Northern Ireland’s relationship with its traumatic past, a Historical Clarification Commission may provide a means for removing debate about that past from the centre of contemporary politics.


Evans, R. J. (1997) In Defence of History London: Granta Books.

Stewart, A. T. Q. (2001) The Shape of Irish History Belfast: The Blackstaff Press.


A Brief Note on ‘Agency’

The Arkiv review of Anne Cadwallader’s book, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, drew attention to the weakness of those arguments which alone blame ‘the alleged crimes of the British state and its surrogates for provoking the conditions which led to the Provisional campaign’. That review proposed that the IRA’s ‘Long War’, which caused the deaths of some 2000 people, was not ‘other directed’ but represented the ‘Provisionals’ own decision to recalibrate their strategy’. The matter which requires further consideration here is the question of ‘agency’.

The contention that violence is simply a by-product of objectively given conditions is an interesting claim and it is worth interrogating further. The ‘other-direction’ or external determinism of that claim reduces social actors, even ones as ideologically motivated as the Provisional IRA, to that of the mute, impassive, participants in a drama. It suggests that members had no choice but to rage violently against the system, irrespective of whether that system might be reformed by other means (which is now, post 1998 accepted as a legitimate political strategy). Equally, they had no responsibility for judging whether that rage actually achieved any tangible goals or outcomes. They might have been responsible for over 2000 deaths, and the main engine of a wider conflicted that resulted over 3,500 deaths, but this campaign is covered by the blanket of a collective ‘human tragedy’.

Equally, Loyalist paramilitaries have cited in defence of their activity the claim that Northern Ireland was (and remains) a uniquely ‘abnormal society’. Therefore abnormal behaviour (murder and mayhem) was another human tragedy and a product of that condition. Yet comparative politics show that the problems of Northern Ireland are far from unique and that a contest of allegiances is far from exceptional. If there was (and remains) anything abnormal about Northern Ireland it was the choice and the sustained determination by paramilitary groups on both sides to address those problems with guns and explosives.

It seems to be rarely acknowledged by those who argue this way that the removal of ‘strategic choice’ from the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries succeeds only in pathologizing their violence. Interestingly, this position mirrors that of conventional terrorism studies which in the past routinely viewed terrorist acts as inherently irrational. Ironically, the claim that agency was denied by the situation simply re-asserts the idea of political violence and those who conducted it as purely psychotic in nature.

Of course, as we know (and as the recent interview with the veteran republican Billy McKee in the TV programme The Disappeared revealed honestly) no self-respecting IRA member believes that they operated without choice, plans or goals. No IRA member thinks their campaign was an unfortunate accident of fate rather than part of a self-conscious tradition of armed struggle. That is the further irony of all such arguments: that they seek to de-politicize action and render it ‘mindless’ (which is a familiar popular description). These kinds of pathologizing approaches are ultimately incoherent. They are both proclaimed at one moment (we were all caught up in events) and denied at another (we

The self-refuting nature of this argument leads to other, slightly more sophisticated, defences. One of these is the doctrine of inevitability: that violence was a necessary stage on the way to peace (more popular after the Belfast Agreement than before it). Take, for example, the claim of Labour MP John McDonnell ten years ago that ‘without the armed struggle of the IRA over the past 30 years’ the Belfast Agreement ‘would not have acknowledged the legitimacy of the aspirations of many Irish people for a united Ireland. And without that acknowledgement we would have no peace process’ (McDonnell 2003). It was unfortunate, understandable, but ultimately cathartic. This is not to deny that some people were caught up in events and reacted to circumstances over which, individually, they had little control. But political violence was the exception not the rule. Few people in Northern Ireland acted out that ethic of violent necessity.

The balance between personal agency and social conditioning is one over which philosophers and latterly psychologists have long argued. For example, over 200 years ago, in an occasional newspaper article, Hegel identified the problem as ‘abstract thinking’. For Hegel, to think abstractly meant to abstract one aspect of a complex reality and to hold firmly to it as if it were the only truth. Rather provocatively, Hegel illustrated his point by reference to the spectacle of the public execution. ‘This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality’. That is one form of abstract thinking. The other is to see nothing of the murder in the murderer. On the one side are those who can see nothing of circumstance but only evil and those who see nothing of the evil but only circumstance. According to Hegel:

‘One who knows men traces the development of the criminal’s mind: he finds in his history, in his education, a bad family relationship between his father and mother, some tremendous harshness after this human being had done some minor wrong, so he became embittered against the social order — a first reaction to this that in effect expelled him and henceforth did not make it possible for him to preserve himself except through crime. — There may be people who will say when they hear such things: he wants to excuse this murderer! After all I remember how in my youth I heard a mayor lament that writers of books were going too far and sought to extirpate Christianity and righteousness altogether; somebody had written a defense of suicide; terrible, really too terrible! — Further questions revealed that The Sufferings of Werther were meant’.

It is clear that Hegel understands the complexity of an historical event and, to use present day jargon, wishes to ‘contextualise’ the actions of individuals, relating them to experience and conditions. However, it is also clear what he is not doing. His reference to Goethe’s Werther means that he is not excusing actions or contextualising them away. The criminal act remains criminal. And the criminal remains accountable at law. To think otherwise, in Hegel’s view, would only represent what he dismissed as ‘a kind of slovenly sociability between sentimentality and badness’. What he implies is that the acknowledgement of personal responsibility is the basis of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is obvious to acute observers of Northern Ireland.

For example, Malachi O’Doherty addressed the idea that IRA violence was the unfortunate result of being trapped by history and he observed: if republicans were trapped in anything they were trapped in their own tradition. In that tradition they were active participants and not passive victims. In O’Doherty’s words, republicans ‘had always made choices and they had often made bad or inappropriate choices’. Most of what the IRA did was calculated, tactically and strategically, and it was just not true that ‘the IRA campaign was a necessary phase in the readjustment of the constitutional anomaly created in 1921’ (O’Doherty 1998: 200-1).

That the political leaders of republicanism and loyalism have now ‘taken ownership’ of the Agreement is a welcome exercise in acknowledging agency but that ownership calls into question previous denials. Their choice of peace is to their credit. This credit should not exculpate their responsibility. Equally, those in the security forces responsible for criminal acts cannot escape their responsibility for agency either.

In short, there is no such thing as spontaneous or reflexive violence. The violent act, as the Prussian philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, is always a purposive one intended to fulfill political will. The use of violence, in other words, is always instrumental, and those who engage in it, for whatever reason, have agency and rationality. In that sense, the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries were goal seeking, political actors.

That recognition also confers the understanding that they are also moral actors who consciously weigh up their ways and means in order to reach their ends. Ultimately, they had – and have a choice, as do we all – even if that choice was not to do something. Choices, of course, always involve consequences. If a political actor has strategic agency, he or she is endowed with moral agency as well and becomes accountable for his or her actions. After thirty years of violence, no doubt, there are likely to be many families who will surely wish that the choices – and the agency – of those engaged in political violence had been very different.


O’Doherty, M. (1998) The Trouble with Guns. Republican strategy and the Provisional IRA, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press.

Hegel, GWF (1808?) Who Thinks Abstractly? In Walter Kaufmann. Hegel: Texts and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966), pp. 113-118.

McDonnell, J (2003) ‘Why I stood up for Bobby Sands’ The Guardian, 3 June

Memory and History: Working Through the Past

The tenor of the talks process, chaired by Dr Richard Haass, on parading, flags and dealing with the past seems to have shifted gear. Haass, himself, while speaking of a movement from consultation towards negotiation reminded the local parties that he would not entertain thoughts of ‘deal breakers’. The British and Irish governments have also seemingly become more responsive, with both the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Tánaiste recently making supportive and encouraging statements.

While a certain optimism may be discernible that ‘deals’ can be reached over parading and flags, the possibility of reaching agreement on dealing with the past remains uncertain. This short paper outlines some potential pitfalls and alternative ways forward.

Memory and the Surrogate of Commemoration

Just as essential individual identity is based on memory so too are national and community identities based on some form of collective remembrance. The relationship of collective identity to ideas and stories about the past is well known to students of nationalism. In a much cited speech of 1882 the French historian Ernest Renan, for example, defined a nation as

constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.

However, memory, in and of itself is – as the English historian Tony Judt pointed out – a ‘poor guide to the past’. Surveying the history of neglect, evasion and selective framing, which characterized many European countries’ remembrance of the Second World War and the Holocaust, Judt argued that despite a surfeit of commemoration little was actually achieved in confronting the collective trauma of 1933-1945. It was only when, for example, Germans began to appreciate and digest the ‘enormity’ of their past that they were able to begin to ‘put it behind them’.

For Judt, it was history – both in the sense of ‘the professional study of the past’ and the ‘passage of time’ – rather than memory or commemoration that facilitated this process.

One example, of this can be seen in the Enquete Commission that attempted to address the legacies of Germany’s two dictatorial pasts (Herf, 2009). Although, as Arkiv has pointed out previously, the Commission could not provide the type of justice that many victims in Northern Ireland seek, it did provide a means of delimiting broadly accepted ideas about the past that were in line with the publicly available historical record of Germany’s past.

While the differences vastly outweigh the similarities, a commission of historical clarification, would not stop debate about Northern Ireland’s own violent and divided past, but it could serve to delimit the number of myths and self-serving ‘truths’ that are told about it. It could do so in a number of ways:

1. A precise, contextualised analysis of what occurred historical events could ensure that the sectarian and violent elements of the conflict would be understood in the larger perspective of British and Irish politics should never have a political chance again in a peaceful, democratic Northern Ireland.

2. Although an explanation of the planned character of the paramilitary campaigns would have limited effect on judicial or material compensation, it would offer a kind of historical justice by allocating responsibility and repudiating self-serving exculpations for the violence and killings that occurred.

3. An account of how the conflict affected the lives of individuals would show how deep an impact the terror campaigns had on Northern Irish society.

4. A historical clarification commission could offer suggestions for legislation aimed at overcoming the legacies of the Troubles.

A commission of historical clarification offers an alternative to the focus on the recognition and acknowledgment of individual hurts. As we pointed out in our submission to the Haass talks, ‘it is one thing to claim that all stories should be heard. It is another to claim that all stories should be equally valorised’.

In a similar way, if commemoration and politically loaded memory-work is taken as a surrogate for the historical record then we risk, paradoxically, a surplus of memory being used to construct a political and historical reality that has more to do with the cult of violence than the actuality of hurt. Judt frames this idea as a basic political and moral principle: ‘Human suffering should not be calibrated according to the goals of the perpetrators’.

In Northern Ireland we see this occurring through the propagation of myths of the inevitability – the idea that ‘if you had been there you would have done the same’. The implication being that peace then becomes a gift of those who inflicted violence. In such a way, the cult of commemoration slips quickly into substituting innocent victims with the claims of perpetrators.

A similar danger may be involved in a truth recovery process on two counts: first where individual issues become abstracted from historical context make it difficult to get a general perspective ; and second where a generalised ‘acknowledgement’ of ‘shared hurts’, perhaps derived from non-accountable amnesties, makes it impossible to get personal accountability, a sort of Catch-22 effect.

Split-Screen Memories

The idea of looking to the past in order to move forward into the future was alluded to in the epigraph of the Consultative Group on the Past’s Report. In a similar way, Barack Obama has spoken of the psychological importance of giving leadership over issues involving historical legacies. Breaking with the politics of the past, he argues, allows individuals and communities to dream of better futures. Although addressing the specific topic of race in America, his insights have applicability to the nature of those politics and leadership in Ireland. For dealing with historical legacies, he says, ‘requires us to see the world on a split screen’ – setting our sights on the kind of society we want while also looking squarely at where we are presently at, in other words, to ‘acknowledge the sins of our past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair’.

The idea of a split screen approach is, however, not without its difficulties. It is difficult to hold two images in place at once and often the temptation can be to focus on the positive one and neglect that which is more unsettling. In this way, rather than a split screen, one image covers or screens the other. In her paper ‘Europe: A Community of Memory?’ the German sociologist Aleida Assmann, for instance has argued that

Psychologists speak of ‘screen memories’ that suppress other memories and serve to protect a positive self-image. To put it another way, one remembers something in order to be better able to forget something else.

Assmann goes on to outline how this occurs politically: ‘When applied to the realm of national memory, this means that one recalls one’s own suffering in order to avoid being reminded of one’s own guilt’.

Assmann, like Judt, believes that the real danger of exclusivist and exclusionary memories is not in simple forgetting, as Renan saw as lying at the heart of nationalism. That is to say, it is not so much that nations forget their pasts; rather, they select stories to highlight that suit their present purposes. In other words, it is not necessarily historical rewriting or falsification as much as a ‘strategic selection of expedient recollections’ that characterizes the politicization of the past.

Again, recollection, recall, memory can be the key mechanism that facilitates this. And, again, we often see this organized revision or reframing of the past in Northern Ireland through the avoidance of accountability and the promotion of amnesty or the valorization of self-exculpatory myths of inevitability arguably serve as local examples.

Working Through the Past

Perhaps the idea of ‘dealing with the past’ is too definitive and lends itself too easily to those who wish to parcel history into ideologically driven narratives. In Germany the process of confronting the past is more readily understood as ‘coming to terms with’ or ‘working through’ (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) and is a much more open-ended process.  Arguably, a reframing of the ways in which we approach the topic in Northern Ireland may offset tendencies towards defeatism and the deferral of difficult subjects in favour of some form of ‘reconciliation’ such as has been advocated by some commentators.

Assmann offers seven principles to enable recognition and rejection of the politicization of history that may be worth briefly mentioning:

Firstly, memory should be separated from argument. By this she means to draw a line between what has happened, what has been experienced and what follows from the experience – events don’t change, merely our framing of them; we must, she argues, be conscious of both.

Secondly, guilt should not be offset. Memory, Assmann argues, often acts like a club: ‘The only memory that is important is the guilt of the other, and establishing that guilt is seen as wiping out one’s own guilt’. While she speaks explicitly to the idea of a club as something to hit one’s opponents, of course, as alluded to above, national identity is itself a kind of selective memory club, defining what narratives and beliefs about the past are acceptable and which are taboo.

Thirdly, competition between victims should be mitigated. ‘Placing one trauma in a privileged position can serve to eclipse another trauma’. This should not be understood that there is no hierarchy of victimhood, but rather, that the very idea of victim-status can be easily mobilized to cover up a multitude of sins. As Assmann goes on to explain, the appropriation of claims of suffering on the part of perpetrators work to ‘cover-up’ what is worse with what is bad.

In a similar fashion, the historian Richard Evans dismissed claims of victimhood among Nazi soldiers responsible for atrocities during the Second World War by alluding to the fact that, unlike their victims, at one point they had a choice: ‘A murderer is a murderer, however persuasive the mitigating circumstances of the fact’.

Again, we might return to Judt’s idea about calibrating history according to the stories of the perpetrators by way of expanding this thought – which, in many ways, lies at the heart of the suggestion that everyone in Northern Ireland (or Ireland) is responsible for the conflict.

Fourthly, Assmann urges a movement from exclusion to inclusion of memories. ‘Memories that support a collective identity,’ she argues, ‘are not only selective but also tend toward uniformity. One memory grows in size to crowd another out’. Arkiv has made a similar proposition as regards the need to recognize the complexity of Northern Irish history and the imperative for trying to avoid simplistic myth-making; we saw this as part and parcel of what, for example, trained historians do as part of their jobs – namely, ‘to reintroduce the complexity which, intentionally or unintentionally, others exclude from their stories’.

Fifthly, she argues that we should try, if possible, to move from divided to shared memories. Extrapolating from this notion we might argue that conflicts are driven by notions of division, but critical empathy, based on events and supported by evidence, suggests that not everything in history is a matter of opinion and that we might, indeed, be able to reach consensus or shared ideas about the past.

Sixthly, she points to the importance of contextualization. It may be worth quoting her at length to try to avoid confusion:

…nothing is gained by discarding lived experiences merely because they do not conform to a broader historical perspective. Everyone has a human right to his or her memories. That, however, does not exclude the necessity to place such memories that have been articulated and recognized on a wider horizon. As contextualized memories, they lose the taint of irreconcilable solipsism. Only by retrospectively placing them in a larger context can they be made compatible with other memories.

This is, in our view, corresponds closely to the argument that Arkiv has put forward in our Submission to the Haass talks process and a point that we reiterated in our last post, for example, when we talked about the importance of ‘…engaging the contextualising skills and professional integrity of historians in any publicly funded and officially sponsored “process of dealing with the past”’

Finally, Assmann points to the importance of developing what she calls a ‘common framework’ of ‘values and goals’: ‘Memories are not just located, but also framed within this horizon of values that challenges their built-in tendency towards self-hypnosis’.

Ethnicization of history can take many forms – from decontextualized myth-making and conspiracy theorizing to the imposition of one ‘screen’ that shields from view another more discomforting one. Arkiv has argued that alternatives exist and should be considered seriously. This paper has hopefully pointed to some of the directions in which those alternatives may be usefully located.


Richard J. Evans, In Hitler’s Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape from the Nazi Past (London: I.B. Tauris, 1989).

Jeffrey Heff, ‘Post-Totalitarian Narratives in Germany: Reflections on Two Dictatorships after 1945 and 1989’, in Perpetrators, Accomplices and Victims in Twentieth-Century Politics: Reckoning with the Past. Edited by Anatoly M Khazanov and Stanley Payne (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London: William Heinemann, 2005).

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2007).

Syndromes and Sensibility

The publicity given by the media to Arkiv was pleasing. Unfortunately, there was a tendency to associate its purpose and its recommendation exclusively with unionism. For example, we were obliged to correct the inadvertent impression in the Newsletter editorial that Arkiv’s intention is to challenge a nationalist reading of the past. Our letter, published on 1 November stated:

Our concern is not to ‘de-legitimise’ any single interpretation of the past. Anyway, it is not in our gift to do so. It is to question, by reference to the public record, reducing the past to any one dominant narrative. For example, though it is true that so-called armed conflict was distinctive of Northern Ireland’s recent past it was never representative of it. A history which would diminish in its account the majority within nationalist and unionist politics, churches and society who did not subscribe to violence is an example of what Lord Bew, in a report in the Newsletter, termed an ‘infantilised view of history’. 

Moreover, some comment in the social media argued that the proposal for a Historical Commission was equivalent to being patronised by the academics who feel they’re the only ones in a position to tell everyone where it all went wrong. It was assumed that the proposal was either ‘pompous’ or ‘smug’ based on the assumption that historians were superior in knowledge and understanding than anyone else. Indeed, one criticism was that the grievance and hurt is so deep that neither history nor the historians can help. It is worth clarifying the way we understand the public function of history in this proposal.


Stendhal and other syndromes

Take as the starting point the following passage in Julian Barnes’ recent book: Nothing To Be Frightened Of:

Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.

This is something we would all agree on. It is presented here as a reflection on the life of an individual but it applies equally in Northern Ireland to claims made on behalf of the group or community. And what are identity politics if not the politics of collective memory? We are presently living through a decade in which the respective commemorations of those identities are prominent public events.

One of the recurring references in Barnes’s book is to the Stendhal Syndrome, a recognised and documented condition of dizziness and fainting and confusion brought on by exposure to a surfeit of great art in a single location – supposedly in Stendhal’s case by Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Whenever he does a little bit of digging into this story and cross references the story Stendhal relates in 1826 with his diary of 1811 things look rather different. We learn from the diary that he does indeed enter Florence at the date recalled but, as Barnes puts it, ‘memory took one road and truth another’. The evidence of what happened and – from the historical record of the details what could have happened – doesn’t match up to the story. In short, ‘all reliable evidence for Stendhal’s Syndrome effectively dissolves before our eyes’. The important and sensitive qualification which Barnes makes is this. To point out the discrepancies is not to condemn Stendhal as a mere fabulist (at best) or liar (at worst). What it shows is the way narrative and memory work to impose a distinctive coherence upon the past.

Indeed – speaking historically – we might rename the syndrome as the Chevalier syndrome recalling Maurice Chevalier’s nostalgic duet with Hermione Gingold in Gigi:

We met at nine/We met at eight/I was on time/No, you were late/ Ah, yes, I remember it well.

In other words, we remember everything so well coherently that we can get things wrong in particular. And this makes explicit what is implicit in all our remembering: that we weave events into a retrospective narrative which may have little to do with the truth of the past but much to do with our sense of ourselves in the present. This is not, as with Stendhal, necessarily deliberate fabrication; rather it is about making sense of a complex history in order to justify our role in or association with it – our identity if you like. If this is what individuals do, so too do communities. For example, this syndrome may help to explain some of Gerry Adams’ lapses (for example, about his time in the Maze) where the retrospective narrative of his role in history trumps the accuracy of his memory. On the other hand, there are more calculated narrative strategies, involving deliberate falsification.

One reasonably benign example can be called the Vidal syndrome. Gore Vidal once related how failed Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey complained that he couldn’t get on the lucrative university lecture circuit because Americans do not like losers. Vidal’s reply was: ‘Just tell them you’ve won. This is after all the United States of Amnesia’. Recently, that ‘telling them we’ve won’ strategy has been commonplace in Northern Ireland politics. Again, it is not to be dismissed entirely because it may be deemed useful. There may be a political rule of thumb: that pulling the wool over one’s own eyes as well as others’ can be conducive to pragmatism and flexibility and therefore socially and politically constructive. This is particularly valid if the objective of the parties is to secure the conditions for peace. It was once called in Northern Ireland ‘constructive ambiguity’. To achieve the proper end of peace historical evidence, one could argue, is neither here nor there. Unfortunately, there is another syndrome which is less benign, politically or historically. This is the abstraction syndrome.

The abstraction syndrome can be described as things we forget to remember or the way in which individual and collective memory can conceal, ignore or gloss uncomfortable truths. To put that otherwise, what is forgotten out of context is often as important as what is remembered in abstraction. Today, for many in Northern Ireland, this selective recall about what happened during the Troubles is the Vidal syndrome without the humour, the Chevalier syndrome without the compensating charm. In this case it is abstraction which is at the heart of our political problem – picking out particular moments of the past not in order to secure peace but to win old arguments. This is not the ‘truth’ of the past, certainly not history, but a distortion of it through partisan construction. From which one can detect a further and related syndrome.

This is the split-mind syndrome, an unstable relationship between a disposition to ‘overcome the past’ (let’s move on) and the need to ‘come to terms with the past’ (let’s go back). It isn’t a case of unionists on one side of this debate and nationalists on the other. Many unionists and nationalists want at one and the same time to move on (to their ground) and to go back (to attribute blame). Put into that mix the trauma and suffering which families have experienced and it is no wonder that an ‘us and them’ division about the past continues: ‘They are asking us to move on and forget our pain while at the same time they want to remember their grievances and get restitution’.

So when we encounter the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana’s famous aphorism: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ we need to be careful about exactly what we take from it. It is usually understood to mean that a continuation of political conflict will be the consequence of ignoring ‘the lessons of history’. But Santayana was not talking about history but about the past – and implying a distinction between them. For the real danger may be that by abstracting and remembering only one’s own past (as an ‘identity of memories’) we do risk condemning ourselves to repeat it.

Can we, in other words, choose an approach to the past which is not fated to be one-upmanship in old political arguments? For what hovers over all of this is the infantilising syndrome. Lord Bew argued recently for a ‘more realistic conception’ of events to substitute for the ‘infantilised version of the past’ held in popular consciousness. We think this requires a more disciplined and serious approach to historical evidence than the public debate has permitted hitherto.

Associative coherence and the problem of memory

How the linkage between the various syndromes function in memory is captured by a posting: How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Our Intuition in the blog Brain Pickings. It comprises a review of an essay by Daniel Kahneman, ‘The Marvels and Flaws of Intuitive Thinking’ Thinking: The New Science of decision-making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (ed John Brockman) Harper Perennial 2013.

Kahneman identifies what he calls ‘associative coherence’ – the notion that ‘everything reinforces everything else’. In short, this is remembering, which reinforces existing patterns of association, deliberately discounts contradictory evidence. According to Kahnemann:

The thing about the system is that it settles into a stable representation of reality, and that is just a marvellous accomplishment. … That’s not a flaw, that’s a marvel. [But] coherence has its cost. Coherence means that you’re going to adopt one interpretation in general. Ambiguity tends to be suppressed. This is part of the mechanism that you have here that ideas activate other ideas and the more coherent they are, the more likely they are to activate each other. Other things that don’t fit fall away by the wayside. We’re enforcing coherent interpretations. We see the world as much more coherent than it is.

Kahnemann goes on:

This is a mechanism that takes whatever information is available and makes the best possible story out of the information currently available, and tells you very little about information it doesn’t have. So what you get are people jumping to conclusions. I call this a “machine for jumping to conclusions.”

The narratives of memory and their syndromes issue in problems, not because of lies and misrepresentations – although that is possible as a strategy – but because of over-confidence in the truth of our respective narratives.

The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. . . . People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

Arkiv’s concern about ‘truth recovery’ based mainly on individual testimony alone, especially one in which there is no sanction for false testimony (under amnesty for example), is that there will develop a contest of politicised remembering based on very little evidence. Moreover, the language has become confused already. When even the outgoing head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is reported in the Irish Times as saying: ‘The lack of a truth recovery process means that tribal myths will continue to trump actual memory’, then one senses that something is amiss.


A role for historians?

Arkiv’s proposal is that the profession of history provides a way, if not to eliminate the problems of narratives – which are present-focused rather than focused on the past – then to be aware of the evidential limitations of those narratives and their seductive syndromes.

A very different quality of ‘associative coherence’ is proposed, a procedure which is the opposite of a machine for jumping to conclusions. The association is not one of simple cause and effect but one of interpretative caution, the maxim of which reads (after the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott) only to report ‘what the evidence obliges us to believe’ in terms of ‘circumstantially and significantly related historical events’. In short, according to Oakeshott, ‘teleological history is, in principle, a self-contradiction’. This is ‘presentism’ at its most unhistorical and is associated with the politicisation of ‘memory’. Historians, of course, cannot entirely remove present concerns from historical inquiry but the professional requirement is to avoid, as far as possible, these concerns distorting the evidence uncovered. As one scholar (Smith 1996) observes of Oakeshott’s own historical associative coherence

The image of historical construction that Oakeshott evokes is that of a country ‘dry wall’, a fabrication of no pre meditated design whose stones are held together not by mortar, but by their roughly inter locking shapes. If the wall should totter or rifts appear, these eccentricities are recognized not as defects but as characteristics of history

It is not that one cannot narrate a story about history – one cannot avoid it – but the task of the historian is to avoid transgression into myth. For myth, like the associative coherence of memory is ‘a drama from which all that is casual, secondary and unresolved is excluded; it has a clear outline, a unity of feeling and in it everything is exact except place and time’. Moreover, ‘every component is known and is intelligible in respect of its relation to a favoured present’ (Oakeshott 1962: 166). To use one of Lord Bew’s expressions, it is history without footnotes – or rather it is history as a mere footnote to a political project. The task of the historian, in this context, is to re-introduce the complexity which, intentionally or unintentionally, others exclude from their stories.

This may appear elitist and exclusive. The point Arkiv makes is that is simple:  the sort of Historical Commission we propose is absolutely necessary but alone not sufficient. It does not rule out other, more horizontal approaches, involving oral testimony. We admit that the Troubles did not just exist in papers and archives so the process must sift widely, to capture other experiences. But these cannot be self-standing. That is why engaging the contextualising skills and professional integrity of historians formally and centrally in any publicly funded and officially sponsored ‘process of dealing with the past’ is so important.


T W Smith ‘Michael Oakeshott on history, practice and political theory’ History of Political Thought, 17(4), 1996 591-614

Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics London: Methuen, 1962