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.