Historical Clarification Commission

Why is a Historical Clarification Commission needed?

1            The last time that the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey published results about attitudes to truth recovery was in 2004. The responses were revealing: only small minorities trusted the British and Irish governments, the churches, victims’ groups, the Northern Ireland Assembly or judges to administer a truth recovery process. A Historical Clarification Commission would be different – it would be staffed primarily by professionally trained historians with input from political scientists, sociologists, journalists and legal scholars.

2            It is the gaping hole in all previous attempts to address the issue. For example, the Eames-Bradley Report’s 190 pages of text – purportedly a ‘Consultative Group on the Past’ – never used the word ‘historian’.

3            Historians should lead, if only because their first and primary training and responsibility is to research and uncover the past for its own sake. That is the basis of their professional training and they are much cheaper than lawyers. While it would be the task of the relevant public authorities –the UK and Irish Governments – to appoint personnel, the Commission would entail the payment of academic and journalistic salaries rather than retaining teams of barristers and solicitors.

4              Its objectives are scholarly truth-telling based upon material from state archives and the involvement of civil society through oral history projects. It will be conducted according to the highest possible standards of historical research and any questioning of its credibility will need to provide more robust arguments than the kind of ‘whataboutery’ and relativizing of the past that has marred Northern Ireland’s transition from conflict to peace for so long.

Would it not be too state-focused?

5              It could be argued that ‘opening the archives’ is a very one-sided process. There are two possible criticisms. Firstly, would it not mean that only the state(s) would be open to investigation and criticism and that everyone else would escape scrutiny? Secondly, and conversely, would it not mean the production of an ‘official’ history which would prevent serious criticism of the state(s).  We do not think either criticism is valid.

6              What is proposed is acceleration of a process which already happens, the release of state papers. There is much in the archives about the IRA and other paramilitary organisations as well as material on attacks and atrocities. Normally much of this is held back for reasons of security. A Historical Clarification Commission would need to have access to as much of this material as is consistent with national (Irish and British) security. Indeed, openness on the part of the two Governments to what the Commission has access may encourage paramilitaries on both sides to be more open too.

7              As Professor Henry Patterson has argued, much of what has been written about the period of the Troubles has made little use of what archive material there is now available. It is hard to see how a Historical Clarification Commission’s engagement with new and extant material would be tantamount to an ‘official history’.  Whether it is decided to produce a general report or a series of reports, some published history should be seen as essential to this project. This would be an authoritative account of the Northern Irish conflict, based on the available empirical evidence and will present a robust and as comprehensive as possible consideration of the Troubles.

Why would the parties be interested in a Historical Clarification Commission?

8              The Historical Clarification Commission could square the circle regarding the demands of the main political parties – as long as they are willing to compromise. For Sinn Féin it can provide an independent, international body. It would meet the SDLP’s demand for a ‘robust’ mechanism to deal with the past. It would not become a shrine to terror or a rewriting of the past that unionism fears; and it would meet Alliance’s and NI21’s (together with the other party’s) aims of allowing society to work through the past and move forward in an integrated and integral fashion. 

9.            An Archive relating to the conflict could be created that would bring together all relevant documentary material and testimonies. The initiative would be tied to a clear historical narrative in the form of a published record (the Commission Report) and thus could ease unionist fears about ‘rewriting of history’.

Why would it be attractive to victims groups?

10          The Commission Report and Archive would help to highlight victims’ experiences and throw light on unresolved crimes and killings. It could emphasise the dignity inherent in victims’ stories and would not require them to reconcile themselves to the stories of perpetrators.

11          Of course, victims’ groups would not be completely happy with this proposal; but it would have the benefit of avoiding the kind of amnesty proposals suggested by others.

12           While victims groups may hope for public prosecutions, the fact highlighted by Attorney General Larkin and Chief Constable Baggott is that securing successful prosecutions is unlikely. Victims groups may not be entirely satisfied with a Historical Commission. However, it does not involve a thorough-going amnesty and it does not advocate that victims should be forgotten.

What might a process of historical clarification look like?

13          There would be three major elements, archival research, oral testimony and public engagement.

14           We believe that the two main products arising from a Historical Clarification Commission will be a documentary history based on evidence from the public record and an archival depository that will house records and testimonies. Accessibility should be taken into account in any decision as regards the location of this archival depository.

15          The deposition of documentation by the (two) Governments would mean that copies would be retained but selectively released on the grounds of confidentiality and personal safety. These are issues that institutions such as the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) deal with on a daily basis and are not insurmountable. What will/can be deposited is a political decision for the two Governments. The process of release should be open to periodic review.

16          Highly sensitive files (which might risk the security of individuals) should not be released. However, the relevant material – as the Keith Jeffery and Christopher Andrews precedents confirm – might be made available for review. Reports on sensitive intelligence matters should feed in to the overall process.

17          Again, institutions such as PRONI deploy a range of auditing procedures and similar methods should be used in working with oral testimonies – transcription, for example, will need to be accurately rendered; anonymity will need to be guaranteed and protected where it is needed; and a review, evaluation and approval process will need to be set out. Such a checklist of good practice is standard for public archives and university research ethics procedures and the compilation and administration of a Troubles archive would not differ substantially from common protocols. We believe that this procedure might help to navigate the kind of legal problems associated with dealing with testimony that blighted the good intent of the Boston College oral history project.

18          The Historical Clarification Commission can produce recommendations as to the ways in which history is worked through, commemorated and taught in Northern Ireland. This would not preclude television and radio documentaries and a broad pedagogic programme to be included in the national curriculum. The archive will bring together not only primary but also secondary historical evidence to enable researchers to complete this task; that archive will then become a site of engagement by historians, teachers, the media and the public. This could also draw in local history projects which could engage on the principles already established by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council.

How is a Historical Clarification Commission different from a truth commission?

19          Typically truth commissions run in one of two ways, neither of which is applicable to Northern Ireland, in our view:

a.            Firstly, a truth and retribution process is established to punish offenders for killings and violence. Examples of this model are the processes followed by several Latin American countries during the 1980s. These tend to be predicated on a courtroom-style process that would be difficult to pursue in Northern Ireland given the reluctance of any of the paramilitary groupings to comply willingly to present – see Judge Smithwick’s criticism of IRA participation in his inquiry into collusion in the Irish Republic.

b.            Secondly, a truth and reconciliation commission works to grant amnesty to perpetrators in return for information about crimes. The example here is South Africa, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission arising out of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa which predated that state’s transition.

20          By contrast, a Historical Clarification Commission would work to robust, ethical and professional standards; its ‘truth’ would be that of empirically minded social scientists and historians. While truth recovery posits antagonists against each other with the inevitable outcome being linked closely to who can tell the best story or deploy the most effective lawyers, historical clarification provides for the best means of taking the past out of contemporary politics.

21           Rather than the legally salient ‘truths’ that are highlighted (or displaced) from truth recovery processes such as in the South African experience, countries as diverse as Germany (Enquete Commission), Spain (Salamanca archive);  Guatemala (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (Historical Clarification Commission)) or post-Communist Eastern Europe – all of which have been absent from discussions in the media – historical clarification represents a best practice model for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

Why would a Historical Clarification Commission be more efficient than alternative proposals?

22          There have been few concrete details as to who would staff immunity and truth recovery processes: implicit in these suggestions is the need for legal teams to advise clients and adjudicate on truths. In the immediate fallout from the Smithwick Tribunal, Liam Clarke asked the valid question of whether that was how the Troubles would be ‘settle[d] – largely behind closed doors among lawyers, with only the state accountable’ (Tribunal findings could set dangerous and costly precedent’, Belfast Telegraph, 5 December, p.31). Arkiv proposes an alternative based in the uncovering, interrogation and publication of evidence according to an open process of historical clarification.