After the Haass-O’Sullivan Talks: A brief assessment and a recommendation

Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan had a difficult task. Perhaps it was always an impossible one. Their ultimate (seventh) draft of 31 December 2013 was optimistically titled:


Despite the combined diplomatic and academic skills of the Chair and Co-Chair – and the draft was a very skilled diplomatic and academic document – it failed to secure political consensus, something which the more cynical (or realistic) political commentators had predicted when the process began (see for example:

Like other such public documents – the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is an example – the text bears the intellectual imprint of previous proposals to address those issues. In the nearly 9,000 word section: Contending with the Past (amended from the original suggestion of ‘dealing’ with the past) one can find traces, like an exercise in local political archaeology of: Eames/Bradley; of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission; of a repository for oral histories and personal testimonies; of a comprehensive mental trauma service; of historical investigations review; of information retrieval. One can understand the intellectual problem for Haass and O’Sullivan which was one not only of project but also of process. Firstly, they did not have the authority to make a coherent, independent proposal but were seeking what broad consensus might emerge from the proposals of others. Secondly, the laudable democratic aim of inviting submissions from individuals and groups compounded bargaining with the parties and was unlikely to produce a satisfactory outcome. Perhaps understandably, the final draft which is now in the public domain contains a paradox, a paradox which is not of Haass or O’Sullivan’s making but is a paradox which helps to define Northern Ireland. This paradox reveals itself both conceptually and then institutionally.

From paradox to contradiction

It appears, firstly, in the preamble to Contending with the Past. It begins with the enunciation of a singular objective (all italics are our emphases): ‘If we are to continue to open ourselves to the emotional, social, and political vulnerabilities of engaging with the past, we will need a sense of common purpose – an agreed rationale.’ This initial commonality and agreement is swiftly followed by the acknowledgement that: ‘At the same time, it is also clear that people have different senses of the past’s meaning and importance’. The issue is not framed as an academic but as a political one for the parties are then invited to commit themselves ‘to the important work of contending with the past, knowing that doing so will mean different things for different people’. Is it possible to achieve a common purpose on the basis of different things for different people? Is one obliged to accept an agreed rationale in order to work constructively in the present? Is it actually the case, as the document asserts, that Northern Ireland today is ‘held back’ by the past? Or is it (ironically) held back by the future – competing visions about what sort of place Northern Ireland should be or whether it should be at all – the very stuff of politics and not history? We suggest that this is a paradox (in which the complex reality of Northern Ireland is revealed but one with which most people are able to negotiate day-to-day) rather than a straightforward contradiction (a condition in which one view is right and the other wrong, an opposition which requires a solution).

It appears, secondly, in the institutions which are designed to ‘contend’ with the past. The document invites the political parties to seize the moment – ‘the moment to make these efforts broader and more systematic has come’. The institutional proposals which aim towards system are paradoxically designed to capture the views of those who dissent from system, those who would subscribe neither to the common purpose nor to the agreed rationale of the process. ‘We have sought to construct an architecture that honours those choices and provides many avenues to the destination of a more harmonious society…’ The understandable attempt by Haass and O’Sullivan to accommodate the paradox renders their architecture more Hundertwasser than Bauhaus. There was always the possibility that breadth might not complement system. That potential, we think, becomes a reality in the proposed institutions (indeed, the complexity, rather than the transparency of procedures is implied in the availability of advocate-counsellors for families and individuals ‘unconnected with any work on their file who can provide logistical guidance and emotional support through each stage of the process’). However, Haass and O’Sullivan may be excused criticism on this point too since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement had established already an institutional template in which breadth (or inclusivity) is generally recognised to have been at the expense of system (or efficiency). Where the inexcusability can be found is in the 1998 boundary inherent in these proposals as the record illustrates that killings and conflict continued post-1998; delimiting the proposed provisions to pre-1998 victims expunges post-1998 suffering and grief from the process of ‘Contending with the Past’.

The architectural plan provides for:

  • 1 A single Historical Investigative Unit (HIU) to take forward the remaining caseload of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the cases before the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI). The HIU ‘is intended to provide a meaningful investigation that develops new evidence for prosecution wherever possible but, in all cases, offers a sense of accountability and comfort to the families of victims’.
  • 2 An Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) is intended to secure information on individual cases. ‘First, victims and the immediate families of victims will be able to register a request for information about any violent incident connected to the conflict. The ICIR will reach out to designated intermediaries that it maintains among organisations and governments, who will seek out individuals within their networks who may have information relevant to the request’. Second, it ‘allows people who may wish to volunteer information about violent acts and secure the limited protections offered by the ICIR to do so, either directly or through an intermediary’. (The role and responsibility of these designated gatekeepers is left unclear). The ICIR has a further responsibility: ‘in addition to its core mission of addressing individual requests for or offers of information, the ICIR will also establish an internal unit to analyse patterns or themes’ which emerge from the evidence, documentary or verbally, which it recovers.
  • 3 It is also proposed that the Northern Ireland Executive establish ‘an archive for conflict-related oral histories, documents, and other relevant materials from individuals of all backgrounds, from Northern Ireland and beyond, who wish to share their experiences connected with the conflict’.
  • 4 Finally, an Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) is envisaged – a political oversight body comprised mainly of party nominees – which will monitor the implementation and effectiveness of all the bodies outlined in this agreement, and issue progress reports and calls for improvements where necessary.

It has been claimed that the outline of these proposals on ‘contending with the past’ were broadly acceptable to the parties at the Haass Talks. Until these parties complete their consultations on the draft as a whole and make clear either concerns or support it is difficult to come to a judgement about their political acceptability. (It would also be useful to consider draft seven in relation to the other six drafts). What can be identified is a critical moment when paradox may be said to slip into contradiction. This is the section in the document dealing with themes or patterns.

It is argued (correctly, we suggest) that only ‘through gaining the fullest possible picture of what happened during the conflict and why can Northern Ireland begin to constructively confront its past’.  Again, (correctly, we argue) it is understood that the ‘process should be conducted with sensitivity and rigorous intellectual integrity. Its purpose is to understand context and contribute to public awareness of history, both now and for subsequent generations’ (though it is noticeable how in this instance the ‘past’ becomes ‘history’). It is for this reason that ICIR staff (again, correctly we argue) ‘should have backgrounds that draw on similar analytical skills, including lawyers, historians, and other academics’. If Arkiv was given to manifesto-style, these values would certainly be included. The thematic justification (which found previous expression in Eames/Bradley) is presented in this way.


Suggested themes are not prejudgements but questions to be asked and answered through evidence. It may be that different assessments are made with different levels of confidence; if that is the case, the report will say so. Likewise, it may be that the evidence does not support a particular hypothesis or suggested theme; if that is the case, the report will also say so. If further information is uncovered about those themes, or if additional themes are brought forward for consideration after the report is completed, the unit will issue amended or additional reports as the evidence warrants. If the ICIR is not able to issue a full report within three years, it will issue a status report on its work, explain the reasons for the delay, and provide an expected timeline for publication of its full report.

Similarly, this corresponds to the sort of analytical work which historians would recognise as integral to their day job. Moreover, the authors of the draft are clear that ‘process should be conducted with sensitivity and rigorous intellectual integrity’. This is essential since the purpose is not only momentary but also ‘to understand context and contribute to public awareness of history, both now and for subsequent generations’. That is a purpose worth supporting. Nevertheless, the concern Arkiv has with thematic accounts is their very real potential to politicise the past and to achieve the reverse of what Haass and O’Sullivan intend: that they do imply prejudgements (they already pre-exist the evidence); that they contradict the engagement to consider only what the evidence obliges one to believe; that there will be intense political pressure to support particular hypotheses; that this will encourage ideological-led rather than investigative-led history; and as a consequence the ‘past’ will not be taken out of politics but drawn very much in to the centre of it. There are a number of elements to this concern.

First, one may concede that themes are ‘what tie individual events or actions together into a comprehensible and meaningful history of those years’. At the same time one may contest the claim that ‘they also provide a vehicle for facilitating acknowledgments by perpetrators of violence, as they permit a broader level of accountability than do individual cases’. It has been well-said that to ‘universalise is to minimise’ ( and this is something at which some victims and victim groups might baulk.

Second, the draft identifies ‘two avenues through which themes can best be selected. First, the ICIR theme unit will, in the course of its study, identify themes through their assessment of the body of information before them. And second, civic society and political representatives, through the Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) can suggest hypotheses for the ICIR theme unit to analyse’. This is the where the contradiction is most plainly stated. The potential for political manipulation seems plain and the intimation is of a breach between the distinct responsibilities and roles of the institutional architecture, a breach which could threaten the stability of the whole edifice. The contradiction lies in this.

In a previous post Pravda and Istina ( – which was a response to some of the speculation in the media – we identified the problem. That post argued that for all its use of the term ‘history’, what is proposed often has little to do with history but a lot to do with the ideological past. We claimed that no self-respecting historian would entertain the validity of the contradiction in the ICR – the close examination of detail while others (IRG) decide on themes to be explored. Appearing as a balance between ‘civic society’ and historical investigation, in the real world pre-existing themes will skew the integrity of investigation, putting ideology before history.

What is to be done?

Arkiv argues that the appropriate way to address these difficulties is to begin with what has been clearly inserted as an afterthought towards the end of this section on the past, presented here under the remit of the IRG. The IRG is called upon:

to consider other institutions or initiatives that could contribute to reconciliation, a better understanding of the past, and a reduction in sectarianism.  One such initiative should be a Historical Timeline Group, dedicated to developing a factual chronology of the conflict. It should be composed of suitably qualified academics who would conduct a review of a broad range of historical material with a view to producing a timeline of events from 1968-1998. The objective would be to provide a factual resource for the work of other projects relating to the past, including but not limited to the archive of personal narratives. Its goal would be to neither condemn nor condone, but rather to offer a contextualised, evidence-based accompaniment for other work on the past.


To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, we would support that wouldn’t we since this (albeit conditional) initiative corresponds neatly with Arkiv’s proposal for a Historical Clarification Commission (HCC). The argument is that its value and significance are inverted here, an afterthought that should become forethought. There is no need to repeat the claims which Arkiv makes on behalf of a HCC which may be found here ( However, it is worth making a number of brief points on its behalf in the light of the Haass-O’Sullivan draft:

  • The agreed rationale and the common purpose of the staff in a HCC would supply the professional and procedural demands of the draft.
  • The work of the ICIR should be encompassed within the remit of the HCC, the contextualised, evidence-based method of which should define all work-in-progress.
  • It is out of, and only out of, archival and documentary-based evidence that themes should emerge – irrespective of and without commitment to those suggested by either civic society or the political parties.
  • It should have, in consultation with the IRG, oversight of the oral history archive.
  • Importantly, its functions should be entirely distinct from the remit of the HIU such that there should be no overlap or breaching of the boundary between the two bodies.
  • It is important to widen public understanding of Northern Ireland’s history beyond a ‘past’ exclusively defined by the paramilitaries and their violence.


From the Holocaust to Srebrenica inquiries and fact-finding commissions have become a common device used by governments to deal with the public’s desire for the truth about the past. Historians have been at the core of many of these initiatives as it is recognised that their discipline makes them particularly suited to help governments and the public get as comprehensive and balanced a narrative of past conflicts as possible. The Haass-O’Sullivan Talks have stimulated the emergence for the first time of a possible narrative based on work by historians. In Contending with the Past there is a substantial basis for developing a HCC approach in the section on themes and in the undeveloped notion of a Historical Timelines Group (HTG). We owe them a debt of gratitude for that.

In the final draft the HTG is subordinate to the unit dealing with themes. The thinking underlying the HTG’s role remains under-developed. It is tasked with developing a factual chronology of the conflict and a timeline of events between 1968 and 1998 and to provide a factual resource for other projects. The HTG as presented is of secondary importance in a process dominated by the themes unit where there is a danger of the politicisation and/or pre-cooked explanations of the conflict. But a broad fact-based narrative of the conflict provided by the HTG should be at the core of the process of contending with the past. It is out of this material that themes and patterns should emerge. The fusion of the themes unit with the HTG provides the basis for what will be in effect a HCC. It is already recognised by the Haass-O’Sullivan final draft that historians have a role in both so a HCC is there in embryonic form.

There are, of course, a range of issues to be addressed:  how many historians, how they would be appointed, by whom and for what period? It would also be impossible, as Arkiv has argued, without the support from London and Dublin in terms of making archives available. But these are secondary to the principle of a HCC which, we contend, is the best mechanism for providing the comprehensive factual and thematic history of the conflict which Contending with the Past intends.

Arkiv submits that, as the parties review their positions on Haass-O’Sullivan, and, as many expect, the question of ‘the past’ is one to which they return, that the role of a HCC (or Historical Timelines Group) should be given much greater prominence and significance in the institutional architecture of any possible, future agreement. This can be done either by returning to the inclusive, but indecisive, Haass-O’Sullivan Talks format or by executive action of the Office of First and Deputy First Minister.


The (7th) draft document of the Haass-O’Sullivan Talks is available at: