Historical Clarification Commission – A Short Guide

A Historical Clarification Commission


The Haass/O’Sullivan paper argues that a ‘civic vision is needed’ to ‘contend’ with or work through the past; the ‘moment’ has come, it claims, to institute a ‘systematic’ process. This is to be welcomed. It also argues 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’; that this ‘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’; and that members of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) should have backgrounds that draw on ‘analytical skills, including lawyers, historians, and other academics’. So far so good. However Arkiv suggests that, in this proposal for an ICIR, the Haass/O’Sullivan paper has misunderstood what is required. The reasons are as follows.

It gives precedence to an identification of themes implying prejudgement; these themes, proposed by others on a political basis, contradict the engagement to consider only what the evidence obliges one to believe; there will be intense political pressure to promote particular hypotheses; 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 to the centre of it. Moreover, the importance given to ‘individual narratives’ – while valuable in part – risks fragmenting (and further segregating) public awareness of history. A Historical Clarification Commission (HCC) would seek to take the past out of the centre of contemporary politics in Northern Ireland and allow politicians to get on with governing, not ‘held back’ by the past (as Haass/O’Sullivan fear).


The HCC would not be about formulating an official history. It would be about writing an authoritative history – meaning that its findings would not be unchallengeable but would provide the evidential benchmark against which (what some have called) ‘permissable lies’ about the past would be tested. It would comprise three elements: archival research, oral testimony and public engagement

–          Archival research: studying the public record and producing a narrative account that emphasises chronology and agency, a development of the Haass/O’Sullivan suggestion of Historical Timeline Group. The purpose would be to contextualise events and to avoid an exclusive focus on ‘conflict’. The themes or patterns of the past would be exclusively a product of this research.

–          Oral testimony: engaging all relevant persons and organisations. Anonymity would be guaranteed (and engagement encouraged) by granting testimonies protected immunity on the principle of full disclosure.

–          Public engagement: the establishment of an archive (housing primary and secondary evidence) and promotion of outreach programmes involving, for example, schools and the media. This could be managed by an expanded Public Record Office.