Historical Fallacies – Part Two

In a previous post we considered the relevance of David Hackett Fischer’s book Historians’ Fallacies (1970) to the narrative intent of the Historical Timeline Group in the Haass/O’Sullivan Draft Seven. We think there is sufficient material in Historians’ Fallacies, appropriate to ‘confronting the past’ in Northern Ireland, to justify another post. In particular, it is worth considering the arguments in Fischer’s chapter ‘Fallacies of Factual Verification’ (40-63).

There is a tendency to link together objectives in discussion about the past in Northern Ireland – truth and justice and truth and reconciliation immediately come to mind. They are attractive combinations though their association makes large assumptions. They are easy to say, and comforting, but each part is challenging.  Here is Fischer’s understanding of ‘truth’ when considered historically (40):

It is no easy matter to tell the truth, pure and simple, about past events; for historical truths are never pure, and rarely simple. And the process of historical truth-telling itself is never more intricate than the truths which historians tell. Every true statement must be thrice true. It must be true to its evidence, true to itself, and true to other historical truths with which it is colligated. Moreover, a historian must not merely tell truths, but demonstrate their truthfulness as well.

For Fischer, the historian is judged not only by veracity but also by the professional skill of verification. There is a certain intellectual austerity which attaches to that description of historical virtue which will clearly irritate those who wish to achieve outcomes ‘as the crow flies’. It was Disraeli who once observed that there is nothing more ridiculous than a statesman in a hurry and one senses there is something of this in the historical ‘themes’ which politicians wish to impose upon past events. It represents an impatient ‘cut to the chase’, that field of pursuit in which we exercise our moral and political opinions, like whippets in a meadow on Sunday afternoon. Those with political agendas tend to be hostile, as was Stalin famously, to ‘archive rats’ and those infected with the virus of ‘bourgeois objectivism’.

As we suggested in Historical Fallacies One, the tone of some responses to historical clarification in the Haass/O’Sullivan talks was – though certainly not Stalinist – at least impatient at the suggestion that ‘contending with the past’ required the application of thrice verifiable techniques. The past, so one imagines their argument, is too important to be left to the historians. The reason is that the past is not considered to be ‘historical’ at all, but ‘practical’, concerned only incidentally with proof as factual verification and mainly with proof as in ‘proving one’s case’.  Moreover, there appears to be an unspoken assumption that somehow the proposition that ‘contending with the past’ is pre-eminently the job of the historian is itself an intolerable presumption. We noted in the previous post why this is not the case but it is worth repeating the argument.

Fischer is an excellent guide here (42-3). He observes that there is:

  • A common confusion between the way historical knowledge is acquired and the validity of that knowledge.
  • A common confusion between knowledge that is ‘incomplete’ with ‘partiality’ or even ‘falsehood’.
  • A common mistake that there is a ‘mistake-proof’ intellectual discipline and history certainly isn’t that discipline.

Therefore, concedes Fischer, ‘it is correct argue that no historian can hope to know the totality of history as it actually happened. But it is wrong to conclude that objective historical knowledge is therefore impossible’. Those mistakes and logical errors inform the political reluctance to allow the past to be considered as history. And in Northern Ireland it is clear to see what is at stake when other forms of reading the past are allowed to become ‘themes’. In his appreciation of factual significance, Fischer identifies two – in Northern Ireland we suggest that these are related – pernicious fallacies.

The first of these two fallacies is the furtive fallacy (74-5). This is the:

 ‘erroneous idea that facts of special significance are dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious. It begins with the premise that reality is a sordid, secret thing; and that history happens on the back stairs a little after midnight, or else in a smoke-filled room…It is something more, and something other than merely a conspiracy theory, though that form of casual reduction is a common component. The furtive fallacy is a more profound error, which combines a naïve epistemological assumption that things are never what they seem to be, with a firm attachment to the doctrine of original sin’.

This is not to deny that there are examples of back stairs intrigues, that sordid things do happen, and that there are devious people who engage in conspiracies. Nor is it to deny, as Fischer admits, that there is a little of the furtive fallacy in everyone and that it is very seductive. For the furtive fallacy, however, reality is always either more than meets the eye or less than meets the eye. Hegel once wrote of his own philosophy of history that if you look at the world rationally it will reveal its reason to you. For those in thrall to the furtive fallacy, if you look at the world from the perspective of a conspiracy then the world will reveal that conspiracy to you, especially when the evidence for it is otherwise either limited or insufficient. What evidence there is can be projected, like shadows in the Platonic cave, by the fire of rhetoric and by dubious analogy. As Fischer puts it, reality is ‘reduced to a set of shadows, flickering behind a curtain of flimsy rhetoric’. We would argue that much of the literature about the ‘conflict’ in Northern Ireland, whether from a republican or a loyalist perspective, suffers from the furtive fallacy such that terms like ‘dirty war’ and ‘collusion’ take on rhetorical substance while the reality they purport to describe remains – conveniently – insubstantial. For example, despite a raft of recent enquiries at great expense, such as in the cases of Wright and Nelson, the findings were of no collusion. The review by Desmond de Silva QC of the murder of Pat Finucane, published in 2012, found – as had the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday –no evidence of political conspiracy either. As Fischer so insightfully grasped, the persistence of the furtive fallacy on all sides in Northern Ireland can be traced to a notion of original sin – the partition of Ireland according to nationalists and republicans, challenge to the Britishness of Northern Ireland according to unionists and loyalists. The demands of the furtive fallacy are impossible to satisfy (according to the evidence) because not to come to the appropriate conclusion is to prove the furtiveness of that evidence.

The second, and closely related fallacy, is the pragmatic fallacy which selects useful facts in the service of a social or political cause. This is the historical approach which Oakeshott called practical history, what Fischer here describes (82) as the attempt to combine a scholarly monograph and a social or political manifesto in a single operation. Again, as Fischer acknowledges, there is probably something of the pragmatic fallacy in everyone. And the desire to be useful – to achieve peace and reconciliation, for example – is a noble example. However, as we considered in a previous review of the recent book by Anne Cadwallader Lethal Allies, the pragmatic fallacy, when combined with the furtive fallacy, can lead to all sorts of historical confusion. There is no need to repeat our criticism of that book except to say that it is the very opposite of the sort of historical understanding Arkiv thinks is appropriate for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

If we are to avoid both of these fallacies what sort of historical explanation is required? Fischer states it concisely but effectively (100): ‘A historical explanation is an attempt to relate some historical phenomenon in a functional way to other historical phenomena. Nothing is literally self-explanatory. An explanation, properly executed, relates the unknown to the known in a series of orderly inferences’. It does not do so with the help of shadowy allusions and partisan assumptions. The Haass/O’Sullivan draft could have opened up a slight opportunity to attempt this sort of serious engagement with the past but it had neither the intellectual courage nor, to be fair to the joint Chairs, the political permission to do so.






Self –Accusation and Self-Justification: a very short note

The Haass/O’Sullivan draft is nothing if not exhortatory.


The words of the desert monk John the Dwarf would have been a useful addition to the rhetorical invitations that draft makes to confront the past truthfully and honestly. According to John, the human condition is one in which:


We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.


As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, comments on this saying (2003:47-8), the statement that self-accusation is easy and self-justification is hard sounds obviously counter-intuitive. What does it mean? Williams suggests this interpretation:


Self-justification is the heavy burden, because there is no end to carrying it; there will always be some new situation where we need to establish our position, dig the trench for the alter-ego to defend.


If this is the case for the individual (and one doesn’t have to look too far in the recent history of Northern Ireland to find politicians digging trenches to defend new – and old – accusations about their past) it is equally true of groups and even of ideologies. And if those individuals, groups and ideologies have a significant role in determining what ‘confronting the past’ involves then the problem becomes self-evident. It is a problem which Arkiv has been highlighting in the posts on this site. It is why we have argued for a Historical Commission to take the issue of the ‘confronting the past’ out of politics.


But how can self-accusation be a light burden? Of course, for the desert fathers (as for Williams) the matter does not concern what should or should not be rendered unto Caesar. It concerns salvation and the grace of divine mercy. Surely this cannot be appropriate politically? Does it not sound a bit like a show trial? It is highly unlikely that the political groups in Northern Ireland will engage in self-accusation. For example, Judge Smithwick’s report on the murders of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan (3 December 2013) showed how reluctant the IRA is to help the process of truth recovery. From its own perspective, why should it when the past remains – as it is equally for others –the territory of self-justification?


That is further good reason for a historical approach to dealing with the past. The process of historical investigation is self-critical in terms of how it approaches facts, evidence and sources. Its attraction to the parties should be this: it allows them to lay down the burdens of self-justification because the historical approach is not concerned with accusation but with understanding through a process of critical engagement with sources. As we argued in our original submission to the Panel of Parties, this ‘does not mean making historians into truth attorneys preparing a case to condemn; rather – along the lines of the sort of legal ‘opinion’ given by Supreme Court judges in the USA – the purpose is to clarify the bigger picture’.



Rowan Williams Silence and Honey Cakes: The wisdom of the desert, Lion Books 2004

Historical Fallacies – Part One

It appears that during the deliberations about ‘contending with the past’, one Chair of the talks was unimpressed with the claims made on behalf of historical clarification. It may be that Dr Haass had in mind Lytton Strachey’s prefatory remarks in Eminent Victorians and that this made him perfectly wary:

For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian – ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art’.

Reflections on Strachey’s own inimitable style can be found in the excellent (and eminent) study of Historians’ Fallacies (1970) by the American historian David Hackett Fischer. It is a book which should have been on Dr Haass’s bedside table in his hours at the Europa Hotel. He, and the process, would have benefitted immensely from its wisdom.  It is a brilliant book, one aware of the many pitfalls of historical thinking and yet one which clarifies magnificently what Fischer calls the ‘logic of historical thought’. His comments on Strachey illustrate the problem of assuming too much about knowledge of the past (to which some of our other posts have alluded), namely that what appears real in the memory must be true, especially if it is repeated so often. On Strachey’s method of research, Fischer observes that a more professional approach (97-8):

would have confined him within limits with which he was apt to be more than a little impatient – the limits of truth. It would have told him when he was falsifying, and that was something which Strachey did not wish to hear’.

Strachey’s biographical method did make for enjoyable reading, it helped to establish popular understanding of the Victorian ‘character’, it set the tone for what EP Thompson later called the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ – the sort of thing which Universities today would love to claim as ‘impact’ – but it revealed at source, according to Fischer, ‘careless, casual impressionism’ leading to ‘merely fantastic inventions’. These are certainly the ghosts haunting ‘contending with the past’ in Northern Ireland, spectral presences arranged in one of the fallacies identified in Fischer’s book: the fallacy of the prevalent proof. This fallacy makes mass opinion into a method of verification (or the ‘dogs in the street’ as we know it locally). This can mean two things: either, there is no need for historical clarification because we already know how it was; or, historical clarification is required in part to bring out into the light hidden truths about the past which we already know. As respected scholars, Haass and O’Sullivan were curiously inattentive to the possibilities of their profession.

The one grudging concession to historical method in the Haass/O’Sullivan proposals is the provisional recommendation of a Historical Timeline Group (HTG), what Karl Marx would have called a sort of conceptual faux frais to the real business of politically driven ‘themes’. The Haass/O’Sullivan draft suggested that the role of the HTG should be to ‘developing a factual chronology of the conflict’ and a ‘timeline of events from 1968 to 1998’. We have indicated already our dissatisfaction with that limitation of historical knowledge. However, in the event of such an enterprise being undertaken Fischer’s book provides an excellent guide to the fallacies of narration (timeline).

His operative principle is that good historians (unlike Strachey) tell true stories – it is not ‘history’ which speaks but ‘historians’. This is often taken as the equivalent of a criminal confession by those who are unsympathetic – an admission that, despite the claim to disinterest, the past all comes down to opinion and interpretation and that the ‘dogs in the street’ version is just as good as any other. Of course, such uncertainty is part of all intellectual activity (and the judgement of lawyers, conflict resolution experts and so on reveal the same processes). There is opinion and interpretation and not all opinion and interpretation are the same. There is Strachey’s opinion and interpretation (the fantastic as truth) and professional opinion and interpretation (‘what the evidence obliges us to believe’). In this case the loss of certainty does not mean the loss of objectivity – something which is often confused, intentionally or unintentionally. It is objectivity as far as it is humanly possible, according to canons of professional training, and what more can be asserted by anyone? Fischer proposes a number of fallacies which infest bad historical narratives (or ‘timelines’ as Haass/O’Sullivan prefer), fallacies which undermine best practice. The most significant are these.

The first is the fallacy of anachronism which Fischer takes to be the common denominator of all problems of historical narration. To exemplify this fallacy he considers an iconoclastic book of its day, Leonard Levy’s Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side, which was published in 1963. Here is Fischer’s criticism (134).

Levy formed in his own mind an idea of what civil liberties should entail – an idea which has some relevance in some of its particulars to some of Jefferson’s associates…Then he proceeds to condemn Jefferson, sometimes explicitly, sometimes by innuendo, for not living up to this exalted atemporal standard. In short, Levy analysed and evaluated Jefferson by measuring his acts and attitudes against the standards of the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and tallying all the discrepancies. The result is objectionable not merely because it is unfair to Jefferson but also because it distorts and falsifies the texture of Jeffersonian thought’.

This has certainly been an issue of concern amongst former police officers who fear, when it comes to ‘contending with the past’, the imposition of an ideal model policing practice appropriate to present, peaceful conditions retrospectively imposed on the Troubles – policing which dealt had to contend with armed conspiracies, republican and loyalist, against law, order and peace.

The second fallacy is closely related to this first and is the fallacy of presentism, ‘in which the antecedent in a narrative series is falsified by being defined or interpreted in terms of the consequent’ (also known as ‘Whig history’). We noted in an earlier post a local example of that fallacy: the claim of Labour MP John McDonnell 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). That the IRA gave up its campaign and Sinn Fein showed leadership by engaging in a peace process in the 1990s does not retrospectively re-write the experience of the 1970s and 1980s. Equally, the fact that the main Unionist parties accept power-sharing today does not re-write the character of their opposition to it for most of recent history.

It is a fallacy compounded by what Fischer calls the telescopic fallacy or ‘putting big questions to little tests’ within a narrow range. For example, the justification of the Haass/O’Sullivan draft for choosing the period 1968 to 98 is perhaps self-evident, though Fischer warns of easy assumptions about such periodization – citing Michelet’s famous division of Louis XIV’s reign into two periods ‘avant la fistule’ and ‘apres la fistule’ (we are not too sure which part of a politician’s anatomy best describes the period pre 1998 and post 1998)  However, there is certainly a fold in history between 1998 and the present which qualifies the ‘1998 and all that’ appreciation of the Belfast Agreement as a ‘good thing’ after which the Troubles come to an…Moreover, there is no good reason why historical enquiry should remained fixed only on ‘the conflict’. The ‘conflict’ is not a freestanding historical experience for it only has meaning in the context of those who were opposed to conflict, who advocated alternatives to political violence and who argued that the paramilitaries on both sides had no legitimacy for ‘conflict’. There is no justification whatever for writing these voices out of history and it seems strange that (in particular) Alliance and the SDLP seem at ease with the narrowing of the past to what used to be called (in other quarters) ‘the war’.

And perhaps the most dangerous fallacy of all for objective historical knowledge (155-157) is the genetic fallacy which ‘mistakes the becoming of a thing for the thing which it has become’, an even more pernicious example of presentism. Why should that be? For Fischer, at any rate, it is pernicious when it converts ‘a temporal sequence into an ethical system’, otherwise known as historicism. Indeed, Fischer goes to some length to point to its danger in the following sequence: ‘Historicism, relativism, nihilism. There is no stopping place in this downward descent into nothingness’. One doesn’t have to go that far to see the dangers of this moralisation of history and in an earlier post we made reference to two of them in Northern Ireland’s case. At a more benign level, to say that the Belfast Agreement is ‘top notion’ (157) and was ethically implied in the conflict which went before is an obvious  falsification of the past, a cunning of reason at which even a good Hegelian might baulk.

So, what positive recommendations does Fischer have for any putative Historical Timeline Group? They can be summarised thus (161):

within an appropriate time scheme, events must be located with accuracy and precision. A historian must preserve an uncompromising respect for the temporal integrity of the story and of its various components. [The historian] must beware of the temptations of retrospective symmetry, in which antecedents are defined in terms of consequents.’

Above all, the historian must be on guard against ‘anachronisms in every form’. The task is to establish connections amongst relevant events, rather like Oakeshott’s conception of history as a ‘dry wall’ rather than an architectural edifice. Usefulness is not the first consideration of historical knowledge but Fischer concludes (315) that history can be useful in substantive ways. In particular, it can serve to ‘clarify contexts in which contemporary problems exist – not by a presentist method of projecting our own ideas into the past but rather as a genuine empirical discipline’, which is conducted with as much objectivity as is humanly possible.

It is that historical understanding and understanding of history which are missing in Haass/O’Sullivan.





A Response to The Past – Practical and Historical, by Brian Walker (UCL)

As a journalist with a lifelong interest in history and who works with lawyers, I’m mildly depressed by this attempt to build an elaborate little wall of incompatibility out of the generic distinction between lawyers and historians. Nobody is free of ideology, even the most anti-determinist of historians. Evidence is surely as basic to lawyers as historians; neither are or for the most part wish to be, entirely free of ideology.

What the post dances around is the writer’s  particular objections to  what s/he regards as the  particular “ideology “ of some legal scholars in Northern Ireland, while at the same time making  some ambitious claims for the ability of historians to “liberate us all from the past.”

Both disciplines are fundamental approaches of inquiry, particularly to as yet publicly uncovered evidence of the Troubles. “Truth recovery” applies as much to former paramilitaries as to police or MI5 officers.  Ignoring evidence against either is an intellectual crime.  “Moral equivalence” is a matter of interpretation which can be freely discussed.

I would be deeply concerned if Arkiv were to fall into the same trap that the post attributes to a particular group of lawyers, that is, to allow ideology to govern the approach to research.  It will not aid the cause of cross community support for the project if scholars surrender to the occupational hazard of squabbling dressed up as intellectual principle. For one thing it risks replicating the political divisions which the project is aimed at examining and hobbling it right from the start.  I don’t single out this post as the exception; it may very well be that lawyers are just as sectional. 

This project remember, is not only a matter of academic inquiry. It has a public purpose. Society deserves the agreement of academics on what the purpose is. The public are not concerned which type of scholar does what so long as everyone approaches the task with integrity.

Furthermore all party agreement is necessary for the project to proceed. The worst possible basis would be for nationalists to back the lawyers and for unionists to back the historians. Is there a single historian who believes that nationalists will reject the participations of lawyers? There is also good reason to believe that unionists will be relaxed about the lawyers; so should be the historians.

Too much is made here of the Haass-O’ Sullivan draft: most historians surely recognise diplomatic language when they see it.  “Moral equivalence “can be quite easily tackled later. Only religious fundamentalists believe it is some sort of fatal virus.    

The writer is s however surely correct: “thematics is not the way to deal with the past”.  All schools must be free to pursue their own course, although it would be obviously beneficial if they would agree to share the evidence. Eventually they will have to anyway, after publication.    

The brave and honest thing to do I suggest, is to convene a conference of all interested parties to search for a  common broad  approach to evidence  which recognises the validity and academic freedom of each.  Let us for goodness sake avoid a Haaas process for academics.


The Past – Practical and Historical

The French enjoy grand declarations. The organisation Liberté Pour l’Histoire, which campaigns against ‘memory laws’ pronounces: ‘liberty for history is liberty for all’. It is headed by the distinguished and influential historian Pierre Nora whose work on memory is the standard reference on the subject. In a recent article, Josie Appleton interviewed Nora about the organisation’s concern about French memory laws.

Liberté pour l’Histoire’s 2008 petition, Appel de Blois,announced: ‘In a free state, no political authority has the right to define historical truth and to restrain the freedom of the historian with the threat of penal sanctions’. In short, the proposition is that memory laws ‘aim not to protect rights but to lay down historical truths’. For Nora, the state ‘prescribing limits’ for historians means telling them ‘what they should research and what they should find’.

In previous posts, Arkiv has pointed to the dangers of allowing the political identification of ‘themes’ to set the framework for ‘dealing’ or ‘contending’ with the past in Northern Ireland. Of course, this is not on a par with the memory laws against which Liberte pour L’Histoire campaigns. Nevertheless, there is some common concern. In both cases it is the principle that the distinction between the historical past and the practical past should not be collapsed. To put that otherwise, it is an intellectual imperative to maintain the distinction between (political/ideological) arguments designed to justify or approve and (historical/scholarly) arguments designed to interpret or understand. Or to put that even more radically, as did Michael Oakeshott (43), the distinction it is crucial to maintain is somewhat analogous to a theology (concerned with the intelligibility of belief) and the sentiments of a popular religion (collective immersion in faith). One recent local example concerns the intention of The Detail to (re)investigate the Dublin Arms Trial. It is Arkiv’s view that the very predictable comments by the leaders of Fianna Fail and the DUP in response to that intention is a very good example of why politicians should steer clear from picking themes and why ‘thematics’ is not the way to deal with the past. For in both cases the past is already defined, irrespective of the evidence.

Interestingly – and provocatively – in that interview Appleton associates a distinctly modern political interest to control the past. The term she uses is ‘the moralisation of history’. By this she means ‘more specifically, a shift from victory-history, whereby nations exaggerated their past heroics, to victim-history, where groups emphasise their past sufferings. The demand for recognition of historic suffering is implicitly a claim made through the state; it is ultimately a demand for compensation for wrongs suffered, whether in the form of monies or ideological protection’. Though we think Appleton goes too far here (it is an ideological proposition reflecting her Manifesto Club campaign against the hyper-regulation of everyday life) there is certainly evidence of the disposition she identifies in the Haass/O’Sullivan draft. As Oakeshott once argued, the error towards which the practically-minded tend is the wish to transform ‘history into a gallery, not of rogues, but of moral abstractions’. Understanding the past in this way no longer means understanding agents (individual or corporate) responding to situations as they thought them to be. Rather, it means denying people their very agency, understanding them as either victims of circumstantial forces or fragments of larger social forces. There are two possible consequences of following through the logic of that perspective on the past. The first is what might be called ‘the human tragedy’ response.

The historian Dominick LaCapra, for example, has argued that a discernible body of opinion (if not quite a coherent school of thought) looks to the idea of a ‘machinery-of-destruction’ to explain historical events: in other words, a system or ideological framework that facilitates political violence, whether that violence be state or anti-state. He believed that we find this motif recurring in the work of some historians, philosophers, sociologists, and in the work of artists. He referred specifically to the popular German novel The Reader, written by Bernard Schlink (1997), as a classic example of the reduction of otherwise extraordinary actions into an ‘indiscriminately empathic, “it-could-happen-to-anyone”’ feeling.

LaCapra’s assessment was that the book presents the banality of evil in the passivity of the main protagonists – almost devoid of agency, they seem to sleepwalk into their fates. One of the central characters, Hanna, ‘falls’ into her job as a concentration camp guard and thus becomes a representative of perpetrator victimhood. From this perspective – and to switch from Germany to Northern Ireland – the relevance becomes clear. We are all responsible for the conflict just as we are equally all victims of the conflict and the truth is both collective and yet a very personal one (like Hanna’s experience in The Reader). This is at the heart of what might be called the ‘reluctant guerrilla’ syndrome: those individuals who ‘got caught up’ in a situation of violence and, for a variety of motives, became ‘involved’. This was our common human tragedy and there but for the Grace of God went everyone. That is an attractive view for some as it serves not only to deflect blame from act to circumstance. However, for others it probably does explain much of their experience – though the book by Dennis relates a story of avoiding the madness that resulted in 800 murders in 1980s Jamaica (2008).The human tragedy response, if it were a universal truth, would explain everything and exonerate everyone.

The second consequence of this historical logic is what might be termed the ‘due time’ response. It can be found in the thinking of some paramilitary ex-prisoners, loyalist and republican, who add another dimension to the ‘human tragedy’ response. It is this. If everyone was indeed bound up in a historical situation which explains everything and exonerates everyone then only some (ex-prisoners) have been held to account for their actions. If it could happen to anyone then only some have been punished. It is now due time for others to pay. Those others, in this view, are the ‘state actors’ mentioned in Haass/O’Sullivan – a large category undoubtedly, all the way, one supposes, from individual police officers through civil servants to political leaders. It is a response which involves moral equivalence. Its view of the past is that equivalence has had unequal effect. State actors mainly avoided the consequences of their acts but it is now time to redress the balance. At the end of this vista may not be the gallows but certainly more inquests; more police ombudsman reports; more criminal case review commission referrals; and more Article 2 cases at the European Court of Human Rights. The consequence in this case is to redeem history by setting the balance to rights, even if it means ignoring the vast majority of unsolved Troubles murders.

Both of these perspectives, we suggest, are practical ones and not historical ones. They have little at all to do with dealing with the past. Rather, they are either concerned to settle consciences or scores in the present. They are politics and not history. They confuse – as we think Haass/O’Sullivan ultimately confuse – issues of justice, reconciliation and redress with the purpose of understanding the past. ‘To grasp how we have come to our present condition’, according to Oakeshott (2006:42), ‘will not solve problems, but it may well help us discard some of our grosser illusions’.

That is why Arkiv recommends differentiating between law, justice and the process of historical enquiry. This is an enterprise modest but also ambitious. It is modest (it does no claim to solve problems) but also ambitious (expecting the outcome of historical enquiry to encourage us to dispel grosser illusions). One argument against our proposal for a Historical Clarification Commission (see older posts) is that historical enquiry can only deliver different interpretations. The argument against historians is also an argument against human rights lawyers or any other professional group which might populate the institutions mentioned in Haass/O’Sullivan. It has been well said that we should listen to philosophers only when they talk philosophy. If we want to come to terms with the past perhaps we should listen to historians.

To make the archives at liberty for historians may be the best opportunity, as some might wish, to liberate all of us from the past.




Dominick LaCapra, ‘Fascism and the sacred: sites of inquiry after (or along with) trauma’, in The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism, edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant and Robert Eaglestone. Routledge, 2014.

Bernard Schlink, The Reader. Phoenix, 1997.

Michael Oakeshott Lectures in the History of Political Thought Imprint Academic ,2006

Colin Morgan Dennis The Road Not Taken: Memoirs of a Reluctant Guerrilla Booksurge Publishing; Rev Upd edition 2008