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.