A short note on history after Boston College

When the controversy over handing the Boston College tapes became public in the summer of 2012 Professor Eunan Ó Halpin of Trinity College offered a robust defence of victims’ rights. In questions of murder, disappearance, torture and human rights abuses, justice, he argued, must take precedence over academic research.


However, since then the process of academic research has been called into question by the role the tapes have played in the recent arrest of Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Professor Paul Bew, for example, mentioned on the Today programme (5 May 2014) that something of a ‘freeze’ will probably be felt  by oral historians and political journalists in Northern Ireland – and elsewhere – as a result of recent events.


On his release from police custody, Mr Adams stated that ‘[t]he allegation of conspiracy in the killing of Mrs McConville is based almost exclusively on hearsay from unnamed alleged Boston College interviewees but mainly from Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes’.


Both Mr Adams and his colleague Gerry Kelly reaffirmed Sinn Féin’s commitment to the peace process and supporting the PSNI; also, on the same Today programme, Mr Kelly reaffirmed Sinn Féin’s commitment to the Haass/O’Sullivan proposals for dealing with the past.


At one level, Mr Adams is correct: oral testimony remains hearsay unless it is placed in a context of other evidence. As Orlando Figes points out in his account of private life in Stalin’s Russia: ‘Like all memory, the testimony given in an interview is unreliable, but, unlike a book, it can be cross-examined and tested against other evidence to disentangle true memories from received or imagined ones’.


Mr Adams suggested that the only way for society to go is forward. As such, the Adams/Boston College tapes saga ought not to spell an end to the process of an historical reckoning or working through the past.


The challenge to the role of historical enquiry in the light of the Adams/Boston College events is perhaps not as critical as it may first appear. Arkiv has suggested that the issue of public history is not only to do with production but also consumption. In other words, there can be a tendency towards looking to aspects of the past to confirm our views in the present. As Eric Hobsbawm (cited in an earlier post by Brian Walker) pointed out ‘[m]yths and invention are essential to the politics of identity’. As Hobsbawm goes on to argue, a key task of the production of historiography is to engage with and weigh up these myths against the available evidence. Arkiv have also pointed out that a major flaw in the Haass/O’Sullivan proposals was to ignore the dynamic between the two approaches and, instead, to conflate them under a ‘thematic’ umbrella.


In the absence of an informed process of historical clarification the risk of hearsay dominating the agenda is always likely to be the case. Refocusing on the historical experience of victimhood, as Professor Ó Halpin suggested, is one route away from that possibility – always in the context of the evidence of political agency at the time. These are not mere ‘legacy issues’. Legacy issues imply some residual fragments inconveniencing the present, not matters of historical value.


According to the German philosopher Walter Benjamin: ‘The true method of making things present is to represent them in our space, not to represent ourselves in their space … we don’t displace our being into theirs; they step into our life’.


In other words, ‘moving forward’ consists not in writing contemporary politics back into the past but in developing an evidence-based representation of the past in and for the present. That task has not been diminished by recent events. Its value, we would argue, has been enhanced.