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.





Made in Germany: Tools for Contending with the Past

The German Way of Dealing with the Past

Contending with the past in other European countries: they do things differently there. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been taken up as the model by many in Northern Ireland; however, it has hardly featured in Central European debates on the legacy of the Communist dictatorships. Indeed, the only advocates of truth and reconciliation commissions were ex-Communists, who believed that such commissions would legitimate their participation in politics and enable them to present themselves as democrats. Instead of looking south, the post-Communist elites have looked west — to the Federal Republic of Germany. In their opinion, to quote Timothy Garton Ash, ‘contemporary Germany offers the gold standard for dealing with a difficult past’ (Guardian, 16 March 2011).

This reputation took decades to acquire. Like most European societies following the Second World War, West Germany did not deal with the past but rather blocked it out or broke it up into more manageable pieces. Returning to the land of her birth five years after ‘zero hour’, Hannah Arendt found ‘a deep-rooted, stubborn, and at times vicious refusal to face and come to terms with what really happened’ (Arendt, p. 352). It was only in the wake of a wave of anti-Semitic vandalism at the end of the 1950s that the Federal Republic decided that the health of the young democracy required people to remember rather than forget the crimes of the past. West Germans, though, did not set out to draw a line underneath the past. Instead, they established a culture of continuous discussion — one that is highly self-critical and based on high-quality historical scholarship.

The ongoing historical debate about the Nazi past has not only sustained the interest of scholars and the political elite, but also engaged the wider public. Museum shows, memorials, the visual arts, novels, plays, memoirs, television dramas, documentaries, press articles — all of these things have played their part in Geschichtsaufarbeitung (‘the process of working through the past’). And nor has the historical debate precluded victims seeking justice in the courts. In fact, the historical and legal approaches have supported each other.

The lessons slowly learned dealing with the Nazi past were quickly applied when dealing with the Communist past. Trials were held, purges were conducted and history commissions were established. The first of the last was the Enquete Commission in the German Bundestag for the Treatment of the Past and Consequences of the SED-Dictatorship in Germany. It was made explicitly clear that the Bundestag was not claiming a monopoly on dealing with the past, that the commission was not usurping the role of historians and that the report would not be a history legitimated by the state. Joining the Bundestag deputies on the commission were a range of experts, including historians, who had been selected by the parties. Easterners were also fairly represented, allowing the commission to claim — with some justice — that it was an all-German body. Despite their concerns (of which more below), victims’ organisations nonetheless welcomed the Enquete Commission as both a public stage and an advocate. To speed up the process, working groups, dealing with matters such as education and archives, were established. The first round of investigations was completed by the spring of 1994 and the findings had serious implications for the institutions that had been surveyed.

Problems with the German Approach
But, all that glitters is not gold: the Enquete Commission was seriously flawed. This, though, is perhaps what makes the German experience so instructive. From the start, the commission’s proceedings were shaped by the politics of the politicians. Western conservatives and Eastern dissidents worked together to attack what they saw as a dominant left-wing interpretation of the history of the Democratic Republic. Where academics had been ‘soft’ on Communism, they were going to take a hard line. The report therefore was meant to discredit East Germany completely and to build up public support for a renewed ‘anti-totalitarian consensus’. By producing a report that departed so frequently from the historical record, the commission appears to have done more to hinder inter-German understanding than to help it. Certainly, the Party of Democratic Socialism — the ex Communists — went on to double their vote in the 1994 federal elections.

The debate surrounding the creation of the Enquete Commission was marked by giddy rhetoric, not least about how a failure to treat the wounds of the past would lead to society growing sick in the present. However, although the needs of the victims were constantly trumpeted in speeches, the commission in practice largely silenced their voices. The Bundestag deputies preferred to keep the spotlight on the regime and to keep control of the narrative than to give over the stage too often to the victims. Such was the public’s disappointment at this approach that another Enquete Commission was created and charged with addressing issues that mattered to victims. The second commission’s focus was on political prisoners, the use of the death penalty and the Stasi’s strategy of Zersetzung (‘disintegration’) — engineering personal and professional misfortunes as a way of pushing an opponent out of politics. Other forms of victimhood were not considered in any meaningful way and the regime rather than individuals was the lens through which the past was viewed.

Both the commissions, then, paid almost no attention to the experiences of ordinary East Germans, reducing their history to that of the regime. Many easterners complained that they were unable to recognise their own pasts in the reports on the past. The ‘antitotalitarian’ narrative said nothing to them about their lives.

The Bundestag deputies had not been willing to be guided by history: the outcome of their evaluations of the Democratic Republic had been set in place from the very start. The East was criminal and disposable; the West was normal and the only possible future. It was all but inevitable that the commissions would have what the historian Andrew Beattie has termed a ‘hybrid scholarly political nature’ (Beattie, p. 6). Nonetheless, the coming together of the discipline of history and the politics of the politicians need not have taken on the shape that it did. For instance, the commissions could have tried to reconceptualise Germany’s divided past or to draw up a joint-narrative for the post-war years. Moreover, the politicians miscalculated. As the historian A. James McAdams concludes, the main parties ‘probably would have served their long-term interests more had they pushed for a less stereotypical assessment’ (McAdams, p. 174).

Questions for the Northern Irish Debate

History does not so much teach lessons to be followed as suggest questions to be asked. Of course, the ‘regime(s)’ in Northern Ireland were not like East Germany, the case is nevertheless instructive. What questions, then, does the German experience suggest should be asked in the debate about contending with the past in Northern Ireland?

  • By deciding not to do something, what stand on the disputes is being taken? ‘Drawing a line under the past’ — i.e. doing nothing — would effectively be the same as telling most victims that the suffering inflicted upon them over many decades was of little importance when placed against the dangers of destabilising the peace process. Today, few people want to go this far. Nonetheless, there are still many voices in the debate which question the need for a role for history in contending with the past. Healing Through Remembering rightly states that ‘society needs to find ways to remember more sensitively, inclusively and honestly’ (Healing Through Remembering, p. 4). Yet, the sheer scale of the Northern Irish conflict renders it impossible to remember as it truly happened and therefore risks it being remembered as it was not. The professional study of the past is the best guard against this threat. So, a decision not to set up a history commission would be tantamount to arguing that no such protection is needed.
  • Should Northern Ireland break with European norms and not establish a history commission? The Proposed Agreement of 31 December 2013 notes that ‘Other countries and regions’ have had to ‘contend…with the legacy of the past’ and ‘Each has adopted methods and mechanisms suited and moulded to the particular experience, nature, and needs of that society’ (Haass and Sullivan, p. 19). This is somewhat exaggerated, however. Recent European and South American scholarship has demonstrated that there is something like international best practice. Consequently, the terms of the debate should perhaps be shifted, with the obligation now upon those opposed to a history commission to justify this position.
  • How could a history commission be insulated from short-term party-political agendas? The German experience suggests that politicians need to be protected from themselves. Rehearsing familiar narratives of Northern Ireland’s conflicting pasts will almost certainly fail to engage the public and to meet the challenge of reconciliation. This problem is not simply about getting the composition and supervision of a history commission right; it is also about ensuring that terms of reference do not pre-determine the outcome.
  • Should a history commission address more than just controversial state and paramilitary practices? In Germany, the commissions’ focus on the regime delivered reports that did not map on to people’s personal memories. Healing Through Remembering has long highlighted that a similar approach to Northern Ireland’s past would also leave victims alienated from the process. But, a history commission need not conform to an outdated caricature of what historians do. Why, for example, should a history commission not look into people’s forms of thinking about what they have been through and about the loss of grandparents, parents, children, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, comrades, neighbours and individuals whose lives briefly crossed their own? Historians could offer new ways of conceptualising the Northern Irish conflict, breaking out of the old narratives and building up inter-community understanding.
  • What are the dangers of leaving history out of the ‘systematic’ approach? The Proposed Agreement of 31 December 2013 recommends that the ‘moment’ ‘has come’ for a ‘systematic’ effort to contend with the past (Haass and O’Sullivan, p. 20). If history is excluded, however, then that entire enterprise could be endangered. Academic historians would continue to investigate and interrogate Northern Ireland’s past, invariably producing discomforting and disruptive work. By contrast, a history commission could play a stabilising role by encouraging and informing an ongoing public debate about what happened and why. It could also narrow in places and expand in others the scope of that debate.

Hannah Arendt, ‘The Aftermath of Nazi Rule: Report from Germany’, Commentary, October 1950, pp. 342-52

Andrew H. Beattie, Playing Politics with History: The Bundestag Inquiries into East Germany (Beghahn Books, 2008)

Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Germany Can Show Reborn Arab Nations the Art of Overcoming a Difficult Past’, Guardian, 16 March 2011

Healing Through Remembering, Dealing with the Past? An Overview of Legal and Political Approaches Relating to the Conflict in and about Northern Ireland (Healing Through Remembering, 2013)

Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, An Agreement among the Parties of the Northern Ireland Executive on Parades, Select Commemorations, and Related Protests; Flags and Emblems; and Contending with the Past (accessed at http://www.northernireland.gov.uk/haass.pdf)

A. James McAdams, Judging the Past in Unified Germany (Cambridge University Press, 2001)

James Mark, The Unfinished Revolution: Making Sense of the Communist Past in Central-Eastern Europe (Yale University Press, 2010)

Dealing with the Shadows of the Past

On the eve of his historic state visit to Britain, President Michael D Higgins spoke of the problems involved in asking victims and injured to move forward. ‘Affecting a kind of amnesia’, he stated, ‘is of no value to you, you are better to honestly deal with the facts that are standing behind you as shadows’. He went on to note that ‘…you have to address the past. You can’t allow yourself to be crippled by the past, you have to be able to approach the past in a way that doesn’t cripple you in the present or damage you in the future’ (Irish Times, 8 April 2014).


It may be worth taking Mr Higgins’ approach seriously and looking at what doesn’t work.


In his recent book on the attempts to come to terms with the past in Serbia, Eric Gordy refers to the idea of the German sociologist Max Weber that ‘bureaucracies once founded tend to take on a life and logic of their own’ (2013, p. 59). The sentiment is, arguably, reflective of the main lessons of the book in which Gordy maps the ‘genuine achievements’ of transitional justice in the region together with its demonstrable inability to really tackle received wisdoms about the past and the resilience of sectarian and segregated ideologies in the present.


Transitional justice takes its raison d’être from the Nuremburg trials after the Second World War and is seen to encompass a range of judicial mechanisms such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and quasi-judicial institutions based on storytelling and emphasising restorative justice such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The focus has been on instances of regime change rather than post-conflict scenarios, Gordy points out. However, even with that proviso, the narrative is patchy: the example of the Tokyo tribunal is largely forgotten while ‘The long and exhaustive process of confrontation of the Nazi past in Germany is better traced as beginning from the activation of domestic judicial institutions in the 1960s than to a military tribunal founded by occupying powers in the 1940s’ (p.169). (See also John Dower’s 2012 collection in which he argues that ‘So substantial … [were the] omissions that it does not seem too harsh to speak of criminal neglect, or even collusion, on the part of the prosecution itself’ (p.124).)


For Gordy, the institution of a trial process at the ICTY and, specifically, the prosecution of Milošević – despite his evading justice through his suicide – worked to ‘set a precedent for the reach of legal responsibility’ (p.60). Yet, as he points out, despite – or perhaps because of – pressure from the international community and influential organisations such as the United States Institute for Peace, the impact at an everyday level is negligible: ‘Memories of the past remain disputed, and transitional justice initiatives have not bridged those cognitive divisions. In this regard it could be said that legal “truth” has not contributed to social “reconciliation”’ (p.68).


As the institutional roll-out of transitional justice mechanisms gathered pace in the first decade of the 21st century, Gordy argues, so also did stories about the conflict(s) of the 1990s become more and more entrenched. The problem, as he sees it, lies in the sectional focus of transitional justice initiatives in Serbia, or, more precisely, the confinement of activity to targeted groups. The paradoxical effect of institution-building has become then a filling-out of a legal space with little or no impact on the political or social realms. Gordy explains the limitations of the law as follows: ‘While it is not wholly implausible that a legal cause could lead to a social or cultural effect, a deeper understanding of the environment is required’ (p. xiv).


For Gordy the implication is clear: it is in the cultural processes of understanding that the past becomes salient and divisive.


Arkiv have made similar arguments in previous posts and have suggested that a process of historical clarification could help to move the past out of being a debilitating and primary focus of contemporary Northern Irish politics. This would, of course, not work to end arguments about the past but might, we would argue, work to drain them of some of their symbolic and emotive importance.


The proposals of Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan, we have also suggested are, arguably, sui generis; the range of institutions for ‘contending with the past’ contained in those proposals are vast and perhaps largely utopian. As an alternative, Arkiv has suggested that some kind of historical clarification commission would be cheaper, quicker, and more transparent.


The point was made by Healing Through Remembering (2006) a number of years ago and it is worth quoting the organisation’s discussion of a historical clarification option in full:


This option would probably generate less political opposition, be less expensive, and could be the start of a broader public debate on what happened. It would produce a report, and could make recommendations. However, this type of Commission would have no evidentiary powers, no power to compel witnesses, grant amnesty, or prosecute, so it would not enable individuals to discover what happened in particular incidents, nor would it be able to name names or push for prosecution. Also, it would be unlikely to meet the needs of victims, and would risk seeming distant and scholarly, both of which would limit public ownership of its results (p.xi).


As Arkiv has suggested, one way to avoid a Weberian multiplication of institution-building while simultaneously detaching ‘The Past’ from its centrality in contemporary politics may be found in the middle ground between doing nothing and doing too much. We agree with Healing Through Remembering that such an option may not solve all the ills of society or meet all the demands of competing voices. However, it may provide the basis for the beginning of a ‘public debate about what happened’ in Northern Ireland.


Gordy’s book serves as a reminder of what happens when institutions become detached from everyday political reality. Arkiv has pointed out that one way of reinvesting the debate over the past in Northern Ireland with a degree of applicability; for, as Healing Through Remembering has pointed out In contexts where it is deemed impossible or inappropriate to establish a modern-day truth commission with associated strong legal and investigative powers, it may still be possible to achieve some shared understanding of the past through an agreed and independent historical commission without such powers’ (p.32). This more minimalist version of dealing with the past may, we would suggest, go some way to bringing light to the shadows of the past.



John Dower, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World (The New Press, 2012).

Eric Gordy, Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post Milošević Serbia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Healing Through Remembering, Making Peace with the Past: Options for Truth Recovery Regarding the Conflict in and About Northern Ireland (Healing Through Remembering, 2006).




Haass/O’Sullivan after Downey

Near the start of his (in)famous treatise on political expediency, Machiavelli advises would-be rulers to cultivate prudence: ‘When trouble is sensed well in advance’, he writes, ‘it can be easily remedied … As the doctors say of a wasting disease, to start with it is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; after a time, unless it has been diagnosed and treated at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose and difficult to cure’. It seems that in the controversy over the procedures to deal with those suspected of terrorist offences (On-the-Runs (OTRs)), David Cameron apparently was caught unawares by the revelations contained in Mr Justice Sweeney’s staying of a case against Mr John Downey. It is easy to diagnose the trouble but, in Northern Ireland at least, the cure seems difficult

The ‘letters of comfort’ (there is doubt about whether they constitute effective amnesties) given to the 200+ OTRs – 187 was the initial figure, which has been revised upwards by the BBC – raise questions about the integrity of the Haass/O’Sullivan process for dealing with the past. Three related matters from the ruling by Sweeney J are worth highlighting (for a fuller discussion see the guest post by Dr Fergal Davis).

The first is a matter of fairness. It is the point made to the House of Commons by former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain when withdrawing the Northern Ireland Offences Bill which Sweeney J cites (paragraph 71, page 21). Hain states that: ‘Closure on the past cannot be one-sided. That was, and is, non-negotiable’. He goes on:

“The process would have made people accountable for their past actions through the special tribunal before being released on licence. Sinn Fein has now said that any republican potentially covered by the legislation should have nothing to do with it. But if no one went through the process, victims who would have suffered the pain of having to come to terms with the legislation would have done so for nothing. That is unacceptable, and I am therefore withdrawing the Bill.”

It is important to note here both the process and those to whom the process was intended to deliver justice or closure. As it turns out, there was a process. It was not an open judicial process but a secret administrative process. As it turns out, the victims for whom so much consideration was supposed to be given have suffered for nothing.

The second is a matter of trust. It is the point which Jonathan Powell makes with reference to his book on the peace process, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland (2008) which is also referred to by Sweeney J (paragraph 79, page 23) in relation to the coherence and consistency of the process:

“In the book I make clear my view that the most challenging part of the peace process in Northern Ireland, as in most other peace processes, is its implementation. Agreements are necessary precisely because the two sides do not trust each other and agreements by themselves do not establish trust.

It is only when the two sides actually implement what they have promised to do that the trust begins to be created as part of a process of peace building. If either side reneges on its undertakings or fails to implement what it has promised to do, trust can be fatally undermined” (emphasis added by Sweeney J).

It is difficult to reconcile this notion of trust with the manner in which the Government then put in place the ‘administrative’ alternative when it failed to get legislative approval for, and political consensus on, the Northern Ireland Offences Bill. The diagnosis was easy to make – we have got to keep Sinn Fein happy – but this meant reneging on public understandings with the other parties (including the public at large). The consequence now is to find an appropriate cure for the lack of trust which this particular deal has created.

The third is a matter of impartiality. As Mr McGinty (paragraph 82, page 26) in a witness statement for the prosecution service in Northern Ireland observed:

“The prosecuting authorities accepted the administrative scheme with some reluctance. In part this was because the actual and perceived impartiality of the prosecution authority was of crucial importance to the maintenance of public confidence and the administrative scheme would only benefit one side of a divided community”.

Though the judge chose not to highlight this passage, it is also central to understanding the fallout from the OTR ‘error’.  This is how the process has been judged in Northern Ireland – and not only by loyalists seeking to interrupt the enquiries of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). It does benefit ‘one side’ and if the justification is that the process was about addressing an anomaly (this was about tidying up inconsistencies brought about by the early release of prisoners) then it has created an even bigger anomaly for, together, these inter-related matters of fairness, trust and impartiality have consequences for the institutional structure proposed by Haass/O’Sullivan. The importance their draft agreement places upon a civic vision of reconciliation and sharing seems questionable now. As many commentators pointed out in the wake of the Downey case, the motivation was to secure the comfort of a few, out of civic society’s range of vision. The behind-closed-doors calculations of politicians in this way reveal the very political nature of trauma: that is, a sense of betrayal by those in power. Jenny Edkins, for example, has argued that this breach of trust imposes and reinforces feelings of powerlessness by victims of violence: “What we call trauma takes place when the very powers that we are convinced will protect us and give us security become our tormentors.”

Of course, Machiavelli may be harnessed to a ‘dirty hands’-type explanations. In other words, politics inevitably involves murky compromises and the narrative of the OTRs may be (as Hain repeats) a choice between a general peace and a particular justice for victims. These are the types of choices that we, as individuals tend not to like making, hence we entrust our politicians or state officials to take them on our behalf. As Henry Kissinger was fond of saying, sometimes the state must sin so that the people remain virtuous – problems arise only when the ‘sin’ becomes public knowledge. Then the people become virtuously hypocritical (an accusation which has actually been made about the response to the revelation in the Downey case). This explanation, however, falls short and ignores the key issue Machiavelli pinpointed as regards the role of Fortune in politics: “Fortune is changeable”, and “men prosper so long as fortune and policy are in accord, and when there is a clash they fail’. The lesson seems to be that policy agendas may fall out of sync with other political realities and this now appears to be the case in part with one principle proposed by Haass/O’Sullivan: the idea of thematic explanation in order to ‘provide a vehicle for facilitating acknowledgements by perpetrators of violence, as they permit a broader level of accountability than do individual cases’. This comes up against the reality of the OTR case.  Accountability is a slippery concept: judicial accountability is not the same as political accountability, and the kind of accountability desired by victims may not coincide with either.

Arkiv has argued that it is important to emphasise historical accountability in relation to publicly available primary material. We suggest that the idea ought to be revisited by politicians in a more serious fashion in order to bring the Haass/O’Sullivan agenda back into sync with political reality post-Downey. A few straws in the wind from very different sources with very different agendas do intimate the possibility of a revised emphasis, if only to recapture fairness, trust and impartiality.

The first is Basil McCrea, leader of NI21:

“Victims should be told the truth – they will not get justice because those [who] carried out the acts will not confess and evidence from other sources is either not available or unreliable. Some suggest that a “truth commission” or some form of immunity from prosecution would provide more information about the fate of loved ones to victims and survivors. Such a suggestion is unworkable, unethical and runs against natural justice.  It would give perpetrators the opportunity to tell their side of the story without cross examination or challenge. It suggests a moral equivalence between the victim and the perpetrator. This is wrong. There is no equivalence (moral or otherwise) between innocent bystanders and those that were actively involved in “the conflict”.

He concludes:

“The concept of an official archive to deliver information to victims in a sensitive manner requires further consideration but “limited immunity for prosecution”, letters of comfort, and any number of side deals are counter productive and undermine the political process. The time for “constructive ambiguity” is gone”.

Newton Emerson quotes Mark Durkan of the SDLP making a similar point at Westminster last week: “He said the grubby deals that have blighted the peace process in a way must be undone”. Emerson himself is emphatic on the issue: “The outraged reaction from almost all quarters showed this will not be acceptable while any bereaved relative remains alive. The reaction to the Downey case proves it. These grubby deals are not the way we will deal with the past. They are part of the past”.

Anthony McIntyre has also commented on two ideas of justice:

“We can regard it as justice of retribution or justice of revelation. I think we have to emphasise it as justice of revelation. That would mean going along the lines advocated by the Northern Ireland attorney general John Larkin, who advocated the opening up of papers and documentation so that we can get this revelation that has been so drastically lacking in the past.”


Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Newton Emerson, ‘Grubby deals expose the ambiguities of the peace process’, Sunday Times, 2 March 2014, p.27.

Basil McCrea ‘Draw a line under the past and move on’ http://blogs.qub.ac.uk/compromiseafterconflict/

Anthony McIntyre http://voiceofrussia.com/uk/news/2014_03_03/Bloody-Sunday-Politicians-using-past-for-political-advantage-in-present-6800/







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

A very short addition on thematics

Why should we get so exercised by the idea of themes and patterns which is integral to the vision of information recovery in the Haass/O’Sullivan paper? Is it not the case that political historians implicitly and/or explicitly depend on themes to makes sense of the complexity of historical evidence? The answer is yes and no and the difference between yes and no is vital.

Yes, themes in political history can be discerned in Northern Ireland’s past. No, thematic history is an entirely different conception and risks the official imposition of ideological beliefs on to the public record.

The distinction between clarification of political history and thematics as we find it in Haass/O’Sullivan lies here: the pursuit of ‘truth’ in thematics relates ‘facts’ to the assumed pattern in the political ‘text’. Historical facts, on the other hand, are established in relation to other historical facts or their contextualisation. It is other-referenced and not self-referential. Its truth is to be found in how events ‘stand in relation’ to other events, not how events are composed by an ideological theme. Clarification of political history begins, then, with (the evidence of) what actually occurred and only out of this evidence can one really talk about themes.

A thematised history, we fear, will become either an ideological conceit or a historical bed of Procrustes. In the Haass/O’Sullivan paper thematics, we also fear, will serve to reinforce ethno-nationalist divisions and perpetuate historic grievances. In other words, it will achieve the opposite of its intention. Moreover, we think that it indulges the narratives which drove the conflict in the first place. At best it contributes to obfuscation and at worst does not reduce the scope for ‘permissable lies’. In his recent review of George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls, David Aaronovitch argues that lies and obfuscation are the real enemy for Orwell. ‘Without them, something may be done. With them, nothing good can happen’.

As Arkiv has already pointed out, there is much in to commend in the section on the past in Haass/O’Sullivan, but its promotion of thematics is a profound shortcoming.


David Aaronvitch ‘The reluctant patriot: how George Orwell reconciled himself with England’ http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/12/reluctant-patriot