Historical Clarification Commission – A Short Guide

A Historical Clarification Commission


The Haass/O’Sullivan paper argues that a ‘civic vision is needed’ to ‘contend’ with or work through the past; the ‘moment’ has come, it claims, to institute a ‘systematic’ process. This is to be welcomed. It also argues that only ‘through gaining the fullest possible picture of what happened during the conflict and why can Northern Ireland begin to constructively confront its past’; that this ‘process should be conducted with sensitivity and rigorous intellectual integrity. Its purpose is to understand context and contribute to public awareness of history, both now and for subsequent generations’; and that members of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) should have backgrounds that draw on ‘analytical skills, including lawyers, historians, and other academics’. So far so good. However Arkiv suggests that, in this proposal for an ICIR, the Haass/O’Sullivan paper has misunderstood what is required. The reasons are as follows.

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


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

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

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

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


After the Haass-O’Sullivan Talks: A brief assessment and a recommendation

Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan had a difficult task. Perhaps it was always an impossible one. Their ultimate (seventh) draft of 31 December 2013 was optimistically titled:


Despite the combined diplomatic and academic skills of the Chair and Co-Chair – and the draft was a very skilled diplomatic and academic document – it failed to secure political consensus, something which the more cynical (or realistic) political commentators had predicted when the process began (see for example: http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/northern-ireland-is-in-big-trouble-and-haass-can-t-fix-it-1-5402351).

Like other such public documents – the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is an example – the text bears the intellectual imprint of previous proposals to address those issues. In the nearly 9,000 word section: Contending with the Past (amended from the original suggestion of ‘dealing’ with the past) one can find traces, like an exercise in local political archaeology of: Eames/Bradley; of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission; of a repository for oral histories and personal testimonies; of a comprehensive mental trauma service; of historical investigations review; of information retrieval. One can understand the intellectual problem for Haass and O’Sullivan which was one not only of project but also of process. Firstly, they did not have the authority to make a coherent, independent proposal but were seeking what broad consensus might emerge from the proposals of others. Secondly, the laudable democratic aim of inviting submissions from individuals and groups compounded bargaining with the parties and was unlikely to produce a satisfactory outcome. Perhaps understandably, the final draft which is now in the public domain contains a paradox, a paradox which is not of Haass or O’Sullivan’s making but is a paradox which helps to define Northern Ireland. This paradox reveals itself both conceptually and then institutionally.

From paradox to contradiction

It appears, firstly, in the preamble to Contending with the Past. It begins with the enunciation of a singular objective (all italics are our emphases): ‘If we are to continue to open ourselves to the emotional, social, and political vulnerabilities of engaging with the past, we will need a sense of common purpose – an agreed rationale.’ This initial commonality and agreement is swiftly followed by the acknowledgement that: ‘At the same time, it is also clear that people have different senses of the past’s meaning and importance’. The issue is not framed as an academic but as a political one for the parties are then invited to commit themselves ‘to the important work of contending with the past, knowing that doing so will mean different things for different people’. Is it possible to achieve a common purpose on the basis of different things for different people? Is one obliged to accept an agreed rationale in order to work constructively in the present? Is it actually the case, as the document asserts, that Northern Ireland today is ‘held back’ by the past? Or is it (ironically) held back by the future – competing visions about what sort of place Northern Ireland should be or whether it should be at all – the very stuff of politics and not history? We suggest that this is a paradox (in which the complex reality of Northern Ireland is revealed but one with which most people are able to negotiate day-to-day) rather than a straightforward contradiction (a condition in which one view is right and the other wrong, an opposition which requires a solution).

It appears, secondly, in the institutions which are designed to ‘contend’ with the past. The document invites the political parties to seize the moment – ‘the moment to make these efforts broader and more systematic has come’. The institutional proposals which aim towards system are paradoxically designed to capture the views of those who dissent from system, those who would subscribe neither to the common purpose nor to the agreed rationale of the process. ‘We have sought to construct an architecture that honours those choices and provides many avenues to the destination of a more harmonious society…’ The understandable attempt by Haass and O’Sullivan to accommodate the paradox renders their architecture more Hundertwasser than Bauhaus. There was always the possibility that breadth might not complement system. That potential, we think, becomes a reality in the proposed institutions (indeed, the complexity, rather than the transparency of procedures is implied in the availability of advocate-counsellors for families and individuals ‘unconnected with any work on their file who can provide logistical guidance and emotional support through each stage of the process’). However, Haass and O’Sullivan may be excused criticism on this point too since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement had established already an institutional template in which breadth (or inclusivity) is generally recognised to have been at the expense of system (or efficiency). Where the inexcusability can be found is in the 1998 boundary inherent in these proposals as the record illustrates that killings and conflict continued post-1998; delimiting the proposed provisions to pre-1998 victims expunges post-1998 suffering and grief from the process of ‘Contending with the Past’.

The architectural plan provides for:

  • 1 A single Historical Investigative Unit (HIU) to take forward the remaining caseload of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the cases before the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI). The HIU ‘is intended to provide a meaningful investigation that develops new evidence for prosecution wherever possible but, in all cases, offers a sense of accountability and comfort to the families of victims’.
  • 2 An Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) is intended to secure information on individual cases. ‘First, victims and the immediate families of victims will be able to register a request for information about any violent incident connected to the conflict. The ICIR will reach out to designated intermediaries that it maintains among organisations and governments, who will seek out individuals within their networks who may have information relevant to the request’. Second, it ‘allows people who may wish to volunteer information about violent acts and secure the limited protections offered by the ICIR to do so, either directly or through an intermediary’. (The role and responsibility of these designated gatekeepers is left unclear). The ICIR has a further responsibility: ‘in addition to its core mission of addressing individual requests for or offers of information, the ICIR will also establish an internal unit to analyse patterns or themes’ which emerge from the evidence, documentary or verbally, which it recovers.
  • 3 It is also proposed that the Northern Ireland Executive establish ‘an archive for conflict-related oral histories, documents, and other relevant materials from individuals of all backgrounds, from Northern Ireland and beyond, who wish to share their experiences connected with the conflict’.
  • 4 Finally, an Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) is envisaged – a political oversight body comprised mainly of party nominees – which will monitor the implementation and effectiveness of all the bodies outlined in this agreement, and issue progress reports and calls for improvements where necessary.

It has been claimed that the outline of these proposals on ‘contending with the past’ were broadly acceptable to the parties at the Haass Talks. Until these parties complete their consultations on the draft as a whole and make clear either concerns or support it is difficult to come to a judgement about their political acceptability. (It would also be useful to consider draft seven in relation to the other six drafts). What can be identified is a critical moment when paradox may be said to slip into contradiction. This is the section in the document dealing with themes or patterns.

It is argued (correctly, we suggest) that only ‘through gaining the fullest possible picture of what happened during the conflict and why can Northern Ireland begin to constructively confront its past’.  Again, (correctly, we argue) it is understood that the ‘process should be conducted with sensitivity and rigorous intellectual integrity. Its purpose is to understand context and contribute to public awareness of history, both now and for subsequent generations’ (though it is noticeable how in this instance the ‘past’ becomes ‘history’). It is for this reason that ICIR staff (again, correctly we argue) ‘should have backgrounds that draw on similar analytical skills, including lawyers, historians, and other academics’. If Arkiv was given to manifesto-style, these values would certainly be included. The thematic justification (which found previous expression in Eames/Bradley) is presented in this way.


Suggested themes are not prejudgements but questions to be asked and answered through evidence. It may be that different assessments are made with different levels of confidence; if that is the case, the report will say so. Likewise, it may be that the evidence does not support a particular hypothesis or suggested theme; if that is the case, the report will also say so. If further information is uncovered about those themes, or if additional themes are brought forward for consideration after the report is completed, the unit will issue amended or additional reports as the evidence warrants. If the ICIR is not able to issue a full report within three years, it will issue a status report on its work, explain the reasons for the delay, and provide an expected timeline for publication of its full report.

Similarly, this corresponds to the sort of analytical work which historians would recognise as integral to their day job. Moreover, the authors of the draft are clear that ‘process should be conducted with sensitivity and rigorous intellectual integrity’. This is essential since the purpose is not only momentary but also ‘to understand context and contribute to public awareness of history, both now and for subsequent generations’. That is a purpose worth supporting. Nevertheless, the concern Arkiv has with thematic accounts is their very real potential to politicise the past and to achieve the reverse of what Haass and O’Sullivan intend: that they do imply prejudgements (they already pre-exist the evidence); that they contradict the engagement to consider only what the evidence obliges one to believe; that there will be intense political pressure to support particular hypotheses; that this will encourage ideological-led rather than investigative-led history; and as a consequence the ‘past’ will not be taken out of politics but drawn very much in to the centre of it. There are a number of elements to this concern.

First, one may concede that themes are ‘what tie individual events or actions together into a comprehensible and meaningful history of those years’. At the same time one may contest the claim that ‘they also provide a vehicle for facilitating acknowledgments by perpetrators of violence, as they permit a broader level of accountability than do individual cases’. It has been well-said that to ‘universalise is to minimise’ (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/alanjohnson/100249718/the-slaughter-and-torture-of-christians-not-a-priority-for-the-government-labour-or-dfid/) and this is something at which some victims and victim groups might baulk.

Second, the draft identifies ‘two avenues through which themes can best be selected. First, the ICIR theme unit will, in the course of its study, identify themes through their assessment of the body of information before them. And second, civic society and political representatives, through the Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) can suggest hypotheses for the ICIR theme unit to analyse’. This is the where the contradiction is most plainly stated. The potential for political manipulation seems plain and the intimation is of a breach between the distinct responsibilities and roles of the institutional architecture, a breach which could threaten the stability of the whole edifice. The contradiction lies in this.

In a previous post Pravda and Istina (https://arkivni.wordpress.com/) – which was a response to some of the speculation in the media – we identified the problem. That post argued that for all its use of the term ‘history’, what is proposed often has little to do with history but a lot to do with the ideological past. We claimed that no self-respecting historian would entertain the validity of the contradiction in the ICR – the close examination of detail while others (IRG) decide on themes to be explored. Appearing as a balance between ‘civic society’ and historical investigation, in the real world pre-existing themes will skew the integrity of investigation, putting ideology before history.

What is to be done?

Arkiv argues that the appropriate way to address these difficulties is to begin with what has been clearly inserted as an afterthought towards the end of this section on the past, presented here under the remit of the IRG. The IRG is called upon:

to consider other institutions or initiatives that could contribute to reconciliation, a better understanding of the past, and a reduction in sectarianism.  One such initiative should be a Historical Timeline Group, dedicated to developing a factual chronology of the conflict. It should be composed of suitably qualified academics who would conduct a review of a broad range of historical material with a view to producing a timeline of events from 1968-1998. The objective would be to provide a factual resource for the work of other projects relating to the past, including but not limited to the archive of personal narratives. Its goal would be to neither condemn nor condone, but rather to offer a contextualised, evidence-based accompaniment for other work on the past.


To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, we would support that wouldn’t we since this (albeit conditional) initiative corresponds neatly with Arkiv’s proposal for a Historical Clarification Commission (HCC). The argument is that its value and significance are inverted here, an afterthought that should become forethought. There is no need to repeat the claims which Arkiv makes on behalf of a HCC which may be found here (https://arkivni.wordpress.com/). However, it is worth making a number of brief points on its behalf in the light of the Haass-O’Sullivan draft:

  • The agreed rationale and the common purpose of the staff in a HCC would supply the professional and procedural demands of the draft.
  • The work of the ICIR should be encompassed within the remit of the HCC, the contextualised, evidence-based method of which should define all work-in-progress.
  • It is out of, and only out of, archival and documentary-based evidence that themes should emerge – irrespective of and without commitment to those suggested by either civic society or the political parties.
  • It should have, in consultation with the IRG, oversight of the oral history archive.
  • Importantly, its functions should be entirely distinct from the remit of the HIU such that there should be no overlap or breaching of the boundary between the two bodies.
  • It is important to widen public understanding of Northern Ireland’s history beyond a ‘past’ exclusively defined by the paramilitaries and their violence.


From the Holocaust to Srebrenica inquiries and fact-finding commissions have become a common device used by governments to deal with the public’s desire for the truth about the past. Historians have been at the core of many of these initiatives as it is recognised that their discipline makes them particularly suited to help governments and the public get as comprehensive and balanced a narrative of past conflicts as possible. The Haass-O’Sullivan Talks have stimulated the emergence for the first time of a possible narrative based on work by historians. In Contending with the Past there is a substantial basis for developing a HCC approach in the section on themes and in the undeveloped notion of a Historical Timelines Group (HTG). We owe them a debt of gratitude for that.

In the final draft the HTG is subordinate to the unit dealing with themes. The thinking underlying the HTG’s role remains under-developed. It is tasked with developing a factual chronology of the conflict and a timeline of events between 1968 and 1998 and to provide a factual resource for other projects. The HTG as presented is of secondary importance in a process dominated by the themes unit where there is a danger of the politicisation and/or pre-cooked explanations of the conflict. But a broad fact-based narrative of the conflict provided by the HTG should be at the core of the process of contending with the past. It is out of this material that themes and patterns should emerge. The fusion of the themes unit with the HTG provides the basis for what will be in effect a HCC. It is already recognised by the Haass-O’Sullivan final draft that historians have a role in both so a HCC is there in embryonic form.

There are, of course, a range of issues to be addressed:  how many historians, how they would be appointed, by whom and for what period? It would also be impossible, as Arkiv has argued, without the support from London and Dublin in terms of making archives available. But these are secondary to the principle of a HCC which, we contend, is the best mechanism for providing the comprehensive factual and thematic history of the conflict which Contending with the Past intends.

Arkiv submits that, as the parties review their positions on Haass-O’Sullivan, and, as many expect, the question of ‘the past’ is one to which they return, that the role of a HCC (or Historical Timelines Group) should be given much greater prominence and significance in the institutional architecture of any possible, future agreement. This can be done either by returning to the inclusive, but indecisive, Haass-O’Sullivan Talks format or by executive action of the Office of First and Deputy First Minister.


The (7th) draft document of the Haass-O’Sullivan Talks is available at:


Pravda and Istina

In Russian there are two words for truth, pravda and istina. The first can be told and substantiated by the record (despite its corruption under the Soviets as the title of a propaganda rag). The second cannot be so told or substantiated because it is a romantic and revolutionary style dedicated to another (higher) truth – Irish unity or God and Ulster?
In the Haass process’s outworking, public officials and especially ex-RUC officers and public officials will be required to engage with the first while paramilitaries (through their intermediaries) can remain with the second. The Anglo-Saxon phrase which will not apply in this case is ‘equity’.
The proposals as they stand – an Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) combining HET and the Police Ombudsman and an Independent Commission on Information Recovery (ICIR) – confirm a distinctive vision of transitional justice which corresponds with a peculiar vision of progress and achievement. We appear to be moving from a model based on the rule of law to a Soviet style where a peculiar idolising of procedural rules means a disregard for the spirit of due process.
The notioned ICIR contact or intermediary will allow paramilitaries to impose a gatekeeping lock on what does and what does not go forward. That is the very practical distinction between Pravda and Istina, the latter impervious to the difference between what is true and what is useful to the cause.
For all its use of the term ‘history’, what is proposed has little to do with history but a lot to do with the ideological past. No self-respecting historian would entertain the validity of the contradiction in the apparent Haass proposals, the close examination of detail while others decide on themes to be explored.
This may sound like balancing the concerns of ‘civic society’ and the professional integrity of historical investigation. But in the real world the pre-existing themes will skew the integrity of investigation, putting ideology before history.

Historical Clarification Commission

Why is a Historical Clarification Commission needed?

1            The last time that the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey published results about attitudes to truth recovery was in 2004. The responses were revealing: only small minorities trusted the British and Irish governments, the churches, victims’ groups, the Northern Ireland Assembly or judges to administer a truth recovery process. A Historical Clarification Commission would be different – it would be staffed primarily by professionally trained historians with input from political scientists, sociologists, journalists and legal scholars.

2            It is the gaping hole in all previous attempts to address the issue. For example, the Eames-Bradley Report’s 190 pages of text – purportedly a ‘Consultative Group on the Past’ – never used the word ‘historian’.

3            Historians should lead, if only because their first and primary training and responsibility is to research and uncover the past for its own sake. That is the basis of their professional training and they are much cheaper than lawyers. While it would be the task of the relevant public authorities –the UK and Irish Governments – to appoint personnel, the Commission would entail the payment of academic and journalistic salaries rather than retaining teams of barristers and solicitors.

4              Its objectives are scholarly truth-telling based upon material from state archives and the involvement of civil society through oral history projects. It will be conducted according to the highest possible standards of historical research and any questioning of its credibility will need to provide more robust arguments than the kind of ‘whataboutery’ and relativizing of the past that has marred Northern Ireland’s transition from conflict to peace for so long.

Would it not be too state-focused?

5              It could be argued that ‘opening the archives’ is a very one-sided process. There are two possible criticisms. Firstly, would it not mean that only the state(s) would be open to investigation and criticism and that everyone else would escape scrutiny? Secondly, and conversely, would it not mean the production of an ‘official’ history which would prevent serious criticism of the state(s).  We do not think either criticism is valid.

6              What is proposed is acceleration of a process which already happens, the release of state papers. There is much in the archives about the IRA and other paramilitary organisations as well as material on attacks and atrocities. Normally much of this is held back for reasons of security. A Historical Clarification Commission would need to have access to as much of this material as is consistent with national (Irish and British) security. Indeed, openness on the part of the two Governments to what the Commission has access may encourage paramilitaries on both sides to be more open too.

7              As Professor Henry Patterson has argued, much of what has been written about the period of the Troubles has made little use of what archive material there is now available. It is hard to see how a Historical Clarification Commission’s engagement with new and extant material would be tantamount to an ‘official history’.  Whether it is decided to produce a general report or a series of reports, some published history should be seen as essential to this project. This would be an authoritative account of the Northern Irish conflict, based on the available empirical evidence and will present a robust and as comprehensive as possible consideration of the Troubles.

Why would the parties be interested in a Historical Clarification Commission?

8              The Historical Clarification Commission could square the circle regarding the demands of the main political parties – as long as they are willing to compromise. For Sinn Féin it can provide an independent, international body. It would meet the SDLP’s demand for a ‘robust’ mechanism to deal with the past. It would not become a shrine to terror or a rewriting of the past that unionism fears; and it would meet Alliance’s and NI21’s (together with the other party’s) aims of allowing society to work through the past and move forward in an integrated and integral fashion. 

9.            An Archive relating to the conflict could be created that would bring together all relevant documentary material and testimonies. The initiative would be tied to a clear historical narrative in the form of a published record (the Commission Report) and thus could ease unionist fears about ‘rewriting of history’.

Why would it be attractive to victims groups?

10          The Commission Report and Archive would help to highlight victims’ experiences and throw light on unresolved crimes and killings. It could emphasise the dignity inherent in victims’ stories and would not require them to reconcile themselves to the stories of perpetrators.

11          Of course, victims’ groups would not be completely happy with this proposal; but it would have the benefit of avoiding the kind of amnesty proposals suggested by others.

12           While victims groups may hope for public prosecutions, the fact highlighted by Attorney General Larkin and Chief Constable Baggott is that securing successful prosecutions is unlikely. Victims groups may not be entirely satisfied with a Historical Commission. However, it does not involve a thorough-going amnesty and it does not advocate that victims should be forgotten.

What might a process of historical clarification look like?

13          There would be three major elements, archival research, oral testimony and public engagement.

14           We believe that the two main products arising from a Historical Clarification Commission will be a documentary history based on evidence from the public record and an archival depository that will house records and testimonies. Accessibility should be taken into account in any decision as regards the location of this archival depository.

15          The deposition of documentation by the (two) Governments would mean that copies would be retained but selectively released on the grounds of confidentiality and personal safety. These are issues that institutions such as the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) deal with on a daily basis and are not insurmountable. What will/can be deposited is a political decision for the two Governments. The process of release should be open to periodic review.

16          Highly sensitive files (which might risk the security of individuals) should not be released. However, the relevant material – as the Keith Jeffery and Christopher Andrews precedents confirm – might be made available for review. Reports on sensitive intelligence matters should feed in to the overall process.

17          Again, institutions such as PRONI deploy a range of auditing procedures and similar methods should be used in working with oral testimonies – transcription, for example, will need to be accurately rendered; anonymity will need to be guaranteed and protected where it is needed; and a review, evaluation and approval process will need to be set out. Such a checklist of good practice is standard for public archives and university research ethics procedures and the compilation and administration of a Troubles archive would not differ substantially from common protocols. We believe that this procedure might help to navigate the kind of legal problems associated with dealing with testimony that blighted the good intent of the Boston College oral history project.

18          The Historical Clarification Commission can produce recommendations as to the ways in which history is worked through, commemorated and taught in Northern Ireland. This would not preclude television and radio documentaries and a broad pedagogic programme to be included in the national curriculum. The archive will bring together not only primary but also secondary historical evidence to enable researchers to complete this task; that archive will then become a site of engagement by historians, teachers, the media and the public. This could also draw in local history projects which could engage on the principles already established by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council.

How is a Historical Clarification Commission different from a truth commission?

19          Typically truth commissions run in one of two ways, neither of which is applicable to Northern Ireland, in our view:

a.            Firstly, a truth and retribution process is established to punish offenders for killings and violence. Examples of this model are the processes followed by several Latin American countries during the 1980s. These tend to be predicated on a courtroom-style process that would be difficult to pursue in Northern Ireland given the reluctance of any of the paramilitary groupings to comply willingly to present – see Judge Smithwick’s criticism of IRA participation in his inquiry into collusion in the Irish Republic.

b.            Secondly, a truth and reconciliation commission works to grant amnesty to perpetrators in return for information about crimes. The example here is South Africa, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission arising out of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa which predated that state’s transition.

20          By contrast, a Historical Clarification Commission would work to robust, ethical and professional standards; its ‘truth’ would be that of empirically minded social scientists and historians. While truth recovery posits antagonists against each other with the inevitable outcome being linked closely to who can tell the best story or deploy the most effective lawyers, historical clarification provides for the best means of taking the past out of contemporary politics.

21           Rather than the legally salient ‘truths’ that are highlighted (or displaced) from truth recovery processes such as in the South African experience, countries as diverse as Germany (Enquete Commission), Spain (Salamanca archive);  Guatemala (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (Historical Clarification Commission)) or post-Communist Eastern Europe – all of which have been absent from discussions in the media – historical clarification represents a best practice model for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

Why would a Historical Clarification Commission be more efficient than alternative proposals?

22          There have been few concrete details as to who would staff immunity and truth recovery processes: implicit in these suggestions is the need for legal teams to advise clients and adjudicate on truths. In the immediate fallout from the Smithwick Tribunal, Liam Clarke asked the valid question of whether that was how the Troubles would be ‘settle[d] – largely behind closed doors among lawyers, with only the state accountable’ (Tribunal findings could set dangerous and costly precedent’, Belfast Telegraph, 5 December, p.31). Arkiv proposes an alternative based in the uncovering, interrogation and publication of evidence according to an open process of historical clarification.




A Brief Note on the Relation Between Pragmatism and Ethics

This post returns to the intervention by the Attorney General, John Larkin, into the debate about the past and the Haass Talks. The purpose is to put that intervention and that debate into the context of the Belfast Agreement. We argue that the very difficult and delicate balancing act between pragmatism and ethics which the Haass Talks needs to deliver is best achieved through a Historical Clarification Tradition (a detailed ‘catechism’ of the why, what and how of that Commission – as readers of this site have requested – will be the subject of a future post).

The Attorney General’s Intervention

The Attorney General, John Larkin made recently a pragmatic case for some form of amnesty, though he was reluctant to give it that name. ‘More than 15 years have passed since the Belfast Agreement, there have been very few prosecutions, and every competent criminal lawyer will tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each passing year, so we are in a position now where I think we have to take stock’. In response to the Attorney General’s intervention, the PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott made a slightly different pragmatic argument, this time according to resources: ‘We welcome the debate and will study carefully what the attorney general has said’. He pointed to well documented evidence ‘that the cost of policing the past has a massive impact on how we deal with the present and the future’. The proposition was one of balance between duty and potential but the implication of his remarks was clear enough: ‘Whilst we are committed to meeting our current legislative responsibilities, dealing with legacy issues continues to place significant pressure on our organisation and financial resources.’ It was Raymond White, a former Assistant Chief Constable and Head of Special Branch and CID, who stated most directly the pragmatic case, integrating both aspects of it. He thought that drawing a line is an issue that needs to be faced up to. ‘Families, including police families, are quite rightly emotional about the fact that nobody has been made amenable’. However, he thought that Larkin’s intervention ‘provides one of those cathartic moments when people are actually being faced with an element of reality they may have preferred to avoid.’ And the reality most families of the victims will have to face up to is the unpalatable reality that ‘successful prosecutions are becoming increasingly unlikely’.

The pragmatic case is clearly at odds with the moral sensitivity of victims groups for whom justice is not a pragmatic consideration at all but an absolute one. For example, the response by the widow of RUC constable, John Proctor, to the conviction of his killer 32 years after the murder put that case succinctly: ‘the process to seek justice, although difficult, has helped to bring truth – the facts and a level of understanding of what took place.’ And this opportunity should be universal: ‘This is what processes like this (through the work of the Historical Enquiries Team) allow families to do.’ Understandably, there was no sympathy for Mr Larkin’s intervention. This is the real and difficult world of politics in which the Haass talks are engaged. The challenge is to find some way to address the ethical virtue of fiat justitia ruat caelum (let justice be done, though the heavens may fall)- the understandable and absolute demand of victims’ families; and the pragmatic requirements of not only the criminal justice system but also of the political order. For example, the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association (NIRPOA) told Dr Haass that some of the truths its members might be forced to reveal ‘may not be considered to be helpful to the political or “peace” process’.

So the main parties to the talks have to confront a common dilemma. On the one hand, there is strong moral pressure on them to deliver on the demands of victims’ families to deliver justice, regardless of the political consequences; on the other hand, there is a strong political incentive for them to take a pragmatic view of what is not only possible but also desirable, regardless of ethical matters. On that point, the respected journalist Suzanne Breen wrote recently that ‘an end to Troubles investigations benefits two groups here: the paramilitary top brass on both sides and the state, particularly the intelligence services’. She thought that too many revelations about the past ‘would bring the entire political system crumbling down’. In other words, the last thing to expect of the Haass Talks is fiat justitia, et pereat mundus (let justice be done, though the world may perish), if by ‘world’ we mean the institutions of the Belfast Agreement. Some of those who wish to stand on absolute principle may indeed wish the Agreement to fall but that is certainly not the general position. Breen has a good track record and her assessment should be taken seriously. However, to qualify the cynicism of her judgement maybe it is worth putting the Agreement itself into perspective (for otherwise the Haass Talks would not be happening). And it is interesting to note that, in the wake of the almost universal political rejection of Mr Larkin’s suggestions, that there has been gathering support. These include the former Irish minister Liz O’Donnell, the lawyer John McBurney, Dennis Bradley and a range of academics.

The wisdom drawn upon here is not that of modern academic conflict resolution theory but of a much older tradition of practical conflict management common in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Acknowledging that it was impossible to achieve a truly harmonious relationship between its component ethnic parts, there developed in the Viennese Chancellery what was known as a ‘policy of simmering’. The resentments and grievances between national groups had to be acknowledged as a fact of life. The major imperative was to ensure that these divisions would not be so volatile as to promote and sustain civil unrest. In short, if the politics of communal rage was unavoidable that rage should only simmer and not boil over. Those who thought politics could do more than this were considered to be dangerous idealists and likely to provoke disaster. Given the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire this may be taken as an illustrative failing of cynical realism, a realism whose very cynicism became its own undoing. Nevertheless, the sceptical and potentially constructive reasonableness of ‘a policy of simmering’ should not be too lightly dismissed.

Take the Northern Ireland case and follow this line of reasoning. Ending the major campaigns of violence in the early 1990s was the first step to holding out the prospect of keeping the communal pot from boiling over. If the heat could be slowly reduced in relations between unionists and nationalists then it becomes possible to envisage power-sharing being stable since lowering the temperature of communal politics is the necessary condition for workable institutions. Since there had been no consensual Garden of Eden from which politics in Northern Ireland had fallen there is no consensual promised land to which it can return. For all the grandiloquent language that had accompanied it, the Belfast Agreement – in this view at least – was only a contract to facilitate communal politics of a moderated, non-murderous, sort and the blessing of the new would inevitably be mixed with a reformulation of the old. Things would get better but some other things might get worse. If this is a reasonably accurate understanding of the 1998 deal then it has implications for the politics of dealing with the past. In short, one can use the past, as one can use political tactics, either to turn up the heat on the pot of communal tensions or to turn it down. There may be no absolute consistency in how they behave day to day but that is the choice facing the parties strategically. And because they can give the lead to popular opinion it will set the tone for the future. It will not be easy to accommodate all constituencies and at a time when politics is held in low esteem it is important to defend the politics of delicate compromises (insofar as the parties are sincerely looking for agreement).

From the perspective of a policy of simmering, once the illusion of a perfect ‘solution’ to any problem is discarded, the real business begins. According to the philosopher John Gray, we are faced with a Hobbesian choice about ‘better and worse compromises, and some that are thoroughly bad’. His conclusion may be uncomfortable but it has a ring of truth. If these choices are condemned by ‘morality’, he thought, it is so much the worse for ‘morality’ (Gray 2000: 134). The sceptic appreciates such honesty but it should also be acknowledged that if the public is morally outraged by any compromise then no accommodation is likely to be possible or to last. And we have been here before, of course. The proposals of the Consultative Group on the Past fell because mainly because the £12,000 ‘recognition payment’ to all victims in Northern Ireland did provoke a general sense of moral outrage. That is the Haass challenge in a nutshell. Addressing both ethical and pragmatic requirements is like squaring the circle.


Historical Clarification

Very briefly – and to repeat, we will develop our ideas in detail in a future post – it is our contention that a Historical Clarification Commission provides the best opportunity to square that circle, not only in terms of the balance between pragmatism (resources and practicality) and ethics (justice and truth) but also balancing the demands of the political parties.


1 An Archive relating to the conflict could be created that would bring together all relevant documentary material and testimonies. For Sinn Féin it can provide an independent, international body; though that would not be the UN. It would meet the SDLP’s demand for a ‘robust’ mechanism to deal with the past. The initiative would be tied to a clear historical narrative in the form of a published record (the Commission Report), easing unionist fears of the ‘rewriting of history’ and a retrospective justification of terror (whether loyalist or republican).


2 The Commission Report and Archive would help to highlight victims’ experiences and throw light on unresolved crimes and killings. It would emphasise the dignity inherent in victims’ stories and not require victims to reconcile themselves to the self-justifications of perpetrators. Nor would it require them to compromise themselves to drawing a line under the past and ‘moving on’. The mere fact of giving evidence would not prohibit victims from seeking legal redress in the future.


3 It would also satisfy concerns about the charge on the public purse. It would be less expensive than judicial proceedings, the Legacy Commission proposed by the Consultative Group on the Past; it would be more modest, and we suggest more appropriate, than a full blown Truth and Reconciliation Committee.


4 A Historical Clarification Commission could produce a number of outcomes: An archive of testimony and documentary evidence; a Report; and a programme of outreach and pedagogy. Its processes of getting to the truth about what happened in Northern Ireland would be based on the careful sifting, weighing-up and contextualization of evidence to reach a balanced, robust judgment.

Final Thought

In addressing the ‘future of the past’ one can refer to the distinction made by the American political scientist Michaele Ferguson

  1. Sameness: In this kind of sharing, we have something in common with one another when we are alike in some way: each individual who shares does so in the same way.
  2. Commons: We have something in common when we share a thing that cannot be individually possessed (2012, p.41).

The idea of a Historical Clarification Commission will help to identify the understandings that are commonly shared as they are found in the public record and limit the divisive values we inherit from communal versions of the past.



Ferguson, M.L. (2012) Sharing Democracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gray, J (2000) Two Faces of Liberalism, London: Polity Press.



Towards an Historical Clarification Commission

Amidst the furore surrounding his interjection in the debate over dealing with the past the Attorney General, John Larkin, made a number of telling references to the role that historians could play in coming to terms with Northern Ireland’s recent history. In previous posts on this site, Arkiv has advocated similar possibilities. This post seeks to outline what a historical clarification commission might look like and raise some issues that Dr Haass and our political representatives might wish to consider in this regard.

Politically speaking, Mr Larkin’s proposals have created space for discussion about moving forward in Northern Ireland. In other words, the backlash against his de facto amnesty proposal has helped to extend the debate beyond lawyers and transitional justice. His proposal to institute historical clarification should, in our view, be taken seriously. While we do not necessarily endorse Mr Larkin’s proposal to end the juridical attempts to deal with the past, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of his rationale:

What I am saying is take the lawyers out of it. Lawyers are very good at solving practical problems in the here and now, but lawyers aren’t good at historical research […] The people who should be getting history right are the historians … (Belfast Telegraph, 29.11.13, p.7).

As Arkiv has previously mentioned, a Commission of Historical Clarification would not be a panacea, and we are aware of some of the central objections to our idea.


One key objection to the proposition is that it seeks to provide an ‘official’ history which would claim to be the only legitimate record of the past. The sceptical objection is one which the historian ATQ Stewart made a decade ago when he criticised the trend towards seeing history a social service or some form of collective therapy. He thought that those who would try to use history to enlighten us out of our situation are for the most part sincere and well-intentioned but that their quest is a hopeless one (Stewart 2001, p. 184). As Stewart understood it, ‘people simply assume the political attitudes of the community into which they were born. They rarely choose their political attitude after mature deliberation’. Moreover, since each community ‘identifies itself from the myth it takes from Irish history’ then each side ‘wastes its breath in trying to persuade the other to adopt its view of the situation (pp. 179-80).’ If that were the objective then Stewart-like scepticism would be valid. But that is not the objective. Moreover, Stewart is not speaking of history but of collective memory, of political narrative. This is the stuff of history but not history itself, confusing the analytical with the practical.

In what would seem to be confirmation of Stewart’s view the neurologist Oliver Sacks observed recently in the New York Review of Books that memory, personal and collective, can be resistant to evidence:

Even if the underlying mechanism of a false memory is exposed… this may not alter the sense of actual lived experience or reality that such memories have. Nor, for that matter, may the obvious contradictions or absurdity of certain memories alter the sense of conviction or belief.

The reason, thought Sacks, has to do with what might be called colloquially a ‘reality check’:

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true…depends as much on our imagination as our senses.

Consequently, once ‘a story or memory is constructed, accompanied by vivid sensory imagery and strong emotion, there may be no inner, psychological way of distinguishing true from false—or any outer, neurological way’.

Sacks was far from being fatalistic about our predicament. Indeed, the opportunity seems to lie in the problem. ‘Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds’. Communally, that intercourse is limited to political reinforcement out of which springs the narratives (of the Troubles) which Stewart thought were incommensurate.  According to Sacks, ‘in the absence of outside confirmation, there is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested, between what the psychoanalyst Donald Spence calls “historical truth” and “narrative truth.”’

Here is the point of the Historical Commission – to open up the stories of the recent past to the intercourse of many minds and to provide ‘outside confirmation’ in order to measure ‘narrative truth’. It is intended to achieve context and relation, rather than abstraction and self-reference. In short, to the historian the various narratives of the past are neither self-standing nor self-explanatory but part of a complex encounter of many minds. The task of a Historical Commission would be to explore the predicament of the past, forcing on our attention historical complexities which single narratives ignore. If there is any therapeutic outcome it may be a new sensitivity on the part of future generations to the very existence of different truths.

It is common, after Alfred Korzybski, to claim that the map is not the territory, i.e. that the mental or memory maps we have of the world are not accurate representations of the world. Our vision of the Historical Commission reverses that proposition: its purpose is to map the contesting territories of understanding onto the record of historical evidence. An oral archive could be an integral part of that process.

There is a related objection. Would not the Historical Commission come up with its own partial narrative? How can it avoid the limits of historical understanding itself? That is a good question and there is no definitive answer. What one can say is, as Larkin intimates, that historians can take a broader view. History is disciplined thinking about the past and, as G. M. Trevelyan argued, ‘does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it’. (cited in Evans 1997, p. 250). It operates according to its own rules – the technique of scepticism, impartiality, immersion in the sources and critical weighing of the evidence – and given the public status which a Commission would have, it might counter the temptation towards ideological propagandising by tying it firmly to the public record. As Malachi O’Doherty has pointed out, this would not stop debates about history, but it would delimit flights of sectarian fantasy: ‘Those who point the finger at one party or cause need to have evidence and need also to accommodate, if only to refute, alternative perspectives if they are to be credible. There is a stark absence of that kind of thinking in Northern Ireland’.

A further objection is that such a Commission would reside in the ivory tower of the academy, simply transferring the role (and the financial reward) from lawyers to academic historians. That concern, of course, captures a very real possibility; one that was recently parodied as an International Independent Legacy Body that would be ‘populated by safe academics and journalists who will dig for the truth of the past but only so much and their work will be dominated mainly by discussion of what is and is not ‘helpful’ to the process rather than what did and did not happen’. However, that does not need to be the case.

Furthermore, it could also be argued that the proposal is no different from the five-year Legacy Commission advocated by the Consultative Group on the Past’s Report. There are crucial differences. The Historical Clarification Commission would address one of the basic flaws of that proposal (that was incidentally echoed in Larkin’s ideas) – namely, the virtual impossibility of securing cooperation from loyalist or republican paramilitaries. Such cooperation would not necessarily be required from a Historical Clarification Commission given that its work would be based on the public record. The point should not be underestimated and goes some way to answering critics of the idea who wonder about the lack of balance about opening state archives without a reciprocal gesture from the paramilitaries: evidence of paramilitary activities remains in the marked and unmarked graves across the island of Ireland and in the under-reported histories of intra-communal repression, exclusion and ‘punishment beatings’ which that record identifies.

Another political objection is that a Historical Clarification Commission could not satisfy the positions of the parties to the talks. We think the opposite is true and might bridge the gap between republicans and unionists: it would be independent and international, and establish an archive. It could establish a museum based on historical research as in Salamanca, but would avoid the objection which frustrated the Maze project – that it might become ‘a shrine to terror’. It would represent a check on popular mythology and help to offset the tendency towards an ethnic commemoration and memorialisation, which Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan are also looking into.

Finally, it may be criticised as elitist and expensive. However, unlike the untidy, Legacy Commission process advocated by the Consultative Group on the Past which proposed to overhaul structures that were democratically mandated in the 1998 referendum, the idea of a Historical Clarification Commission is economical, comprehensible and democratic: It would be much less expensive, we think, than the estimated £400 million for the Consultative Group’s proposal; would publish a comprehensive report; and it will create an archive accessible to the public.


A Historical Clarification Commission would result in two main products:

  1. A narrative based on the public record. The point of this is to neither condemn nor condone what occurred, but rather to offer a contextualised, evidence-based assessment. Importantly, this would not be an ‘official’ history, but rather an assessment reached by independent, professionally trained historians.
  2. An archive of all relevant evidential material. In the first instance, this information would most likely need to be released on a selective basis – to the commission and to families and victims and survivors who are affected in some way by the evidence. However, it would also serve as a site to study and reflect on Northern Ireland – not only on violence and its effects but also on the political initiatives to end violence. Moreover, the violence which was distinctive of Northern Ireland’s experience must also be understood in the context of what was also representative of it, the peaceful conduct of everyday life.

Mr Larkin expressly queried the relevance of setting up an archive based on the Spanish Historical Memory Documentary Centre, which is housed in Salamanca, on the grounds of it being unnecessary and expensive. Yet, such an archive would, arguably be radically democratic in nature. The rationale for the Spanish centre is to collect all relevant material relating to Spain’s troubled history which can be used by the citizens, directly, by consulting the original documents in the Centre building, or indirectly, by requesting the required information through the Centre’s information service. The Centre is also entrusted with copying, conservation, description and promotion tasks, in order to guarantee the permanency of a part of the nation’s documentary heritage and offer the citizens the enjoyment of assets that guarantee their rights and the knowledge of the most recent historical past.

The reason for Mr Larkin’s scepticism may be linked to his emphasis on state papers. Indeed, part of his advice was that there should be ‘a huge public facilitation of access to state records’. This has led several commentators to query the usefulness of his intervention.

However, as pointed out above, state records are not the only evidence of the Northern Irish conflict. For example, historians have been meticulously mining political party records housed in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, and in archives in Dublin and England; and staff at the Northern Ireland Political Collection at the Linenhall Library have been carefully archiving all published material relating to the conflict for four decades.

Limiting documentation about the Troubles to state papers is a rather reductive way of approaching the violence and does a disservice to victims whose experiences and traumas have found partial articulation in other forms of evidence beyond Cabinet Conclusions and departmental memoranda.

Of course, the combination of a narrative record with an archival centre might go some way to accentuate the voice of victims of the conflict: the narrative record would help to redress the sense that the popular history-making process is balanced in favour of perpetrators of violence, while the archival material would restore individual voice and acknowledgement of suffering that could resonate at a societal level.

Mr Larkin’s dismissal on economic grounds seems also rather short-sighted when one takes into account the potential of such a centre or archive for rationalising Freedom of Information costs and the legal and departmental battles over access to papers that currently constitutes much of the truth recovery process in Northern Ireland. Selectivity and sensitivity of release would, it would seem, need to remain in place given personal safety issues, however, these criteria apply to all archives and would not necessarily constitute a major impediment to access, which could also be increased under established precedents such as the 30-year rule.

If archiving and memorialising of the Troubles is to move beyond mere cultural expression and promote practical, positive and tangible steps towards reconciliation and social improvement then some kind of concrete way of working through Northern Ireland’s past will be necessary.

Amidst the amnesty debate there were several calls for victims to enter into a ‘mature debate’ about moving forward: the development of an archive and a Historical Clarification Commission avoids such condescending sentiments and would allow victims to continue to engage in the process of working through the past in a proactive and dignified manner.

Further Questions

There are several issues that would require decision in order to create and sustain such a body, including personnel, location, remit and funding.

Funding could be provided by the public body charged with overseeing the Commission. Given that all the main parties in Northern Ireland are signed up to support the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, the British-Irish Council may be one authority that could take charge of administering the Commission and be responsible for establishing a location and appointing personnel.

The Commission’s remit would not necessarily infringe upon or conflict with juridical processes. The two types of inquiry are substantively different: Courts offer judgments on whether the law was upheld or broken and hand down penalties in the case of the latter; historical inquiry offers assessment of the choices that were made or deferred, the socio-cultural triggers, and the power-relationships that drove conflict.

The distinction may be linked to alternative conceptualisations of responsibility: Broadly speaking, the Law seeks to attribute liability; culpability for an action or omission requires an individual or corporation to be legally answerable. Broadly speaking, historians understand responsibility to be linked to a moral accountability and which is answerable to society. The effect of the first understanding is a mechanistic determination of guilt, the second, a societal obligation to acknowledge agency and consequences (see our posting on Agency).

Crucially, our vision for the Historical Commission would not be on the model of a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission. The differences between Northern Ireland and South Africa vastly outweighed any purported similarities. Indeed, most of the other states with which it is frequently compared, are inappropriate too. In Northern Ireland the vast majority of people lived their lives against the backdrop of violence but were not victims; while repression and injustice and violence occurred, the vast majority of people refused to subscribe to the ethic of violence. In an article supporting Mr Larkin’s intervention, Willie Kealy raises the very likely scenario in any South African-style model (to illustrate with only one example) of ‘Gerry Adams taking part in a truth and reconciliation session’: ‘You would get very little truth, based on his performance to date, and damn-all reconciliation’ (Sunday Independent, 24.11.13, p.31). While a Historical Clarification Commission would consider oral evidence, the scenario of hear-say and testimonial obfuscation would not present the immediate problem of legitimacy that is encountered within a truth and reconciliation commission.

The creation simply of an oral history archive involves similar risks. Extrapolating this insight to Northern Ireland, there seems to a great deal of potential for an oral history archive to simply supply people with the political arguments that confirm their views on the past. To repeat: A report or a narrative history ought therefore to accompany any such project. Indeed, the necessity for such a report is seen in the idea that the past can be dealt with through establishing some sort of museum. This is because museums are based on what historians uncover. A narrative report by a Historical Clarification Commission logically precedes and ought to predate them.

Memories of violence inevitably have both a personal and social resonance – social insofar as they cry out to demand recognition, redress and reparation. Balancing that social aspect with the need to respect individual’s and families’ private grief is central to any process of working through a divided past. The Report and the archive could offer future generations some insight into the values that inspired the conflict and, as such, provide alternative ways of thinking about division, identity and politics in Northern Ireland.

A Historical Clarification Commission would not meet victims’ demands for material compensation and judicial redress, however it would help rebalance the stories we tell about the past. It would help to bring them into line with what the public record obliges us to believe. The Commission’s Report will not capture every historical nuance but it will help to fence-in and delimit the potential for telling stories about the past that are not reflected in robust interrogation of the available evidence.


In the light of the revisions of the past and against the temptation to decontextualise evidence to suit contemporary political purposes, a Historical Clarification Commission would restore a measure of historical accountability and accuracy to debates about the past in Northern Ireland and help to cut through the circular ‘whataboutery’ that characterises much of the debate. While not meeting all of victims’ demands and rights, it could amplify the articulation of their experiences while offering the opportunities to access information. And while not being a panacea to Northern Ireland’s relationship with its traumatic past, a Historical Clarification Commission may provide a means for removing debate about that past from the centre of contemporary politics.


Evans, R. J. (1997) In Defence of History London: Granta Books.

Stewart, A. T. Q. (2001) The Shape of Irish History Belfast: The Blackstaff Press.

A Brief Note on ‘Agency’

The Arkiv review of Anne Cadwallader’s book, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, drew attention to the weakness of those arguments which alone blame ‘the alleged crimes of the British state and its surrogates for provoking the conditions which led to the Provisional campaign’. That review proposed that the IRA’s ‘Long War’, which caused the deaths of some 2000 people, was not ‘other directed’ but represented the ‘Provisionals’ own decision to recalibrate their strategy’. The matter which requires further consideration here is the question of ‘agency’.

The contention that violence is simply a by-product of objectively given conditions is an interesting claim and it is worth interrogating further. The ‘other-direction’ or external determinism of that claim reduces social actors, even ones as ideologically motivated as the Provisional IRA, to that of the mute, impassive, participants in a drama. It suggests that members had no choice but to rage violently against the system, irrespective of whether that system might be reformed by other means (which is now, post 1998 accepted as a legitimate political strategy). Equally, they had no responsibility for judging whether that rage actually achieved any tangible goals or outcomes. They might have been responsible for over 2000 deaths, and the main engine of a wider conflicted that resulted over 3,500 deaths, but this campaign is covered by the blanket of a collective ‘human tragedy’.

Equally, Loyalist paramilitaries have cited in defence of their activity the claim that Northern Ireland was (and remains) a uniquely ‘abnormal society’. Therefore abnormal behaviour (murder and mayhem) was another human tragedy and a product of that condition. Yet comparative politics show that the problems of Northern Ireland are far from unique and that a contest of allegiances is far from exceptional. If there was (and remains) anything abnormal about Northern Ireland it was the choice and the sustained determination by paramilitary groups on both sides to address those problems with guns and explosives.

It seems to be rarely acknowledged by those who argue this way that the removal of ‘strategic choice’ from the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries succeeds only in pathologizing their violence. Interestingly, this position mirrors that of conventional terrorism studies which in the past routinely viewed terrorist acts as inherently irrational. Ironically, the claim that agency was denied by the situation simply re-asserts the idea of political violence and those who conducted it as purely psychotic in nature.

Of course, as we know (and as the recent interview with the veteran republican Billy McKee in the TV programme The Disappeared revealed honestly) no self-respecting IRA member believes that they operated without choice, plans or goals. No IRA member thinks their campaign was an unfortunate accident of fate rather than part of a self-conscious tradition of armed struggle. That is the further irony of all such arguments: that they seek to de-politicize action and render it ‘mindless’ (which is a familiar popular description). These kinds of pathologizing approaches are ultimately incoherent. They are both proclaimed at one moment (we were all caught up in events) and denied at another (we

The self-refuting nature of this argument leads to other, slightly more sophisticated, defences. One of these is the doctrine of inevitability: that violence was a necessary stage on the way to peace (more popular after the Belfast Agreement than before it). Take, for example, the claim of Labour MP John McDonnell ten years ago 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). It was unfortunate, understandable, but ultimately cathartic. This is not to deny that some people were caught up in events and reacted to circumstances over which, individually, they had little control. But political violence was the exception not the rule. Few people in Northern Ireland acted out that ethic of violent necessity.

The balance between personal agency and social conditioning is one over which philosophers and latterly psychologists have long argued. For example, over 200 years ago, in an occasional newspaper article, Hegel identified the problem as ‘abstract thinking’. For Hegel, to think abstractly meant to abstract one aspect of a complex reality and to hold firmly to it as if it were the only truth. Rather provocatively, Hegel illustrated his point by reference to the spectacle of the public execution. ‘This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality’. That is one form of abstract thinking. The other is to see nothing of the murder in the murderer. On the one side are those who can see nothing of circumstance but only evil and those who see nothing of the evil but only circumstance. According to Hegel:

‘One who knows men traces the development of the criminal’s mind: he finds in his history, in his education, a bad family relationship between his father and mother, some tremendous harshness after this human being had done some minor wrong, so he became embittered against the social order — a first reaction to this that in effect expelled him and henceforth did not make it possible for him to preserve himself except through crime. — There may be people who will say when they hear such things: he wants to excuse this murderer! After all I remember how in my youth I heard a mayor lament that writers of books were going too far and sought to extirpate Christianity and righteousness altogether; somebody had written a defense of suicide; terrible, really too terrible! — Further questions revealed that The Sufferings of Werther were meant’.

It is clear that Hegel understands the complexity of an historical event and, to use present day jargon, wishes to ‘contextualise’ the actions of individuals, relating them to experience and conditions. However, it is also clear what he is not doing. His reference to Goethe’s Werther means that he is not excusing actions or contextualising them away. The criminal act remains criminal. And the criminal remains accountable at law. To think otherwise, in Hegel’s view, would only represent what he dismissed as ‘a kind of slovenly sociability between sentimentality and badness’. What he implies is that the acknowledgement of personal responsibility is the basis of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is obvious to acute observers of Northern Ireland.

For example, Malachi O’Doherty addressed the idea that IRA violence was the unfortunate result of being trapped by history and he observed: if republicans were trapped in anything they were trapped in their own tradition. In that tradition they were active participants and not passive victims. In O’Doherty’s words, republicans ‘had always made choices and they had often made bad or inappropriate choices’. Most of what the IRA did was calculated, tactically and strategically, and it was just not true that ‘the IRA campaign was a necessary phase in the readjustment of the constitutional anomaly created in 1921’ (O’Doherty 1998: 200-1).

That the political leaders of republicanism and loyalism have now ‘taken ownership’ of the Agreement is a welcome exercise in acknowledging agency but that ownership calls into question previous denials. Their choice of peace is to their credit. This credit should not exculpate their responsibility. Equally, those in the security forces responsible for criminal acts cannot escape their responsibility for agency either.

In short, there is no such thing as spontaneous or reflexive violence. The violent act, as the Prussian philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, is always a purposive one intended to fulfill political will. The use of violence, in other words, is always instrumental, and those who engage in it, for whatever reason, have agency and rationality. In that sense, the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries were goal seeking, political actors.

That recognition also confers the understanding that they are also moral actors who consciously weigh up their ways and means in order to reach their ends. Ultimately, they had – and have a choice, as do we all – even if that choice was not to do something. Choices, of course, always involve consequences. If a political actor has strategic agency, he or she is endowed with moral agency as well and becomes accountable for his or her actions. After thirty years of violence, no doubt, there are likely to be many families who will surely wish that the choices – and the agency – of those engaged in political violence had been very different.


O’Doherty, M. (1998) The Trouble with Guns. Republican strategy and the Provisional IRA, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press.

Hegel, GWF (1808?) Who Thinks Abstractly? In Walter Kaufmann. Hegel: Texts and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966), pp. 113-118.

McDonnell, J (2003) ‘Why I stood up for Bobby Sands’ The Guardian, 3 June

Memory and History: Working Through the Past

The tenor of the talks process, chaired by Dr Richard Haass, on parading, flags and dealing with the past seems to have shifted gear. Haass, himself, while speaking of a movement from consultation towards negotiation reminded the local parties that he would not entertain thoughts of ‘deal breakers’. The British and Irish governments have also seemingly become more responsive, with both the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Tánaiste recently making supportive and encouraging statements.

While a certain optimism may be discernible that ‘deals’ can be reached over parading and flags, the possibility of reaching agreement on dealing with the past remains uncertain. This short paper outlines some potential pitfalls and alternative ways forward.

Memory and the Surrogate of Commemoration

Just as essential individual identity is based on memory so too are national and community identities based on some form of collective remembrance. The relationship of collective identity to ideas and stories about the past is well known to students of nationalism. In a much cited speech of 1882 the French historian Ernest Renan, for example, defined a nation as

constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.

However, memory, in and of itself is – as the English historian Tony Judt pointed out – a ‘poor guide to the past’. Surveying the history of neglect, evasion and selective framing, which characterized many European countries’ remembrance of the Second World War and the Holocaust, Judt argued that despite a surfeit of commemoration little was actually achieved in confronting the collective trauma of 1933-1945. It was only when, for example, Germans began to appreciate and digest the ‘enormity’ of their past that they were able to begin to ‘put it behind them’.

For Judt, it was history – both in the sense of ‘the professional study of the past’ and the ‘passage of time’ – rather than memory or commemoration that facilitated this process.

One example, of this can be seen in the Enquete Commission that attempted to address the legacies of Germany’s two dictatorial pasts (Herf, 2009). Although, as Arkiv has pointed out previously, the Commission could not provide the type of justice that many victims in Northern Ireland seek, it did provide a means of delimiting broadly accepted ideas about the past that were in line with the publicly available historical record of Germany’s past.

While the differences vastly outweigh the similarities, a commission of historical clarification, would not stop debate about Northern Ireland’s own violent and divided past, but it could serve to delimit the number of myths and self-serving ‘truths’ that are told about it. It could do so in a number of ways:

1. A precise, contextualised analysis of what occurred historical events could ensure that the sectarian and violent elements of the conflict would be understood in the larger perspective of British and Irish politics should never have a political chance again in a peaceful, democratic Northern Ireland.

2. Although an explanation of the planned character of the paramilitary campaigns would have limited effect on judicial or material compensation, it would offer a kind of historical justice by allocating responsibility and repudiating self-serving exculpations for the violence and killings that occurred.

3. An account of how the conflict affected the lives of individuals would show how deep an impact the terror campaigns had on Northern Irish society.

4. A historical clarification commission could offer suggestions for legislation aimed at overcoming the legacies of the Troubles.

A commission of historical clarification offers an alternative to the focus on the recognition and acknowledgment of individual hurts. As we pointed out in our submission to the Haass talks, ‘it is one thing to claim that all stories should be heard. It is another to claim that all stories should be equally valorised’.

In a similar way, if commemoration and politically loaded memory-work is taken as a surrogate for the historical record then we risk, paradoxically, a surplus of memory being used to construct a political and historical reality that has more to do with the cult of violence than the actuality of hurt. Judt frames this idea as a basic political and moral principle: ‘Human suffering should not be calibrated according to the goals of the perpetrators’.

In Northern Ireland we see this occurring through the propagation of myths of the inevitability – the idea that ‘if you had been there you would have done the same’. The implication being that peace then becomes a gift of those who inflicted violence. In such a way, the cult of commemoration slips quickly into substituting innocent victims with the claims of perpetrators.

A similar danger may be involved in a truth recovery process on two counts: first where individual issues become abstracted from historical context make it difficult to get a general perspective ; and second where a generalised ‘acknowledgement’ of ‘shared hurts’, perhaps derived from non-accountable amnesties, makes it impossible to get personal accountability, a sort of Catch-22 effect.

Split-Screen Memories

The idea of looking to the past in order to move forward into the future was alluded to in the epigraph of the Consultative Group on the Past’s Report. In a similar way, Barack Obama has spoken of the psychological importance of giving leadership over issues involving historical legacies. Breaking with the politics of the past, he argues, allows individuals and communities to dream of better futures. Although addressing the specific topic of race in America, his insights have applicability to the nature of those politics and leadership in Ireland. For dealing with historical legacies, he says, ‘requires us to see the world on a split screen’ – setting our sights on the kind of society we want while also looking squarely at where we are presently at, in other words, to ‘acknowledge the sins of our past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair’.

The idea of a split screen approach is, however, not without its difficulties. It is difficult to hold two images in place at once and often the temptation can be to focus on the positive one and neglect that which is more unsettling. In this way, rather than a split screen, one image covers or screens the other. In her paper ‘Europe: A Community of Memory?’ the German sociologist Aleida Assmann, for instance has argued that

Psychologists speak of ‘screen memories’ that suppress other memories and serve to protect a positive self-image. To put it another way, one remembers something in order to be better able to forget something else.

Assmann goes on to outline how this occurs politically: ‘When applied to the realm of national memory, this means that one recalls one’s own suffering in order to avoid being reminded of one’s own guilt’.

Assmann, like Judt, believes that the real danger of exclusivist and exclusionary memories is not in simple forgetting, as Renan saw as lying at the heart of nationalism. That is to say, it is not so much that nations forget their pasts; rather, they select stories to highlight that suit their present purposes. In other words, it is not necessarily historical rewriting or falsification as much as a ‘strategic selection of expedient recollections’ that characterizes the politicization of the past.

Again, recollection, recall, memory can be the key mechanism that facilitates this. And, again, we often see this organized revision or reframing of the past in Northern Ireland through the avoidance of accountability and the promotion of amnesty or the valorization of self-exculpatory myths of inevitability arguably serve as local examples.

Working Through the Past

Perhaps the idea of ‘dealing with the past’ is too definitive and lends itself too easily to those who wish to parcel history into ideologically driven narratives. In Germany the process of confronting the past is more readily understood as ‘coming to terms with’ or ‘working through’ (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) and is a much more open-ended process.  Arguably, a reframing of the ways in which we approach the topic in Northern Ireland may offset tendencies towards defeatism and the deferral of difficult subjects in favour of some form of ‘reconciliation’ such as has been advocated by some commentators.

Assmann offers seven principles to enable recognition and rejection of the politicization of history that may be worth briefly mentioning:

Firstly, memory should be separated from argument. By this she means to draw a line between what has happened, what has been experienced and what follows from the experience – events don’t change, merely our framing of them; we must, she argues, be conscious of both.

Secondly, guilt should not be offset. Memory, Assmann argues, often acts like a club: ‘The only memory that is important is the guilt of the other, and establishing that guilt is seen as wiping out one’s own guilt’. While she speaks explicitly to the idea of a club as something to hit one’s opponents, of course, as alluded to above, national identity is itself a kind of selective memory club, defining what narratives and beliefs about the past are acceptable and which are taboo.

Thirdly, competition between victims should be mitigated. ‘Placing one trauma in a privileged position can serve to eclipse another trauma’. This should not be understood that there is no hierarchy of victimhood, but rather, that the very idea of victim-status can be easily mobilized to cover up a multitude of sins. As Assmann goes on to explain, the appropriation of claims of suffering on the part of perpetrators work to ‘cover-up’ what is worse with what is bad.

In a similar fashion, the historian Richard Evans dismissed claims of victimhood among Nazi soldiers responsible for atrocities during the Second World War by alluding to the fact that, unlike their victims, at one point they had a choice: ‘A murderer is a murderer, however persuasive the mitigating circumstances of the fact’.

Again, we might return to Judt’s idea about calibrating history according to the stories of the perpetrators by way of expanding this thought – which, in many ways, lies at the heart of the suggestion that everyone in Northern Ireland (or Ireland) is responsible for the conflict.

Fourthly, Assmann urges a movement from exclusion to inclusion of memories. ‘Memories that support a collective identity,’ she argues, ‘are not only selective but also tend toward uniformity. One memory grows in size to crowd another out’. Arkiv has made a similar proposition as regards the need to recognize the complexity of Northern Irish history and the imperative for trying to avoid simplistic myth-making; we saw this as part and parcel of what, for example, trained historians do as part of their jobs – namely, ‘to reintroduce the complexity which, intentionally or unintentionally, others exclude from their stories’.

Fifthly, she argues that we should try, if possible, to move from divided to shared memories. Extrapolating from this notion we might argue that conflicts are driven by notions of division, but critical empathy, based on events and supported by evidence, suggests that not everything in history is a matter of opinion and that we might, indeed, be able to reach consensus or shared ideas about the past.

Sixthly, she points to the importance of contextualization. It may be worth quoting her at length to try to avoid confusion:

…nothing is gained by discarding lived experiences merely because they do not conform to a broader historical perspective. Everyone has a human right to his or her memories. That, however, does not exclude the necessity to place such memories that have been articulated and recognized on a wider horizon. As contextualized memories, they lose the taint of irreconcilable solipsism. Only by retrospectively placing them in a larger context can they be made compatible with other memories.

This is, in our view, corresponds closely to the argument that Arkiv has put forward in our Submission to the Haass talks process and a point that we reiterated in our last post, for example, when we talked about the importance of ‘…engaging the contextualising skills and professional integrity of historians in any publicly funded and officially sponsored “process of dealing with the past”’

Finally, Assmann points to the importance of developing what she calls a ‘common framework’ of ‘values and goals’: ‘Memories are not just located, but also framed within this horizon of values that challenges their built-in tendency towards self-hypnosis’.

Ethnicization of history can take many forms – from decontextualized myth-making and conspiracy theorizing to the imposition of one ‘screen’ that shields from view another more discomforting one. Arkiv has argued that alternatives exist and should be considered seriously. This paper has hopefully pointed to some of the directions in which those alternatives may be usefully located.


Richard J. Evans, In Hitler’s Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape from the Nazi Past (London: I.B. Tauris, 1989).

Jeffrey Heff, ‘Post-Totalitarian Narratives in Germany: Reflections on Two Dictatorships after 1945 and 1989’, in Perpetrators, Accomplices and Victims in Twentieth-Century Politics: Reckoning with the Past. Edited by Anatoly M Khazanov and Stanley Payne (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London: William Heinemann, 2005).

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2007).

Syndromes and Sensibility

The publicity given by the media to Arkiv was pleasing. Unfortunately, there was a tendency to associate its purpose and its recommendation exclusively with unionism. For example, we were obliged to correct the inadvertent impression in the Newsletter editorial that Arkiv’s intention is to challenge a nationalist reading of the past. Our letter, published on 1 November stated:

Our concern is not to ‘de-legitimise’ any single interpretation of the past. Anyway, it is not in our gift to do so. It is to question, by reference to the public record, reducing the past to any one dominant narrative. For example, though it is true that so-called armed conflict was distinctive of Northern Ireland’s recent past it was never representative of it. A history which would diminish in its account the majority within nationalist and unionist politics, churches and society who did not subscribe to violence is an example of what Lord Bew, in a report in the Newsletter, termed an ‘infantilised view of history’. 

Moreover, some comment in the social media argued that the proposal for a Historical Commission was equivalent to being patronised by the academics who feel they’re the only ones in a position to tell everyone where it all went wrong. It was assumed that the proposal was either ‘pompous’ or ‘smug’ based on the assumption that historians were superior in knowledge and understanding than anyone else. Indeed, one criticism was that the grievance and hurt is so deep that neither history nor the historians can help. It is worth clarifying the way we understand the public function of history in this proposal.


Stendhal and other syndromes

Take as the starting point the following passage in Julian Barnes’ recent book: Nothing To Be Frightened Of:

Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.

This is something we would all agree on. It is presented here as a reflection on the life of an individual but it applies equally in Northern Ireland to claims made on behalf of the group or community. And what are identity politics if not the politics of collective memory? We are presently living through a decade in which the respective commemorations of those identities are prominent public events.

One of the recurring references in Barnes’s book is to the Stendhal Syndrome, a recognised and documented condition of dizziness and fainting and confusion brought on by exposure to a surfeit of great art in a single location – supposedly in Stendhal’s case by Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Whenever he does a little bit of digging into this story and cross references the story Stendhal relates in 1826 with his diary of 1811 things look rather different. We learn from the diary that he does indeed enter Florence at the date recalled but, as Barnes puts it, ‘memory took one road and truth another’. The evidence of what happened and – from the historical record of the details what could have happened – doesn’t match up to the story. In short, ‘all reliable evidence for Stendhal’s Syndrome effectively dissolves before our eyes’. The important and sensitive qualification which Barnes makes is this. To point out the discrepancies is not to condemn Stendhal as a mere fabulist (at best) or liar (at worst). What it shows is the way narrative and memory work to impose a distinctive coherence upon the past.

Indeed – speaking historically – we might rename the syndrome as the Chevalier syndrome recalling Maurice Chevalier’s nostalgic duet with Hermione Gingold in Gigi:

We met at nine/We met at eight/I was on time/No, you were late/ Ah, yes, I remember it well.

In other words, we remember everything so well coherently that we can get things wrong in particular. And this makes explicit what is implicit in all our remembering: that we weave events into a retrospective narrative which may have little to do with the truth of the past but much to do with our sense of ourselves in the present. This is not, as with Stendhal, necessarily deliberate fabrication; rather it is about making sense of a complex history in order to justify our role in or association with it – our identity if you like. If this is what individuals do, so too do communities. For example, this syndrome may help to explain some of Gerry Adams’ lapses (for example, about his time in the Maze) where the retrospective narrative of his role in history trumps the accuracy of his memory. On the other hand, there are more calculated narrative strategies, involving deliberate falsification.

One reasonably benign example can be called the Vidal syndrome. Gore Vidal once related how failed Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey complained that he couldn’t get on the lucrative university lecture circuit because Americans do not like losers. Vidal’s reply was: ‘Just tell them you’ve won. This is after all the United States of Amnesia’. Recently, that ‘telling them we’ve won’ strategy has been commonplace in Northern Ireland politics. Again, it is not to be dismissed entirely because it may be deemed useful. There may be a political rule of thumb: that pulling the wool over one’s own eyes as well as others’ can be conducive to pragmatism and flexibility and therefore socially and politically constructive. This is particularly valid if the objective of the parties is to secure the conditions for peace. It was once called in Northern Ireland ‘constructive ambiguity’. To achieve the proper end of peace historical evidence, one could argue, is neither here nor there. Unfortunately, there is another syndrome which is less benign, politically or historically. This is the abstraction syndrome.

The abstraction syndrome can be described as things we forget to remember or the way in which individual and collective memory can conceal, ignore or gloss uncomfortable truths. To put that otherwise, what is forgotten out of context is often as important as what is remembered in abstraction. Today, for many in Northern Ireland, this selective recall about what happened during the Troubles is the Vidal syndrome without the humour, the Chevalier syndrome without the compensating charm. In this case it is abstraction which is at the heart of our political problem – picking out particular moments of the past not in order to secure peace but to win old arguments. This is not the ‘truth’ of the past, certainly not history, but a distortion of it through partisan construction. From which one can detect a further and related syndrome.

This is the split-mind syndrome, an unstable relationship between a disposition to ‘overcome the past’ (let’s move on) and the need to ‘come to terms with the past’ (let’s go back). It isn’t a case of unionists on one side of this debate and nationalists on the other. Many unionists and nationalists want at one and the same time to move on (to their ground) and to go back (to attribute blame). Put into that mix the trauma and suffering which families have experienced and it is no wonder that an ‘us and them’ division about the past continues: ‘They are asking us to move on and forget our pain while at the same time they want to remember their grievances and get restitution’.

So when we encounter the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana’s famous aphorism: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ we need to be careful about exactly what we take from it. It is usually understood to mean that a continuation of political conflict will be the consequence of ignoring ‘the lessons of history’. But Santayana was not talking about history but about the past – and implying a distinction between them. For the real danger may be that by abstracting and remembering only one’s own past (as an ‘identity of memories’) we do risk condemning ourselves to repeat it.

Can we, in other words, choose an approach to the past which is not fated to be one-upmanship in old political arguments? For what hovers over all of this is the infantilising syndrome. Lord Bew argued recently for a ‘more realistic conception’ of events to substitute for the ‘infantilised version of the past’ held in popular consciousness. We think this requires a more disciplined and serious approach to historical evidence than the public debate has permitted hitherto.

Associative coherence and the problem of memory

How the linkage between the various syndromes function in memory is captured by a posting: How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Our Intuition in the blog Brain Pickings. It comprises a review of an essay by Daniel Kahneman, ‘The Marvels and Flaws of Intuitive Thinking’ Thinking: The New Science of decision-making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (ed John Brockman) Harper Perennial 2013.

Kahneman identifies what he calls ‘associative coherence’ – the notion that ‘everything reinforces everything else’. In short, this is remembering, which reinforces existing patterns of association, deliberately discounts contradictory evidence. According to Kahnemann:

The thing about the system is that it settles into a stable representation of reality, and that is just a marvellous accomplishment. … That’s not a flaw, that’s a marvel. [But] coherence has its cost. Coherence means that you’re going to adopt one interpretation in general. Ambiguity tends to be suppressed. This is part of the mechanism that you have here that ideas activate other ideas and the more coherent they are, the more likely they are to activate each other. Other things that don’t fit fall away by the wayside. We’re enforcing coherent interpretations. We see the world as much more coherent than it is.

Kahnemann goes on:

This is a mechanism that takes whatever information is available and makes the best possible story out of the information currently available, and tells you very little about information it doesn’t have. So what you get are people jumping to conclusions. I call this a “machine for jumping to conclusions.”

The narratives of memory and their syndromes issue in problems, not because of lies and misrepresentations – although that is possible as a strategy – but because of over-confidence in the truth of our respective narratives.

The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. . . . People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

Arkiv’s concern about ‘truth recovery’ based mainly on individual testimony alone, especially one in which there is no sanction for false testimony (under amnesty for example), is that there will develop a contest of politicised remembering based on very little evidence. Moreover, the language has become confused already. When even the outgoing head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is reported in the Irish Times as saying: ‘The lack of a truth recovery process means that tribal myths will continue to trump actual memory’, then one senses that something is amiss.


A role for historians?

Arkiv’s proposal is that the profession of history provides a way, if not to eliminate the problems of narratives – which are present-focused rather than focused on the past – then to be aware of the evidential limitations of those narratives and their seductive syndromes.

A very different quality of ‘associative coherence’ is proposed, a procedure which is the opposite of a machine for jumping to conclusions. The association is not one of simple cause and effect but one of interpretative caution, the maxim of which reads (after the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott) only to report ‘what the evidence obliges us to believe’ in terms of ‘circumstantially and significantly related historical events’. In short, according to Oakeshott, ‘teleological history is, in principle, a self-contradiction’. This is ‘presentism’ at its most unhistorical and is associated with the politicisation of ‘memory’. Historians, of course, cannot entirely remove present concerns from historical inquiry but the professional requirement is to avoid, as far as possible, these concerns distorting the evidence uncovered. As one scholar (Smith 1996) observes of Oakeshott’s own historical associative coherence

The image of historical construction that Oakeshott evokes is that of a country ‘dry wall’, a fabrication of no pre meditated design whose stones are held together not by mortar, but by their roughly inter locking shapes. If the wall should totter or rifts appear, these eccentricities are recognized not as defects but as characteristics of history

It is not that one cannot narrate a story about history – one cannot avoid it – but the task of the historian is to avoid transgression into myth. For myth, like the associative coherence of memory is ‘a drama from which all that is casual, secondary and unresolved is excluded; it has a clear outline, a unity of feeling and in it everything is exact except place and time’. Moreover, ‘every component is known and is intelligible in respect of its relation to a favoured present’ (Oakeshott 1962: 166). To use one of Lord Bew’s expressions, it is history without footnotes – or rather it is history as a mere footnote to a political project. The task of the historian, in this context, is to re-introduce the complexity which, intentionally or unintentionally, others exclude from their stories.

This may appear elitist and exclusive. The point Arkiv makes is that is simple:  the sort of Historical Commission we propose is absolutely necessary but alone not sufficient. It does not rule out other, more horizontal approaches, involving oral testimony. We admit that the Troubles did not just exist in papers and archives so the process must sift widely, to capture other experiences. But these cannot be self-standing. That is why engaging the contextualising skills and professional integrity of historians formally and centrally in any publicly funded and officially sponsored ‘process of dealing with the past’ is so important.


T W Smith ‘Michael Oakeshott on history, practice and political theory’ History of Political Thought, 17(4), 1996 591-614

Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics London: Methuen, 1962

Dealing with the Past: From Complexity to Contextualisation

Dealing with the Past: From Complexity to Contextualisation

When deliberating about the very delicate subject of dealing with Northern Ireland’s past Timothy Garton Ash’s Trials, Purges, and History Lessons influenced both the analysis and the recommendation which Arkiv made in its submission to the Panel of Parties in the Northern Ireland Executive (Haass).1 Of course, Garton Ash is concerned with historical transitions which are not analogous to the Northern Ireland case, namely Eastern Europe’s transition from communism to representative democracy in the 1990s and the Iberian transition from fascism to representative democracy in the 1970s.  As he concedes: ‘There are no easy generalizations and certainly no universal laws. So much depends on the character of the preceding regime and the nature of the transition’. Acknowledging those important caveats, his general reflections are appropriate nevertheless to our own circumstances.

Garton Ash begins by asking: what exactly are we talking about when we talk about dealing with the past?

‘There is no single word for it in the English language. German, however, has two long ones in regular use: Geschichtsalfarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. These may be translated as “treating” the past, “working over” the past, “confronting” it, “coping, dealing, or coming to terms with” it—even “overcoming” the past. The variety of possible translations indicates the complexity of the matter at hand’.

He then poses four basic questions:

  • whether to remember and treat the past or simply to try to forget and look to the future?
  • when to address it, if it is to be addressed?
  • who should do it?
  • how should it be done?

As Garton Ash works his way through each of these questions it is obvious that there are no easy answers. Official forgetting of the past (‘a collective and willed amnesia’ as Jorge Semprun described the Spanish experience after 1975) is as problematic as remembering it. To delay the process (Yes, but not yet) can be as troublesome as to expedite, threatening the delicate basis of stability. There is no easy answer either to the question of who should be involved, especially when there are questions of trust. More importantly, as Garton Ash points out, only ‘the victims have the right to forgive’. How it should be done is a fiendishly tricky question and there is no simple formula, from purges to trials to amnesties: none are without their defects.

For Garton Ash, there are what he calls ‘history lessons’, state or independent, public or private. The South African approach of a truth and reconciliation commission, favoured by some in Northern Ireland, is not a one-size fits all model (just as the ‘Northern Ireland model’ of conflict transformation is far from universally appropriate). Other approaches, such as the German Enquete Commission, can reduce ‘truth about the past’ to ‘acceptable compromise between the political parties’. That is not an unworthy principle (if the object is to seek peace) but it may not be satisfactory to the victims of violence. Garton Ash concludes that one way forward is a variation of the ‘history lesson’ approach which involves the engagement of professional historians:

To advocate the third path does, of course, assign a very special place to contemporary historians. In fact, I do think that if you ask “Who is best equipped to do justice to the past?” the answer is, or at least should be, historians. But this is also a heavy responsibility.

The recommendation Arkiv makes to the Panel of Parties in the Northern Ireland follows the logic of Garton Ash’s sensitive and intelligent treatment of dealing with the past. Of course we are aware of well-founded and long-standing criticism of the limits of historical ‘science’. Certainly we do not suggest that historical examination of sources and evidence will lead to a consensus about the past. Yet there is a shadow line which, once crossed, turns history into what the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott described as a field in which we exercise our moral and political opinions, like whippets in a meadow on Sunday afternoon. The ability to understand that there is a difference between moralising about the past for present effect and understanding the past for its own sake is what distinguishes the historian from the propagandist. That is why we propose engaging the contextualising skills and professional integrity of historians formally and centrally in any publicly funded and officially sponsored ‘process of dealing with the past’

1 Timothy Garton Ash, “Trial, Purges, and History Lessons,” History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, Random House, New York 1999, p. 256–277.