Policy Papers

Historians in post-conflict societies: Northern Ireland after the Troubles

Cillian McGrattan |

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Executive Summary

  • Historical narratives underpin ethnic identities and can sometimes contribute to the perpetuation of ethnic violence.
  • In post conflict societies, historians have a major role to play in analysing policy direction - pointing out when and where policy is shaped by narratives of history which are either simplistic or simply incorrect.
  • Historians have begun to deconstruct these narratives using newly available archival materials, released under the 30-year rule or under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • The resulting historical revision shows that much of the political science literature on the Troubles is 'of its time' and increasingly unreliable.
  • This process may bring historians into conflict with government officials, politicians and lobby groups who may wish to draw a line under the past.
  • However, by bringing a critical voice to the public debate concerning the causes and consequences of past actions, historians have a vital role to play in deepening democracy and justice in post-conflict societies.
  • While legalistic approaches to truth recovery such as the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday (1972) may provide catharsis and a degree of closure for the relatives of victims, it is naïve to conflate juridical 'truths' with the broader concerns of historical inquiry and building a more stable society.
  • Truth recovery inquiries may in fact alter the historical and political landscape in ways that work against real reconciliation in post-conflict societies.


In his History & Policy paper History and national identity: why they should remain divorced, Stefan Berger examined the relationship between historical research and nationalist politics. He referred to the persistence of nationalism as a mobilising force in politics and he emphasised that even in multicultural societies such as Germany, Belgium, Spain and Britain, the idea that a nation needs to have a proud and heroic history is far from dead. Berger concluded that:

  • the major lesson that historians can offer to European policymakers is 'not to fall back on the trappings of identity politics', and
  • historians can contribute to the creation of 'solidarities on alternative grounds to that of national identity'.

This paper builds on Berger's analysis and applies it to post-conflict societies. It concentrates, in particular, on the attempts by the British government and Northern Ireland politicians to deal with the historical legacies of the Troubles, including the contemporary political battle to establish and entrench historical narratives concerning what the conflict was all about. There is no question of historians writing on the Northern Ireland conflict providing bases of 'identity formation and legitimation' - in societies such as Northern Ireland, where communal and religious identities are deeply entrenched, the potential for developing 'solidarities on alternative grounds to that of national identity' is extremely limited. Instead, the task of historians in post-conflict societies may be to question established identities - to challenge both self-justifying historical narratives and the complacency involved in pragmatic attempts by governments to 'draw a line under the past'. But historians also have another crucial role to play in post-conflict societies through analysing policy direction - pointing out when and where policy is shaped by narratives of history which are either simplistic or simply incorrect.

Historians are beginning to do this in Northern Ireland, where explanatory models developed during the conflict - based on political science theories regarding ethnic conflicts (McGarry and O'Leary, 2000) - are now being tested against newly released state papers. These approaches are very much 'of their time' and are increasingly unreliable guides for explaining how the conflict emerged or why it lasted as long as it did. The recently published Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972) is a part of this process - particularly in its conclusion there was no evidence to support conspiracy theories concerning top-level political direction for the massacre of 14 anti-internment marchers by British paratroopers in Derry. However, it has also given greater prominence to Bloody Sunday in the development of British and Irish government policy than the archival evidence suggests. While truth recovery mechanisms such as Saville may indeed provide some degree of closure or even catharsis for the families of the dead, I suggest that the juridical approach, with its emphasis on establishing clear lines of cause and effect may actually make it more difficult to establish the broad historical context and pressurise victims into accepting a singular template for justice, regardless of the specifics of the individual wrongs.

Government initiatives to deal with the past

The most authoritative study into the human cost of the Northern Ireland conflict states that the Troubles directly caused 3,703 deaths between 1966 and 2003 (McKittrick et al.). At least 40,000 others were seriously injured. Responsibility for the killings was shared between Irish republicans (58.3%) - particularly the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) - loyalist paramilitary organisations (29.7%) and British state forces, including the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) (9.9%). The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 provided for a devolved power-sharing Executive and ratified the British and Irish governments' strategy of bringing Sinn Féin, the political representatives of the PIRA, into the political sphere. However, the Agreement postponed the issue of how to deal with the historical legacies arising from the conflict - including victims' issues, the retention of paramilitary arms and the debate over the causes of the violence.

The lack of ways of dealing with the past showed that the Agreement was itself a product of those legacies. Since none of the major perpetrators of violence had been defeated definitively, each could claim a victory: the PIRA argued that it had forced the British to the negotiating table; the loyalists claimed they had thwarted British withdrawal from Northern Ireland; and the British government claimed that it had finally convinced all parties of the necessity of compromise. Those signing the Agreement did not simply forget to deal with the past: had they insisted on trying to look into the causes of the conflict, they might well have never signed up to a deal at all'. More recent attempts to deal with the past in Northern Ireland have been constrained by the same legacies of conflict. For example, the 1998 Report of the first Victims' Commissioner was rejected by nationalists for giving scant regard to state-sponsored killings. Although the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which was set up in January 1998, was welcomed by nationalists, many unionists (and increasing numbers of Irish nationalists) questioned its many delays and the extent of its mounting costs. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom government appointed a Minister for Victims in May 1998, and in 2000 the devolved Assembly set up a Victims' Liaison Unit. Although the government made compensation available for victims and their families, it also angered many people - particularly in the unionist community - with the inclusion in the 1998 Agreement of an early release scheme for paramilitary prisoners. The reform of the RUC and its rebranding as the Police Service of Northern Ireland also angered many unionists.

The January 2009 Report of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland, which was set up by the British government, did little to assuage growing unionist suspicions that political developments were being shaped by a republican agenda. The Report was heavily influenced by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, adopting the idea that history should serve to restore bonds within a divided society - helping to create a 'shared future'. With the best of intentions, this essentially instrumental view about the role of history led the Report's authors to make recommendations requiring the people of Northern Ireland - the vast majority of whom never joined or supported terrorist organisations - to either 'leave the past behind' or reconcile with the (unrepentant) perpetrators of violence. This understanding was encapsulated in the proposal that the families of terrorists killed on 'active duty', together with innocent civilians, should receive a recognition payment of £12,000.

Historical research and dealing with the past

Northern Ireland's experience tells us a great deal about the way historical research intersects with democratic politics. A tendency to dwell on the past is often seen as just an 'Irish predilection' - but as Northern Ireland moves beyond the conflict, interpretations of its past have become a key part of the ongoing debates about identity and political power. Indeed, it is the heated nature of these debates that makes the idea of a truth and reconciliation institution so attractive to many since, in theory, it would take the issue out of the hands of politicians.

Although 'truth recovery' is ostensibly what historical research is all about, government initiatives to seek the 'truth' about historical events in Northern Ireland have both faced and created severe practical problems. In many ways, this is unsurprising: judicial inquiries such as the Bloody Sunday Tribunal may be helpful in establishing basic chronologies and cause-and-effect sequences, but they also serve to impose an authoritative narrative over victims' experiences. In post-conflict societies such as Argentina and Chile, this has served as a nation-building exercise and required collective amnesia, with victims expected to sacrifice their loss for a shared and harmonious future. In Northern Ireland numerous, publicly-funded local oral history groups have emerged in the new political climate. While these groups often have the laudable aim of recording the experiences of victims and marginalised individuals and communities, this 'storytelling movement' is saturated with unarticulated political and historical assumptions. The storytelling initiative carried out in Ardoyne (Ardoyne Commemoration Project), a Catholic and republican working-class area in North Belfast, is emblematic of a tendency towards what the literary academic, Professor Edna Longley, has called 'remembering at'. Although the group's rationale was to recount the stories of the 99 people who died in the community during the Troubles, it made only a passing reference to the killing of 'at least a dozen civilians from unionist areas ... that lie within or are immediately adjacent to Ardoyne' - not to mention the state 'combatants'. That selectivity raises the profile of one category of victims and privileges their historical experiences and collective narratives over the narratives, experiences and profile of others.

It is crucial, both for the historical record and as a matter of fairness, to recognise the very real and fractured experiences found in victims' narratives. But these narratives are constructed against a wider political, social and historical backdrop. An over-emphasis on victims' stories may overlook the fact that they can be every bit as loaded as government attempts to manufacture a consensual past.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry and societal reconciliation

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry presided over by Lord Saville has been the most widely publicised attempt to by the British government to come to terms with one of the legacies of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The main finding of the 5,000-page Report was that 'there was a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline among the soldiers' of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. In addition, Saville explicitly rejected the idea that the army, the British government or the devolved Northern Irish government had planned the shootings as part of a counter-insurgency strike at Irish nationalist mobilisation. He also stated that none of the victims posed any threat to the soldiers, and effectively exonerated the organisers of the march, pointing out that although they 'must have realised that there was probably going to be trouble from rioters, they had no reason to believe and did not believe that this was likely to result in death or injury from unjustified firing by soldiers'.

Arguably, the media attention afforded to the Report has obscured Bloody Sunday's role in the conflict. This is seen in a number of ways. For instance, while much anecdotal evidence exists regarding an influx of 'volunteers' into the PIRA, there is no verification of this in terms of numerical data. Indeed, it would seem illogical for an underground terrorist organisation to have a lax policy on recruitment. Again, while Bloody Sunday exacerbated Catholic-nationalist alienation from the Northern state, it is not completely correct to suggest, as, for example, the historian Professor Diarmaid Ferriter did, that the British 'acknowledgement of [the] truth' about the shootings meant that Prime Minister Edward Heath and his successors recognised the necessity of Dublin involvement in the running of the North (the 'Irish dimension') and the need for cross-community power-sharing (Ferriter, 2010). In fact, the evidence released under the auspices of the Inquiry suggests that the British had reached a nuanced appreciation of the merits of these proposals and the future of the devolved unionist-controlled government in the months before Bloody Sunday (Bew, 2000; McGrattan, 2010). In addition, it should be noted that while the PIRA claimed Bloody Sunday justified their resistance to the British army and the irremediable nature of the Northern state, a power sharing administration was established between the representatives of the middle-ground at the end of 1973. Heath's prioritisation of the political implications of Bloody Sunday over their ethical or juridical repercussions rankled with nationalists in Ireland and was seen by them as another example of the inherent untrustworthiness of the Conservative Party. Thus, in some quarters it was seen as symbolically important for David Cameron to apologise in the House of Commons in June 2010. As one legal professor argued, that symbolism went beyond the immediate narrative of Saville to encompass fundamental democratic truths: '[t]he generosity with which Cameron embraced the report ... has had a huge significance for the political landscape in Northern Ireland, Ireland, Britain and elsewhere' (Bell, 2010). Yet, arguably, this misses the point: David Cameron had little alternative to accepting Lord Saville's findings - in addition, if the Liberal Democrats had sided with Labour following the May 2010 election, then it would have been a Labour leader issuing a similar statement. It wasn't only Irish-based historians and legal scholars who missed the point. The editorial of the magazine History-Ireland chose to ignore Saville's findings: instead, it sought to echo the received nationalistic wisdom that the atrocity was masterminded by British political and military elites. The magazine offered damningly faint praise, stating that the Report had generated 'a massive and invaluable historical archive ... that will allow historians now and in the future to interrogate Saville's questionable conclusion that primary responsibility lies with the soldiers on the ground' (Graham, 2010).

In contrast, the dominant themes in the immediate reactions to the publication of the Report were of relief - that it did not provoke a spiral of vituperative 'whataboutery' within and about Northern Ireland - and a sense that the Report should be taken as both definitive and sufficient. However, it is far from clear whether the Report is 'historically definitive' - its emphasis on the events of the day and the relative neglect of the months of PIRA mobilisation, including six shootings in the three days before the march, along with the ambiguity in the evidence over the actions of the then-PIRA's Officer Commanding in the city, Martin McGuinness, mean that historians would find difficult to accept it as the final word. This presents a broader problem: how does the Report bear upon historical and moral judgements? The work of Dr Thomas Hennessey (2007) has shown that reaching an understanding of the march and the shootings requires an attention to context - as well as a degree of critical empathy towards the protagonists. For instance, Hennessey points out that the British authorities were fairly united over the political need to halt the march in order to uphold the principle of the rule of law. While he condemns the actions of the soldiers, he also highlights the fact that republican gunmen were on active duty.

Even if the Saville Report represents a juridical 'closure' - the soldiers' testimonies to the Inquiry were made on the basis that they could not be used as evidence in any future criminal proceedings - historical judgments on Bloody Sunday are inevitably linked to moral assessments regarding the Troubles. The Report has important implications for the future: if the Report represents 'closure', that suggests that not only British soldiers will evade punishment: it also implies that other massacres, whether by PIRA or loyalist gunmen and bombers, should not be pursued. Secondly, historical assessments may be as close to a moral judgement as it is possible to get. This is because the release of paramilitary prisoners under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement represented a de facto amnesty - there is no incentive for ex-terrorists to, in the words of the current First Minister, Peter Robinson, 'fess up' and give an account of their actions. Why anyone would admit to what the terrorists' 'wars' boiled down to - namely, a sordid series of assassinations, bombings, mutilations, beatings and occasional rapes - is seemingly an unimportant question for most politicians and commentators who have suggested that the benighted people of Northern Ireland can learn from the experience of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and institute a broader truth recovery process into the conflict itself.

Historians and democratisation

The debate over dealing with the past has been dominated by legal ideas about truth recovery and theological ideas about reconciliation - effectively excluding historians. These two positions were not only encapsulated in the Report of the Consultative Group but continue to inform the approach of the government-sponsored Healing Through Remembering (HTR) group. HTR has itself supported storytelling as a therapeutic mechanism at both the individual and societal level. The group's report on dealing with the past, by Professor Kieran McEvoy, a criminologist at Queen's University, Belfast, is overtly suspicious of what exactly historians (together with economists and political scientists) could bring to the debate over the past in Northern Ireland. Thus, he argues that these specialists 'could spend considerable energies arguing about the "real" levels of discrimination ... or the "true" intentions of the Dublin government ... it would not be difficult to envisage [a truth recovery] process becoming an increasingly arid series of technical debates'.

This exclusion of historians and the historical approach is gravely counter-productive to the stated goals of HTR and the government goals of fostering of conflict transformation and societal transition. In this regard it is important to differentiate scholarly historical research from the instrumentalist project of using the past as a resource to embed democratic stability. The idea that lessons can be cherry-picked from the past or that certain ideas about the present and the future can be read back into the past could arguably be supported on pragmatic grounds. However, the historical and moral compromises involved in massaging the past, in demanding that victims forego their loss, and in indulging the self-pitying and self-justifying narratives of terrorists raise real questions. What kind of stability, and what standards of democracy, are we seeking - and are the ethical compromises worthwhile? Historians have a contribution to make to policy debates about the structures of power-sharing, too. At present, the Northern Ireland Assembly requires members to designate themselves as 'Unionist', 'Nationalist' or 'Other' - forcing themselves into a communal framework from the very outset. These structures prioritise communal understandings of both contemporary politics and recent history. At present the Assembly's two largest parties are those which have traditionally been the most stalwart defenders of ethnic identities: the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. Both parties have indulged in extra-constitutional politics during the course of the Troubles. Sinn Féin has supported the idea that physical violence was a necessary and justified phase in the struggle to remove what it viewed as an illegitimate British presence in Ireland.

This may seem like an inhospitable climate for challenging traditional views of the Troubles - but the difficulties could make the role of historical research all the more important. This is particularly true in terms of challenging traditional narrative understandings. Dr Simon Prince, for example, has described how the 1960s civil rights movement was used by radical leftists and extremist republicans to provoke a security crisis in the Northern state, which was reluctantly moving towards implementing the key civil rights demands. The work of Prince, Hennessey and others matters - it challenges the self-serving narratives that inform political parties' ideas about the inevitability and justifiability of the conflict. They also challenge the real-world political application of these ideas - whether they are expressed in historical amnesia or analgesia or whether they are expressed in the outworking of that expression through the expedient linking of peace with the development of an 'ethnic tribune' system of governance. While they make these challenges primarily from an empirical starting point, their effect is also to lay down an ethical marker, questioning the validity of received ideas about identity and the rightness or wrongness of historical decisions. Thus, while a 'shared future' does not depend on a 'shared past' (which is in any event logically impossible), the intervention of historians such as Hennessey and Prince creates the opportunity for an agreed moral foundation to thinking about history, identity and community in Northern Ireland. Such historical revisionism has been criticised by many as a politically loaded and self-contained historiographical school that promotes pro-British and neo-colonialist sentiments. A detailed re-run of the Irish revisionist debate is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is clear that, unlike other events such as the uprisings of 1798 or the 1916-23 period, the constant release of new archival material under the thirty-year rule and freedom of information means that the history of the conflict necessarily undergoes constant 'revision'. Nor is this revisionism simply a sterile academic debate. The release of state papers showing that Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams was part of a secret IRA negotiating team with the British government in 1971 or of oral testimony alleging that he played a role in the 1972 unresolved 'disappearance' of the Catholic mother-of-ten, Jean McConville, continue to shape political debate and colour people's ideas about what the conflict was all about, and the ability of whole communities to 'move on' - or not.


Whether it is possible for entire societies to 'work through' the past is not clear. Since social groups construct their own historical narratives, it is perhaps inevitable that many 'truths' emerge in post-conflict situations. But historians can test those 'truths' against the available evidence and can show where they are products of history themselves. For in societies where communal identities are deeply held and perceptions of the ethnic or religious 'other' are entrenched, alternative solidarities - such as those based on class or gender - tend to be seen through the prism of those identities. It is the task of historians to analyse, through the archival evidence and through contextualised oral history, how those identities are constructed, when they become important, and how they change across time.

At the same time, historians have to point out the moral and political assumptions and compromises that often lie at the heart of those narratives. In challenging the narratives that the conflict was inevitable and that all sides were as bad as each other, historians play a dual role. They create an opportunity to move on from recycling ethnicised stories and allow for a more rational debate over responsibility for actions in the past, as well as the shifts which eventually led to the peace process. At the same time, in opening up the debate about the past, historians help to fashion a more pluralistic public discourse. In the process, they create greater space than before for marginalised voices, such as those of victims, the elderly, or women. In so doing, they help to broaden the concept of peace from being merely about expediency to being about justice, discussion and consensus.

Further Reading

Ardoyne Commemoration Project, Ardoyne: The Untold Truth (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2002)

Paul Bew, 'Historical Background to Bloody Sunday: Report to the Bloody Sunday Tribunal, 24 November 2000, Expert Report E7', available at www.bloody-sunday-inquiry.org

Diarmaid Ferriter, 'The only heroes of Bloody Sunday', Irish Independent, 19 June 2010

Tommy Graham, 'Bloody Sunday: who was responsible?' History Ireland, August 2010Thomas Hennessey, Northern Ireland: The Origins of the Troubles (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2005)

Edna Longley, 'Northern Ireland: Commemoration, Elegy, Forgetting', in History and Memory in Modern Ireland, edited by Ian McBride (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Kieran McEvoy, 'Making Peace with the Past: Options for Truth Recovery Regarding the Conflict in and about Northern Ireland', (Belfast: Healing Through Remembering 2005); available at http://www.healingthroughremembering.org/

John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland: Broken Images (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000)

Cillian McGrattan, Northern Ireland, 1968-2008: The Politics of Entrenchment (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea, Lost Lives: The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2004)

Simon Prince, Northern Ireland's '68: Civil Rights, Global Revolt and the Origins of the Troubles (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007)

Report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry (2010)

Report of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland (2009)


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