‘It’s a gamble’: Can an official history of British policy during the Troubles really be done?

Nine historians who have agreed to participate in an official or public history of the Troubles have been subjected to a fierce backlash

An American professor at Columbia University once observed that academic politics ‘are so bitter because the stakes are so low’

The same cannot be said for the row that has arisen from the announcement on April 25th that the UK government will commission an official history or, to give it its proper designation, a public history project on the Troubles.

The timing could hardly be less favourable coming, as it did, just a week before the Legacy Act, which is shutting down some judicial proceedings into Troubles era killings, and has succeeded in uniting all strands of opinion in Ireland, North and South, against it.

Many commentators conflated the two, stating that the history project was part of the Act, only for the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to issue a correction saying that it was not.


Nevertheless, the substantial criticism remained. Why would historians co-operate in a process with a government that has a long track record of withholding vital information to the relatives of those killed by state forces during the Troubles? Why should future historians see documentation that is being denied to the families of those who lost people in the Troubles?

The nine members of the expert advisory panel who will draw up the terms of reference and appoint the five historians to carry out the public history are Lord Paul Bew (co-chair), Dr Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid (co-chair), Prof Richard Bourke (Cambridge), Dr Edward Burke (UCD), Prof Michael Kerr (Kings College London), Prof Ian McBride (Oxford), Prof Henry Patterson (emeritus professor Ulster University), Prof Jennifer Todd (emeritus professor UCD) and Prof Helen Parr (Keele University).

They have been widely criticised for participating in the project and their past records have been traduced with one academic historian calling them “imperial lackeys and West Brit fellow travellers – the kept creatures of Empire”.

In response the historians involved have explained in a joint statement that the task of a public history is not to investigate breaches of human rights, but to explain the decision-making made by the British government, the ministry of defence and the armed forces during the conflict.

How did social and economic issues intersect with political and security matters? What was the mix of strategy, intent, and habit that led to policy outcomes at specific historical junctures?

For the historians involved, there is one critical question above all the others – will a state that has such a poor record of disclosure in relation to the Troubles provide unfettered access to all the documents?

The principal feature of the ‘official history’ series is to provide earlier access to documents that otherwise may not be released for many decades, if at all

—  Dr Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid

“It’s a gamble,” admits project co-chair and historian Lord Bew. “There is a possibility that the gamble may not be worth it and the state will hold back a lot of the stuff I think that would be embarrassing for it.”

Lord Bew said his experiences as historical adviser to the Bloody Sunday Tribunal gave him reason to believe that the British state will be more forthcoming with documents than many believe.

“I said I wouldn’t do it (Bloody Sunday Tribunal) unless stuff was opened and it was opened. Perhaps, I’m being naive, but I have a good experience of people keeping their promises. The promises of flexibility and openness to a large measure was kept.”

Lord Bew said he was persuaded to become involved in the project by comments written by Sir Joseph Pilling in 2008 in his report on how future British official histories should be conducted. “He said they should be the ‘gold standard of accountability for the British state’ and that will be my intention with this as long as I have a breath in my body.”

Co-chair Dr Nic Dháibhéid, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield, said many of the panel members are opposed to the Legacy Act. She stressed that the public history of the Troubles will not be an exercise in defending the British state’s actions during that period.

“Far from it. It represents a unique opportunity to subject the state to critical scrutiny based on full access to the historical record, and to hold it to account.”

In relation to the view frequently expressed that the British government will allow access to documents denied to relatives, she said this may change if the Labour Party, which has promised to repeal the Legacy Act, gets into power as most people expect after the next British general election.

“The principal feature of the ‘official history’ series is to provide earlier access to documents that otherwise may not be released for many decades, if at all,” she says.

“Documents made available in the past by legal disclosure rarely provide much-needed context and accountability such as relevant policy or command decisions that may have affected wider patterns and a chain of events.

“It is our hope that through this project, as with official histories in the past, more documents may be released to the state archives, and more information may make its way into the public domain.

“It should also be noted that this project is a study of British policy and policymaking, not an investigation into human rights abuses during the conflict, which should and must be addressed via legal and judicial inquiries.”

It has also been noted that none of the expert advisory panel are historians drawn from Northern Ireland’s Catholic/nationalist/republican (CNR) community and there are suggestions that historians from that background turned down a chance to participate.

“The panel are all are experienced scholars of Irish history and Irish politics, and this is fundamentally the most important qualification. I do not believe that the circumstances of an academic’s origins in Ireland – because they were born into a certain background – should outweigh their record of scholarship,” said Dr Nic Dháibhéid.

“Scholars are trained to provide critical, objective and professional analysis, and it is our intention to provide that as an advisory panel in this project. We will continue to reflect on the make-up of the panel, and consider adding to it if appropriate.”

Governments have been commissioning official histories since at least the 19th century, mostly around armed conflicts. Contrary to their title, they are not intended as “official”, and therefore government-friendly account, of events. Predominantly they were written by military men for military men and were intended to explain why governments and military commanders made the decisions they made and what lessons can be learned from it.

They also take decades to produce. The British official histories of the second World War did not finish until 1989, the official history of the Falklands War was not published until 2007, a quarter century after the war ended.

The Pilling Report suggested that such a model is outdated and that historians should present their findings as they go along.

One of the historians involved, who asked not to be named, said the option to walk away from the process will be exercised if the British do not live up to the terms of reference.

“I have no illusions about it. The timing of the announcement was not what we wanted – confusing the Legacy Act with an official history, they are of course two separate things,” they said. “But now we will push on and keep asking awkward questions and insist the terms of reference are fulfilled. It’s worth testing in my view.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times