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There’s too much death: Prospect of an ‘official’ British history of the Troubles is hurtful to families like mine

Injustice of the Legacy Act has been compounded by the knowledge that nine historians will participate in this project, despite the trauma of families

It’s exhausting to have intergenerational trauma picked at and pawed over but, unfortunately, as with so much else involving the current Tory government, there’s always fresh insult, new spite and disproportionate cruelty. What’s novel is that nine respected fellow academics have been drawn in.

As the Northern Editor of this paper, Freya McClements, puts it in her quietly excoriating piece on Saturday May 4th, the UK’s Legacy Act was indeed “drawing a line under the past so that the full horror of what went on would never be revealed, thereby serving the interests of perpetrators – former paramilitaries as well as state actors – rather than the victims”.

The Act has been compounded by, and for many is inseparable from, the announcement of an “official” yet “independent” history project on the Troubles, which will see up to five historians selected by an expert panel to write an official history of British policy during the Troubles; the panel itself, it would appear, was selected by the UK government.

Swathes of historians have voiced misgivings about the project, in particular, the morality of historians having access to files denied to victims’ families.


In February 2022, I wrote in this paper to commemorate the centenary of the death my great-aunt Eliza O’Hanlon, who was murdered while skipping with other children in the Weaver Street bomb, an atrocity at the height of the Belfast pogrom which implicated state security forces. There was no state inquiry for Eliza, although the Coroner advised that one be held, and any papers in the family solicitor’s office from the times of the Coroner’s Inquest were collateral damage of a Provisional IRA bomb in the 1970s.

After the piece appeared, I casually mentioned to my partner the murder of my great-uncle John Lundy on my mother’s side of the family. My partner was shocked. I’d told her before that I was related through marriage to Robert McCartney, murdered in 2005 by senior IRA figures in Magennis’s bar, whose death was followed by a dignified and incredibly brave campaign by his sisters, including my aunt Donna. Robert’s killers never faced justice. While my partner had heard about Robert, she’d never heard me mention my mother’s uncle John. There’s too much death.

On November 14th, 1973, a British army sangar based in the Short Strand came under fire from the Provisional IRA, with the army claiming they did not return fire. My great-uncle John was killed crossing Moira Street in circumstances that my family have never fully understood. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the Royal Victoria Hospital from a gunshot wound to the lung.

By January 1974, two of John’s brothers were dead: Geordie (60) and Malachy (51). Their hearts had given out. In 1975, Alec died at 55 and my Granda Paddy followed at 52. All five brothers died between 1973 and 1975 with none of them reaching beyond their 60th year; their parents had lived into their late 70s. My mother believes that one bullet killed five men. John’s son Geordie never returned to Ireland, and died in Australia during the pandemic; he was hailed in their parliament as a generous and kind community worker.

The effects of Troubles-related deaths ripple through families and generations. One of the effects I’ve found, to a lesser or greater extent on both sides of my family touched by political violence in the last century, is a tendency not to ask too many questions from the past: answers haven’t typically been forthcoming. Particularly in a tight-knit area like the Short Strand, it has been sensible to let sleeping dogs lie.

That attitude has slowly changed for the better, and there has been a sense of real opportunity to heal and revisit the heaviness of the past, but precisely as that slow change and opportunity for reconciliatory healing has come about, the UK government has removed the mechanisms for doing so. The coincidence of this with a new state-commissioned official history is a lot to bear. From what I’ve seen since, there doesn’t appear to me a great desire on the part of those involved to listen to victims; the argument is cast as yet more academic squabbling. That’s a regrettable decision.

In 1977, two IRA members were convicted of John’s murder during the gun battle four years earlier, but an older relative believes John may have been killed deliberately, something I’ve pressed about in the past year. There are peculiarities to the case, including the fact that the IRA ordered and kept written confessions in a bar for years after his death. There are other whispers and rumours. The family was utterly broken by John’s murder.

In any case, while John, unlike so many other families in the North, received a semblance of justice, any opportunity to revisit the death in a fresh inquest has been closed. There is only so much they will permit us to know. As my aunt put it, “nothing changes” – which could be the North’s official motto.

The historians involved in the official history commissioned by the UK government are entitled to exercise their own ethical and professional judgment as they gain access to or facilitate access to documents entirely shut off to families. However, I am confused by the discrepancy in justifications that have appeared since, which argue simultaneously that the project might hasten release of records, and provide “an unprecedented opportunity to access otherwise closed materials which may never be released”. Which is it?

The fact of the matter is that their participation in this process in light of the Legacy Act will be felt by many families whose lives have been irreparably changed by the violence of the Troubles as unethical and re-traumatising.

Karl O’Hanlon is a poet and academic in the Department of English at Maynooth University