Guest writer Andrew Sanders writes for TPQ on the need to protect history research. Andrew Sanders, PhD, is a John Moore Newman Fellow in Diaspora, Conflict and Diplomacy at University College Dublin.
The Boston College Oral History project, often known as the Voices from the Grave project has revolutionised the way we think about the Northern Ireland conflict. In the first instance, it prompted the publication of Blanketmen, Richard O'Rawe's account of the 1981 hunger strike, a book that changed the way we think about one of the most significant turning points in recent British and Irish history. Some have criticised O'Rawe and claimed he has fabricated parts of the book. I personally believe him, having spoken to him and corroborated parts of his story independently.
Corroboration is the essence of good history. A historian who does not seek to corroborate might as well be writing fiction. It is the duty of the historian to gather and interpret information and present it to others in a way that can itself be interpreted by the reader.
If we are really honest with ourselves, despite our claims - usually aimed at convincing publishers to accept our work and turn it into a book that we hope will be attractively priced, but very often is not - to the contrary,we are not creating "definitive histories" of anything. It's arrogant to assume that anyone can create a definitive history. Rather, what we are really doing is adding our angle on an issue in the hope that somewhere down the line it contributes to a fuller understanding of wider, more important things. Ian Wood, my friend and mentor, talks about "adding a brick to the wall" of knowledge.
Those of us who have devoted years of our lives to understanding Northern Ireland, be it from the perspective of a Catholic who was burned out of their home in the late 1960s, a Protestant who lost a relative in an IRA bomb attack, a mother who lost her son or daughter to a British soldiers bullet, or someone in Scotland who used to watch news reports of Northern Ireland in the 1980s and wonder how these things could be going on mere miles from his doorstep before revisiting the history of the conflict as part of his undergraduate studies, are all now united in a form of loss.
We have lost, in the Boston College tapes and transcripts, a significant resource, something that was sure to offer us unique insight into exactly why certain things happened on this small patch of land in the eastern Atlantic over the course of three decades.
It has been taken from us by the actions of malevolent forces. Gerry Adams was never going to be convicted of anything on the basis of a taped conversation between an academic researcher and a former member of the Irish Republican Army. How quickly would any lawyer worth his or her salt establish in the minds of the jury that the evidence came from an unreliable source? Need we cast our minds back to the deaths of Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price and the language that was used in reference to these two people who devoted their lives to a form of Irish Republicanism that has long since been abandoned by Adams?
In a perverse way, the demise of the project actually benefits Adams, because the chances are that his political career will be long over before the evidence sees the light of day. It is true that he did spend time in police custody being questioned over his membership of the IRA, but I cannot fathom what the authorities expected to gain from this line of questioning.
Meanwhile, we lose sight of the fact that ten children had their recently widowed mother torn from them and were forcibly separated once social services learned of their mother's disappearance. The injustice cast upon the McConville children rivals that of any other who lost a loved one in the conflict, exacerbated by the continued lies on the part of the IRA about their role in Jean McConville's abduction, torture and murder and the common knowledge that a senior figure in the West Belfast IRA was responsible for them. So much rhetorical evidence points to Gerry Adams asthe IRA leader who ordered the McConville disappearance and yet it remains unproven.
When "Voices from the Grave" was published, it took the momentum of Blanketmen and opened up the operations of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA to the public. Brendan Hughes saw things and did things and knew things that rival the experiences of any other senior republican. We were told he was an alcoholic. An unreliable witness. A liar. David Ervine also featured in that book, although his tale left something to be desired; it ended with the feeling that he had withheld information. With a political party to protect, this was perfectly understandable. Ervine could not have foreseen his early passing and the impact it would have on the Progressive Unionist Party.
Aaron Edwards wrote powerfully in the News Letter on Thursday 15 May, questioning the motivations of senior republicans who demand inquiries into events of the past, but only those events that involved the security forces. Behind the hypocrisy of a leadership that can demand justice for one person and speak of "dark forces" behind the quest of another, are the ordinary people who have suffered deeply. The families of the people killed in Ballymurphy following the introduction of Internment without trial in 1971 have seen their quest for truth and justice become the cause celebre of the Sinn Fein leadership, but the use of their campaign as a tool to deflect criticism over the disappeared has been crass.
Consequently, those of us who seek inquiries into the events of the past often do so in hope rather than expectation. The cost of the Saville Inquiry was huge and the reluctance of the London government to even entertain any further reviews will undoubtedly leave hundreds without answers. Some politicians claim that these people should just move on. It is a persuasive argument: leave it all behind us and do all we can to better the future for the children of Ireland, north and south, so that they never need to endure the tragedies of the past. But it is also a persuasive argument to those of us who have never lost anyone, who have never had their brother shot dead for attending a protest march, who have never seen their small child blown up whilst shopping for a Mothers’ Day present.
At present we are all stuck in limbo. We cannot properly move on, yet we know that we cannot stay where we are. To me, there is a solution. It will not help everyone, but it might help some.
We must, together, continue to encourage academic research into Northern Ireland's past. Again, this was raised by Aaron Edwards in his News Letter opinion article. We can adopt the Historical Timeline Group of the Richard Haass proposals. Indeed, we can take it further. We can petition the government to create more PhD scholarships so that the academics of the present can train the academics of the future and further our collective understanding of why things happened there.
Sinn Fein has criticised the Boston College project for only featuring people who are now opposed to the Gerry Adams-led movement and yet it is incredibly difficult for a young researcher to actually talk to those who were in the IRA who remain loyal to Adams. Of course you can get in touch with Sinn Fein, but what is a Sinn Fein representative to say about the conflict? Increasingly, the younger members of Sinn Fein are without ties to the IRA.
The answer? We don't need to talk of amnesty, but rather collectively move past the issue of seeking convictions for killings before 1998, developing the principles of Good Friday, and encourage those involved in the conflict to open up to researchers, carefully managed by the experts in their field, to talk about their experiences, we can still salvage something for the future. We will not get Soldier F opening up and explaining why he thought that the protesters of 30 January 1972 deserved to be shot. We will not get the South Armagh IRA explaining the final moment of the life of Robert Nairac. But we might just get enough so that we can explain to someone why a person thought that planting a bomb in the place that their loved one just happened to be was something they had to do. In many cases, this is all they want.
It will not satisfy everyone, but if we continue down the path that we are headed, then the results will be disastrous for us all.
I encourage those of you reading who have a past that is tied to the conflict to make yourselves available to the PhD and MA students of Queen's University and the University of Ulster, indeed any university where someone has decided that Northern Ireland is something that merits their time and focus.
Talk to them, be as honest as you like or as honest as you can.
Alternatively, find an academic you can trust and talk to them. Ask around, some of your former comrades will be able to vouch for people.
If you really don't want to talk, please record your story. It is important. Write it down, tape it, save it on your computer. Store it with your most trusted friend. Don't tell anyone about it, hide it from subpoenas. Just make sure it exists and can be made available to people in the future.
We can continue to build understanding of the conflict that claimed 3500 lives. We can deepen our understanding of all perspectives – particularly those we are not predisposed to agree with. We will not dismiss them, rather embrace them and seek to establish the bank of knowledge about the past that we all share, in one way or another.
We have suffered a blow with the demise of the Boston College archive but it need not hinder our investigations into the past.