Mistrust dogs the UK’s plan for a history of the Troubles

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In Belfast in 1970, a battalion of British soldiers won praise from locals for trying to defuse tensions between Protestants and Catholics. Under orders to exercise restraint, they shouted repeated warnings before opening fire.

The image contrasts starkly with the Parachute Regiment’s attack on unarmed civil rights marchers on “Bloody Sunday” two years later and other atrocities committed by security forces during Northern Ireland’s three decades-long conflict.

Yet when historian Huw Bennett sought permission to cite documents referencing the battalion’s activities in Belfast in his book, Uncivil War, about the British army in the early years of the “Troubles”, he says officials either refused or gave him the runaround.

Bennett, a reader in international relations at Cardiff University, says no soldier would have been incriminated; the suppression of documents simply illustrates the army’s “aversion to external scrutiny”.

Now, however, the UK government is promising to fling open the doors of its archives to allow five academics “full” and “privileged” access to closed state files, and to let them write freely about what they find in an “independent and authoritative examination of the UK government’s policy towards Northern Ireland during the Troubles”.

The £3mn project, part of the government’s controversial strategy of seeking to draw a line under Northern Ireland’s painful past, is being billed as a “public history”. But it is fraught. The UK was no innocent bystander in the conflict and its actions then and since have left many sceptical that it will deliver anything they would recognise as truth.

The project was unveiled days before legislation took effect this month to halt inquests into Troubles-era killings, with a new body in charge of investigations. Many victims and rights groups and all political parties in the region see the Legacy Act as a calculated operation to shield former soldiers from scrutiny and prosecution.

Critics question the ethics of academics being allowed to see documents denied to families.

“The idea that five historians could uncover the truth when the government has passed a Legacy Act to actively withhold that truth is to me a total paradox,” says Feargal Cochrane, emeritus professor at the University of Kent and an expert on political violence. “I wouldn’t touch it [the project] with a barge pole.”

The UK has dumped the “official history” tag for such projects because it sounded like propaganda. An international panel of human rights experts found last month that state actors involved in atrocities, collusion and intelligence in the conflict waged by republican paramilitaries seeking to end British rule and loyalists battling for the region to remain part of the UK had enjoyed “widespread, systematic and systemic” immunity.

Ian McBride, a history professor at Oxford who is on the project’s nine-member advisory panel (none of whom are currently employed in Northern Ireland), says the criticism does not surprise him as “there are so many people who have good reasons for being unhappy with recent Conservative governments and their attitude to Northern Ireland”.

But he adds: “Any government which appoints five researchers, working for five years each, under the direction of an independent advisory panel, can’t really hope to control effectively what the outcome is.”

Marie Coleman, a history professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, fears the government could stall publication of some parts of the project on security grounds. “We do want more access to documents and a proper historical investigation of the Troubles, but this is not the route or the context,” she says.

Nor is it clear the project will help trauma-plagued victims, says Ciaran Mulholland, a senior lecturer in psychiatry at Queen’s University in Belfast, and an expert in the treatment of trauma.

Because of the litany of obstructions he has faced, Bennett is considering applying to be one of the five researchers in the hope it will yield “unprecedented” access and deliver accountability.

“It is an uncomfortable and it is a controversial history but we can’t carry on kind of hoping it will go away and the people [involved] will die and we can eventually talk about it when everyone’s dead,” he says.


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