Coming to Terms with the Past: Northern Ireland: Richard English Argues That Historians Have a Practical and Constructive Role to Play in Today's Ulster

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WHAT ROLE SHOULD HISTORIANS PERFORM in relation to the Northern Ireland Troubles? Do--indeed can--the writing and teaching of history contribute to our coming to terms with Ulster's traumatic past?

It has been a deeply and persistently troubled region. During the post-1968 period over 3,500 people have died in the conflict. Such figures demonstrate that the scale and awfulness of the Northern Ireland Troubles were limited in comparison with those of other famously violent struggles; but they also embody an enduringly--by west European standards, an appallingly--bloody historical experience.

Northern Ireland itself had been born in bloody times. The 1921 Treaty establishing the Irish Free State had recognised the realities of Ulster unionist feeling by providing for the partitioning of the island. A six-county state was thus established in the north of Ireland, its government and parliament in Belfast presiding over a majority-unionist population. Between 1921 and the 1960s this Northern Irish regime prized loyalty. Unionist leaders felt insecure in the face of a perceivedly dual threat: a hostile Irish nationalist state to the south, and a large minority of Irish nationalists within Northern Ireland itself. They consequently allowed (and at times encouraged) discrimination against the supposedly disloyal within Northern Ireland, thereby furthering the process of northern nationalist disaffection which had occasioned such action in the first place.

Political allegiance and confessional background had lastingly been interwoven in Ireland, and when 1960s civil rights enthusiasts pioneered understandable campaigns for reform in the north, the lines of division became the familiar ones of Catholic-nationalist versus Protestant-unionist. Civil disorder, inter-communal clashes, heavy-handed state response, tit-for-tat paramilitary violence--these famously produced the descent into the Northern Ireland Troubles. In 1968 nobody died as a result of political violence; in 1972 nearly 500 people did so.

After many failed initiatives during subsequent decades--and in recognition of a triangular military stalemate between Irish republicans, Ulster loyalists and the forces of the state--a peace deal was ambiguously achieved in 1998: the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement. This reflected and reinforced a new and less bloody political context in Northern Ireland. But, in post-Agreement Ulster, sectarian division remains stark. One recent opinion poll demonstrated that even Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party has more Catholic support than Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein has Protestant: the respective figures aye 1 per cent and 0 per cent.

What can the study of history contribute in such a setting? Can it help towards the creation of a more serene future half century than the one through which we have just lived?

In the post-war atmosphere many voices are now heard in arguments over how Ulster's past should be seen in the present. During the Troubles themselves, journalistic expertise was sharpened in dealing with the north's urgent and often shocking realities. History now can still be read through these frequently illuminating journalistic lenses. David McKittrick and colleagues produced in 1999 their moving Lost Lives volume, a vast and tragic tombstone of a book which detailed one by-one the deaths arising from the post-1960s Troubles. Skilled journalistic accounts have also been produced on key subjects--including figures such as Ulster Unionist David Trimble and Slim Feiner Gerry Adams. And such players have themselves contributed to historical reflection (both Trimble and Adams being among those who have addressed historical questions in print). For intelligent Northern Irish politicians understand the role that historical assessment can play in strengthening--or under mining--current ideologies and arguments. One's estimate of the fairness of 1921-72 unionist rule in Northern Ireland, or one's knowledge of the precise details of paramilitary atrocity in the post-1968 period, are likely to affect one's preparedness to accept or endorse current political stances from unionist or republican politicians. …