A Quiet Voice amid the Din of Irish Politics; Marianne Elliott Is the First Liverpool Professor to Deliver the Prestigious Ford Lectures at Oxford. as Her Topic Is Irish History, There Is Much to Discuss, She Tells Peter Elson

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Byline: Peter Elson

THEY say that the problem with the Irish is that they remember too much of their history and the problem with the English is that they don't remember enough.

Either way, Irish politics are an abundantly rich field of fact, opinion, prejudice and myth for any historian.

Prof Marianne Elliott, who has devoted her academic career to the subject, has been granted the accolade of following historian AJP Taylor and others to deliver the Ford Lectures at Oxford University this month.

As the first Liverpool University professor to be so honoured, it allows her to reflect on a lifetime's work.

Prof Elliott, 56, Director and Professor of Modern History at the Institute of Irish Studies (Britain's only such faculty), has experienced the rawness of Irish history, having been brought up in a working class Roman Catholic home in West Belfast.

This has not immunised her from brickbats from either side of the religious divide. For her work in the Northern Irish peace process as a commissioner in the international Opsahl Commission (whose 1993 recommendations pre-figured the Good Friday Peace Agreement) she received an OBE. As a result she has suffered republican taunts of being called ``Empire lover''.

Asked about her reaction, she just shrugs her shoulders and says: ``Well, if that's how they feel. We had to talk to Sinn Fein. The men of violence had to come into the political process and help find ways of defusing it. ''

Brought up in a book-filled house with three siblings, her father Terry Burns (``a working class intellectual'') acted awhile with the likes of Stephen Boyd, who later co-starred with Charlton Heston in the blockbuster, Ben Hur.

Married to Liverpool University's head of geology, Prof Trevor Elliott (a Mancunian), she cannot resist a gritty metaphor about her lectures: ``I see the situation in Northern Ireland in the way that geologists view rock exposures to give clues to the past. These lectures pick up key currents and identities in Northern Ireland and how they relate to an earlier time. The importance of Catholic and Protestant faiths is their creation of quite polarised identities and the sense of the persecuted victim. ''

These become the over-blown, defining ideas of how communities regard themselves and the most strident example was when the troubles broke out.

She says: ``The troubles happened very, very suddenly.

I was a student at Queen's University, Belfast, and my father drove me out to the airport for a flight in June 1969 on a beautiful day. Returning in September, it was like driving through a war zone.

``The next stage is coming to grips with the underlying reasons for the break-out of the troubles. …