Mike Burke argues against the view of Ian McBride that there is no reason to trust academic historians when it comes to address the North's legacy issue. 

Ian McBride, Foster Professor of Irish History, Hertford College, Oxford, recently asked whether academic historians can be trusted to deal with the north’s bitterly divisive past. His answer is yes, the specific skills and qualities that historians bring to the study of the past are a necessary part of engaging meaningfully with Ireland’s historical legacy.[1]

My answer to McBride’s question is no, I would not be so quick or unconditional in trusting Irish historians. Gaining my trust would depend crucially on which historians are being asked to address the past; and I would be very hesitant to entrust the past to historians alone.

The vexed question of how to deal with past, and the role of historians in that process, has become especially important in the light of the legacy mechanisms of the Stormont House Agreement (SHA). Should that Agreement and its Fresh Start successor ever be delivered, historians will no doubt figure prominently in producing the historical reports on the northern conflict required by the Oral History Archive and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.[2]

Prominent academic Henry Patterson advocates an expanded role for historical advisers in SHA-based legacy institutions to help to marginalize what he sees as the republican-inspired “’dirty war/collusion’ narrative of the Troubles” (Patterson, 2018, n.p.).[3] In a development related to the legacy process, DUP leader Arlene Foster calls for the British government to take forward the construction of an “authoritative, evidence-based account” of the north’s troubling past that will conform to unionist interpretations. (Foster, 2018, n.p.). Doubtless, there will be historians ready to answer that call.

The renewed focus on legacy issues means that the past will be constantly in public view. The News Letter’s intensely partisan multi-part series on the “Legacy Scandal,” launched in August 2018, is a case in point. Widespread popular discussion of the past will bring to the foreground questions of trust in historians and their historical accounts.

For many nationalists and republicans familiar with the ongoing debate about historical revisionism in Ireland, McBride’s proposal for trusting historians can be summarily dismissed: of course, they can’t be trusted. Likewise, my initial reaction to McBride’s proposition was one of utter disbelief. I was shocked at the audacity, perhaps naiveté, of his proposal. Even to ask such a question is problematic, especially given what Brendan Bradshaw long ago called the “credibility gap between the academic historians and the general public” (Bradshaw, 1994, p. 28). Segments of the Irish populace are deeply skeptical of academic historians’ versions of history. And that skepticism is reinforced by a group of scholars, many from outside the ranks of professional history, who openly question established academic orthodoxies.

Professional historians, for their part, tend to blame popular skepticism (to the extent they recognize it) on those readers who unreasonably reject the products of mainstream Irish history. Ronan Fanning and Roy Foster, for instance, suggest that anti-revisionists are too ideologically zealous to be open to alternative interpretations of the past that affront their pieties and certainties. McBride too indicates that ideology is a main factor debilitating the work of critics of mainstream Irish history. Relatedly, so the established story goes, this group of skeptics and critics seems unable to appreciate the place of subtlety, nuance, ambiguity, complexity, discontinuity, contingency and methodological rigour in academic historians’ accounts of the Irish past. The popular (and anti-revisionist) mind is just too taken by the false reassurances of myth, memory and commemoration.[4]

In other words, for some in the academy, the gap between mainstream Irish historians and their detractors has opened up largely because of the limitations and deficiencies of history’s critics. For me, the gap exists largely because too many influential professional historians are offering a blatantly partial, tendentious and methodologically unsound reading of the past. And this flawed history is readily apparent to critical commentators and a discerning public.

I had to work hard to stifle my first impulse simply to toss McBride’s proposal into the dustbin. I think it’s necessary, in the beginning, to take McBride’s proposal seriously, even if, in the end, I’m compelled to conclude that it cannot be taken seriously. As I argue below, McBride himself undermines the case for trusting Irish historians on the topic of the north’s contemporary past.


An Indelicate Balancing Act: Jumping off the Tightrope

In many ways, McBride’s discussion of historians and the northern conflict is a welcome engagement with some fundamental questions about the process of writing history (McBride, 2017a).  He raises important points that address the tension between subjectivity and rigour in historical research.  If we acknowledge that there are many subjectivities that affect the kind of history we produce, how do we make the claim that the product of our historical research is rigorous and methodologically sound?

On the question of subjectivity, McBride notes the passing of the simplistic notion of scholarly objectivity and its replacement by something more much more complex and challenging.  He argues that the unadulterated belief in historical inquiry as a “science” that will reveal “the truth” has been shattered by postmodern assaults on accepted understandings of the very nature of the research enterprise, led in history by Hayden White.  And he suggests that historians’ personal beliefs, assumptions, experiences, ideologies and moral sensibilities are abiding influences on their historical writing.

In the face of these subjective elements, historical rigour remains a fundamental part of what historians do.  Rigour is imparted, McBride suggests, by the critical training that academic historians receive.  Historical rigour consists of, among other things: (1) confronting “uncomfortable facts”; (2) assessing “competing accounts of the same event or phenomenon” and; (3) defending such assessments “on the basis of rational, evidence-based argument” (McBride, 2017a, p. 18).

In theory, negotiating the tension between subjectivity and rigour is a continuous dilemma for many historians.  McBride likens it to “a delicate balancing act”: “As specialists in dealing with the past, they jealously protect their scholarly autonomy from political pressure, while acknowledging that the post-war notion of historical research as a science has been exploded.” McBride quotes Quentin Skinner’s vivid description of the historians’ quandary:


I admit that I am walking a tightrope. As with all tightropes, moreover, it is possible to fall off on one side or the other. It seems to me that most historians fall off on the side of worrying too little
about the point of what they are doing. I am more in danger of falling off in the direction of sacrificing historicity. If the choice is between historical impurity and moral pointlessness, then I suppose that in the end I am on the side of the impure. But I see myself fundamentally as
an historian, so that my highest aspiration is not to fall off the tightrope at all (McBride, 2017a, p. 25).[5]


The historian’s challenge of maintaining balance will be magnified when history addresses events that are vigorously and publicly contested.  Noting this difficulty, McBride nevertheless insists that: 

To recognise that professional historians are subject to conflicting pressures is not to call into question their trustworthiness, but simply to encourage a measure of realism about the social and political utility of their research. (McBride, 2017a, p. 26).

I disagree: a measure of realism suggests that the trustworthiness of some historians is in serious question.

However fine in theory, the comparison to balancing on a tightrope is not a fully accurate rendition of the practice of Irish history.  Too many historians of the contemporary north are too eager to jump off the tightrope.  They are too inclined to make partisan, one-sided arguments or engage in moral and political point-scoring, at the cost of sacrificing some core elements of historical scholarship: real engagement with anomalous facts, fair comment on alternative explanations, and reasoned evaluation of evidence.

Let’s test McBride’s sense of balance.  The short story is that it’s not very delicate; in some of his historical analysis, he badly loses his equilibrium. He makes his point by compromising historical accuracy.  Instead of directly facing uncomfortable facts, he actively avoids them.  To illustrate, I’ll take a look at his discussion of two related and highly contentious issues in northern politics: the definition of victim and Britain’s role in managing narratives of the northern conflict.

On the definition of conflict victims, McBride notes:


When the executive was unable to agree on the appointment of a victims commissioner
at the beginning of 2008, the decision was taken instead to appoint four, rather in the spirit of the d’Hondt mechanism. They were Bertha McDougal, whose husband, a reserve police officer, was shot dead by the INLA in 1981; Patricia McBride, whose brother Tony was killed in a shoot-out with the Special Air Service (SAS) near the Fermanagh border in 1984; the peace activist Brendan McAllister, director of Mediation Northern Ireland; and Mike Nesbitt, a former television newscaster who would go on to become leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. It was an admirably balanced team, representing both the shades of opinion in the region and the multifaceted nature of the conflict. But a press release describing McBride’s brother as an “IRA volunteer” who was “killed on active service” instantly alienated unionists, forcing the DUP to harden its position on “dealing with the past.” 


McBride then quotes the party’s spokesperson for victims: “There has to be some moral line that you create here, because if you don’t create that moral line what you say to future generations is that, well, actually it’s okay to go out and kill people, it’s okay to engage in criminal and terrorist activity because eventually you’ll be almost absolved of it, and you yourself are a victim”(McBride, 2017b, pp. 27 & 28).

It is glaringly unhistorical for McBride to suggest that the 2008 press release forced the DUP to harden its stance on victims or that the party created its moral line in response to the incident.  The DUP’s hardline position on victims was well-established long before the appointment of four victims commissioners in 2008.  The DUP’s outright rejection of including “terrorists” in anything—casual conversation, formal talks, government—underlies its walkout from peace negotiations and its opposition to the Good Friday Agreement.  And this general orientation towards “terrorists” informs the party’s specific approach to the definition of victim.[6]

The DUP’s 2003 policy paper, A Voice for Victims, consolidated the party’s position on the issue.  It begins by contending:


that there is a fundamental distinction between those who have suffered at the hands of terrorist gangs and those terrorists and former terrorists who contributed to the terror campaign and wrought untold suffering through the period of the Troubles.


And it notes that the party:


does not endorse the wide-ranging definition of victims given by the Human Rights Commission or expressed in the Programme for Government, as it could include terrorists within the definition of victim. (Democratic Unionist Party, 2003, pp. 4 & 6) 


The DUP repeats this unyielding conception of victim in 2005 in defending the appointment of Bertha McDougal as interim victims commissioner. (Devenport, 2005.)  In other words, the DUP’s position on victims in 2003 and 2005 is identical to the one that McBride claims the party was forced into creating in 2008.  The DUP did not need to be pushed into a hardline stance; it was already there and had been there for quite some time.

It stayed there too.  The DUP’s rigid position on victims continued well past 2008, and continues even today, suggesting that the press release on victims commissioners had nothing substantive to do with the party’s hardline policy.  The party’s exclusivist definition of victim was the basis of its opposition to the 2009 Eames-Bradley report on the past and was one major reason for the failure of the Haass talks in 2013 (Eames-Bradley report a ‘waste of time’, 2009).  In February 2016, Jeffrey Donaldson reconfirmed the DUP’s insistence that the definition of victim be changed to exclude perpetrators of violence. (Donaldson: No DUP u-turn on victim definition, 2016).  In May of that year, Arlene Foster blocked funding for legacy inquests on the basis that the voices of innocent victims of paramilitary killings were not being heard and that there was too much attention given to those killed by the state (McDonald, 2016). She reiterated in September 2018 that terrorists cannot be defined as victims, in response to the Northern Ireland Office’s consultation paper on addressing the legacy of the past, and repeated the point in March 2019, in reply to the release of funds to expedite legacy inquests (Foster, 2018; Cross & Young, 2019).

In summary, what happened in 2008 did not alter in the least the DUP’s path on the issue.  These disagreeable facts about the constancy of the DUP’s strict position on victims fatally undermine the credibility of McBride’s claim about the DUP being pushed into taking a hard position and creating a moral line. 

McBride’s discussion of Britain’s part in managing narratives of the conflict fares equally poorly.  He says that: “the external forces in London and Dublin that propelled the peace process forward have been unable or unwilling to impose an official interpretation of the causes of the conflict.”  Focusing on the role of the British state, he suggests: “One of the peculiar features of the memory wars in Northern Ireland … has been the withdrawal of the state from the battlefield”, in part because “the overriding priority of the British state has always been to insulate itself from the violence of the six counties”. As a result:


the most powerful actor in Northern Irish politics has demonstrated little interest in constructing an official narrative of the ‘war’ or trying to control the meaning of the disputed events whose anniversaries matter so much to the people of Belfast or Derry. (McBride, 2017a, pp. 1 & 3). 



McBride’s proposition is so at variance with well-established facts and so oblivious to plausible alternative propositions that it’s difficult to know where to begin challenging it.  Or if it’s even necessary to do so.  But let me quickly sketch out a response making two related points in opposition to McBride: the British state has not left the battlefield but has in fact constructed an official narrative of the war, and it has tried very hard to control the meaning of disputed events. 

Regarding the first point, many scholars have discerned an official British version of the northern conflict that consists of various aspects, including:

·       That the north is an internal British problem without imperial or colonial entanglements
·       That the gist of the problem is in the atavistic, ethno-cultural and political divisions between Catholics/Nationalist and Protestants/Unionists
·       That London is a neutral arbiter trying to effect a fair and reasonable settlement between the north’s rival tribes 
·       That the state’s main enemy is the IRA and the main cause of the war was the republican “terrorist” campaign 
·       That the British state is a normal liberal democracy upholding the rule of law against a “terrorist-criminal” onslaught.


And McBride is wrong to suggest that British interest in insulating itself from the northern conflict is incompatible with participation in the memory wars. The very construction of the British narrative was an integral part of London’s policy and ideology of containment.[7]

This British account of the northern conflict is itself highly contentious.  Some commentators forcefully defend some or all of its elements; others just as vehemently oppose them.  Both defenders and opponents of the British view try to substantiate their positions, with varying degrees of success.  At the very least, McBride should have attempted to corroborate his no-narrative position with some evidence or argument.  He doesn’t.  His position, which has little credibility on the face of it, is further undermined by his inability or unwillingness to substantiate it.[8]

On the second point, McBride seems to take the exceedingly superficial position that, because the mourning of local security forces is closed and quiet while republican commemoration is open and loud, the state has not in fact tried to control the meaning of disputed events (McBride 2017a).  Many will, rightfully, question the empirical accuracy of this comparison.  But that’s not my main point.  Where McBride goes seriously wrong is in his attempt to equate the state management of meaning with the visibility and amplitude of commemorative events.  Controlling meaning is a much broader notion than McBride admits.

Managing the meaning of contested events involves, at its core, stifling the release of information that might help to give a more complete account of those events and thereby grant validity to emerging counter-narratives that oppose official accounts (Cobain, 2016).  And here, the British state has been very active, for decades.  There are countless examples of this kind of state management and control, which have continued well beyond the signing of the GFA.  I’ll mention just a few.

The decades of delays into holding inquests into disputed deaths is largely the fault of the obstructive practices of the British state.  In his review of outstanding legacy inquests in early 2016, Lord Justice Weir voiced frustration at the constant and inordinate delays caused by the lack of resources Britain devoted to the legacy issue, suggested that a major part of the problem is that the Ministry of Defence gives such low funding priority to disclosing records to legacy inquests, challenged the government’s disinclination to do the work required by legacy requests, and questioned Britain’s commitment to fulfilling its disclosure obligations under international human rights law (Long-delayed inquests not properly resourced says judge, 2016; The Troubles: Inquests judge challenges MoD over 'resource pressures' claims’, 2016; Committee on the Administration of Justice, 2017).

London has also eroded the legal effectiveness of inquests in the north, making them much weaker than their counterparts in England or Wales.  The Committee on the Administration of Justice concluded years ago that inquests “can no longer be considered viable courts of inquiry into disputed killings” and are not “adequate mechanisms for delivering justice to the deceased or their survivors” (Committee on the Administration of Justice, 1992, p. 53).  In 2013, the Ballymurphy families pointed to the structural weaknesses of inquests as one reason for demanding that an Independent Panel be established to examine the causes, context and consequences of the British Army killings in August 1971 (Ballymurphy Independent Panel: A proposal by the bereaved families, n.d. [2013]).[9]

Derailing inquests is not the only way that the British state has intervened in the memory wars.  Various organs of the British state have repeatedly frustrated investigations into allegations of security force collusion in murder.  There was serious state resistance to the three Stevens inquiries, whose two summaries were important milestones in beginning to uncover the nature and extent of collusion, even though the full reports themselves were never published.[10]  Stevens described the fire that destroyed his incident room on the eve of the planned arrest of British agent Brian Nelson as “a deliberate act of arson” that “has never been adequately investigated”; it was “only the latest and most drastic of several attempts to get rid of us” (Stevens, 2003, para. 3.4; Stevens, 2006, p. 7).  In trying to find out how his incident room could be destroyed when it was inside a secure compound that housed the Carrickfergus headquarters of the RUC, he remarked: “In almost thirty years as a policeman, I had never found myself caught up in such an entanglement of lies and treachery” (Stevens, 2006, p. 11). A section of his 2003 summary report was entitled “Obstruction of my Enquiries,” in which he stated: “Throughout my three Enquiries I recognised that I was being obstructed. This obstruction was cultural in its nature and widespread within parts of the Army and the RUC” (Stevens, 2003, para. 3.1). In one of his several investigations into collusion, Peter Cory commented on the obstacles faced by Stevens: the “wilful concealment of pertinent evidence, and the failure to cooperate with the Stevens Inquiry” showed that RUC Special Branch and the British Army’s Force Research Unit believed “that they were not bound by the law and were above and beyond its reach.”  He concluded “that Government agencies (the Army and RUC) were prepared to participate jointly in collusive acts in order to protect their perceived interests” (Cory, 2004, para 1.270).[11] 

Other investigations of collusion were also constrained or disrupted.  The Barron report into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974 was limited by the British government’s delays in releasing information, inaccuracies in some of the information supplied and the lack of disclosure of original documents (Barron, 2003). With two exceptions, British officials refused to meet with the Independent International Panel on Alleged Collusion in Sectarian Killings in Northern Ireland or put limiting conditions on such meetings.   The PSNI did not provide any of the documents requested by the Panel (Cassel, 2006).[12]  After facing two generations of stalling tactics, families of the victims of the McGurk’s Bar bombing in 1971 have taken legal action against the Chief Constable to secure an independent investigation into the deaths that is compliant with human rights law (McCurry, 2019).

The British state continues its long-established effort to block access to information on the murder of Pat Finucane.  It broke its 2001 and 2004 commitments to hold a public inquiry into allegations of collusion when, in 2011, it appointed Desmond de Silva to carry out a non-statutory, document-based review of the murder. Geraldine Finucane denounced de Silva’s 2012 report: 



The British government has engineered a suppression of the truth behind the murder of my husband. … This report is a sham, this report is a whitewash, this report is a confidence trick dressed up as independent scrutiny and given invisible clothes of reliability. But most of all, most hurtful and insulting of all, this report is not the truth (Bowcott, 2012, n.p.).


In February 2019, the British Supreme Court declared that, despite the de Silva report (and earlier investigations), there has still not been an inquiry into the murder that complies with Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which obliges the state not to kill people, and if it does, to hold an official, effective investigation into the deaths. According to the Court, the limited powers that the British government granted to de Silva deprived him of the legal means needed to identify those persons participating in Pat Finucane’s murder (UKSC 7, 2019).[13]

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Police Ombudsman have addressed allegations of state collusion in murder. Both organizations have a decidedly mixed record on this score and were heavily compromised by internal problems. There were serious questions about their independence from police and about bias in favour of state agents in some of their reports, which contributed to the early departures of HET Director Dave Cox and Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson.[14] Even so, the security forces resisted cooperating with the organizations. The Ombudsman had to initiate legal proceedings against the PSNI in some 60 murder cases to secure, finally, the release of police intelligence files in a settlement reached in 2014 (Alleged PSNI obstruction case settled, 2014). And the PSNI itself shut down the almost-completed HET probe into overarching collusion involving the Glenanne Gang, as part of the slow transition from the HET to the PSNI-controlled Legacy Investigations Branch. In July 2017, the Belfast High Court ruled that the PSNI broke its commitment to families to publish an overarching thematic report. It also found that police breached international law by establishing inadequate legacy mechanisms, whose restricted powers, insufficient resources and lack of independence from the PSNI “frustrated any possibility that there would be an effective investigation in the Glenanne cases.”[15]

Generally, the extent of British state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and Britain’s systematic obstruction of attempts to bring the state’s role to light have been recently and extensively documented in Maurice Punch’s State Violence, Collusion and the Troubles (2012), Ann Cadwallader’s Lethal Allies (2013), and Margaret Urwin’s A State in Denial (2016).[16]

McBride ignores or otherwise discounts all these disagreeable facts and alternative accounts in his assertion that the British state has vacated the battlefield of the memory wars. Many in the nationalist community believe otherwise, that London ‘hasn’t gone away, you know.’ The families of the victims of state killings have little confidence in Britain’s ability to address the legacy of the past precisely because the state continues to battle incessantly to manage memory and manipulate history.[17] In the Fresh Start talks of fall 2015, Britain’s insistence on a “national security veto” over the disclosure of historical information, which scuttled the possibility of agreement on key legacy issues, significantly deepened nationalist and republican alienation. Recent police failings in the arrests of journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey for their work on the Loughinisland collusion documentary further eroded public trust (Morris, 2019; Murphy, 2019). As did the PSNI’s “accidental” failure to disclose a wealth of information to the Police Ombudsman, which caused a delay in reports investigating some 20 murders by loyalists, many of them involving allegations of collusion. (Young, 2019b).

One “truth about the Troubles”—in direct contrast to what McBride asserts—is that, within the British state itself, there are a thousand points of resistance to releasing information that might undermine London’s self-serving narrative of its position as a neutral, benign arbiter or might uncover the full story of any state involvement in murder. 

These shortcomings of McBride are sufficient to question the trustworthiness of his accounts that in effect mask the nature of the British state or, as discussed earlier, obscure the intransigence of the DUP. But his untrustworthiness goes much deeper, as shown by his ill-advised intervention in the debate about the work of the late historian Peter Hart.  

Leaving History Behind

If there is one work that encapsulates many of the reasons why it may be unwise generally to trust Irish historians, it is McBride’s article on “The Peter Hart Affair in Perspective: History, Ideology, and the Irish Revolution,” published recently in the Historical Journal (McBride, 2018). Here, McBride abandons entirely any pretense to scholarly rigour to malign critics of mainstream Irish history and encourage people summarily to dismiss their work. The very person who asks us unconditionally to trust historians shows us conclusively why we should not.

For McBride, the Peter Hart affair turns on the long and heated controversy over Hart’s analysis of the IRA’s unsanctioned killing of ten men and wounding of another in West Cork in April 1922, known as the Dunmanway or Bandon Valley killings. In his book The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (1998), Hart sets out his sectarian explanation for the killings, which he describes in apocalyptic terms. The killings were, Hart contends, driven by “sectarian antagonism” and “ethnic intolerance,” part of a “tribal war” against Protestants and “a final reckoning of the ancient conflict between settlers and natives.” He concludes: “Behind the killings lay a jumble of individual histories and possible motives. In the end, however, the fact of the victims’ religion is inescapable. These men were shot because they were Protestant” (Hart, 1998, pp. 288 & 83). The ensuing scrutiny of Hart’s work has left intact very little of his sectarian thesis or its associated propositions, a point not sufficiently appreciated by McBride.[18]

McBride’s dual purpose in the article is to focus on what historians argue about, with particular but not exclusive reference to the Hart debate; and to consider whether “the rigorous application of rules of evidence really allow us to discriminate between contradictory interpretations of the past”(McBride, 2018, p. 254).

My purpose is also two-fold: to show that McBride misrepresents Hart’s critics and misunderstands a key element of Hart’s argument; and to establish that McBride’s strong historiographical claim about the Peter Hart affair is insubstantial in the literal sense, i.e., it is based on nothing.

McBride accuses Hart’s critics of reductionism, that is, of paying too much attention to one chapter on the Dunmanway killings and ignoring the larger significance of Hart’s “wide-ranging monograph”. But it is McBride himself, not Hart’s opponents, who has reduced the controversy to a single chapter. He decided not to address the literature on Hart’s analysis of the Kilmichael ambush, “for reasons of space” and because “[t]he issues raised by Kilmichael are also less interesting. When I asked an Israeli postgraduate some years ago for her response to the Kilmichael controversy she shrugged and said, ‘show me a war where nobody gets shot in the back’” (McBride, 2018, p. 269 & 269n4).

Certainly, “reasons of space” can be a legitimate consideration for omitting material, especially if you don’t later lodge dubious complaints of others’ reductionism. But the reference to the postgraduate student seems entirely flippant; it’s such a frivolous rationale for excluding Kilmichael that one wonders if McBride is serious here. Apparently, the editors of the Historical Journal took this reference seriously, although it’s not apparent why.

By focusing solely on the dispute about Dunmanway, McBride undercuts an important part of the historiographical argument made by Hart’s critics. In excluding the Kilmichael debate, McBride forgoes quite a lot in that the literature on Kilmichael is every bit as voluminous as is that on Dunmanway. Crucially, ignoring the Kilmichael chapter also ignores the close methodological connection that Hart’s critics see with the chapter on Dunmanway, which reinforces their argument that Hart misused evidence and historical sources to make them conform to a pre-determined narrative. Taking both chapters together highlights that Hart’s various errors and elisions were not random but had the common effect of calling into question “the moral superiority of republican insurgents as against the British crown forces, long taken for granted in nationalist Ireland” (McBride, 2018, p. 250).[19] It is this connection between chapters, which McBride doesn’t address, that strengthens the historiographical case against Hart (Regan, 2013; Meehan, Murphy, & O’Donnell, 2008; Meehan 2014).

Generally, it’s unfair for McBride to claim that the critics miss the larger significance of Hart’s work by focusing narrowly on one chapter. They don’t; they just see a different significance than he does.[20] But it is McBride who fails to see the broader meaning of the chapter on Dunmanway (and the chapter on Kilmichael). It’s here where he misunderstands a central component of Hart’s argument in The IRA and Its Enemies.

For Hart, the events of Dunmanway and Kilmichael are representative of the revolution not only in West Cork but nationally too. He finds that “the nationalist revolution had also been a sectarian one”:

The April [Dunmanway] massacre is as unknown as the Kilmichael ambush is celebrated, yet one is as important as the other to an understanding of the Cork I.R.A. Nor can the murders be relegated to the fringes of the revolution or described as an isolated event. They were as much a part of the reality of violence as the killings at Kilmichael. The patterns of perception and victimization they reveal are of a piece with the whole revolution. These deaths can be seen as a culmination of a long process of social definition which produced both the heroes of Kilmichael and the victims of the April massacre (Hart, 1998, p. 292).

Hart, then, saw a larger significance in Dunmanway and Kilmichael, as did his critics; and it’s quite reasonable for skeptics to focus on those chapters, and their associated historiographical flaws, without being considered reductionist.[21]

Let’s turn to examining the major historiographical point of McBride’s examination of the Peter Hart affair. McBride compares the Hart case to two other heated disputes among historians: one occurred in the United States, involving David Abraham’s book The collapse of the Weimar Republic (1981); the other in Australia, over Lyndall Ryan’s The Aboriginal Tasmanians (1981, 1996). All three debates entangled historians in arguments over footnotes and the use, misuse and fabrication of evidence. McBride included the American and Australian cases to put the Hart debate in “a wider perspective”, “with the aim of understanding better the questions the Peter Hart controversy has raised” (McBride, 2018, pp. 249 & 263).


Here is McBride’s principal conclusion:

My point is … that, in all three controversies, it is difficult to believe that what is at stake is solely or even primarily a disinterested concern for academic integrity or methodological protocol. It seems that when historians fall out over footnotes there is more involved than scholarly propriety. (McBride, 2018, 268). 


The “more” that is involved seems to be the ideology of the critics.

What can we say about this conclusion, focusing as McBride does on Peter Hart? McBride makes a very bold historiographical claim. He is saying, in essence, that Hart’s critics have two concerns, methodological and ideological; but in making their case against Hart, ideology overtakes methodology. This claim is devoid of scholarly worth. Since McBride examines neither the critics’ methodological arguments against Hart nor their ideological concerns, he cannot possibly determine that ideology and not methodology is what’s predominantly at stake in the Hart debate.[22]

I’ll take a closer look at what McBride does have to say about methodology/historiography and ideology. Then I’ll review the “baseless foundations”, if I’m allowed that oxymoron, on which McBride proffers his claim. 

Niall Meehan, Brian Murphy, John Regan, Meda Ryan and the Aubane Historical Society are among the most prolific and outspoken critics of Hart’s historiography.  McBride virtually ignores the work of all these authors, with the exception of Regan, whom he calls “the most persistent of Hart’s critics within the academy” (McBride, 2018, p. 250).  Yet, when McBride critiques Regan, he doesn’t focus on Regan’s historiographical examination of Hart’s claims about Dunmanway (or Kilmichael). Instead, he looks at Regan’s criticism of the thesis that the southern Irish state was born primarily of constitutionalism and democracy, not of physical force and dictatorship.  And the substance of his critique of Regan, which is concerned with Regan’s use and understanding of two sources related to the postmodern challenge to the discipline of history, is incidental to the substance of Regan’s unfavourable comments on Hart’s The IRA and Its Enemies. In effect, McBride studiously avoids engaging directly and meaningfully with the historiographical arguments of Hart’s opponents.[23]

McBride does engage indirectly and cryptically with critics, through his citation of other authors who have provided overall appraisals of the Hart controversy.  But his analysis is muddled and confused.  He cites approvingly both David Fitzpatrick’s and Barry Keane’s verdicts on Hart (McBride, 2018, pp. 250, 250n4 & 269n65).  Delving into what these two authors say about the Hart affair reveals, however, that they disagree fundamentally on the central question of whether the skeptics have made a credible historiographical case against Hart.  Fitzpatrick, Hart’s supervisor, thinks that the critics have no case and that their arguments are “dismissible, for the most part, as the fantasies of cranks” (Fitzpatrick, 2012, n.p.).  In contrast, Keane concludes that the critics do have a case.  In responding directly to Fitzpatrick’s position, Keane says: 


Hart’s history and historiography have become such a battleground because they were so different to the traditional view of the war in Cork, were misused by others to pursue their own agendas and showed, when they were examined by the ‘cranks’, that there was a lot to be cranky about” (Keane, 2014, pp. 151-52, my emphasis).


In his book on the Dunmanway (and Ballygroman) killings, Keane argues that some parts of Hart’s analysis are substantially accurate.  Other parts are not: 


When Hart strays into speculation about motive, based on questionable use of sources, his work becomes ahistorical, and when questionable quotes are underpinned by anonymous interviews, these sections cannot be called history.
     Those who defend Hart’s history cannot deny that he was less than fair to the reader in his work.  Information which would damage his theory was omitted from the quotations he himself selected.  Why he chose to do this is a separate question.  None of the criticisms of Hart mean that everything he wrote is incorrect, but these criticisms force the reader to return to the sources to check that he accurately reports the facts.  Sometimes he does; sometimes he does not.  Sometimes it may be accidental; sometimes it cannot be anything other than deliberate.  Telling the unvarnished truth is one of the cornerstones of academic research; what, then is the reader expected to do when it comes to Hart? Ultimately, the reader will have to decide for themselves as to the value of his work (Keane, 2014, p. 152).


It seems that Hart’s footnotes provide ample reason for raising concerns about academic integrity, methodological protocol and scholarly propriety, to use McBride’s language.

Given Keane’s assessment of Hart, it’s difficult to understand McBride’s comment on Hart’s critics.  Referring to the same book I just quoted in the preceding paragraph, McBride says:  “That the Dunmanway killings have now been the subject of a thorough, scrupulously fair, even-handed book by Barry Keane has done nothing to dampen the sense of outrage animating Hart’s critics” (McBride, 2018, p. 250).  It seems to me entirely understandable that Keane’s book might reinforce or even create a sense of outrage over Hart’s historical method.  Below, I’ll try to make some sense of why McBride would make such a comment, which on the face of it is so discordant with what Keane says. 

Having established that McBride does not really engage with the methodological substance of the arguments against Hart, I’ll turn now to McBride’s discussion of ideology.  Recall his contention that the criticisms of Hart’s work have more to do with ideology than they do with methodology or historiography.

To place McBride’s analysis of ideology in context, I should mention that, in his article on Hart, he discusses the revisionist debate in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s.  If the historians’ disputes in the US and Australia provide a wider view of the Hart affair, the revisionist controversy in Ireland gives an important local perspective.

What, then, does McBride say about ideology?  In his discussion of the revisionist debate, McBride freely identifies the ideological concerns of noted anti-revisionists.  Desmond Fennell strongly defended nationalism from the revisionist assault.  Brendan Bradshaw was a “traditionalist” who countered the revisionists’ undermining of “the faith-and-fatherland approach to the past”.  He focused on the importance of national consciousness in comprehending the trauma of the Irish historical experience, which revisionists minimized.  Seamus Deane’s anti-imperialism provided the “ideological substance” of his critique of British power in Ireland (McBride, 2018, p. 259). The Field Day collective brought a northern nationalist perspective to understanding Ireland’s social and cultural history.[24]

The question is, how does this analysis of ideology relate to the Peter Hart affair? It doesn’t, at least not directly. None of the people whose ideology McBride comments on intervened in the debate about Hart’s work.  And none of the actual critics of Peter Hart has their ideology examined by McBride.  There is, then, no evidence whatsoever for McBride’s confident conclusion that the Hart affair is principally about ideology, not methodology.

To expose further the real vacuum at the heart of McBride’s argument, we need to probe the basis on which he does make his claim.  If he doesn’t examine the substance of the critics’ historiographical case against Hart, and he doesn’t examine the critics’ ideological concerns and their relative impact on the debate, what does he do?

First, McBride relies on the indirect, specious arguments of false analogy and innuendo to make his case for the importance of ideology.  He draws, for instance, an analogy between the Irish revisionist debate and the Hart controversy. For him, the arguments of both anti-revisionists and Hart’s detractors represent unwarranted and unreasonable “attempts to discredit the mainstream tradition of historical research in Ireland” (McBride, 2018, p. 254).[25]  The insinuation is that, just as anti-revisionists tended to have nationalist or republican or anti-imperialist concerns in their countering of the revisionist attack on traditional nationalist tropes, so too must Hart’s critics have the same ideological concerns in their response to Hart’s challenge to the conventional assumptions of nationalist Ireland.[26]


It’s accurate enough to say that the debate over Hart’s work can be seen as part of the larger revisionist controversy in Ireland.  The analogy does make some sense, as many analogies do. But that is not to say that all the elements in both debates are coterminous or that analogy is a substitute for an independent analysis of the Hart affair; in this sense, the analogy is false.  It’s worth reiterating that McBride uses this roundabout and in the end fallacious form of argument instead of examining directly the ideological concerns of Hart’s critics.  And he never even attempts to ascertain the impact that ideology actually had on the their case against Hart.[27]

Second, McBride’s ideological argument also seems inexplicably one-sided.  While he appears to privilege the role of ideology in the work of Hart’s critics, he sees nothing ideological in Hart’s exceedingly aggressive, determined and evidence-bending critique of nationalist/republican narratives.  Instead, McBride depicts Hart’s contribution to the storm that emerged over his work in the ideologically-innocent terms of sloppiness and “fondness for provocation” (McBride, 2018, p. 269).[28]  He offers no justification for why there should be such an asymmetry in the forces driving the two sides in the debate.

Third, McBride’s oblique methods are related to his unfortunate reliance on the flawed logic of ad hominem argument.  He deflects attention away from the historiographical substance of the critics’ case and invites readers to think instead about the personal characteristics of the critics themselves, especially their ideological concerns.  In other words, as the critics’ position in the debates is primarily determined by their ideology, not their interest in methodology, you needn’t pay too much attention to the specifics of their argument.  The author’s ideology will tell you almost everything you need to know about the character of their argument.

This spurious, personalized technique is also evident in McBride’s sardonic tone and in his overuse of derisory phrases.  He variously describes Hart’s critics as “[a]nti-Hart campaigners,” “self-appointed defenders of the factual record” and “tireless adversaries” who are animated by an unappeasable “sense of outrage” and who construct a “ferocious” polemic to house their “elaborate disagreements over Hart’s scholarship”. (McBride, 2018, pp. 254, 268, 251, 250, & 270).  This string of invectives is a particularly unpleasant form of ad hominem argument.  In effect, we’re encouraged to think that Hart’s critics are such assholes that it’s not necessary to look at what they actually say.  It’s safe to dismiss them just because they’re assholes. 

The reference to “self-appointed defenders” is a particularly gratuitous and meaningless epithet. Anyone participating in a debate on anything could be described as a self-appointed defender of this or that position.  I might, for instance, be represented as a self-appointed defender of Hart’s critics or of republican pieties.  Or I might represent McBride as a self-appointed defender of mainstream Irish history or of professional historians. The point is that these kinds of comments add nothing of substance to any debate and serve only to belittle the author at whom they’re aimed.

Fourth, McBride introduces an element of outright fabrication in his discussion of Regan’s work.  McBride believes that Regan has misunderstood Alan Munslow’s book The new history (2003), noting: “One gets the impression that Regan has hurriedly rummaged through The new history, without digesting its arguments, in search of a sentence that might lend authority to his intuitions” (McBride, 2018, p. 257).  It’s necessary to emphasize that McBride just makes up this story about Regan; he conjures it out of thin air.  He has no idea if his concocted account is accurate.  And this fiction is far from innocent: its effect is to mock Regan’s academic integrity and professional competence.  In peddling this derisive fabrication, McBride inflicts much more damage to his own “argument” than he does to that of John Regan.

McBride’s invented narrative also raises an important question for the Historical Journal: are its pages now open to authors who use unseemly conjecture masquerading as historiographical analysis to ridicule colleagues who challenge mainstream Irish history? 

To summarize McBride’s approach is to say that he fails to engage directly or meaningfully with Hart’s critics on the terms he himself established.  He doesn’t examine the historiography/methodology or ideology of Hart’s critics; nor does he try to measure the relative impact of each factor on their work.  Instead, he relies on misrepresentation, caricature, innuendo, faulty analogy, ad hominem argument, a-nod-and-a-wink and straight fabrication.

These are the methods of the huckster, not the historian.  And they leave in tatters McBride’s unequivocal historiographical conclusion that Hart’s opponents are driven mainly by ideological not methodological concerns.

Given McBride’s resort to these bogus methods, it seems hardly helpful for him to ask whether the rules of evidence really aid us in choosing between competing interpretations of historical events.  A concern with evidence remains an important part of the process of adjudicating rival claims to the “truth,” even if it’s not possible to reconstruct exactly what happened many years ago.  According to McBride, training in the critical examination of sources and in the weaving together of disparate and sometimes contradictory evidence into a credible account of the past is what recommends historians to us in the first place.  Where seemingly irreconcilable interpretations persist, readers will need to assess the overall validity and plausibility of the respective historical arguments. This involves more than just evidence, surely, but evidence remains central.[29]  

If we cannot trust historians’ encounter with the evidence, in the sense that it is manifestly partial or unreasonable or deceptive or fictional, why should we trust them at all?  Why should they be, as McBride posits, a necessary part of addressing the legacy of Ireland’s past? Are the subjectivities they bring to historical research—their personal beliefs, assumptions, experiences, ideologies and moral sensibilities—superior to the subjectivities that anyone else brings to historical judgement?  Are we to evaluate competing claims to historical accuracy on the basis of subjectivities alone?

McBride is no doubt correct in saying that we will likely hear more about the Dunmanway killings and the Kilmichael ambush.  It would be a grave disservice to the substance of any future contributions to the Hart debate if we were, following McBride’s lead, to reject prematurely the arguments of Hart’s critics as the outbursts of petulant ideologues.

As I mentioned near the beginning of my piece and in a slightly different context, McBride is reminiscent of Ronan Fanning and Roy Foster.  Let me expand on that comment now that I’ve examined McBride’s problematic claim.  McBride has in many ways dragged the debate back some 30 years, to when Fanning first denounced those commentators who questioned the increasing revisionism of mainstream Irish history.  In his presidential address to the Irish Historical Society in January 1986, Fanning argued that:

the very odium some attach to the epithet 'revisionist' betrays their ideological motivation. … Theirs are not the open minds of those genuinely engaged in the activity of historical discovery, but the closed minds of those desperately determined to preserve their ideology intact.

And he warned that: “Historians must never forget that the ideologists, and not the mythologists, are their most dangerous enemies” (Fanning, 1986, p. 143)  Similarly, in 2007, Foster haughtily dismissed the work of some historians and many cultural studies scholars as “nationalism with footnotes” (Foster, 2007, p. 436).  Like Fanning and Foster, McBride argues that ideology overrides historiography among those who criticize mainstream Irish history and, like them, he makes his claim without bearing the burden of close analysis of the critics’ case.[30]

It’s especially ironic that McBride should accentuate the role of ideology, as he had previously lamented the vigour of ideology’s appearance in historical debates:

One of the depressing features about the recent ‘history wars’ in Ireland has been the tendency to interpret the historical scholarship of several generations primarily in terms of the crude ideological function imputed to it” (McBride, 2011, p. 707).[31]

It is even more depressing, perhaps, that McBride has joined the chorus by placing such unwarranted analytical weight on clumsy ideological presuppositions.

The article “The Peter Hart Affair” is about issues of trust in historians chiefly because McBride so completely abandons credible historical methods.  But it’s also about trust because the editors of the Historical Journal decided to give scholarly sanction to his drivel.  

In Whom Shall We Trust?

Examining a few selected works by a single author is much too small a sample from which to make generalizations about trust in Irish historians as a whole; although, McBride might be considered a variant of the “crucial” or “most likely” case: if we cannot trust the historian who explicitly solicits our trust, whom can we trust?[32]  Even if we add the editors of the Historical Journal to our sample, it is still of insufficient size for generalization. 

But we know that McBride is not alone among Irish historians.  In previous posts, I’ve critiqued the historical methods of other mainstream Irish scholars, including Henry Patterson, Richard English and Liam Kennedy (Burke, 2015a, 2015b, & 2016).  We need also to question the work of such well-known academics as Paul Bew and Thomas Hennessey, who have attempted partially to resuscitate the detritus of the Widgery report on Bloody Sunday, without ever addressing the copious arguments that have comprehensively shredded its findings and methods (Bew, 2005; Hennessey, 2007).[33]  Like McBride, they show an unhealthy and unhistorical aversion to dealing with anomalous facts and alternative accounts.  At the very least, then, we need to be skeptical about the work of some highly influential mainstream scholars.

There are historians who try assiduously to stay on the tightrope and keep in balance the competing pulls of historicity and moral-political pointedness, however difficult that may prove to be in practice.  And it’s probably safe to assume that history is no better or worse than are other academic disciplines in navigating equilibrium, even if the unhistorical enthusiasm in which some mainstream professional historians have participated in the revisionist and Hart controversies is cause for concern. 

Generally, it’s unwise to place trust in one historian, one school of thought or one paradigm.  Nor is there any reason to confine trust just to the professional expert or mainstream scholar.  To understand the lingering effect of the past, we need to break free of the disciplinary arrogance of some Irish historians and move beyond the confines of professional history.[34]  A more complete rendition of the past will emerge from examining the works of diverse authors in varied sectors. Legal scholars, journalists, activists, and amateur and local historians have contributed greatly to understanding the human rights context of the contemporary northern conflict, and much else.  Sociologists and political scientists have, among other things, examined Britain’s deviations from democratic governance in the north and interrogated the benign nature of democracy itself.  Many others in many ways have added to our knowledge of the north.  They are all worth a read.

I can imagine that a discussion group made up of Paul Bew, Richard English, David Fitzpatrick, Roy Foster, Thomas Hennessey, Liam Kennedy, Ian McBride, and Henry Patterson would have some interesting insights into the history of the north.  But I can also imagine that adding Ann Cadwallader, Paddy Hillyard, Niall Meehan, John Regan, Bill Rolston, Meda Ryan, Margaret Urwin and Margaret Ward to the group would lead to a much more direct and vigorous engagement with uncomfortable facts and alternative explanations.  I’d trust the larger group.


Notes

 [1] More precisely, he says that historians are a necessary but not sufficient part.  Larger changes in northern society and allowing more space for the reconciliatory middle seem to be required too (McBride, 2017a, pp. 1, 11-12, 15-16, 18, & 26).

[2] The SHA calls for the creation of an Oral History Archive to collect people’s experiences and narratives of the northern conflict.  And it provides for academics to lead a research project “to produce a factual historical timeline and statistical analysis of the Troubles”. (Stormont House Agreement, 2014, para. 25).  The SHA also establishes the implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) to oversee archives and information collection.  The IRG will commission independent academic experts to compile a report on themes and patterns in the evidence bases of the legacy mechanisms (para. 51).

[3] This article is part of the “Legacy Scandal” series mentioned in the text.  Patterson engages in some distasteful victim-blaming.  He suggests that, as the concerned families did not accept either Saville’s conclusions on Bloody Sunday or de Silva’s findings on the Pat Finucane murder regarding the role of government policy, the families are somehow being obstinate. Another explanation of Bloody Sunday, completely ignored by Patterson but supported by a number of scholarly accounts, finds fault not with the families but with the Saville inquiry itself. Blom-Cooper (2010) and Blaazer (2015) suggest that the adversarial, individualistic approach adopted by Saville prevented him from fully ascertaining the nature or extent of high-level involvement in the disaster of Bloody Sunday.  Ó Dochartaigh (2010a, 2010b, & 2005) presents a wealth of evidence that Bloody Sunday was the result of a calculated plan hatched at a high military level to arrange a major confrontation on the streets of Derry.  McCann (2014) is directly critical of Saville’s inability to draw conclusions inculpating senior military and political decision-makers.  Regarding de Silva, the recent Supreme Court judgement, examined in the text, suggests that the Finucane family was right to be concerned about the review’s structural incapacity to approach the truth about the murder.

[4] See, for example, Foster (1984 & 1986), Fanning (1986 & 1988), and McBride (2007, 2016, 2017a, 2017b, & 2018).

[5] David Fitzpatrick (2013a, p. 143) makes a similar point, although he is more sanguine about the role of science than is McBride: “Every good history is a work of art as well as science, in which the ingenuity and judgement of the writer are applied to select the narrative of best fit, to identify relevant evidence and to arrange that evidence (both positive and negative) in order to validate the narrative. In short, art introduces an element of rhetorical distortion in historical exposition, whereas science requires that objections, counter-evidence and alternative narratives be taken into account.”

[6] See Rolston (2000) and McDowell (2007) for a discussion of the long-standing dispute over victims.

[7] Various authors discuss the elements of Britain’s narrative on the northern conflict: O’Dowd, Rolston and Tomlinson (1982), O’Dowd (1998), Rolston (1991), Rolston (1998), McGarry and O’Leary (1995), and McGovern (2016).

[8] McBride is inconsistent on the question of narrative.  He says that there is no official British position on the conflict but also that Britain saw paramilitaries as criminals, not as political prisoners (McBride, 2017a).  This view on the criminality of combatants seems to me to be a form of narrative on the nature of the northern conflict.  In addition, McBride misinterprets the meaning of the Good Friday Agreement.  I do not believe, as he does, that the prisoner release provisions of the GFA were a retreat from Britain’s position on the criminality of republican volunteers.  I think those provisions are better seen as a reluctant but necessary British compromise on the way to a settlement.  Criminality still plays an important role in the north, as many ex-combatants would attest to.  The widespread structural obstacles that ex-prisoners face daily represent a kind of “residual criminalization” (Rolston, 2011, p. 37; Shirlow, Devitt, Mackin, & Mercer, 2012, p. 16).  I should also point out that McBride is inconsistent on the issue of criminality.  In another piece (McBride, 2017b), he notes that the peace process has not resulted in ex-prisoners having their criminal records expunged, which seems to conflict with his view here that Britain has retreated from its position on criminality.

[9] This is not to say that inquests cannot be useful.  McGovern, for instance, finds that inquests confirmed links between many of the killings in Mid-Ulster in the 1980s and 1990s, which are currently part of an ongoing inquiry into collusion by the Police Ombudsman (McGovern, 2019).

[10] The Stevens 2003 summary report found that “all … elements of collusion to be present. The co-ordination, dissemination and sharing of intelligence were poor. Informants and agents were allowed to operate without effective control and to participate in terrorist crimes. Nationalists were known to be targeted but were not properly warned or protected. Crucial information was withheld from Senior Investigating Officers. Important evidence was neither exploited nor preserved” (Stevens, 2003, para 4.9).  He twice noted that collusion involved “the extreme of agents being involved in murder (paras. 1.3 & 4.7).  This conclusion is far more damning than his 1990 summary that held that “… the passing of information to paramilitaries by members of the Security Forces is restricted to a small number of individuals and is neither widespread nor institutionalised.” In responding to a query from Desmond de Silva, who was investigating the Patrick Finucane murder, Stevens admitted in October 2012 that collusion, in the form of the security forces’ leaking of documents, “was far more widespread and extensive than expressed in my initial findings” (de Silva, 2012, paras. 11.80 & 11.85).  See also McGovern (2019, pp. 51-53 & 164-65).

[11] Similarly, de Silva identified six aspects of obstruction of the Stevens I investigation (de Silva, 2012, para 24.24).

[12] The two exceptions were the Chief Constable and the Chief Commissioner of the north’s Human Rights Commission.

[13] See especially paras. 23, 35, 68, 153, 134, and 140. Article 2 and its obligations on the state are described at paras. 82 and 83. 

[14] On the HET, see Lundy (2009 & 2012) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (2013). On the Police Ombudsman’s office, see the Criminal Justice Inspection report (2011).  As a result of that report, the Police Ombudsman was for a  time suspended from conducting historical case investigations.

[15] The quotation is from a summary of the judgment prepared by the Judicial Communications Office (2017, p. 1).  See also the full text of the High Court judgement (NIQB 82, 2017, para. 202). The Court of Appeal recently ruled against the PSNI’s appeal of an order related to this judgement.  It confirmed that there was “a procedural legitimate expectation that an overarching report would be carried out by an independent police team” (Judicial Communications Office, 2019, p.1).  The newly-appointed Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, confirmed that an independent team would investigate allegations of collusion in the Glenanne Gang killings. (Young, 2019a).  The Court of Appeal also found that Article 2 of the ECHR did not apply in this case because of the passage to time: the death in question, that of Patrick Barnard, occurred 24 years prior to the commencement of the Human Rights Act (Judicial Communications Office, 2019, p. 7).

[16] Paddy Hillyard (2013) provides a brief but useful summary.  Mark McGovern’s Counterinsurgency and Collusion in Northern Ireland (2019) is the latest work on the issue, but it was written after McBride’s piece.

[17] In the HET overarching collusion case, Justice Treacy remarked that: “The unfairness here is extreme” and “has completely undermined the confidence of the families” that a satisfactory resolution of their concerns about state collusion can be reached (NIQB 82, 2017, para. 209).  Similarly, in its submission to the recent consultation on the legacy of the past, the Pat Finucane Centre noted that: “Almost all [families] stated that they have no faith in the British government’s desire to deal with the past in an honest and open way. Families have expressed their frustration at continual delays in progressing cases and an overly legalistic and adversarial approach that has become the norm, particularly following the collapse of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET)” (Pat Finucane Centre, n.d. [2018], pp. 4 & 5.).

[18]  What little McBride has to say about this issue is problematic.  He states: “None of the elaborate disagreements over Hart’s scholarship affects fundamentally his profoundly disenchanted picture of revolutionary violence as ‘an intimate war’, driven by tit-for-tat cycles, or as directed at unarmed individuals kidnapped or killed near their own homes.”  But three of the sources McBride cites on Hart are not consistent with his statement (McBride, 2018, pp. 270 & 250n4). First, Bielenberg, Borgonovo and Donnelly, Jr, (2014) found that the killings were the result of a combination of motives: revenge, killing informers, and sectarianism, which partly confirms Hart’s stance.  But they also found, in direct opposition to Hart, that the Dunmanway killings were unrepresentative of the revolution in West Cork and nationally.  I’ll say more in the text about McBride’s misunderstanding of Hart’s view of the representativeness of the West Cork killings. Second, Keane (2014) is more directly critical of Hart, finding little substance in his sectarian thesis.  Third, Howe (2014) posits a residual, unspecified element of sectarianism in the killings that is much weaker than Hart’s thesis, although Howe’s view seems to deprive “sectarianism” of any analytical power. Hart’s associated ethnic cleansing thesis, however obscurely he articulated it, has also been effectively countered, as has his soft-targets thesis. (Keane 2012a & 2012b; Fitzpatrick, 2013b; Meehan, 2014; Ó Ruairc, 2016).
            It’s difficult to know McBride’s overall opinion of Hart’s scholarship.  On the one hand, he hails The IRA and Its Enemies as “a brilliant, prize-winning monograph” that is “remarkable for its combination of quantitative as well as qualitative research”.  The book was praised “with much justice, as an instant classic.”  He also notes that: “Nobody did more to reconceptualize the Irish revolution than Peter Hart himself.”  On the other hand, McBride says that Hart’s case, like the American and Australian cases, raises “questions about the fuzzy boundary between shoddy note-taking, the selective presentation of evidence in the rhetorical art of the historian, and the deliberate invention, falsification, or suppression of the archival record.”  He suggests that: “A more detailed examination might show that the errors and unexplained absences in Peter Hart’s book are more alarming than Lyndall Ryan’s, but nothing like the rampant carelessness of David Abraham’s archival visits.” (McBride, 2018, pp. 249, 269, 271, 262n47, & 268)  I can appreciate the place of nuance, complexity and subtlety in historiographical analysis, but it seems to me McBride is displaying analytical incoherence and equivocation on Hart.  This is especially evident when contrasted with his forthright and unequivocal condemnation of Hart’s critics, which is entirely lacking in nuance, complexity and subtlety.

[19] Kilmichael is the subject of two chapters of Hart’s book, and both Kilmichael and Dunmanway are mentioned throughout.  For Kilmichael, the controversy has focused on the chapter “The Kilmichael Ambush,” for Dunmanway, on “Taking it out on the Protestants.”

[20] McBride (2018) seems inconsistent on the question of the larger significance of Hart’s work: compare pp. 249-250 and 270.

[21] McBride does see the Dunmanway chapter as “in many respects the climax of the book,” which is another reason his charge of reductionism seems unwarranted (2018, p. 249).  Again, it seems reasonable to me for critics or supporters to focus on the book’s climax.

[22] One of the most frustrating aspects of McBride’s article is the oblique even obscure nature of its principal argument.  McBride is a little coy about specifying that “more” actually means ideology and about identifying the kind of ideologies that were part of the Hart debate.  In fact, he never comes out to say directly what “more” is.  This glaring omission is enough in itself to sink his argument and is especially disappointing given the boldness of his claim about the primacy of “more”.  There are nevertheless several ways in which McBride seems to imply that, in the Irish case, “more” involves ideology and that ideology means nationalism and republicanism. Ideology is mentioned in the article’s subtitle “History, Ideology, and the Irish Revolution.”  He also notes the flourishing of “ideological and methodological disagreements” among Irish historians (McBride, 2018, p. 270).  He discusses how Peter Hart directly challenged cherished nationalist and republican assumptions (pp. 249-50).  He explains that a new, opinionated generation of Irish historians that had emerged by the 1980s was generally more likely than was it predecessor to express disdain towards, and overt hostility to, traditional nationalism and republicanism (p. 261). In his discussion of the revisionist debate in Ireland, McBride is careful to note that those who emerged to oppose the onslaught on traditional nationalism and republicanism tended to have nationalist or anti-imperialist concerns (pp. 257-260). The Australian case study that McBride uses for a comparative perspective also shows how larger political-ideological issues intrude into disputes among historians, although the content of those ideologies is different from that of the Irish case (pp. 263-68).  As the quotation cited in the text implies, McBride seems to be especially concerned with the ideological concerns of Hart’s critics. As McBride points out many times, it is the critics, after all, who claim to be standing up for “academic integrity” and “methodological protocol” and, by implication, for whom “more” is involved (p. 268). In the text, I’ll discuss again the obscure essence of McBride’s article.

[23] McBride has a brief reference to one of Hart’s most notorious omissions, in which Hart selectively quoted an official British source by excluding certain critical passages. The effect of the edited quotation was to make it appear as if the source substantiated Hart’s sectarian argument about the Dunmanway killings when in fact it conflicted with that interpretation. McBride also notes Hart’s failure to amend his view after the omission was pointed out .  As McBride says: “It is not only Hart’s tireless adversaries who have found this gloss inadequate” (McBride, 2018, p. 251).
            Several points are worth mentioning here.  McBride’s discussion is made apart from any real analysis of Hart’s critics.  He belittles those critics as “Hart’s tireless adversaries” even though they are right.  He neglects to say directly what he thinks about Hart’s elision. And, in any event, he quickly moves from this issue to examine competing views on the Dunmanway killings, which proves to be another discussion that is strangely remote from the substance of the case presented by Hart’s detractors.  It’s useful to compare McBride’s discussion of Hart’s self-serving exclusion with that of Keane, who says that this is one of Hart’s errors “that … must have been deliberate.” This exclusion raised such serious questions about Hart’s historical scholarship that it “encouraged” commentators like Brian Murphy and Niall Meehan “to re-examine Hart’s other sources.” (Keane, 2014, p. 150)  Meda Ryan’s journey involved moving from Hart’s problematic account of Kilmichael to considering his questionable view of Dunmanway.  We see here, in Hart’s dubious historical method, a plausible explanation for the tirelessness of Hart’s adversaries.

[24] McBride also mentions TW Moody and DB Quinn, two important figures in the professionalization of Irish history.  Moody’s 1978 essay on “Irish history and Irish mythology” became a focus of anti-revisionist critique.  McBride notes that Quinn was a member of the British Labour and Communist parties, and Moody was attracted to the work of RH Tawney, an influential intellectual of the Labour movement.  He also notes that: “The political positions of these scholars” was “hardly detectable in their monographs and articles between the 1930s and 1970s” (McBride, 2018, p. 260 & 261).  It seems, then, that the ideology of Moody and Quinn did not intrude on their work to the same extent as ideology affected anti-revisionist writing.  We see here traces of McBride’s asymmetrical approach to ideology, discussed further in the text.  At least, in this instance, McBride directly relates the authors’ ideology to their historical writings, although he offers no evidence to corroborate his conclusion.

[25] To see these arguments as attempts to discredit mainstream history is a vexatious way to characterize the debates.  Anti-revisionists and Hart’s skeptics might reply that they are attempting to correct serious methodological errors in the work of some mainstream Irish historians.  See the discussion in the text of McBride’s use of ad hominem argument.

[26] See also the discussion in notes 22 and 27.

[27] It’s not as if it’s difficult to establish the ideological concerns of some of Hart’s critics. Many observers have commented freely on them. Keane mentions “[t]he obvious nationalism of many of his [Hart’s] critics” (Keane, 2014, p. 151). Fitzpatrick refers to unnamed critics of Hart (and Gerard Murphy) as “apologists of contemporary republicanism” (Fitzpatrick, 2013c, n.p.).  Jackson (2014) and Bielenberg, Borgonovo and Donnelly, Jr, (2014) identify Meda Ryan with the republican tradition.  Perhaps McBride is relying on this seemingly well-established association in his flawed analysis of ideology.  What may be true of some of Hart’s critics, however, may not be true of them all.  Establishing the ideological interests of other critics of Hart, like John Regan, may not be so straightforward.  And it would be more difficult still to estimate, for all Hart’s critics, the impact of ideology relative to historiography on their contributions to the debate.

[28] See also pp. 269n65 and 268.  Keane, unlike McBride, directly raises the issue of Hart’s motives, although he sees them as “a separate question” and doesn’t discuss them (Keane, 2014, p. 152).

[29] I don’t disagree with McBride when he notes that: “The business of verifying and weighing up evidence does matter”.  But I think his contention that “the larger scale narratives . . . rarely stand or fall on the basis of the evidence” underestimates the value of evidence (McBride, 2007, pp. 208 & 209). We assess the historians who support or oppose larger scale narratives partly by their willingness to entertain uncomfortable facts and associated explanations and by their credibility in comprehending a welter of confusing historical evidence. Historical documents very rarely speak for themselves, but we evaluate the historians who do speak partly by the relationship between the words they say and the contents of the documents they cite or fail to cite.

[30] Unfortunately, McBride uses almost the exact same form of ad hominem argument as does Fanning.  McBride’s reference to “self-appointed defenders”, examined in the text, is a derivation of Fanning’s use of “self-appointed intellectual guardians” (Fanning, 1988, p.18). For the authors’ further reflections on the revisionist debate, see McBride (2007), Fanning (1988) and Foster (2008).

[31] McBride repeats this sentiment elsewhere (McBride, 2007, p. 208) In these references to ideology, McBride is critiquing what he sees as the crude ideological attacks of anti-revisionists on revisionism.  We see here again McBride’s asymmetrical, highly problematic, and unsubstantiated view of the analytical role of ideology in historical controversies: it is the primary force driving anti-revisionism; it is no force at all in revisionism. 

[32] The research design literature examines the different kinds of case studies and their utility in social explanation.  Eckstein (1975) is a classic statement; more modern discussions include Flyvbjerg (2006) and Gerring (2007).

[33] Bew (2005) questions whether Widgery was a cover up/whitewash, and totally misrepresents the report’s treatment of British soldiers and the reasons for nationalist outrage at the report’s contents.  Similarly, Hennessey (2007) concludes that the Widgery report was neither a cover up nor a whitewash but suffered from institutional bias towards state agents.  This distinction between cover up and bias rests on meaningless word games.  When institutional bias runs so deep that it permeates virtually every aspect of the report—from the narrowing of the terms of reference, through the prejudiced interpretation of conflicting testimony, to the partisan substance of the conclusions—bias becomes whitewash and cover up.  In his critique of the Widgery tribunal, Dermot Walsh finds that “the tribunal was guilty of bad faith” and “effectively suppressed much of the truth about Bloody Sunday” (Walsh, 2000, p. 155).  Walsh (1997) also shows how Widgery relied on his belief that soldiers would not fire their weapons unless fired upon first. That is, Widgery had a predetermined answer to the very allegation he was supposed to be investigating, and used it to reach conclusions favourable to soldiers that were not supported by the evidence.  Given this level of “institutional bias,” the report could not have been other than a whitewash. 
            Bew cites one of Eamonn McCann’s many pieces on Widgery and Walsh’s 2000 monograph but does not engage with their arguments.  Hennessy looks at one small part of Dash’s comprehensive critique, the rest of which he ignores (Dash, 1972).  Otherwise, the two mainstream scholars studiously disregard the well-established and well-known critical work on Widgery, including that of McMahon (1974), British Irish Rights Watch (1994), and the Irish Government (Department of the Taoiseach, 1997).  I’m not asking that Bew and Hennessey accept the arguments of Widgery’s critics, but serious scholars who deserve trust need to address them.  And if you’re going to come up with contrary conclusions, you need to refute the principal arguments of the critics, not simply ignore them.  Isn’t this what academic historians and other professional scholars are trained to do?

[34] Not surprisingly, Foster (1986, p. 3) stands out for his disdainful mocking of amateur historians and  “half-baked ‘sociologists,’” which appears to mean any sociologist on a research grant who is investigating anti-Irish racism and disagrees with Sheridan Gilley. Fanning is prominent too.  He directly responds to those, like me, “who identify with the axiom that history is too important to be left to the historians”.  For him, history is indeed too important to be “abandoned” to non-historians “who would prostitute it for political purposes” (Fanning, 1988, p. 19).  He urged historians to study contemporary Irish history, otherwise “it will fall to those with less tender intellects but with staunch political purposes to take our place” (Fanning, 1986, p. 146). Likewise, Comerford (1988) is very wary of humanist disciplines outside history and of the social sciences.  McBride engages in a kind of serial reductionism that privileges the academic discipline of history.  He tends to reduce scholar to historian, historian to professional historian, and professional historian to professional mainstream historian.  I prefer Joseph Lee’s (2000) expansive conception of historian and agree with how he ties it to the use of evidence.


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⏮ Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.

Should We Trust Irish Historians?

Mike Burke argues against the view of Ian McBride that there is no reason to trust academic historians when it comes to address the North's legacy issue. 

Ian McBride, Foster Professor of Irish History, Hertford College, Oxford, recently asked whether academic historians can be trusted to deal with the north’s bitterly divisive past. His answer is yes, the specific skills and qualities that historians bring to the study of the past are a necessary part of engaging meaningfully with Ireland’s historical legacy.[1]

My answer to McBride’s question is no, I would not be so quick or unconditional in trusting Irish historians. Gaining my trust would depend crucially on which historians are being asked to address the past; and I would be very hesitant to entrust the past to historians alone.

The vexed question of how to deal with past, and the role of historians in that process, has become especially important in the light of the legacy mechanisms of the Stormont House Agreement (SHA). Should that Agreement and its Fresh Start successor ever be delivered, historians will no doubt figure prominently in producing the historical reports on the northern conflict required by the Oral History Archive and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.[2]

Prominent academic Henry Patterson advocates an expanded role for historical advisers in SHA-based legacy institutions to help to marginalize what he sees as the republican-inspired “’dirty war/collusion’ narrative of the Troubles” (Patterson, 2018, n.p.).[3] In a development related to the legacy process, DUP leader Arlene Foster calls for the British government to take forward the construction of an “authoritative, evidence-based account” of the north’s troubling past that will conform to unionist interpretations. (Foster, 2018, n.p.). Doubtless, there will be historians ready to answer that call.

The renewed focus on legacy issues means that the past will be constantly in public view. The News Letter’s intensely partisan multi-part series on the “Legacy Scandal,” launched in August 2018, is a case in point. Widespread popular discussion of the past will bring to the foreground questions of trust in historians and their historical accounts.

For many nationalists and republicans familiar with the ongoing debate about historical revisionism in Ireland, McBride’s proposal for trusting historians can be summarily dismissed: of course, they can’t be trusted. Likewise, my initial reaction to McBride’s proposition was one of utter disbelief. I was shocked at the audacity, perhaps naiveté, of his proposal. Even to ask such a question is problematic, especially given what Brendan Bradshaw long ago called the “credibility gap between the academic historians and the general public” (Bradshaw, 1994, p. 28). Segments of the Irish populace are deeply skeptical of academic historians’ versions of history. And that skepticism is reinforced by a group of scholars, many from outside the ranks of professional history, who openly question established academic orthodoxies.

Professional historians, for their part, tend to blame popular skepticism (to the extent they recognize it) on those readers who unreasonably reject the products of mainstream Irish history. Ronan Fanning and Roy Foster, for instance, suggest that anti-revisionists are too ideologically zealous to be open to alternative interpretations of the past that affront their pieties and certainties. McBride too indicates that ideology is a main factor debilitating the work of critics of mainstream Irish history. Relatedly, so the established story goes, this group of skeptics and critics seems unable to appreciate the place of subtlety, nuance, ambiguity, complexity, discontinuity, contingency and methodological rigour in academic historians’ accounts of the Irish past. The popular (and anti-revisionist) mind is just too taken by the false reassurances of myth, memory and commemoration.[4]

In other words, for some in the academy, the gap between mainstream Irish historians and their detractors has opened up largely because of the limitations and deficiencies of history’s critics. For me, the gap exists largely because too many influential professional historians are offering a blatantly partial, tendentious and methodologically unsound reading of the past. And this flawed history is readily apparent to critical commentators and a discerning public.

I had to work hard to stifle my first impulse simply to toss McBride’s proposal into the dustbin. I think it’s necessary, in the beginning, to take McBride’s proposal seriously, even if, in the end, I’m compelled to conclude that it cannot be taken seriously. As I argue below, McBride himself undermines the case for trusting Irish historians on the topic of the north’s contemporary past.


An Indelicate Balancing Act: Jumping off the Tightrope

In many ways, McBride’s discussion of historians and the northern conflict is a welcome engagement with some fundamental questions about the process of writing history (McBride, 2017a).  He raises important points that address the tension between subjectivity and rigour in historical research.  If we acknowledge that there are many subjectivities that affect the kind of history we produce, how do we make the claim that the product of our historical research is rigorous and methodologically sound?

On the question of subjectivity, McBride notes the passing of the simplistic notion of scholarly objectivity and its replacement by something more much more complex and challenging.  He argues that the unadulterated belief in historical inquiry as a “science” that will reveal “the truth” has been shattered by postmodern assaults on accepted understandings of the very nature of the research enterprise, led in history by Hayden White.  And he suggests that historians’ personal beliefs, assumptions, experiences, ideologies and moral sensibilities are abiding influences on their historical writing.

In the face of these subjective elements, historical rigour remains a fundamental part of what historians do.  Rigour is imparted, McBride suggests, by the critical training that academic historians receive.  Historical rigour consists of, among other things: (1) confronting “uncomfortable facts”; (2) assessing “competing accounts of the same event or phenomenon” and; (3) defending such assessments “on the basis of rational, evidence-based argument” (McBride, 2017a, p. 18).

In theory, negotiating the tension between subjectivity and rigour is a continuous dilemma for many historians.  McBride likens it to “a delicate balancing act”: “As specialists in dealing with the past, they jealously protect their scholarly autonomy from political pressure, while acknowledging that the post-war notion of historical research as a science has been exploded.” McBride quotes Quentin Skinner’s vivid description of the historians’ quandary:


I admit that I am walking a tightrope. As with all tightropes, moreover, it is possible to fall off on one side or the other. It seems to me that most historians fall off on the side of worrying too little
about the point of what they are doing. I am more in danger of falling off in the direction of sacrificing historicity. If the choice is between historical impurity and moral pointlessness, then I suppose that in the end I am on the side of the impure. But I see myself fundamentally as
an historian, so that my highest aspiration is not to fall off the tightrope at all (McBride, 2017a, p. 25).[5]


The historian’s challenge of maintaining balance will be magnified when history addresses events that are vigorously and publicly contested.  Noting this difficulty, McBride nevertheless insists that: 

To recognise that professional historians are subject to conflicting pressures is not to call into question their trustworthiness, but simply to encourage a measure of realism about the social and political utility of their research. (McBride, 2017a, p. 26).

I disagree: a measure of realism suggests that the trustworthiness of some historians is in serious question.

However fine in theory, the comparison to balancing on a tightrope is not a fully accurate rendition of the practice of Irish history.  Too many historians of the contemporary north are too eager to jump off the tightrope.  They are too inclined to make partisan, one-sided arguments or engage in moral and political point-scoring, at the cost of sacrificing some core elements of historical scholarship: real engagement with anomalous facts, fair comment on alternative explanations, and reasoned evaluation of evidence.

Let’s test McBride’s sense of balance.  The short story is that it’s not very delicate; in some of his historical analysis, he badly loses his equilibrium. He makes his point by compromising historical accuracy.  Instead of directly facing uncomfortable facts, he actively avoids them.  To illustrate, I’ll take a look at his discussion of two related and highly contentious issues in northern politics: the definition of victim and Britain’s role in managing narratives of the northern conflict.

On the definition of conflict victims, McBride notes:


When the executive was unable to agree on the appointment of a victims commissioner
at the beginning of 2008, the decision was taken instead to appoint four, rather in the spirit of the d’Hondt mechanism. They were Bertha McDougal, whose husband, a reserve police officer, was shot dead by the INLA in 1981; Patricia McBride, whose brother Tony was killed in a shoot-out with the Special Air Service (SAS) near the Fermanagh border in 1984; the peace activist Brendan McAllister, director of Mediation Northern Ireland; and Mike Nesbitt, a former television newscaster who would go on to become leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. It was an admirably balanced team, representing both the shades of opinion in the region and the multifaceted nature of the conflict. But a press release describing McBride’s brother as an “IRA volunteer” who was “killed on active service” instantly alienated unionists, forcing the DUP to harden its position on “dealing with the past.” 


McBride then quotes the party’s spokesperson for victims: “There has to be some moral line that you create here, because if you don’t create that moral line what you say to future generations is that, well, actually it’s okay to go out and kill people, it’s okay to engage in criminal and terrorist activity because eventually you’ll be almost absolved of it, and you yourself are a victim”(McBride, 2017b, pp. 27 & 28).

It is glaringly unhistorical for McBride to suggest that the 2008 press release forced the DUP to harden its stance on victims or that the party created its moral line in response to the incident.  The DUP’s hardline position on victims was well-established long before the appointment of four victims commissioners in 2008.  The DUP’s outright rejection of including “terrorists” in anything—casual conversation, formal talks, government—underlies its walkout from peace negotiations and its opposition to the Good Friday Agreement.  And this general orientation towards “terrorists” informs the party’s specific approach to the definition of victim.[6]

The DUP’s 2003 policy paper, A Voice for Victims, consolidated the party’s position on the issue.  It begins by contending:


that there is a fundamental distinction between those who have suffered at the hands of terrorist gangs and those terrorists and former terrorists who contributed to the terror campaign and wrought untold suffering through the period of the Troubles.


And it notes that the party:


does not endorse the wide-ranging definition of victims given by the Human Rights Commission or expressed in the Programme for Government, as it could include terrorists within the definition of victim. (Democratic Unionist Party, 2003, pp. 4 & 6) 


The DUP repeats this unyielding conception of victim in 2005 in defending the appointment of Bertha McDougal as interim victims commissioner. (Devenport, 2005.)  In other words, the DUP’s position on victims in 2003 and 2005 is identical to the one that McBride claims the party was forced into creating in 2008.  The DUP did not need to be pushed into a hardline stance; it was already there and had been there for quite some time.

It stayed there too.  The DUP’s rigid position on victims continued well past 2008, and continues even today, suggesting that the press release on victims commissioners had nothing substantive to do with the party’s hardline policy.  The party’s exclusivist definition of victim was the basis of its opposition to the 2009 Eames-Bradley report on the past and was one major reason for the failure of the Haass talks in 2013 (Eames-Bradley report a ‘waste of time’, 2009).  In February 2016, Jeffrey Donaldson reconfirmed the DUP’s insistence that the definition of victim be changed to exclude perpetrators of violence. (Donaldson: No DUP u-turn on victim definition, 2016).  In May of that year, Arlene Foster blocked funding for legacy inquests on the basis that the voices of innocent victims of paramilitary killings were not being heard and that there was too much attention given to those killed by the state (McDonald, 2016). She reiterated in September 2018 that terrorists cannot be defined as victims, in response to the Northern Ireland Office’s consultation paper on addressing the legacy of the past, and repeated the point in March 2019, in reply to the release of funds to expedite legacy inquests (Foster, 2018; Cross & Young, 2019).

In summary, what happened in 2008 did not alter in the least the DUP’s path on the issue.  These disagreeable facts about the constancy of the DUP’s strict position on victims fatally undermine the credibility of McBride’s claim about the DUP being pushed into taking a hard position and creating a moral line. 

McBride’s discussion of Britain’s part in managing narratives of the conflict fares equally poorly.  He says that: “the external forces in London and Dublin that propelled the peace process forward have been unable or unwilling to impose an official interpretation of the causes of the conflict.”  Focusing on the role of the British state, he suggests: “One of the peculiar features of the memory wars in Northern Ireland … has been the withdrawal of the state from the battlefield”, in part because “the overriding priority of the British state has always been to insulate itself from the violence of the six counties”. As a result:


the most powerful actor in Northern Irish politics has demonstrated little interest in constructing an official narrative of the ‘war’ or trying to control the meaning of the disputed events whose anniversaries matter so much to the people of Belfast or Derry. (McBride, 2017a, pp. 1 & 3). 



McBride’s proposition is so at variance with well-established facts and so oblivious to plausible alternative propositions that it’s difficult to know where to begin challenging it.  Or if it’s even necessary to do so.  But let me quickly sketch out a response making two related points in opposition to McBride: the British state has not left the battlefield but has in fact constructed an official narrative of the war, and it has tried very hard to control the meaning of disputed events. 

Regarding the first point, many scholars have discerned an official British version of the northern conflict that consists of various aspects, including:

·       That the north is an internal British problem without imperial or colonial entanglements
·       That the gist of the problem is in the atavistic, ethno-cultural and political divisions between Catholics/Nationalist and Protestants/Unionists
·       That London is a neutral arbiter trying to effect a fair and reasonable settlement between the north’s rival tribes 
·       That the state’s main enemy is the IRA and the main cause of the war was the republican “terrorist” campaign 
·       That the British state is a normal liberal democracy upholding the rule of law against a “terrorist-criminal” onslaught.


And McBride is wrong to suggest that British interest in insulating itself from the northern conflict is incompatible with participation in the memory wars. The very construction of the British narrative was an integral part of London’s policy and ideology of containment.[7]

This British account of the northern conflict is itself highly contentious.  Some commentators forcefully defend some or all of its elements; others just as vehemently oppose them.  Both defenders and opponents of the British view try to substantiate their positions, with varying degrees of success.  At the very least, McBride should have attempted to corroborate his no-narrative position with some evidence or argument.  He doesn’t.  His position, which has little credibility on the face of it, is further undermined by his inability or unwillingness to substantiate it.[8]

On the second point, McBride seems to take the exceedingly superficial position that, because the mourning of local security forces is closed and quiet while republican commemoration is open and loud, the state has not in fact tried to control the meaning of disputed events (McBride 2017a).  Many will, rightfully, question the empirical accuracy of this comparison.  But that’s not my main point.  Where McBride goes seriously wrong is in his attempt to equate the state management of meaning with the visibility and amplitude of commemorative events.  Controlling meaning is a much broader notion than McBride admits.

Managing the meaning of contested events involves, at its core, stifling the release of information that might help to give a more complete account of those events and thereby grant validity to emerging counter-narratives that oppose official accounts (Cobain, 2016).  And here, the British state has been very active, for decades.  There are countless examples of this kind of state management and control, which have continued well beyond the signing of the GFA.  I’ll mention just a few.

The decades of delays into holding inquests into disputed deaths is largely the fault of the obstructive practices of the British state.  In his review of outstanding legacy inquests in early 2016, Lord Justice Weir voiced frustration at the constant and inordinate delays caused by the lack of resources Britain devoted to the legacy issue, suggested that a major part of the problem is that the Ministry of Defence gives such low funding priority to disclosing records to legacy inquests, challenged the government’s disinclination to do the work required by legacy requests, and questioned Britain’s commitment to fulfilling its disclosure obligations under international human rights law (Long-delayed inquests not properly resourced says judge, 2016; The Troubles: Inquests judge challenges MoD over 'resource pressures' claims’, 2016; Committee on the Administration of Justice, 2017).

London has also eroded the legal effectiveness of inquests in the north, making them much weaker than their counterparts in England or Wales.  The Committee on the Administration of Justice concluded years ago that inquests “can no longer be considered viable courts of inquiry into disputed killings” and are not “adequate mechanisms for delivering justice to the deceased or their survivors” (Committee on the Administration of Justice, 1992, p. 53).  In 2013, the Ballymurphy families pointed to the structural weaknesses of inquests as one reason for demanding that an Independent Panel be established to examine the causes, context and consequences of the British Army killings in August 1971 (Ballymurphy Independent Panel: A proposal by the bereaved families, n.d. [2013]).[9]

Derailing inquests is not the only way that the British state has intervened in the memory wars.  Various organs of the British state have repeatedly frustrated investigations into allegations of security force collusion in murder.  There was serious state resistance to the three Stevens inquiries, whose two summaries were important milestones in beginning to uncover the nature and extent of collusion, even though the full reports themselves were never published.[10]  Stevens described the fire that destroyed his incident room on the eve of the planned arrest of British agent Brian Nelson as “a deliberate act of arson” that “has never been adequately investigated”; it was “only the latest and most drastic of several attempts to get rid of us” (Stevens, 2003, para. 3.4; Stevens, 2006, p. 7).  In trying to find out how his incident room could be destroyed when it was inside a secure compound that housed the Carrickfergus headquarters of the RUC, he remarked: “In almost thirty years as a policeman, I had never found myself caught up in such an entanglement of lies and treachery” (Stevens, 2006, p. 11). A section of his 2003 summary report was entitled “Obstruction of my Enquiries,” in which he stated: “Throughout my three Enquiries I recognised that I was being obstructed. This obstruction was cultural in its nature and widespread within parts of the Army and the RUC” (Stevens, 2003, para. 3.1). In one of his several investigations into collusion, Peter Cory commented on the obstacles faced by Stevens: the “wilful concealment of pertinent evidence, and the failure to cooperate with the Stevens Inquiry” showed that RUC Special Branch and the British Army’s Force Research Unit believed “that they were not bound by the law and were above and beyond its reach.”  He concluded “that Government agencies (the Army and RUC) were prepared to participate jointly in collusive acts in order to protect their perceived interests” (Cory, 2004, para 1.270).[11] 

Other investigations of collusion were also constrained or disrupted.  The Barron report into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974 was limited by the British government’s delays in releasing information, inaccuracies in some of the information supplied and the lack of disclosure of original documents (Barron, 2003). With two exceptions, British officials refused to meet with the Independent International Panel on Alleged Collusion in Sectarian Killings in Northern Ireland or put limiting conditions on such meetings.   The PSNI did not provide any of the documents requested by the Panel (Cassel, 2006).[12]  After facing two generations of stalling tactics, families of the victims of the McGurk’s Bar bombing in 1971 have taken legal action against the Chief Constable to secure an independent investigation into the deaths that is compliant with human rights law (McCurry, 2019).

The British state continues its long-established effort to block access to information on the murder of Pat Finucane.  It broke its 2001 and 2004 commitments to hold a public inquiry into allegations of collusion when, in 2011, it appointed Desmond de Silva to carry out a non-statutory, document-based review of the murder. Geraldine Finucane denounced de Silva’s 2012 report: 



The British government has engineered a suppression of the truth behind the murder of my husband. … This report is a sham, this report is a whitewash, this report is a confidence trick dressed up as independent scrutiny and given invisible clothes of reliability. But most of all, most hurtful and insulting of all, this report is not the truth (Bowcott, 2012, n.p.).


In February 2019, the British Supreme Court declared that, despite the de Silva report (and earlier investigations), there has still not been an inquiry into the murder that complies with Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which obliges the state not to kill people, and if it does, to hold an official, effective investigation into the deaths. According to the Court, the limited powers that the British government granted to de Silva deprived him of the legal means needed to identify those persons participating in Pat Finucane’s murder (UKSC 7, 2019).[13]

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Police Ombudsman have addressed allegations of state collusion in murder. Both organizations have a decidedly mixed record on this score and were heavily compromised by internal problems. There were serious questions about their independence from police and about bias in favour of state agents in some of their reports, which contributed to the early departures of HET Director Dave Cox and Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson.[14] Even so, the security forces resisted cooperating with the organizations. The Ombudsman had to initiate legal proceedings against the PSNI in some 60 murder cases to secure, finally, the release of police intelligence files in a settlement reached in 2014 (Alleged PSNI obstruction case settled, 2014). And the PSNI itself shut down the almost-completed HET probe into overarching collusion involving the Glenanne Gang, as part of the slow transition from the HET to the PSNI-controlled Legacy Investigations Branch. In July 2017, the Belfast High Court ruled that the PSNI broke its commitment to families to publish an overarching thematic report. It also found that police breached international law by establishing inadequate legacy mechanisms, whose restricted powers, insufficient resources and lack of independence from the PSNI “frustrated any possibility that there would be an effective investigation in the Glenanne cases.”[15]

Generally, the extent of British state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and Britain’s systematic obstruction of attempts to bring the state’s role to light have been recently and extensively documented in Maurice Punch’s State Violence, Collusion and the Troubles (2012), Ann Cadwallader’s Lethal Allies (2013), and Margaret Urwin’s A State in Denial (2016).[16]

McBride ignores or otherwise discounts all these disagreeable facts and alternative accounts in his assertion that the British state has vacated the battlefield of the memory wars. Many in the nationalist community believe otherwise, that London ‘hasn’t gone away, you know.’ The families of the victims of state killings have little confidence in Britain’s ability to address the legacy of the past precisely because the state continues to battle incessantly to manage memory and manipulate history.[17] In the Fresh Start talks of fall 2015, Britain’s insistence on a “national security veto” over the disclosure of historical information, which scuttled the possibility of agreement on key legacy issues, significantly deepened nationalist and republican alienation. Recent police failings in the arrests of journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey for their work on the Loughinisland collusion documentary further eroded public trust (Morris, 2019; Murphy, 2019). As did the PSNI’s “accidental” failure to disclose a wealth of information to the Police Ombudsman, which caused a delay in reports investigating some 20 murders by loyalists, many of them involving allegations of collusion. (Young, 2019b).

One “truth about the Troubles”—in direct contrast to what McBride asserts—is that, within the British state itself, there are a thousand points of resistance to releasing information that might undermine London’s self-serving narrative of its position as a neutral, benign arbiter or might uncover the full story of any state involvement in murder. 

These shortcomings of McBride are sufficient to question the trustworthiness of his accounts that in effect mask the nature of the British state or, as discussed earlier, obscure the intransigence of the DUP. But his untrustworthiness goes much deeper, as shown by his ill-advised intervention in the debate about the work of the late historian Peter Hart.  

Leaving History Behind

If there is one work that encapsulates many of the reasons why it may be unwise generally to trust Irish historians, it is McBride’s article on “The Peter Hart Affair in Perspective: History, Ideology, and the Irish Revolution,” published recently in the Historical Journal (McBride, 2018). Here, McBride abandons entirely any pretense to scholarly rigour to malign critics of mainstream Irish history and encourage people summarily to dismiss their work. The very person who asks us unconditionally to trust historians shows us conclusively why we should not.

For McBride, the Peter Hart affair turns on the long and heated controversy over Hart’s analysis of the IRA’s unsanctioned killing of ten men and wounding of another in West Cork in April 1922, known as the Dunmanway or Bandon Valley killings. In his book The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (1998), Hart sets out his sectarian explanation for the killings, which he describes in apocalyptic terms. The killings were, Hart contends, driven by “sectarian antagonism” and “ethnic intolerance,” part of a “tribal war” against Protestants and “a final reckoning of the ancient conflict between settlers and natives.” He concludes: “Behind the killings lay a jumble of individual histories and possible motives. In the end, however, the fact of the victims’ religion is inescapable. These men were shot because they were Protestant” (Hart, 1998, pp. 288 & 83). The ensuing scrutiny of Hart’s work has left intact very little of his sectarian thesis or its associated propositions, a point not sufficiently appreciated by McBride.[18]

McBride’s dual purpose in the article is to focus on what historians argue about, with particular but not exclusive reference to the Hart debate; and to consider whether “the rigorous application of rules of evidence really allow us to discriminate between contradictory interpretations of the past”(McBride, 2018, p. 254).

My purpose is also two-fold: to show that McBride misrepresents Hart’s critics and misunderstands a key element of Hart’s argument; and to establish that McBride’s strong historiographical claim about the Peter Hart affair is insubstantial in the literal sense, i.e., it is based on nothing.

McBride accuses Hart’s critics of reductionism, that is, of paying too much attention to one chapter on the Dunmanway killings and ignoring the larger significance of Hart’s “wide-ranging monograph”. But it is McBride himself, not Hart’s opponents, who has reduced the controversy to a single chapter. He decided not to address the literature on Hart’s analysis of the Kilmichael ambush, “for reasons of space” and because “[t]he issues raised by Kilmichael are also less interesting. When I asked an Israeli postgraduate some years ago for her response to the Kilmichael controversy she shrugged and said, ‘show me a war where nobody gets shot in the back’” (McBride, 2018, p. 269 & 269n4).

Certainly, “reasons of space” can be a legitimate consideration for omitting material, especially if you don’t later lodge dubious complaints of others’ reductionism. But the reference to the postgraduate student seems entirely flippant; it’s such a frivolous rationale for excluding Kilmichael that one wonders if McBride is serious here. Apparently, the editors of the Historical Journal took this reference seriously, although it’s not apparent why.

By focusing solely on the dispute about Dunmanway, McBride undercuts an important part of the historiographical argument made by Hart’s critics. In excluding the Kilmichael debate, McBride forgoes quite a lot in that the literature on Kilmichael is every bit as voluminous as is that on Dunmanway. Crucially, ignoring the Kilmichael chapter also ignores the close methodological connection that Hart’s critics see with the chapter on Dunmanway, which reinforces their argument that Hart misused evidence and historical sources to make them conform to a pre-determined narrative. Taking both chapters together highlights that Hart’s various errors and elisions were not random but had the common effect of calling into question “the moral superiority of republican insurgents as against the British crown forces, long taken for granted in nationalist Ireland” (McBride, 2018, p. 250).[19] It is this connection between chapters, which McBride doesn’t address, that strengthens the historiographical case against Hart (Regan, 2013; Meehan, Murphy, & O’Donnell, 2008; Meehan 2014).

Generally, it’s unfair for McBride to claim that the critics miss the larger significance of Hart’s work by focusing narrowly on one chapter. They don’t; they just see a different significance than he does.[20] But it is McBride who fails to see the broader meaning of the chapter on Dunmanway (and the chapter on Kilmichael). It’s here where he misunderstands a central component of Hart’s argument in The IRA and Its Enemies.

For Hart, the events of Dunmanway and Kilmichael are representative of the revolution not only in West Cork but nationally too. He finds that “the nationalist revolution had also been a sectarian one”:

The April [Dunmanway] massacre is as unknown as the Kilmichael ambush is celebrated, yet one is as important as the other to an understanding of the Cork I.R.A. Nor can the murders be relegated to the fringes of the revolution or described as an isolated event. They were as much a part of the reality of violence as the killings at Kilmichael. The patterns of perception and victimization they reveal are of a piece with the whole revolution. These deaths can be seen as a culmination of a long process of social definition which produced both the heroes of Kilmichael and the victims of the April massacre (Hart, 1998, p. 292).

Hart, then, saw a larger significance in Dunmanway and Kilmichael, as did his critics; and it’s quite reasonable for skeptics to focus on those chapters, and their associated historiographical flaws, without being considered reductionist.[21]

Let’s turn to examining the major historiographical point of McBride’s examination of the Peter Hart affair. McBride compares the Hart case to two other heated disputes among historians: one occurred in the United States, involving David Abraham’s book The collapse of the Weimar Republic (1981); the other in Australia, over Lyndall Ryan’s The Aboriginal Tasmanians (1981, 1996). All three debates entangled historians in arguments over footnotes and the use, misuse and fabrication of evidence. McBride included the American and Australian cases to put the Hart debate in “a wider perspective”, “with the aim of understanding better the questions the Peter Hart controversy has raised” (McBride, 2018, pp. 249 & 263).


Here is McBride’s principal conclusion:

My point is … that, in all three controversies, it is difficult to believe that what is at stake is solely or even primarily a disinterested concern for academic integrity or methodological protocol. It seems that when historians fall out over footnotes there is more involved than scholarly propriety. (McBride, 2018, 268). 


The “more” that is involved seems to be the ideology of the critics.

What can we say about this conclusion, focusing as McBride does on Peter Hart? McBride makes a very bold historiographical claim. He is saying, in essence, that Hart’s critics have two concerns, methodological and ideological; but in making their case against Hart, ideology overtakes methodology. This claim is devoid of scholarly worth. Since McBride examines neither the critics’ methodological arguments against Hart nor their ideological concerns, he cannot possibly determine that ideology and not methodology is what’s predominantly at stake in the Hart debate.[22]

I’ll take a closer look at what McBride does have to say about methodology/historiography and ideology. Then I’ll review the “baseless foundations”, if I’m allowed that oxymoron, on which McBride proffers his claim. 

Niall Meehan, Brian Murphy, John Regan, Meda Ryan and the Aubane Historical Society are among the most prolific and outspoken critics of Hart’s historiography.  McBride virtually ignores the work of all these authors, with the exception of Regan, whom he calls “the most persistent of Hart’s critics within the academy” (McBride, 2018, p. 250).  Yet, when McBride critiques Regan, he doesn’t focus on Regan’s historiographical examination of Hart’s claims about Dunmanway (or Kilmichael). Instead, he looks at Regan’s criticism of the thesis that the southern Irish state was born primarily of constitutionalism and democracy, not of physical force and dictatorship.  And the substance of his critique of Regan, which is concerned with Regan’s use and understanding of two sources related to the postmodern challenge to the discipline of history, is incidental to the substance of Regan’s unfavourable comments on Hart’s The IRA and Its Enemies. In effect, McBride studiously avoids engaging directly and meaningfully with the historiographical arguments of Hart’s opponents.[23]

McBride does engage indirectly and cryptically with critics, through his citation of other authors who have provided overall appraisals of the Hart controversy.  But his analysis is muddled and confused.  He cites approvingly both David Fitzpatrick’s and Barry Keane’s verdicts on Hart (McBride, 2018, pp. 250, 250n4 & 269n65).  Delving into what these two authors say about the Hart affair reveals, however, that they disagree fundamentally on the central question of whether the skeptics have made a credible historiographical case against Hart.  Fitzpatrick, Hart’s supervisor, thinks that the critics have no case and that their arguments are “dismissible, for the most part, as the fantasies of cranks” (Fitzpatrick, 2012, n.p.).  In contrast, Keane concludes that the critics do have a case.  In responding directly to Fitzpatrick’s position, Keane says: 


Hart’s history and historiography have become such a battleground because they were so different to the traditional view of the war in Cork, were misused by others to pursue their own agendas and showed, when they were examined by the ‘cranks’, that there was a lot to be cranky about” (Keane, 2014, pp. 151-52, my emphasis).


In his book on the Dunmanway (and Ballygroman) killings, Keane argues that some parts of Hart’s analysis are substantially accurate.  Other parts are not: 


When Hart strays into speculation about motive, based on questionable use of sources, his work becomes ahistorical, and when questionable quotes are underpinned by anonymous interviews, these sections cannot be called history.
     Those who defend Hart’s history cannot deny that he was less than fair to the reader in his work.  Information which would damage his theory was omitted from the quotations he himself selected.  Why he chose to do this is a separate question.  None of the criticisms of Hart mean that everything he wrote is incorrect, but these criticisms force the reader to return to the sources to check that he accurately reports the facts.  Sometimes he does; sometimes he does not.  Sometimes it may be accidental; sometimes it cannot be anything other than deliberate.  Telling the unvarnished truth is one of the cornerstones of academic research; what, then is the reader expected to do when it comes to Hart? Ultimately, the reader will have to decide for themselves as to the value of his work (Keane, 2014, p. 152).


It seems that Hart’s footnotes provide ample reason for raising concerns about academic integrity, methodological protocol and scholarly propriety, to use McBride’s language.

Given Keane’s assessment of Hart, it’s difficult to understand McBride’s comment on Hart’s critics.  Referring to the same book I just quoted in the preceding paragraph, McBride says:  “That the Dunmanway killings have now been the subject of a thorough, scrupulously fair, even-handed book by Barry Keane has done nothing to dampen the sense of outrage animating Hart’s critics” (McBride, 2018, p. 250).  It seems to me entirely understandable that Keane’s book might reinforce or even create a sense of outrage over Hart’s historical method.  Below, I’ll try to make some sense of why McBride would make such a comment, which on the face of it is so discordant with what Keane says. 

Having established that McBride does not really engage with the methodological substance of the arguments against Hart, I’ll turn now to McBride’s discussion of ideology.  Recall his contention that the criticisms of Hart’s work have more to do with ideology than they do with methodology or historiography.

To place McBride’s analysis of ideology in context, I should mention that, in his article on Hart, he discusses the revisionist debate in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s.  If the historians’ disputes in the US and Australia provide a wider view of the Hart affair, the revisionist controversy in Ireland gives an important local perspective.

What, then, does McBride say about ideology?  In his discussion of the revisionist debate, McBride freely identifies the ideological concerns of noted anti-revisionists.  Desmond Fennell strongly defended nationalism from the revisionist assault.  Brendan Bradshaw was a “traditionalist” who countered the revisionists’ undermining of “the faith-and-fatherland approach to the past”.  He focused on the importance of national consciousness in comprehending the trauma of the Irish historical experience, which revisionists minimized.  Seamus Deane’s anti-imperialism provided the “ideological substance” of his critique of British power in Ireland (McBride, 2018, p. 259). The Field Day collective brought a northern nationalist perspective to understanding Ireland’s social and cultural history.[24]

The question is, how does this analysis of ideology relate to the Peter Hart affair? It doesn’t, at least not directly. None of the people whose ideology McBride comments on intervened in the debate about Hart’s work.  And none of the actual critics of Peter Hart has their ideology examined by McBride.  There is, then, no evidence whatsoever for McBride’s confident conclusion that the Hart affair is principally about ideology, not methodology.

To expose further the real vacuum at the heart of McBride’s argument, we need to probe the basis on which he does make his claim.  If he doesn’t examine the substance of the critics’ historiographical case against Hart, and he doesn’t examine the critics’ ideological concerns and their relative impact on the debate, what does he do?

First, McBride relies on the indirect, specious arguments of false analogy and innuendo to make his case for the importance of ideology.  He draws, for instance, an analogy between the Irish revisionist debate and the Hart controversy. For him, the arguments of both anti-revisionists and Hart’s detractors represent unwarranted and unreasonable “attempts to discredit the mainstream tradition of historical research in Ireland” (McBride, 2018, p. 254).[25]  The insinuation is that, just as anti-revisionists tended to have nationalist or republican or anti-imperialist concerns in their countering of the revisionist attack on traditional nationalist tropes, so too must Hart’s critics have the same ideological concerns in their response to Hart’s challenge to the conventional assumptions of nationalist Ireland.[26]


It’s accurate enough to say that the debate over Hart’s work can be seen as part of the larger revisionist controversy in Ireland.  The analogy does make some sense, as many analogies do. But that is not to say that all the elements in both debates are coterminous or that analogy is a substitute for an independent analysis of the Hart affair; in this sense, the analogy is false.  It’s worth reiterating that McBride uses this roundabout and in the end fallacious form of argument instead of examining directly the ideological concerns of Hart’s critics.  And he never even attempts to ascertain the impact that ideology actually had on the their case against Hart.[27]

Second, McBride’s ideological argument also seems inexplicably one-sided.  While he appears to privilege the role of ideology in the work of Hart’s critics, he sees nothing ideological in Hart’s exceedingly aggressive, determined and evidence-bending critique of nationalist/republican narratives.  Instead, McBride depicts Hart’s contribution to the storm that emerged over his work in the ideologically-innocent terms of sloppiness and “fondness for provocation” (McBride, 2018, p. 269).[28]  He offers no justification for why there should be such an asymmetry in the forces driving the two sides in the debate.

Third, McBride’s oblique methods are related to his unfortunate reliance on the flawed logic of ad hominem argument.  He deflects attention away from the historiographical substance of the critics’ case and invites readers to think instead about the personal characteristics of the critics themselves, especially their ideological concerns.  In other words, as the critics’ position in the debates is primarily determined by their ideology, not their interest in methodology, you needn’t pay too much attention to the specifics of their argument.  The author’s ideology will tell you almost everything you need to know about the character of their argument.

This spurious, personalized technique is also evident in McBride’s sardonic tone and in his overuse of derisory phrases.  He variously describes Hart’s critics as “[a]nti-Hart campaigners,” “self-appointed defenders of the factual record” and “tireless adversaries” who are animated by an unappeasable “sense of outrage” and who construct a “ferocious” polemic to house their “elaborate disagreements over Hart’s scholarship”. (McBride, 2018, pp. 254, 268, 251, 250, & 270).  This string of invectives is a particularly unpleasant form of ad hominem argument.  In effect, we’re encouraged to think that Hart’s critics are such assholes that it’s not necessary to look at what they actually say.  It’s safe to dismiss them just because they’re assholes. 

The reference to “self-appointed defenders” is a particularly gratuitous and meaningless epithet. Anyone participating in a debate on anything could be described as a self-appointed defender of this or that position.  I might, for instance, be represented as a self-appointed defender of Hart’s critics or of republican pieties.  Or I might represent McBride as a self-appointed defender of mainstream Irish history or of professional historians. The point is that these kinds of comments add nothing of substance to any debate and serve only to belittle the author at whom they’re aimed.

Fourth, McBride introduces an element of outright fabrication in his discussion of Regan’s work.  McBride believes that Regan has misunderstood Alan Munslow’s book The new history (2003), noting: “One gets the impression that Regan has hurriedly rummaged through The new history, without digesting its arguments, in search of a sentence that might lend authority to his intuitions” (McBride, 2018, p. 257).  It’s necessary to emphasize that McBride just makes up this story about Regan; he conjures it out of thin air.  He has no idea if his concocted account is accurate.  And this fiction is far from innocent: its effect is to mock Regan’s academic integrity and professional competence.  In peddling this derisive fabrication, McBride inflicts much more damage to his own “argument” than he does to that of John Regan.

McBride’s invented narrative also raises an important question for the Historical Journal: are its pages now open to authors who use unseemly conjecture masquerading as historiographical analysis to ridicule colleagues who challenge mainstream Irish history? 

To summarize McBride’s approach is to say that he fails to engage directly or meaningfully with Hart’s critics on the terms he himself established.  He doesn’t examine the historiography/methodology or ideology of Hart’s critics; nor does he try to measure the relative impact of each factor on their work.  Instead, he relies on misrepresentation, caricature, innuendo, faulty analogy, ad hominem argument, a-nod-and-a-wink and straight fabrication.

These are the methods of the huckster, not the historian.  And they leave in tatters McBride’s unequivocal historiographical conclusion that Hart’s opponents are driven mainly by ideological not methodological concerns.

Given McBride’s resort to these bogus methods, it seems hardly helpful for him to ask whether the rules of evidence really aid us in choosing between competing interpretations of historical events.  A concern with evidence remains an important part of the process of adjudicating rival claims to the “truth,” even if it’s not possible to reconstruct exactly what happened many years ago.  According to McBride, training in the critical examination of sources and in the weaving together of disparate and sometimes contradictory evidence into a credible account of the past is what recommends historians to us in the first place.  Where seemingly irreconcilable interpretations persist, readers will need to assess the overall validity and plausibility of the respective historical arguments. This involves more than just evidence, surely, but evidence remains central.[29]  

If we cannot trust historians’ encounter with the evidence, in the sense that it is manifestly partial or unreasonable or deceptive or fictional, why should we trust them at all?  Why should they be, as McBride posits, a necessary part of addressing the legacy of Ireland’s past? Are the subjectivities they bring to historical research—their personal beliefs, assumptions, experiences, ideologies and moral sensibilities—superior to the subjectivities that anyone else brings to historical judgement?  Are we to evaluate competing claims to historical accuracy on the basis of subjectivities alone?

McBride is no doubt correct in saying that we will likely hear more about the Dunmanway killings and the Kilmichael ambush.  It would be a grave disservice to the substance of any future contributions to the Hart debate if we were, following McBride’s lead, to reject prematurely the arguments of Hart’s critics as the outbursts of petulant ideologues.

As I mentioned near the beginning of my piece and in a slightly different context, McBride is reminiscent of Ronan Fanning and Roy Foster.  Let me expand on that comment now that I’ve examined McBride’s problematic claim.  McBride has in many ways dragged the debate back some 30 years, to when Fanning first denounced those commentators who questioned the increasing revisionism of mainstream Irish history.  In his presidential address to the Irish Historical Society in January 1986, Fanning argued that:

the very odium some attach to the epithet 'revisionist' betrays their ideological motivation. … Theirs are not the open minds of those genuinely engaged in the activity of historical discovery, but the closed minds of those desperately determined to preserve their ideology intact.

And he warned that: “Historians must never forget that the ideologists, and not the mythologists, are their most dangerous enemies” (Fanning, 1986, p. 143)  Similarly, in 2007, Foster haughtily dismissed the work of some historians and many cultural studies scholars as “nationalism with footnotes” (Foster, 2007, p. 436).  Like Fanning and Foster, McBride argues that ideology overrides historiography among those who criticize mainstream Irish history and, like them, he makes his claim without bearing the burden of close analysis of the critics’ case.[30]

It’s especially ironic that McBride should accentuate the role of ideology, as he had previously lamented the vigour of ideology’s appearance in historical debates:

One of the depressing features about the recent ‘history wars’ in Ireland has been the tendency to interpret the historical scholarship of several generations primarily in terms of the crude ideological function imputed to it” (McBride, 2011, p. 707).[31]

It is even more depressing, perhaps, that McBride has joined the chorus by placing such unwarranted analytical weight on clumsy ideological presuppositions.

The article “The Peter Hart Affair” is about issues of trust in historians chiefly because McBride so completely abandons credible historical methods.  But it’s also about trust because the editors of the Historical Journal decided to give scholarly sanction to his drivel.  

In Whom Shall We Trust?

Examining a few selected works by a single author is much too small a sample from which to make generalizations about trust in Irish historians as a whole; although, McBride might be considered a variant of the “crucial” or “most likely” case: if we cannot trust the historian who explicitly solicits our trust, whom can we trust?[32]  Even if we add the editors of the Historical Journal to our sample, it is still of insufficient size for generalization. 

But we know that McBride is not alone among Irish historians.  In previous posts, I’ve critiqued the historical methods of other mainstream Irish scholars, including Henry Patterson, Richard English and Liam Kennedy (Burke, 2015a, 2015b, & 2016).  We need also to question the work of such well-known academics as Paul Bew and Thomas Hennessey, who have attempted partially to resuscitate the detritus of the Widgery report on Bloody Sunday, without ever addressing the copious arguments that have comprehensively shredded its findings and methods (Bew, 2005; Hennessey, 2007).[33]  Like McBride, they show an unhealthy and unhistorical aversion to dealing with anomalous facts and alternative accounts.  At the very least, then, we need to be skeptical about the work of some highly influential mainstream scholars.

There are historians who try assiduously to stay on the tightrope and keep in balance the competing pulls of historicity and moral-political pointedness, however difficult that may prove to be in practice.  And it’s probably safe to assume that history is no better or worse than are other academic disciplines in navigating equilibrium, even if the unhistorical enthusiasm in which some mainstream professional historians have participated in the revisionist and Hart controversies is cause for concern. 

Generally, it’s unwise to place trust in one historian, one school of thought or one paradigm.  Nor is there any reason to confine trust just to the professional expert or mainstream scholar.  To understand the lingering effect of the past, we need to break free of the disciplinary arrogance of some Irish historians and move beyond the confines of professional history.[34]  A more complete rendition of the past will emerge from examining the works of diverse authors in varied sectors. Legal scholars, journalists, activists, and amateur and local historians have contributed greatly to understanding the human rights context of the contemporary northern conflict, and much else.  Sociologists and political scientists have, among other things, examined Britain’s deviations from democratic governance in the north and interrogated the benign nature of democracy itself.  Many others in many ways have added to our knowledge of the north.  They are all worth a read.

I can imagine that a discussion group made up of Paul Bew, Richard English, David Fitzpatrick, Roy Foster, Thomas Hennessey, Liam Kennedy, Ian McBride, and Henry Patterson would have some interesting insights into the history of the north.  But I can also imagine that adding Ann Cadwallader, Paddy Hillyard, Niall Meehan, John Regan, Bill Rolston, Meda Ryan, Margaret Urwin and Margaret Ward to the group would lead to a much more direct and vigorous engagement with uncomfortable facts and alternative explanations.  I’d trust the larger group.


Notes

 [1] More precisely, he says that historians are a necessary but not sufficient part.  Larger changes in northern society and allowing more space for the reconciliatory middle seem to be required too (McBride, 2017a, pp. 1, 11-12, 15-16, 18, & 26).

[2] The SHA calls for the creation of an Oral History Archive to collect people’s experiences and narratives of the northern conflict.  And it provides for academics to lead a research project “to produce a factual historical timeline and statistical analysis of the Troubles”. (Stormont House Agreement, 2014, para. 25).  The SHA also establishes the implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) to oversee archives and information collection.  The IRG will commission independent academic experts to compile a report on themes and patterns in the evidence bases of the legacy mechanisms (para. 51).

[3] This article is part of the “Legacy Scandal” series mentioned in the text.  Patterson engages in some distasteful victim-blaming.  He suggests that, as the concerned families did not accept either Saville’s conclusions on Bloody Sunday or de Silva’s findings on the Pat Finucane murder regarding the role of government policy, the families are somehow being obstinate. Another explanation of Bloody Sunday, completely ignored by Patterson but supported by a number of scholarly accounts, finds fault not with the families but with the Saville inquiry itself. Blom-Cooper (2010) and Blaazer (2015) suggest that the adversarial, individualistic approach adopted by Saville prevented him from fully ascertaining the nature or extent of high-level involvement in the disaster of Bloody Sunday.  Ó Dochartaigh (2010a, 2010b, & 2005) presents a wealth of evidence that Bloody Sunday was the result of a calculated plan hatched at a high military level to arrange a major confrontation on the streets of Derry.  McCann (2014) is directly critical of Saville’s inability to draw conclusions inculpating senior military and political decision-makers.  Regarding de Silva, the recent Supreme Court judgement, examined in the text, suggests that the Finucane family was right to be concerned about the review’s structural incapacity to approach the truth about the murder.

[4] See, for example, Foster (1984 & 1986), Fanning (1986 & 1988), and McBride (2007, 2016, 2017a, 2017b, & 2018).

[5] David Fitzpatrick (2013a, p. 143) makes a similar point, although he is more sanguine about the role of science than is McBride: “Every good history is a work of art as well as science, in which the ingenuity and judgement of the writer are applied to select the narrative of best fit, to identify relevant evidence and to arrange that evidence (both positive and negative) in order to validate the narrative. In short, art introduces an element of rhetorical distortion in historical exposition, whereas science requires that objections, counter-evidence and alternative narratives be taken into account.”

[6] See Rolston (2000) and McDowell (2007) for a discussion of the long-standing dispute over victims.

[7] Various authors discuss the elements of Britain’s narrative on the northern conflict: O’Dowd, Rolston and Tomlinson (1982), O’Dowd (1998), Rolston (1991), Rolston (1998), McGarry and O’Leary (1995), and McGovern (2016).

[8] McBride is inconsistent on the question of narrative.  He says that there is no official British position on the conflict but also that Britain saw paramilitaries as criminals, not as political prisoners (McBride, 2017a).  This view on the criminality of combatants seems to me to be a form of narrative on the nature of the northern conflict.  In addition, McBride misinterprets the meaning of the Good Friday Agreement.  I do not believe, as he does, that the prisoner release provisions of the GFA were a retreat from Britain’s position on the criminality of republican volunteers.  I think those provisions are better seen as a reluctant but necessary British compromise on the way to a settlement.  Criminality still plays an important role in the north, as many ex-combatants would attest to.  The widespread structural obstacles that ex-prisoners face daily represent a kind of “residual criminalization” (Rolston, 2011, p. 37; Shirlow, Devitt, Mackin, & Mercer, 2012, p. 16).  I should also point out that McBride is inconsistent on the issue of criminality.  In another piece (McBride, 2017b), he notes that the peace process has not resulted in ex-prisoners having their criminal records expunged, which seems to conflict with his view here that Britain has retreated from its position on criminality.

[9] This is not to say that inquests cannot be useful.  McGovern, for instance, finds that inquests confirmed links between many of the killings in Mid-Ulster in the 1980s and 1990s, which are currently part of an ongoing inquiry into collusion by the Police Ombudsman (McGovern, 2019).

[10] The Stevens 2003 summary report found that “all … elements of collusion to be present. The co-ordination, dissemination and sharing of intelligence were poor. Informants and agents were allowed to operate without effective control and to participate in terrorist crimes. Nationalists were known to be targeted but were not properly warned or protected. Crucial information was withheld from Senior Investigating Officers. Important evidence was neither exploited nor preserved” (Stevens, 2003, para 4.9).  He twice noted that collusion involved “the extreme of agents being involved in murder (paras. 1.3 & 4.7).  This conclusion is far more damning than his 1990 summary that held that “… the passing of information to paramilitaries by members of the Security Forces is restricted to a small number of individuals and is neither widespread nor institutionalised.” In responding to a query from Desmond de Silva, who was investigating the Patrick Finucane murder, Stevens admitted in October 2012 that collusion, in the form of the security forces’ leaking of documents, “was far more widespread and extensive than expressed in my initial findings” (de Silva, 2012, paras. 11.80 & 11.85).  See also McGovern (2019, pp. 51-53 & 164-65).

[11] Similarly, de Silva identified six aspects of obstruction of the Stevens I investigation (de Silva, 2012, para 24.24).

[12] The two exceptions were the Chief Constable and the Chief Commissioner of the north’s Human Rights Commission.

[13] See especially paras. 23, 35, 68, 153, 134, and 140. Article 2 and its obligations on the state are described at paras. 82 and 83. 

[14] On the HET, see Lundy (2009 & 2012) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (2013). On the Police Ombudsman’s office, see the Criminal Justice Inspection report (2011).  As a result of that report, the Police Ombudsman was for a  time suspended from conducting historical case investigations.

[15] The quotation is from a summary of the judgment prepared by the Judicial Communications Office (2017, p. 1).  See also the full text of the High Court judgement (NIQB 82, 2017, para. 202). The Court of Appeal recently ruled against the PSNI’s appeal of an order related to this judgement.  It confirmed that there was “a procedural legitimate expectation that an overarching report would be carried out by an independent police team” (Judicial Communications Office, 2019, p.1).  The newly-appointed Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, confirmed that an independent team would investigate allegations of collusion in the Glenanne Gang killings. (Young, 2019a).  The Court of Appeal also found that Article 2 of the ECHR did not apply in this case because of the passage to time: the death in question, that of Patrick Barnard, occurred 24 years prior to the commencement of the Human Rights Act (Judicial Communications Office, 2019, p. 7).

[16] Paddy Hillyard (2013) provides a brief but useful summary.  Mark McGovern’s Counterinsurgency and Collusion in Northern Ireland (2019) is the latest work on the issue, but it was written after McBride’s piece.

[17] In the HET overarching collusion case, Justice Treacy remarked that: “The unfairness here is extreme” and “has completely undermined the confidence of the families” that a satisfactory resolution of their concerns about state collusion can be reached (NIQB 82, 2017, para. 209).  Similarly, in its submission to the recent consultation on the legacy of the past, the Pat Finucane Centre noted that: “Almost all [families] stated that they have no faith in the British government’s desire to deal with the past in an honest and open way. Families have expressed their frustration at continual delays in progressing cases and an overly legalistic and adversarial approach that has become the norm, particularly following the collapse of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET)” (Pat Finucane Centre, n.d. [2018], pp. 4 & 5.).

[18]  What little McBride has to say about this issue is problematic.  He states: “None of the elaborate disagreements over Hart’s scholarship affects fundamentally his profoundly disenchanted picture of revolutionary violence as ‘an intimate war’, driven by tit-for-tat cycles, or as directed at unarmed individuals kidnapped or killed near their own homes.”  But three of the sources McBride cites on Hart are not consistent with his statement (McBride, 2018, pp. 270 & 250n4). First, Bielenberg, Borgonovo and Donnelly, Jr, (2014) found that the killings were the result of a combination of motives: revenge, killing informers, and sectarianism, which partly confirms Hart’s stance.  But they also found, in direct opposition to Hart, that the Dunmanway killings were unrepresentative of the revolution in West Cork and nationally.  I’ll say more in the text about McBride’s misunderstanding of Hart’s view of the representativeness of the West Cork killings. Second, Keane (2014) is more directly critical of Hart, finding little substance in his sectarian thesis.  Third, Howe (2014) posits a residual, unspecified element of sectarianism in the killings that is much weaker than Hart’s thesis, although Howe’s view seems to deprive “sectarianism” of any analytical power. Hart’s associated ethnic cleansing thesis, however obscurely he articulated it, has also been effectively countered, as has his soft-targets thesis. (Keane 2012a & 2012b; Fitzpatrick, 2013b; Meehan, 2014; Ó Ruairc, 2016).
            It’s difficult to know McBride’s overall opinion of Hart’s scholarship.  On the one hand, he hails The IRA and Its Enemies as “a brilliant, prize-winning monograph” that is “remarkable for its combination of quantitative as well as qualitative research”.  The book was praised “with much justice, as an instant classic.”  He also notes that: “Nobody did more to reconceptualize the Irish revolution than Peter Hart himself.”  On the other hand, McBride says that Hart’s case, like the American and Australian cases, raises “questions about the fuzzy boundary between shoddy note-taking, the selective presentation of evidence in the rhetorical art of the historian, and the deliberate invention, falsification, or suppression of the archival record.”  He suggests that: “A more detailed examination might show that the errors and unexplained absences in Peter Hart’s book are more alarming than Lyndall Ryan’s, but nothing like the rampant carelessness of David Abraham’s archival visits.” (McBride, 2018, pp. 249, 269, 271, 262n47, & 268)  I can appreciate the place of nuance, complexity and subtlety in historiographical analysis, but it seems to me McBride is displaying analytical incoherence and equivocation on Hart.  This is especially evident when contrasted with his forthright and unequivocal condemnation of Hart’s critics, which is entirely lacking in nuance, complexity and subtlety.

[19] Kilmichael is the subject of two chapters of Hart’s book, and both Kilmichael and Dunmanway are mentioned throughout.  For Kilmichael, the controversy has focused on the chapter “The Kilmichael Ambush,” for Dunmanway, on “Taking it out on the Protestants.”

[20] McBride (2018) seems inconsistent on the question of the larger significance of Hart’s work: compare pp. 249-250 and 270.

[21] McBride does see the Dunmanway chapter as “in many respects the climax of the book,” which is another reason his charge of reductionism seems unwarranted (2018, p. 249).  Again, it seems reasonable to me for critics or supporters to focus on the book’s climax.

[22] One of the most frustrating aspects of McBride’s article is the oblique even obscure nature of its principal argument.  McBride is a little coy about specifying that “more” actually means ideology and about identifying the kind of ideologies that were part of the Hart debate.  In fact, he never comes out to say directly what “more” is.  This glaring omission is enough in itself to sink his argument and is especially disappointing given the boldness of his claim about the primacy of “more”.  There are nevertheless several ways in which McBride seems to imply that, in the Irish case, “more” involves ideology and that ideology means nationalism and republicanism. Ideology is mentioned in the article’s subtitle “History, Ideology, and the Irish Revolution.”  He also notes the flourishing of “ideological and methodological disagreements” among Irish historians (McBride, 2018, p. 270).  He discusses how Peter Hart directly challenged cherished nationalist and republican assumptions (pp. 249-50).  He explains that a new, opinionated generation of Irish historians that had emerged by the 1980s was generally more likely than was it predecessor to express disdain towards, and overt hostility to, traditional nationalism and republicanism (p. 261). In his discussion of the revisionist debate in Ireland, McBride is careful to note that those who emerged to oppose the onslaught on traditional nationalism and republicanism tended to have nationalist or anti-imperialist concerns (pp. 257-260). The Australian case study that McBride uses for a comparative perspective also shows how larger political-ideological issues intrude into disputes among historians, although the content of those ideologies is different from that of the Irish case (pp. 263-68).  As the quotation cited in the text implies, McBride seems to be especially concerned with the ideological concerns of Hart’s critics. As McBride points out many times, it is the critics, after all, who claim to be standing up for “academic integrity” and “methodological protocol” and, by implication, for whom “more” is involved (p. 268). In the text, I’ll discuss again the obscure essence of McBride’s article.

[23] McBride has a brief reference to one of Hart’s most notorious omissions, in which Hart selectively quoted an official British source by excluding certain critical passages. The effect of the edited quotation was to make it appear as if the source substantiated Hart’s sectarian argument about the Dunmanway killings when in fact it conflicted with that interpretation. McBride also notes Hart’s failure to amend his view after the omission was pointed out .  As McBride says: “It is not only Hart’s tireless adversaries who have found this gloss inadequate” (McBride, 2018, p. 251).
            Several points are worth mentioning here.  McBride’s discussion is made apart from any real analysis of Hart’s critics.  He belittles those critics as “Hart’s tireless adversaries” even though they are right.  He neglects to say directly what he thinks about Hart’s elision. And, in any event, he quickly moves from this issue to examine competing views on the Dunmanway killings, which proves to be another discussion that is strangely remote from the substance of the case presented by Hart’s detractors.  It’s useful to compare McBride’s discussion of Hart’s self-serving exclusion with that of Keane, who says that this is one of Hart’s errors “that … must have been deliberate.” This exclusion raised such serious questions about Hart’s historical scholarship that it “encouraged” commentators like Brian Murphy and Niall Meehan “to re-examine Hart’s other sources.” (Keane, 2014, p. 150)  Meda Ryan’s journey involved moving from Hart’s problematic account of Kilmichael to considering his questionable view of Dunmanway.  We see here, in Hart’s dubious historical method, a plausible explanation for the tirelessness of Hart’s adversaries.

[24] McBride also mentions TW Moody and DB Quinn, two important figures in the professionalization of Irish history.  Moody’s 1978 essay on “Irish history and Irish mythology” became a focus of anti-revisionist critique.  McBride notes that Quinn was a member of the British Labour and Communist parties, and Moody was attracted to the work of RH Tawney, an influential intellectual of the Labour movement.  He also notes that: “The political positions of these scholars” was “hardly detectable in their monographs and articles between the 1930s and 1970s” (McBride, 2018, p. 260 & 261).  It seems, then, that the ideology of Moody and Quinn did not intrude on their work to the same extent as ideology affected anti-revisionist writing.  We see here traces of McBride’s asymmetrical approach to ideology, discussed further in the text.  At least, in this instance, McBride directly relates the authors’ ideology to their historical writings, although he offers no evidence to corroborate his conclusion.

[25] To see these arguments as attempts to discredit mainstream history is a vexatious way to characterize the debates.  Anti-revisionists and Hart’s skeptics might reply that they are attempting to correct serious methodological errors in the work of some mainstream Irish historians.  See the discussion in the text of McBride’s use of ad hominem argument.

[26] See also the discussion in notes 22 and 27.

[27] It’s not as if it’s difficult to establish the ideological concerns of some of Hart’s critics. Many observers have commented freely on them. Keane mentions “[t]he obvious nationalism of many of his [Hart’s] critics” (Keane, 2014, p. 151). Fitzpatrick refers to unnamed critics of Hart (and Gerard Murphy) as “apologists of contemporary republicanism” (Fitzpatrick, 2013c, n.p.).  Jackson (2014) and Bielenberg, Borgonovo and Donnelly, Jr, (2014) identify Meda Ryan with the republican tradition.  Perhaps McBride is relying on this seemingly well-established association in his flawed analysis of ideology.  What may be true of some of Hart’s critics, however, may not be true of them all.  Establishing the ideological interests of other critics of Hart, like John Regan, may not be so straightforward.  And it would be more difficult still to estimate, for all Hart’s critics, the impact of ideology relative to historiography on their contributions to the debate.

[28] See also pp. 269n65 and 268.  Keane, unlike McBride, directly raises the issue of Hart’s motives, although he sees them as “a separate question” and doesn’t discuss them (Keane, 2014, p. 152).

[29] I don’t disagree with McBride when he notes that: “The business of verifying and weighing up evidence does matter”.  But I think his contention that “the larger scale narratives . . . rarely stand or fall on the basis of the evidence” underestimates the value of evidence (McBride, 2007, pp. 208 & 209). We assess the historians who support or oppose larger scale narratives partly by their willingness to entertain uncomfortable facts and associated explanations and by their credibility in comprehending a welter of confusing historical evidence. Historical documents very rarely speak for themselves, but we evaluate the historians who do speak partly by the relationship between the words they say and the contents of the documents they cite or fail to cite.

[30] Unfortunately, McBride uses almost the exact same form of ad hominem argument as does Fanning.  McBride’s reference to “self-appointed defenders”, examined in the text, is a derivation of Fanning’s use of “self-appointed intellectual guardians” (Fanning, 1988, p.18). For the authors’ further reflections on the revisionist debate, see McBride (2007), Fanning (1988) and Foster (2008).

[31] McBride repeats this sentiment elsewhere (McBride, 2007, p. 208) In these references to ideology, McBride is critiquing what he sees as the crude ideological attacks of anti-revisionists on revisionism.  We see here again McBride’s asymmetrical, highly problematic, and unsubstantiated view of the analytical role of ideology in historical controversies: it is the primary force driving anti-revisionism; it is no force at all in revisionism. 

[32] The research design literature examines the different kinds of case studies and their utility in social explanation.  Eckstein (1975) is a classic statement; more modern discussions include Flyvbjerg (2006) and Gerring (2007).

[33] Bew (2005) questions whether Widgery was a cover up/whitewash, and totally misrepresents the report’s treatment of British soldiers and the reasons for nationalist outrage at the report’s contents.  Similarly, Hennessey (2007) concludes that the Widgery report was neither a cover up nor a whitewash but suffered from institutional bias towards state agents.  This distinction between cover up and bias rests on meaningless word games.  When institutional bias runs so deep that it permeates virtually every aspect of the report—from the narrowing of the terms of reference, through the prejudiced interpretation of conflicting testimony, to the partisan substance of the conclusions—bias becomes whitewash and cover up.  In his critique of the Widgery tribunal, Dermot Walsh finds that “the tribunal was guilty of bad faith” and “effectively suppressed much of the truth about Bloody Sunday” (Walsh, 2000, p. 155).  Walsh (1997) also shows how Widgery relied on his belief that soldiers would not fire their weapons unless fired upon first. That is, Widgery had a predetermined answer to the very allegation he was supposed to be investigating, and used it to reach conclusions favourable to soldiers that were not supported by the evidence.  Given this level of “institutional bias,” the report could not have been other than a whitewash. 
            Bew cites one of Eamonn McCann’s many pieces on Widgery and Walsh’s 2000 monograph but does not engage with their arguments.  Hennessy looks at one small part of Dash’s comprehensive critique, the rest of which he ignores (Dash, 1972).  Otherwise, the two mainstream scholars studiously disregard the well-established and well-known critical work on Widgery, including that of McMahon (1974), British Irish Rights Watch (1994), and the Irish Government (Department of the Taoiseach, 1997).  I’m not asking that Bew and Hennessey accept the arguments of Widgery’s critics, but serious scholars who deserve trust need to address them.  And if you’re going to come up with contrary conclusions, you need to refute the principal arguments of the critics, not simply ignore them.  Isn’t this what academic historians and other professional scholars are trained to do?

[34] Not surprisingly, Foster (1986, p. 3) stands out for his disdainful mocking of amateur historians and  “half-baked ‘sociologists,’” which appears to mean any sociologist on a research grant who is investigating anti-Irish racism and disagrees with Sheridan Gilley. Fanning is prominent too.  He directly responds to those, like me, “who identify with the axiom that history is too important to be left to the historians”.  For him, history is indeed too important to be “abandoned” to non-historians “who would prostitute it for political purposes” (Fanning, 1988, p. 19).  He urged historians to study contemporary Irish history, otherwise “it will fall to those with less tender intellects but with staunch political purposes to take our place” (Fanning, 1986, p. 146). Likewise, Comerford (1988) is very wary of humanist disciplines outside history and of the social sciences.  McBride engages in a kind of serial reductionism that privileges the academic discipline of history.  He tends to reduce scholar to historian, historian to professional historian, and professional historian to professional mainstream historian.  I prefer Joseph Lee’s (2000) expansive conception of historian and agree with how he ties it to the use of evidence.


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⏮ Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.

7 comments:

  1. We can all arm ourselves with the facts but it is how those facts are interpreted that is important. We have all witnessed a fight in the play ground yet no two children will give the same account yet they all have the facts....subjectivity is too dominant.

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  2. A great piece by Mike. A lot of effort put in. It would be good to get a response from Ian McBride to broaden the field of ideas on this matter.

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  3. Niall, both sets of kids might have facts but not all the facts and may genuinely only recall the facts that gel with their take. After that, it becomes interpretation. Where the real problem comes in for me is when the facts are so obvious to be genuinely beyond dispute and they are still disputed. Myself and Alfie Gallagher faced down this sort of nonsense on Facebook with people claiming Sean O'Callaghan was an honest man, when Sean O'Callaghan himself was saying he did not know anyone he had not lied to.

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  4. Brilliant article, very thorough.

    AM- was O'Callaghan a provo or not? I'm genuinely confused. I did read his book years ago but thought it...self-serving.

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  5. Steve - he was one but as you suggest a very self serving one.

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  6. AM...that is exactly my point, even when facts are so obvious they are open to interpretation....

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  7. Great article. The nature of the subject usually means there are missing or conflicting facts and a level of interpretation is required. How many historians have covered the Titanic? Most did not get it wrong out of bias or bad faith but simply because important facts had been concealed. Now we know the 'real' real story about the fire and reason the ship was going so fast when it hit the iceburg. Bias will always be a feature in reporting Irish history ... look at how the Irish holocaust is still being misrepresented as a natural disaster caused by potato blight.

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