Academic historians have been conspicuous by their absence in the debate over the Boston College case. This is extremely disappointing but it is not surprising and seems to reflect a risk adverse culture that has facilitated the public upbraiding of individuals who have taken great personal risks to bring us much-needed alternative perspectives on the past. While I have never had any personal association with the Boston College case, I am not prepared to stand idly by while the debate is poisoned by ill-informed perspectives that reduce discussion of the case to a question of the integrity of the personalities involved and not the merits of the enterprise itself.
There are occasions when those who care about the craft of history have to stand up and be counted. This is clearly one of those occasions.
We live in inauspicious times for the study and practice of history when the people involved in the collection of the traces from the past – from the gifted amateur to the most accomplished professor – are under increasing pressure to justify both their motivations and the research methods employed to yield their research findings. This pressure is particularly acutely felt in those societies deeply divided along ethnic, national and religious lines and which are emerging out of armed conflict.
Of course, there are consummate bureaucrats out there who will point to the existence of ethical guidelines available to anyone involved in research of this nature. However, while this might well be the case, it has been privately acknowledged by many academics that these guidelines (produced by universities and learned associations) are principally about mitigating the risk of litigation that may be levelled against institutions. One has only to consult the small print of the contracts drawn up between academics and scholarly journals and book publishers – the main vehicles for academics to disseminate their research findings - to know that by signing a copyright form the academic author essentially indemnifies the publisher from any legal action that may arise out of the work in the future. In other words, researchers who generate, collate and disseminate findings from their research are taking a huge gamble with both their reputations and their financial wellbeing when they decide to go rummaging around in a troubled past.
Consequently, there has been a tendency for historians to err on the side of caution and avoid controversial subject areas for fear of risking litigation. Unfortunately, the by-product of avoiding these uncomfortable aspects of the past can have a very real chill factor and lead invariably to the reproduction of a sanitised version of the past. Perhaps even more worrying is that it can lead invariably to a recasting of history as ethnic folk wisdom that bears no resemblance to what actually happened. In his compelling novel The History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989) Julian Barnes makes the telling observation: ‘We make up a story to cover the facts we don’t know or can’t accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by smoothing fabulation; we call it history’.
In conflicts where ethnic, national or religious identities remain the key fault-lines dividing peoples, the temptation to resort to ‘smoothing fabulation’ is obvious. But it is also incredibly dangerous. We know from experience of other places that by doctoring the historical record in a way that explains away human rights abuses, genocide and ethnic cleansing may trigger a reoccurrence of violence in the future.
We have recently seen the recasting of history in which the ‘alleged’ former Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA explained away the death of a non-combatant in a proxy bomb attack on a security forces base as being ‘open to interpretation’. At the same time he minimised his own involvement in the operation by claiming that he was elsewhere at the time, ‘allegedly’ (that word again) knee-deep in discussions with Margaret Thatcher’s government in a bid to lay the foundations of the ‘peace process’.
While this interpretation of the past may gain traction within a narrow political constituency, it has been contested by unionists – and it must be said by some republicans too - as being disingenuous or plainly untrue. It is, therefore, the responsibility of historians to subject such claims to the white heat of scrutiny – and in light of the available evidence. In a world where non-state actors (like terrorist groupings) rarely recorded on paper the process by which orders were given and received it is obvious that oral testimonies are of vital importance to understanding what happened, why, and with what consequences. This is why academic initiatives like the Belfast Oral History Project are so invaluable for historians like me who may not have had an opportunity to interview key players – at whatever level – so that we can assemble all of the available evidence and draw accurate conclusions from it.
I should add here that my own research interviews with republicans, loyalists and members of the British state security forces over the past 15 years were based on my belief that you cannot understand the armed conflict in this part of Ireland without factoring in the roles played by all sides.
I would be the first to admit that historians do not come to the past with a clean slate. They bring their own experiences, prejudices (some subconscious, others not) and intuition to bear on the facts. For what it is worth I am from a working class Protestant background and a community in North Belfast that suffered much and, in turn, inflicted terrible hurt on its neighbours, both Protestant or Catholic, during the ‘troubles’. It is for this reason that I am conscious of the importance of recognising and declaring my own biases and not passing these off as ‘objective truth’. In this at least I defer to the words of renowned writer George Orwell, who made the point that, while it may not be possible to ‘get rid of these feelings simply by taking thought’, it was possible to ‘at least recognize that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental thought processes’.
It is for these reasons that I believe that the Boston College case has thrown up profound questions for historians – and for anyone who lived through the ‘troubles’ and wishes to understand what happened – but these questions will go unanswered if we insist on reducing the debate to one that simply calls into question the integrity of the personalities involved. To truly audit the past we must consider the wider processes in play so as to avoid an ill-informed view of history that obscures more than it reveals.