The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London reported last week that the British Government was planning on commissioning an official history of the Troubles. According to the article, this was being done “amid fears the narrative of the conflict is being distorted by republicans”.
This is a charge frequently returned to by both unionists and, periodically, British politicians, with the latter most likely to invoke it when cases emerge in the public domain relating to prosecutions of former British soldiers over killings during the conflict.
The plan, according to sources in Whitehall, would be for a group of historians to be appointed and produce a “balanced” historical record.
Naturally, the news provoked great cynicism among many, not least those within the nationalist and republican communities who have watched the British government use every means at their disposal to prevent the truth from emerging in relation to many state killings and collusion with loyalists during this conflict — and those that preceded it.
The conduct of this British government over the Troubles amnesty plan, which was motivated purely by a desire to protect the ‘licence to kill’ implicitly guaranteed to state forces, will make people very suspicious of their intentions.
The accusation that history is being rewritten today does not stand up to scrutiny.
Contested narratives have always existed with regard to many episodes of Irish history, never mind the chapter on post-partition Northern Ireland. To claim history is being rewritten is therefore to betray an arrogant assumption that it was agreed in the first place.
What happened in Northern Ireland after partition was that the culture, perspectives and beliefs of those from a British and unionist tradition were given pre-eminent status and the official imprimatur of the state.
That is why our bank holidays were strictly for mid-July and not March; why the only schoolboy sport to appear on television for so long was the rugby played by the ‘Protestant’ grammars; why the Irish language remained invisible, and why our civic spaces reflected exclusively the unionist and British tradition, such as the grounds of Belfast’s city hall and the Stormont Estate.
It is also why British Remembrance continues to be treated as if recalling the actions of the Parachute Regiment, Black Watch, B Specials, UDR and RUC is something of which everyone in the North would approve.
In the post-Troubles and Good Friday Agreement era, parity of esteem and the slow evolution of a more equal state and society has brought with it challenges to unionism’s predominant place both in and of the present and past. In the absence of unionist leaders possessed with the foresight to see the possibilities in this for advancing their objective of securing a more stable place in the union, a loyalist reaction was inevitable.
Quite apart from the history of our latest Troubles, an agreed narrative does not exist about even the establishment of the state of Northern Ireland.
It was set up due to Britain’s continuing refusal to respect the wishes of the Irish people to be independent of Britain, whose writ was never established democratically anyway. Others will maintain that its creation reflected a legitimate desire of a minority, mostly northern Protestant, community to retain a place in the union with Britain.
An agreed narrative does not exist about the battles contested more than three centuries ago that are celebrated each year by the Loyal Orders, who every July (and across many other months) parade proclaiming that King Billy’s triumph in beating King James’ forces somehow led to “civil and religious liberty”.
In truth, there is a direct line between the outcomes of those conflicts and the establishment of the harsh, repressive and explicitly sectarian Penal Laws which proved catastrophic for the overwhelming majority of the population of Ireland.
While nationalist and republican Ireland remains quite relaxed with the existence of competing narratives of our past, unionism remains in a perpetual state of agitation over this.
Last week, the organisation representing retired RUC members (the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association) demanded the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly be thrown off the Policing Board by the Alliance Justice Minister Naomi Long. Kelly’s offence was to have approvingly noted how the evolution of the PSNI as a “shared force” was a “significant departure from the institutionalised sectarianism” of the RUC.
It is a matter of record that the RUC, along with the B Specials, killed seven Catholics during July and August 1969 alone in a vain attempt to put the uppity ‘Taigs’ back in their box as civil rights protests gathered steam.
Throughout the conflict, the force existed to serve the interests of the one-party Stormont regime and subsequently the British government and was involved in many killings, episodes of collusion with loyalists and repression against nationalist communities. Kelly’s words were akin to claiming that water is indeed wet.
Of course, that does not mean all RUC members were motivated by a desire to suppress the nationalist minority nor by a loathing of Catholics. The force suffered grievously, with just over 300 officers being killed during the conflict. Yet institutionally it was self-evidently the case that the RUC firmly existed in opposition to both republicans and their stated objective of Irish unity and acted accordingly. Howls of outrage are but demands for the unionist narrative to be restored to its once-dominant place. They will fall on deaf ears.
The decisive change over the past generation has been the emergence into the public space of narratives and perspectives reflective of the nationalist and republican traditions. An officially sanctioned history book is not going to hold back that tide.