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The history of Northern Ireland, or the ‘North’, has been condensed into inﬁnite black and white categorisations: unionist vs nationalist; loyalist vs republican; Catholic vs Protestant; us vs them. For leading politicians in the region, partition cannot be viewed in isolation from the Troubles, nor can the question of Northern Ireland’s future be divorced from the imperatives that promoted or opposed all-Ireland self- government more than 100 years ago. Two high-proﬁle cases I have been involved in speak to the challenges of engaging with the region’s past.
The centenary of Northern Ireland
In August 2020 I was invited to be part of an eight-person panel to advise the UK government on how to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland. The prospect of the centenary was highly politicised within the general public, with a spectrum of views ranging from celebrating the anniversary to boycotting it. Despite this environment, here was an opportunity for the panel to look anew at Northern Ireland to assist public understanding. Ultimately, our efforts had mixed results.
I took charge of the digital dimension of the Panel’s work. I worked with researchers and the Nerve Centre in Derry to publish histories of labour, feminism, LGBTQ+ history, international politics, immigration, local politics, sport, culture, as well as British and Irish politics. Google Analytics and social media metrics demonstrated boosts in engagement. However, our posts only ever reached a small segment of people. The quality of research also varied considerably, as many researchers wrote about topics that stuck ﬁrmly within binaries, seeing little ﬂexibility within rigid categories.
A second project was to open archives pertinent to the centenary. Unfortunately, most of the police ﬁles and ﬁles of the Ulster Special Constabulary (‘the Specials’)—a quasi-paramilitary force created in 1920—have still not been opened. We worked with the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland to secure the release of 220 ofﬁcial ﬁles pertinent to many aspects of the centenary by the end of December 2021. While this was a success, these files are a fraction of what is likely available and there were sufficient complications around how the Specials’ files had been categorised to prohibit easy release. The ambition to emerge with a complete understanding of what ﬁles existed, and a timeline for when they would be made available, was therefore not achieved.
The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland
In summer 2022 I was invited to appear as an expert witness before a select committee of the House of Lords to give my views on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. I was invited because I had written an article critiquing the misuse of history by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who argued that the Protocol threatened the hard-won peace in the region.
My article reminded policy makers what exactly the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was for and what it said, challenging claims that the breakdown in Stormont was a novel cause for concern, or that the ‘hard-won peace’ in the region was threatened. Richard Bourke has noted how ‘languages of conﬂict’ pervade political and academic discussions of the Northern Ireland Troubles. I would add that languages of fragility are equally prevalent since 1998. The transformative structural changes within the 1998 Agreement and decommissioning process that followed are rendered null and void by implying that ‘peace’ remains fragile.
My article offered more substantive interpretations for the current political environment that went beyond the ‘rising tensions’ narrative. I argued that the 1998 Agreement was not in danger for any of the reasons put forward by the UK government, a conclusion I arrived at by paying close attention to the actual document and the vital contexts that came before it. To make explicit the terms of the Agreement and to remind audiences of the importance of context and contingency is to demonstrate the virtues of historicist knowledge and methods in the face of gross political pressure, challenging the superﬁcial construction of some politicians' arguments. This is the value historians can offer to writing about contested histories.
The challenge, however, is for their voices to be heard. Legislators are interested in the here and now; they are far less concerned with ‘the past’. Indeed, they even misuse it to justify their present political preferences. None of the questions put to me by the Lords were really the preserve of the historian, yet the historian’s toolkit was still of use in gathering evidence, analysing different viewpoints, scrutinising documents and putting together conclusions whilst retaining conceptual ﬂexibility. Where I could add value was in discussing the 1998 Agreement, noting the misuse of terminology such as ‘consent’ and ‘sovereignty’, and making clear that only one piece of legislation, the Protocol Bill, unilaterally broke the Agreement. How useful my contributions were to parliamentary debates is less clear. The bill is now suspended in light of Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework.
Writing about or advising on Northern Ireland necessarily means navigating prevailing narratives of ‘the past’ that are deeply embedded in public, political and academic circles. Within academia, rigid polarities still dominate the bulk of new research on the region, with languages of conﬂict and fragility seemingly crossing historical time periods. Separating partition from the Troubles, or partition from the constitutional ‘fears’ generated among some unionists by the Protocol, is a difﬁcult task. When history becomes politicised, the challenges are greater. Academics face numerous inequalities in stepping into the public realm but there are also opportunities. To be asked to give evidence to the House of Lords suggests that legislators may perceive value in academia. Improved collaboration between the two to enhance dialogue would be beneﬁcial. Similarly, perhaps historians should work harder to establish the fact that they have extensive training and expertise.
Overall, ﬁnding a blank slate to start from is possibly the greatest challenge when writing about major events in the history and politics of Northern Ireland. But the future is not totally bleak; being prepared to interrogate dominant narratives in the face of gross political pressure seems like a good starting point for scholars committed to understanding an awkward region.