The history of the Troubles is being written in a one-sided way which depicts Britain as the villains, a leading academic has said.
This bias has led to a disproportionate focus on state violence, such as the exhaustive Bloody Sunday reports, Lord Bew said.
The IRA was responsible for significantly more deaths between 1969 and 1998 than any other organisation, with 1,768 of the 3,720 deaths in the 40-year period from 1966, according to the book Lost Lives. The second deadliest group was UVF/Red Hand Commandos, with 569 deaths.
Lord Bew said that “people are trying to legitimise their political movement almost on a daily basis”, creating a need for an accurate history of the period.
“Where there’s a silence, ideology rushes in,” he said.
The historian first made the observation in a recent speech to fellow peers, and has since elaborated on his thoughts to the News Letter.
Lord Bew told the House of Lords recently: “If you want to look at the volume of official publications on Northern Ireland on the shelf of our library, you will find a shelf of official publications including the report on Bloody Sunday and the Finucane report.
“There are hundreds of thousands of pages, mostly dealing with matters of that sort, occasions when the state has been seen to behave not very well.”
The crossbench peer, who was historical advisor to the Bloody Sunday Tribunal report, said: “I have no objection to that.”
But he went on to say that “it is somewhat ridiculous that there is no account of the work of those officials on the British side who struggled to bring about a peace process”.
He said: “It is astonishing that we are silent on the more creative, positive, though no doubt deeply flawed, aspects of the work of our state officials while we are so loud in announcing some of the rather bad things that went on.”
Speaking to the News Letter about his speech, which was made last month, Lord Bew said: “If you look at what Britain has officially published about the Troubles, if you look at the official publications … you’ve got Widgery, then at much greater expense you’ve got volume after volume of the Bloody Sunday Tribunal, you’ve got the Desmond De Silva Finucane [into Pat Finucane’s murder], Billy Wright, the volumes on what went wrong are much more extensive.”
He said that official publications “will be overwhelmingly dominated by things which went seriously wrong”.
And yet, Lord Bew said, looking back on his time when he was an advisor to the then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, prior to and during the 1998 Belfast Agreement, in the 1990s, the Northern Ireland Office had been the most realistic party to the settlement – “and I talked to both sides a lot”.
NIO had clear vision on future
The NIO were “the only significant group in Northern Ireland that I can remember that had a clear vision about where the compromises were likely to be and how to proceed,” Lord Bew said. “I think it’s quite important to say that.”
Recalling “prescient” conversations with the NIO as far back as 1992, Lord Bew said that other political groups “had ambitions which were not really in that ballpark, the ballpark we ended up in. To talk about the peace process as if it was just local actors is ridiculous”.
The emphasis on state wrongdoing was akin to a history of Manchester United recording that “the only thing that happened to them was that they got beaten 5-0 by Newcastle”. Lord Bew said newspapers, TV and universities are dominated by a culture that is reluctant to admit that in the early 1990s the NIO had a vision of the line of compromise in “precise detail”.
Historian calls for official peace process book
Lord Bew called for an official history of the NIO, including the peace process.
The peer does not claim past official histories have provided “absolute truth”, but “have given us ... more truth”.
Official histories, such as the recent acclaimed Official History of MI6, written by Bew’s fellow Queen’s professor Keith Jeffries, are commissioned by the Government and based on documents that are normally blocked to historians under a 30-year rule on the release of official papers.
“We’re now moving towards a 20-year rule,” Bew noted.
“My argument is for a move to a 15-year rule.”
“The role of the British state is central,” Lord Bew said.
“It’s paid for the proceedings. It’s played the leading role in the peace process – by some long way, and I accept that the Irish government and the Americans had a certain role.”
He said that the British government is aware “that there is an imbalance” in the history. But officials felt that they could save money on a history because papers were being released under the 20-year rule, making it easier for historians.
The 20-year rule, he said, “takes you to 1993 but not to ‘98”. “It would be better to have a book out now,” he said.
Bew criticises ‘infantilised version of the past’
Lord Bew wants a history from “direct rule up to at least the Good Friday Agreement”. He expects papers released over the next six years to describe the backdrop to 1993’s Downing Street Declaration (“the cornerstone of the peace process”). “You’ll be able to see the thinking that went into it explicitly”.
Also relevant, he said, are exchanges between Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. Lord Bew said a history could see papers around the 1995 Framework Document and 1998 Belfast Agreement and showing “the government’s real attitude” to decommissioning.
A history would substitute a “more realistic conception” of events for the “infantilised version of the past” held in popular consciousness.