Comment: Panorama shows need for balanced history

Henry Patterson, Professor emeritus of politics, Ulster University
Henry Patterson, Professor emeritus of politics, Ulster University

The one-sided Panorama programme on the use of agents during the Troubles showed the urgent need for a serious and balanced analysis of the state’s role.

Unfortunately the current crisis at Stormont could destroy any potential that the Stormont House Agreement contains for dealing with the past.

The recent publication in the News Letter of a graph detailing deaths caused by paramilitary organisations and the state (showing that deaths by the state were far, far lower) was yet another reiteration of a widespread unionist feeling that the narrative of the Troubles has been effectively seized by republicans, and that the bare facts of relative culpability for the Troubles will in some way challenge and even help to displace this republican domination.

I am afraid that it won’t. Facts, even ones as powerful as these, do not speak for themselves.

The way we receive the facts will be determined by our own mental frameworks which for each of us will be provided by a mixture of personal experience, family, education and our implicit or explicit political sympathies or the lack of them.

Republicans, with the SDLP as rather feeble counterforce, have been successful by subordinating the death and destruction for which they were responsible to the issues of longer-term culpability of their opponents in London and Stormont.

With the support of a large supporting cast of journalists, clerics and non-governmental organisations, republicans have focused on broader explanatory frameworks which emphasise longer-term structural factors, eg discrimination, sectarianism and institutional culpability, eg the issue of ‘collusion’.

They have also linked their own essentially ethnic narrative to broader international discourse of human rights, transitional justice and ‘reconciliation’.

Unionism’s parochialism and defensiveness has been incapable of rising to this 

This is unfortunate, as there are many international examples where terrorist narratives have been challenged.

One recent and important one, particularly given Sinn Fein’s historic links with the Basque terrorist organisation ETA, is the decision of the Basque government to appoint a group of historians to produce an analysis of violence in the Basque Country from 1968 to the present.

The initiative for this came from the Socialist Party of the Basque Country with the support of the dominant, non-violent, nationalist party.

The proposal is aimed at providing an over-arching periodisation of the conflict and bears some similarity to the Historical Timelines Group proposed in the final version of Haass/O’Sullivan proposals.

It is only by embracing ideas and proposals like these that our politicians can begin to move beyond using the past as a resource for current political objectives.

The problem of course is that Bildu – the party closest to Sinn Fein in Basque politics – was not involved in the proposal . The balance of forces in Basque politics allows democratic socialists and moderate nationalists to marginalise apologists for terrorism. This is not likely to be the case in Northern Ireland.

:: Henry Patterson is Ulster University emeritus professor of politics.