The inclusion of an oral history archive as one of four key legacy mechanisms was a welcome element of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. Building on the valuable work of Eames-Bradley and Haass-O’Sullivan, it recognised the need to engage perspectives beyond those that are typically captured in the courtroom. When done properly, oral history offers a powerful means of giving voice to those whose stories have been wilfully or carelessly ignored. It captures the messy and complex realities of the conflict that shaped our relations with family, friends, neighbours, Churches, schools, employers and so forth. Taken together, these diverse perspectives can help to humanise ‘the other’. They can also usefully inform work on the broader patterns and themes of conflict such as the gender dimensions of conflict, urban and rural experiences of violence, and intergenerational trauma.
In the course of the past twenty years I have conducted more than 250 lengthy interviews for a range of oral history projects. Those I have interviewed include direct victims and survivors, former security force personnel, ex-combatants, fire and rescue and frontline health workers, religious leaders, funeral directors, ex-prisoners, teachers, community workers, business people, politicians as well as a wide range of other civic society representatives. As the Northern Ireland representative for the Oral History Society I also regularly give advice and training to community groups seeking to establish oral history projects and thus know how much good work has been done and continues to be done here.
I also know from first-hand experience that people truly value the opportunity to be heard and to know that their story and that of their community will be preserved for future generations. For example, an elderly man whom I interviewed reportedly died alone with just two things by his side – a childhood prayer book and a copy of his interview transcript. Having trained as a historian I am also well aware of how important it is to counter ‘top-down’ elite narratives wherein the details of the lived reality of conflict are all too often missed. For example, I well remember the child of a former police officer talking about his paranoid fear of answering the phone (in case he betrayed the fact that his dad was home) and the republican mother who explained that she went through the horrors of childbirth without any form of pain relief because she did not trust the midwife and was terrified that she might get her neighbours in trouble if drugs weakened her natural inclination to ‘say nothing’. In sum, I passionately believe that oral history and broader work on memorialisation could make an invaluable contribution towards moving our society forward in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect.
On the face of it, the fact that the NIO appears to be privileging oral history work in its current discussions with the five parties and the Irish government (‘oral history and memorialisation’ are front and centre of the forthcoming meetings with the parties) should be manna from heaven for someone like me.
However, in view of the grave concerns outlined elsewhere on this blog by my colleague, Daniel Holder, regarding the government’s apparent ambition to derail the Stormont House Agreement and to instead introduce an amnesty in the name of ‘victim-centred reconciliation’, I am extremely concerned that a ‘soft-focused’ oral history approach is being offered up as a consolation prize in lieu of other routes to justice and accountability. There is a related danger that those working in the field of oral history might be co-opted to legitimise and give cover to the UK government’s current proposals.
When it comes to dealing with the past, victims need and deserve choice. The UK government is yet to deny that plans are afoot to disrupt proper and effective (Article 2 compliant) investigations and indeed existing inquest proceedings. It has also yet to be convincingly explained how closing down criminal justice investigations would facilitate a ‘truth recovery’ process in practice.
Whilst most victims understand that prosecutions are likely only to succeed in a very small number of cases, it is a sad reality that the type of information victims and survivors wish to access has to date only come to light through formal investigative mechanisms with recourse to police powers and coroner’s inquests. In this context it is cold comfort indeed for families who have been waiting decades for precious information about the deaths of their loved ones to suggest that ‘we can’t offer anything more than a swift desk-top review of your case – but you canhave access to a museum of the Troubles or an oral history archive instead’.
Having entered the firm caveat that oral history work must complement rather than substitute for the other truth recovery and justice-facing mechanisms, how could it be primed to make a meaningful contribution to ‘dealing with the past’?
As part of the Stormont House Agreement Model Bill Team’s submission to the NIO’s 2018 public consultationwe argued that the original proposal to park the Oral History Archive in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) was flawed. We queried the independence of the governance model and instead highlighted the need to work with and through existing groups, consolidating and sharing rather than diminishing and threatening the good work that has already been done. In terms of logistics, the fact that the government now appears open to the type of ‘hub and spoke’ or aggregator model that we put forward is welcome. What will not work, however, is any attempt to substitute the PRONI with either an alternative ‘state-centric’ governing authority or a consortium that is unwieldy to the point of impotence.
The need for independent and transparent oversight of the oral history governance model remains paramount if we are to secure genuine cross-community buy-in and to thus advance real and meaningful reconciliation. One possible solution is to look to the type of body that regulates publicly funded academic research. For example, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds – in accordance with clear and transparent priority themes and assessment criteria – world-class peer reviewed research across the arts and humanities. Through its ‘Connected Communities’ programme it has successfully facilitated partnerships with dozens of community-based organisations.
Rather than tasking one or more Northern Ireland-based archive, museum or third-level institution with responsibility for overseeing this vitally important programme of work I would propose that such an ‘honest broker’ must be engaged to guarantee independence and ethical governance and to provide objective criteria for funding calls and assessment of applications.
To facilitate the safeguarding, preservation and sharing of existing collections, the collection of new oral history accounts, the creation of a centralised digital hub, and the all-important work on patterns and themes the government could ring-fence funds to facilitate oral history and memorialisation work and then administer these via an independent body like the AHRC. The phases of funding might include:
• Building on the work of Accounts of the Conflict, community organisations, academics and others (across the UK and Ireland) currently holding oral history material relating to the conflict would be eligible to apply for resources to assist with cataloguing, digitisation, renegotiating access arrangements, and sensitivity reviews. This would be done with a view to future-proofing their oral history collections and facilitating the sharing of material with a central repository (although there would be no obligation to do so).
• Community groups (including those representing victims and survivors) and individual academics would be eligible to apply for funding to train others (including family / advocacy support workers) to conduct oral history interviews in line with relevant technical, ethical and legal standards. This would enable new material to be collected and shared with a central repository (although there would be no obligation to do so). This recognises that many people only feel comfortable talking to a trusted member of their own community or organisation.
3. CAPTURING UNHEARD VOICES:
• Drawing on an inventory of what has already been done, this stream of funding would enable a wide range of victims’ representatives, oral history networks, community groups and individuals to conduct oral history projects in line with clear and transparent priority themes such as gender, geography, class and age.
• Existing archives (e.g. Linen Hall Library, PRONI, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum) that are interested in curating and preserving oral history accounts and in building a central digitised online hub for the sharing of such materials (working with and through existing community archives and organisations) would be eligible to compete for ring-fenced government funding to enable them to do so. This central digitised online hub would be a vitally important component of the broader programme, drawing together and disseminating as diverse an array of perspectives as possible.
• Existing and proposed new museums, exhibitions and creative arts projects could also apply to this fund for programmes of work that enable them to share diverse perspectives on the conflict.
5. PATTERNS AND THEMES
• Academics and others would be invited to apply for funding to develop thematic projects drawing on the materials shared with the online digital repository created in phase 4. These proposals would be peer-reviewed to ensure academic rigour. This phase is designed as an incentive for oral history groups to share at least some of their material with the central hub. In preparing reports on key patterns and themes academics would of course be able to draw on other source material but the driving source for the priority themes would be the material shared with the central repository.
The latter work on patterns and themes overlaps with what was originally envisaged under the terms of the ‘Implementation and Reconciliation Group’. As myself and my colleague, Louise Mallinder, argued on this siteback in 2018, this work is essential if we are to holistically address the needs of victims and survivors, narrow the space for ‘permissible lies’, and highlight appropriate steps to ensure that past violations do not recur. At the heart of difficulties about how we deal with legacy issues is of course the fact that there is precious little agreement on the causes and consequences of past violence. Oral history offers an important means of opening up the space for healthy and respectful debate on those differences and can thus function as a catalyst for reconciliation. In order for this to happen, however, it must be cultivated as a carefully co-ordinated complement to the other legacy mechanisms rather than a smokescreen to subvert truth and accountability. The latter will not work. It could moreover do untold damage to the credibility of oral history and its capacity to help finally address the legacy of the past.
(Dr Anna Bryson is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, QUB. Since 2014 she has been working on the government’s legacy proposals as part of the ‘Model Bill Team’. The other members of the Model Bill Team are Professor Kieran McEvoy and Professor Louise Mallinder, QUB Law, and Brian Gormally, Daniel Holder and Gemma McKeown from the Committee on the Administration of Justice. See www.dealingwiththepastni.com)