Today is the fortieth anniversary of the bloodiest single day of the Northern Irish Troubles. On 17 May 1974, four bombs exploded without warning in central Dublin and Monaghan town, killing thirty-three people and leaving many more with gruesome injuries. The litany of the dead included an octogenarian Great War veteran, two pensioners, a near-term pregnant woman (and her unborn baby), and an entire family – both parents, toddler and infant child. On a busy Friday evening, as shoppers and workers were streaming out into the streets to begin their journeys home, the devastation was extreme.
Forty years on, the on-going saga surrounding the Boston College oral history project, the murder of Jean McConville and the recent arrest of Gerry Adams has plunged the unresolved issues of Northern Ireland’s Troubles back into the spotlight. 1 For historians of terrorism like myself, politicians and the public, the question of how to deal with the troubled past has been one of the most vexed and contentious issues in the at times shaky post-conflict settlement, which sporadically threatens to tip over into real political crisis.
No-one has ever been charged for the May bombings, and it was not until 1996, following revelations in a Yorkshire Television documentary, that the Ulster Volunteer Force admitted responsibility for the atrocity. The Barron Commission, set up by the Irish Government to investigate the bombing, reported in 2003 that it was likely that British security personnel (from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment) were aware of or involved in the preparation for the attack.
The British government failed to co-operate fully with the Barron Commission, providing no original documents; Justice Barron also criticised successive Irish governments for failing to investigate the bombings properly. The relatives’ group of the victims, Justice for the Forgotten, announced on 14 May their intention to sue the British government for damages.
Allegations of collusion between elements of the British state and loyalist paramilitaries have recurred ever more vigorously in the years since the peace process. The da Silva inquiry in 2012, echoing the third Stevens inquiry, concluded firmly that British state agents were implicated in the planning, preparation, perpetration and cover-up of the murder of solicitor Patrick Finucane in his home in 1989.
In the grim ‘whataboutery’ which disfigures political debate on legacy issues of the Troubles, the failure of the British government to prosecute on the basis of these and other inquiries is thrown as a retort at those who argue that the arrest of Adams last week signalled the beginning of belated justice for the murder of Mrs McConville. All of these debates are sharpened immeasurably by the real pain of victims and survivors.
These reminders of the jagged past, the gaping wounds and the shattered lives, are difficult to accommodate within the brave new world of Anglo-Irish relations. The visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011 and the recent reciprocal visit of President Michael D. Higgins to Britain, the first state visit by an Irish president, were widely greeted as heralding a new, warm, even loving relationship between the two countries. The unfolding Decade of Centenaries, which commemorates the sequence of events which led to the foundation of the Irish state and the partition of the island, continues apace, with recently-mooted plans to invite a member of the royal family to the 1916 centenary commemorations. 2
In this new dawn of a more harmonious relationship between Britain and Ireland, Northern Ireland’s traumatic past is an unwelcome reminder of more ‘ancient enmities’. But trying to rush two communities living together in Northern Ireland towards a reconciliation which has taken Britain and Ireland one hundred years to reach (separated by the Irish Sea) seems unlikely to succeed.
What role might historians play in dealing with Northern Ireland’s past? Does ‘the truth’ about the Troubles lie in the archives or in oral histories? How should historians write about events which might, as in the Boston College case, come under criminal investigation? Some have suggested that an agreed historical narrative of the Troubles might provide a mechanism to begin to move on. 3 On the other hand, the expectation that the work of historians should facilitate historical reconciliation, that the integrity of the past should be sacrificed to the political demands of the present, has rightly been identified as ahistorical. I don’t have the answers to these questions, but Northern Irish history provides an interesting case study for historians of all fields to reflect on the nature and purpose of our discipline.
History matters, perhaps especially in Northern Ireland. Whose version of the past is reproduced – that of the state, the victims, the paramilitaries – will matter as well.
Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in terrorism and political violence. Her book Seán McBride: A Republican Life, 1904-1946 is out now in paperback. You can find Caoimhe on twitter @CaoimheNicD.
Header image: The enduring memory of the Troubles reflected in a mural from Ardoyne, Belfast [Wikicommons]
Inset image: Aftermath of the second car bomb on Talbot Street, Dublin (17 May 1974) [Wikicommons]
- A good primer on the Boston College case can be found in Beth McMurtrie’s ‘Secrets from Belfast, Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 January 2014, available at http://chronicle.com/article/Secrets-from-Belfast/144059/ ↩
- The appropriateness of this invitation has provoked something of a backlash amongst Irish historians; see Diarmuid Ferriter’s comments in the Irish Times here: http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/historian-queries-decision-to-invite-royals-to-1916-commemorations-1.1760992 ↩
- This approach has been applied successfully in other contexts. See Elazar Barkan, ‘Introduction: Historians and Historical Reconciliation’, in American Historical Review Forum: Truth and Reconciliation in History (2009) 114 (4), pp. 899-913. ↩