Renowned historian and journalist
Robert Kee, Born: October 5th, 1919 Died: January 11th, 2013In February 2005 the then British prime minister Tony Blair made a long-awaited public apology to the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven when he met members of the Conlon and Maguire families, victims of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history.
During an emotional meeting Blair signed a copy of Robert Kee’s book, Trial and Error: the Maguires, the Guildford pub bombings and British Justice, belonging to Patrick Maguire (13 when he was arrested) with the inscription “I am sorry it took so long.”
Many people believe it would have taken a lot longer but for the campaigning work of Kee, the British historian and journalist who died on January 11th aged 93.
Kee had a great many connections with Ireland, not least his championing of those wrongly convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings, which claimed five lives. His book about the case was published in 1986 and was regarded as a significant factor in having the convictions overturned in 1989.
Since his death, a great deal has been written about his success in explaining the so-called Troubles to the British, mainly through his landmark 13-part television series Ireland: A Television History, broadcast by the BBC and RTÉ in 1980 and 1981.
It was described by the Daily Telegraph as “a spirited tour of 800 years of hostilities between Ireland and England”, and there are those who would add that a generation of Irish people were also educated by the series and by the accompanying book, Ireland: A History, which graces bookshelves in every corner of the island.
Indeed Kee’s influence may have stretched into the highest echelons of British politics. The late Mary Holland reported in The Irish Times in 1996 that Margaret Thatcher, who famously remarked that Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley”, was reputed to have spent a holiday reading Kee’s The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism.
Holland noted that Thatcher later signed and defended the Anglo Irish Agreement, which acknowledged the identities of two communities in Northern Ireland.
As was Holland, Kee was a winner of the Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, awarded annually in memory of the murdered British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs, for promoting and encouraging peace and reconciliation in Ireland and a greater understanding between the peoples of Britain and Ireland.
Robert Kee was born in 1919 in India, where his father ran a jute business. He was educated in Britain and won a scholarship to read modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a favourite with his tutor, the historian AJP Taylor – and reportedly, to his embarrassment, an even bigger favourite with Taylor’s wife.