Governments can control the narrative of an official history

Crown retains the copyright to British official histories

Letter of the Day

Sir, – I welcome Peter Malone’s (Letters, May 21st) recognition that the proposal to research British policy in Northern Ireland during the Troubles is an “official” history and hope to see this recognised more widely and the fiction that it is a “public” history dispensed with.

However, I disagree that Ronan Fanning’s history of the Irish Department of Finance, 1922-58 is a suitable comparison. Fanning’s book was not written in a context where the government which commissioned it was simultaneously imposing unpopular legislation upon the population which would deny to families of victims of the organisation he was studying access to archives while granting him privileged access to the same. All the files he saw were released to the National Archives under 50-year and 30-year release rules.

Opposition to the project within academia stems from this context of the British government’s Legacy Act. This explains why no academic currently employed in a Northern Irish university is associated with it. This project might not be an actual part of that Act (although the project’s co-chair Lord Bew supported a suggestion to include it), but it is undeniably a component part of the wider legacy process.

Where Fanning’s volume is a useful comparator is as a study of how a government can control the narrative of an official history. In the early 1920s some of the Department of Finance’s biggest projects were those relating to compensation schemes for damage to property and personal injury sustained between 1916 and 1923. The files for these schemes – the Compensation (Ireland) Commission, the Damage to Property (Compensation) Acts and the Compensation (Personal Injuries) Commission – are still in the process of being released to the National Archives.


Fanning did not have access to these files and there are only limited references to administrative aspects of the schemes in his book. At the time of Fanning’s research in the 1970s, the distance from the Irish revolution was the same as that between the early years of the Troubles and the present day and these files were likely deemed too sensitive even for the eyes of the official historian.

At least Fanning retained the copyright to his work so even if the Department of Finance did not like what he produced he could have published it elsewhere by himself. The Crown retains the copyright to British official histories and can delay publication, as Margaret Thatcher did with Sir Michael Howard’s official history of strategic deception during the second World War.

We cannot predict (although we can hope) that the official history will be written by “extremely well qualified and methodical historians”, as the posts have yet even to be advertised let alone filled. Before any such appointments are made it is essential that clarification is provided on the process for gaining ethical approval; the plan for managing storing and retaining data; consideration of any risks to researchers or subjects and how to mitigate those; and the retention of intellectual property rights.

There is a better way to approach this by dissociating it from the official history series, undertaking a scoping of all archives (as in the case of the Hillsborough stadium inquiry) and channelling funding through the UK’s research councils. If in the meantime, as expected, Labour abolishes the Legacy Act, that stigma will have been removed and a project along such lines might stand a chance of attaining legitimacy. – Yours, etc,


Professor of Twentieth

Century Irish History,

Queen’s University Belfast.