Official histories and historians

Proposed public history of the Troubles

Letters to the Editor. Illustration: Paul Scott

Sir, – In her response to my letter on the proposed public history of the Troubles (Letters, May 21st), Prof Marie Coleman (Letters, May 22nd) takes issue with my use of Ronan Fanning’s history of the Department of Finance as a useful comparison. Prof Coleman states that “all of the files he saw were released to the National Archives under the 50-year and 30-year release rules.” This, of course, is not the case. Fanning published his book in 1978. The National Archives and the 30-year access rule only came into being in 1986. It was precisely because there was no public access to the archives of the Department of Finance that Fanning was required to sign the Official Secrets Act. Reasonable people can disagree on the quality of Fanning’s research. From my perspective, it is a fine history which has stood the test of time. The book most certainly did not allow the Irish government to “control the narrative”. Fanning argued that civil servants in the Department of Finance consistently sought to limit public spending and investment in public infrastructure. This is hardly a “narrative” that any elected government would wish to pursue.

More broadly, there are too many examples of public histories that have served a public good. I previously made reference to the UK government’s public history of the first World War. Another good example is the US Senate’s review of the 9/11 attacks. That was a commendable history which pulled no punches when examining the intelligence failures of the US government in the years preceding the attacks. Consider also the US Senate’s later investigation on the use of torture in CIA facilities. That book made for chilling reading. Moreover, the liberal use of redactions in that report prompted further outrage from the public and resulted directly in the further declassification of sensitive documents. In different ways, both books served a public good.

Why not allow the work to proceed and let intelligent readers decide if the report sheds more light on a traumatic episode in our history or, alternatively, signifies that the UK government is not, in fact, willing to tolerate a mature examination of the facts?

In the event that the project fails, members of the public and the history profession can renew their calls for more immediate access to the complete archive. – Yours, etc,




Co Galway.