Horrible histories - Just like the British, Sinn Féin and the DUP want to hide the truth of the past from us - Patrick Murphy

Britain’s attempt to write an ‘official’ history is rightly criticised, but the Covid Inquiry shows Stormont behaves in the same way

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

Dame Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill during the Covid pandemic
Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster, deputy first minister and first minister respectively during the pandemic, gave evidence to the Covid Inquiry in Belfast this week (Liam McBurney/PA)

The British have often suggested that the Irish are obsessed with the past. So in a remarkable outburst of political benevolence, they have now decided to write our history for us.

They are planning to produce an “official” history of the troubles. (That’s “official” as in officially approved by Britain.) With an almost religious zeal, it appears to be aimed at re-directing us from our imperfect memories towards a perfect (British) truth. As Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it.”

Welcome to a past you didn’t know you had.

Official British histories are nothing new. They began in 1908 with British military and naval histories, which presumably recorded that Johnny Foreigner was a bit of a rotter who deserved a jolly good thrashing.

In 1966 this was expanded to include peacetime history and it has been described as “the gold standard of accountability” by Sir Joseph Pilling, former NIO Permanent Secretary.

He proposed calling it a public history rather than an official history. However, only selected historians (and so far, there are none from the north) will be given access to selected official documents (which will remain closed to the public). So, few have heeded Pilling’s suggestion, especially since the whole operation will be directed by the British Cabinet Office.

The aim is presumably to depict the British government’s record here in a favourable light. Secretary of State, Chris Heaton Harris, says the official history will allow a “fuller examination of the Troubles”. That’s not history. That’s just his story.

The British establishment’s urge to write our history is merely an extension of its long tradition of portraying its own history in a Disney-style fantasy of royalty, Reformation and requisitioning a quarter of the globe in the interests of civilisation.

To condition the present and shape the future, Britain aims to distort the past. Not the sort of attitude you would find in Stormont – or is it? This week’s Covid Inquiry revealed that just as Westminster wants to write a selective history of events here, Stormont has similar intent.

Our history will be kind to the British because they intend to write it. It will be even kinder to Sinn Féin and the DUP because they apparently do not intend to leave sufficient evidence for anyone to write it

For example, the inquiry had originally been told the notes from one executive meeting were not held. Last week the notes were “found”. (They were just slightly missing.)

Our first minister wiped her phone against legal advice, which means the “official” version of her role in executive decision-making was her witness statement. However, as Clair Dobbin KC said to her during questioning, “We’ve already seen your witness statement is wrong”.

Historians relying on that document would have been seriously misled and our history would have been, to quote Napoleon, a fable agreed upon.

The sad truth about the inquiry is that it has devoted so little time to investigating events here. For example, no special advisers (Spads) were called, even though they probably had more influence on decision-making than the civil service.

The role of the PSNI in allowing the Bobby Storey funeral on June 30 was also ignored, as was the decision not to prosecute anyone who took part.

Earlier that month the PSNI opted to issue about 70 fines for Black Lives Matter protests, a process which the Police Ombudsman found was unfair and discriminatory. Political policing during the pandemic would appear worthy of more serious investigation.

So, like Westminster’s “official” history of the Troubles, Stormont’s “official” history of the post-Troubles era is based on concealing the politics of the past for political advantage in the present.

Our history will be kind to the British because they intend to write it. It will be even kinder to Sinn Féin and the DUP because they apparently do not intend to leave sufficient evidence for anyone to write it.

We are the victims of two associated administrations which are obsessed with hiding the truth from us. Like much of the history of the past sixty years, it will be buried in an unmarked grave.