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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo Families and frends of victims unlawfully killed during the troubles in Northern Ireland gathered in Derry's Guildhall Square to protest again the legacy bill, May 2022.

Troubles Legacy Bill 'It's almost as if the UK is writing itself out of the North's history'

Professor Laura McAtackney examines how the UK government’s controversial legacy bill will affect the writing of accurate and balanced histories.

THERE ARE MANY critiques that have been made about the so-called Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill (2022), which have primarily highlighted its ultimate aim to limit ‘criminal investigations, legal proceedings, inquests and police complaints’ into the past.

The fact that such a blanket amnesty has been created without consultation or support from any political party, civil organisation or – most importantly – survivor or victims’ groups in Northern Ireland is key to its unacceptability.

To enforce an amnesty without consultation and consent goes against international good practice and provides a structural context in which ‘reconciliation’ is not likely to occur as it is being imposed rather than facilitated.

It is also important to understand why this amnesty is being imposed, while it is expected to be implemented across the board it is essentially being used to address Conservative party angst about ongoing investigations, inquests and trials of British soldiers who were involved in shootings and killings that were largely underinvestigated during the conflict.


This wider context of non-consensual imposition as a mechanism to prevent justice being served is key to considering the viability of the wider provisions of the legislation, especially in terms of how the past is remembered or ‘memorialised’ moving forward.

Part 4 of the Bill relates to ‘memorialising the Troubles’ and facilitating an ‘academic report’ of the conflict. I will mainly focus on this aspect as the latter provision is of most direct interest to researchers of the conflict, especially as it is assumed that academics will be involved in this provision to give it validity and respectability.

When this legislation was first announced there was initial speculation – at least from some academics on Irish social media – that the high profile of academic research was a positive attribute.

After all, if the provision to create an academic report was included in the legislation it should follow that the government would provide access to their papers – indeed it was speculated the legislation may facilitate the early opening of state archives to allow for the proposed report to be written.

Such a response seems fanciful when the wider context is examined. The lack of prior and transparent consultation with the academic community, and many of the features of the Bill being marked by inbuilt political interference – including the lack of transparent process for academic appointment, lack of any reference to state papers and ultimate reporting duties to the Secretary of State – do not bode well for the independence of the role.

Indeed, it is notable in the section on ‘memorialising the Troubles’ what is absent as well as what is present in the legislation.

There is significant space provided for the assessment and creation of oral history, which is an important form for democratising knowledge on the recent past, but hardly one that is currently neglected and its provision does not crossover into the section on the ‘Academic Report’.

In effect, oral histories are seen as one form of knowledge creation and the academic report is viewed as a separate (generally more official) one. However, the Academic Report section provides no mention of historical documentation created and maintained by the British state, never mind provisions for accessing them, to enable this output to be created. It is almost as if the state is writing itself out of those histories other than controlling how they are to be written.

Rewriting the truth

Many commentators and academics have already questioned how fair and open such a process and outcome could be in terms of memorialising the past. A response from legal scholars based at Queen’s University Belfast earlier this year particularly highlighted ‘efforts to privilege work on oral history, memorialisation and academic research on the conflict is, in our view, designed to provide legal and political cover . . . [and] if enacted such proposals could do untold damage to the credibility of such work as a smokescreen for impunity’.

The absence of information related to the extent and accessibility of historical documentation is particularly problematic. 

This is at a time when we consider what is simultaneously happening at The National Archives at Kews in London. It was reported in 2019 that the National Archives had greatly extended the closure period for the files related to state-perpetrated violence against civilians during the conflict, especially victims of plastic bullets fired by the police and/or the British Army.

For example, the file related to the death of Julie Livingstone, who was 14 when she was killed in 1981 by a plastic bullet, had its closure extended in 2019 for a further 45 years for ambiguous reasons related to ‘health and safety’ and ‘personal information where the application is a 3rd party’.

From such a context, it is clear that an independent writing of the history of the Northern Irish Troubles focused on multi-sources and methods cannot be expected, access to state papers is not indicated, and at best this endeavour will deeply skew what we know about the past from the British government’s side.

While there are many important reasons to reject this legislation from a legal perspective – due to the imposition of unwanted amnesties and the closing of routes to justice for victims, survivors and their families – it is just as important to consider how this legislation is attempting to control what we know of the past.

It is paramount that those of us who work with the past, and especially the politics of memory and heritage, highlight the significant problems with this legislation and do not allow it to make claims of respectability by creating palatable histories from partial records that hide the actions of the commissioning state.

Dr Laura McAtackney is a Professor in Radical Humanities Laboratory/Archaeology, at UCC and also a Professor in Heritage Studies at Aarhus University. 


Prof Laura McAtackney
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