Opinion: archives provide a forum for transparency as well as for deconstructing myth-making within a nation’s history
Archives which are generated by societies or people under threat from war, conflict, abuse, genocide, or other violent means, are, at best, precarious in their existence, and at worst, absent entirely. Archives of testimony, oral history, letters, diaries, official documentation, legal records and more, provide evidence of human experience under the exertion of power and control. Archives can give voice to victims of past violence or can also function to maintain an enforced silence and prolong a lack of accountability, transparency, and truth.
But who is recorded within the records? What agency do such records have to inform the next generation? And how to young people engage with violent histories?
The ability of each successive generation to access records of their recent past and longer history is a key signifier of a functioning democracy. Archives are an objective space that provide a forum for transparency as well as for deconstructing myth-making within a nation’s history. In 1968, then Minister for Home Affairs in the UK, William Craig spoke bluntly on the idea of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and on what he called "the problem of history": "I cannot think that the healing process is to be helped by providing an arena where old and imaginary slights can be relived, where disappointed office seekers can air their frustrations and where old agitations can be revived. Like every scar, it will never get well if you pick it."
Despite the headlines, soundbites and continuously scrolling of our newsfeeds, there is a much bigger story that is not being heard
In the context of contemporary Northern Ireland, the risk is for the normalising of inaccurate or partial histories of the recent past within new generations. We encounter the past in various new ways and through new media today. In Derry Girls, the experience of a Catholic family and group of teenage girls (and one wee English fella) presented events of early 1990s' Derry, from bomb scares to Presidential visits, to young audiences in an accessible means.
Recent remarks were made by Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, about how British soldiers and police who were responsible for killings in Northern Ireland, in particularly those soldiers on Bloody Sunday, "were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified and appropriate way". Bradley later apologised for the comments.
Kevin Boyle was a major figure internationally in legal and human rights study and practice, and was both scholar and activist. The Professor Kevin Boyle Archive at the Hardiman Library, NUI Galway contains records of legal cases, global human rights issues, vast amounts of correspondence, research notes, and teaching materials across over four decades of a career which began on the front lines of the civil rights' movement in Northern Ireland.
From RTÉ Six One News, tributes paid to Professor Kevin Boyle on his death in 2010
Born in Newry, Co. Down in 1943, Boyle studied law at Queen's University, Belfast, and criminology at Cambridge University. While a young lecturer in law in Belfast in the mid 1960s, he became aware of the agitation around civil rights and human rights issues, particularly for Catholics in Belfast and Derry. Boyle became a committee member of groups such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and People's Democracy, and so ensured his place as a major figure in advocating for equal rights across Northern Ireland. He Chair of Law at University College Galway (now NUI Galway) from 1978 to 1986 and was central to the founding of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway – the first such dedicated centre in Ireland - before finishing his career at University of Essex.
Boyle’s archive contains records of human rights cases from 1960s Northern Ireland to the plight of Kurds in the early 2000s. A key facet within the archive is the voice of young people grappling with social and economic inequalities. In a letter from Boyle to Professor Laurie Taylor at York University in March 1977, he outlined the problems faced by young people in Derry, with whom he had regular contact through his legal practice and research:
"I’m concerned only with those who have got "into trouble". Much of my practice is appearing for young persons aged 16-21, from both sides of the fence, though latterly mainly from the Bogside/Creggan. The first point is obvious: they are ordinary kids: they are not psychopathic nor in the main are they particularly ‘leaders’, especially energetic. Their political thought is rarely developed - it’s just the normal set of assumptions that everyone that everyone who lives in Bogside/Creggan [are of the viewpoint] we are Irish, the Brits should leave – unionism is bad, army and police regularly beat up people etc."
As RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta Nuacht a hAon ó Samhain 2014, tuarascáil faoi cartlann a bhí ag an Ollamh Kevin Boyle agus Ollscoil na hÉireann Gaillimh
Boyle examines the sociological implications for labelling of young people determined by their address, accent, or school. "Remedies", he argues, "also have to be political and structural to have an impact on the violence and youth involvement." Given the current ongoing impasse in government in Northern Ireland, Boyle’s words still carry great resonance today. The late journalist Lyra McKee, recently murdered in Derry, referred to her generation as "The Ceasefire Babies", those who are today also witnessing a lack of leadership and dialogue within their communities.
Other challenges to openness towards the past in Northern Ireland is the proposed closure of the CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet) which is a vital and unique recourse which makes available thousands of documents from the Troubles period available freely online. To close this project is not just irresponsible but also short-sighted in its treatment of the past for those now growing up and learning of these events as history today. The archive of past conflict should not be closed, symbolically or physically, as the ramifications in terms of public knowledge and legal accountability are live and urgent issues today.
Archives are spaces of memory-practice, where people can try to put their inherited history and trauma in context by transforming their experiences into meaning through empathy with the past. In Kevin Boyle's last published work from 2010, a foreword to A Vision for Human Rights, he stated "despite the often scattershot coverage by global media of human rights issues, the wretched conditions and suffering of millions are for the most part ignored."
Despite the headlines, soundbites and continuously scrolling of our newsfeeds, there is a much bigger story, a much larger narrative that is not being heard. The archival record can be a force to break this silence.
The Violence, Space and the Archives conference takes place at NUI Galway on May 23rd and 24th.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ