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Historians call for opening of secret Northern Ireland files to mark centenary

Ben Quinn
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

Secret archives concerning some of the most controversial episodes from the inception of Northern Ireland could be opened amid pressure from historians advising on its centenary commemorations.

They include an archive dedicated to the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) – a quasi-military and overwhelmingly Protestant reserve police force known as the “B Specials” – and files potentially shedding light on their involvement in atrocities against the Catholic population.

Pressure for the release of these files and others held back due to security and other concerns has come from the Centenary Historical Advisory Panel, a group of eminent academics advising the UK government on marking the 100-year anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland on 3 May.

The push for transparency comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, with both the historians and the UK government keen to tread carefully. The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, has said the street violence seen in recent weeks is undermining unionist celebrations of Northern Ireland’s centenary year.

Planning has been mired in controversy, with Sinn Féin and the SDLP boycotting a separate panel coordinating the commemorations and the former blocking the erection at Stormont of a stone in the shape of Northern Ireland.

A relatively diverse panel of historians chaired by the cross-bench peer and historian Paul Bew has identified the unlocking of official archives as a priority.

“A great amount of material is already out there but we do know that there are files relating to the birth of Northern Ireland which are quite controversial and have been closed for 100 years,” said a panel member, Dr Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Sheffield.

“In some cases they relate to events that have reverberated down through the years. It’s understandable that there may have been security implications that would have prevented their release after the normal 30-year limit but after 100 years there’s a feeling that it’s really time to open them up in the spirit of openness and acknowledging the complexities involved.”

Files could include some shedding new light on the treatment of Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority and incidents such as the murders of six Catholic civilians – five members of the McMahon family and a lodger – in 1922.

No one was brought to justice for the massacre, which was blamed on police officers led by one who went on to become a mentor to the former DUP leader and Northern Ireland first minister, Ian Paisley.

Panel members believe that a one-off opportunity has arisen for the release of the material and other files that are not even catalogued. They fear that undocumented material could be lost at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) as archivists retire.

Control of the archives is technically devolved to Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration at Stormont, but the panel is understood to have made its views clear in discussions with Lewis.

“I understand [Lewis] is not a historian – his priority is the future and prosperity – but to his credit I think he is aware it is a very sensitive set of commemorations. I think he regrets, for example, that the word ‘celebration’ was used at a point and the government has been on the back foot since,” said one member.

Other initiatives being overseen by members of the panel include a website that has already started to publish material, a book with chapters by historians and public figures and an exhibition on Northern Ireland’s history that will be staged in Belfast and Westminster’s Great Hall. It may also travel around Northern Ireland and go to Dublin.

Separate plans for the commemorations, on which the UK government is spending £3m, include a special postmark, a “centenary rose” produced in Northern Ireland for the Queen, along with funding for community projects.

Lord Bew, meanwhile, told the Guardian: “Our view on the panel is that it would be entirely wrong to try and sugarcoat aspects of the foundation of the state which are so troublesome, particularly for the Catholic working class in Belfast.”

“The broad view of the historians involved diverges quite a lot but we all essentially committed to trying to tell this story in an unvarnished way and not to aggravate people.”

Having sifted through archives for decades, Bew believed there were still “some special problems” about releasing certain documents. “It’s not just whether the people are still around, but whether the families are still around and connections can be made,” he said.

“But equally I do believe that there should be more sensitive material released. We are all agreed on that.”

A spokesperson for Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities said PRONI had received a request and aimed to open administrative records of the USC for the 1920s once a “sensitivity review” and classification were completed.