Secret files on some of the most controversial episodes since the early days of Northern Ireland could be opened amid pressure from historians advising on centenary commemorations.
They include a file dedicated to the Ulster Special Police (USC), an overwhelmingly Protestant, quasi-military reserve police force known as the “B Specials,” and files that potentially shed light on their involvement in atrocities against the Catholic population.
The pressure for the release of these files and others withheld due to security and other concerns came from the Centennial Historical Advisory Panel, a group of eminent scholars who advise the UK government on the commemoration of the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland. on May 3.
The push for transparency comes at a time of intense tensions in the region, and both historians and the UK government are keen to act carefully. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has said that street violence observed in recent weeks is undermining Northern Ireland’s trade union celebrations of the centenary year.
The planning has been embroiled in controversy, with Sinn Féin and the SDLP boycotting a separate panel coordinating the commemorations and the former blocking the construction at Stormont of a stone in the shape of Northern Ireland.
A relatively diverse panel of historians chaired by historian and colleague Paul Bew has identified the unlocking of official archives as a priority.
“A lot of material already exists, but we know that there are files related to the birth of Northern Ireland that are quite controversial and have been closed for 100 years,” said panel member Dr. Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, a senior Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield.
“In some cases they are related to events that have reverberated over the years. It is understandable that there have been security implications that would have prevented their release after the normal 30-year limit, but after 100 years there is a sense that it is really time to open them up in a spirit of openness and acknowledging the complexities involved. “
The files could include something that sheds new light on the treatment of Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority and incidents such as the murder of six Catholic civilians, five members of the McMahon family, and a tenant, in 1922.
No one was brought to justice for the massacre, which was attributed to police officers led by one who became a mentor to former DUP leader and Northern Ireland Prime Minister Ian Paisley.
The panel members believe that a unique opportunity has arisen for the publication of material and other files that are not even cataloged. They fear that undocumented material could be lost at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) when archivists retire.
Control of the archives is technically delegated to the Northern Ireland power-sharing administration in Stormont, but the panel is understood to have made its views clear in discussions with Lewis.
“I understand [Lewis] He is not a historian, his priority is the future and prosperity, but I think he is aware that it is a very delicate set of commemorations. I think he regrets, for example, that the word ‘celebration’ was used at one point and the government has been on the defensive ever since, ”said one member.
Other initiatives overseen by panel members include a website that has already started publishing material, a book with chapters by historians and public figures, and an exhibition on the history of Northern Ireland to be held in Belfast and Westminster’s Great Hall. . You can also travel around Northern Ireland and go to Dublin.
Separate plans for the commemorations, on which the UK government is spending £ 3 million, include a special postmark, a ‘centennial rose’ produced in Northern Ireland for the Queen, along with funding for community projects.
Lord Bew, meanwhile, told The Guardian: “Our opinion at the panel is that it would be completely wrong to try to sugarcoat aspects of the founding of the state that are so problematic, particularly for the Catholic working class in Belfast.”
“The broad view of the historians involved differs quite a bit, but we are all essentially committed to trying to tell this story in an unadorned way and not to aggravate people.”
After examining the archives for decades, Bew believed there were still “some special problems” about the publication of certain documents. “It’s not just about whether people are still around, but whether families are still around and connections can be made,” he said.
“But I still think that more sensitive material should be published. We all agree on that. “
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Department of Communities said that PRONI had received an application and was aiming to open USC administrative records for the 1920s once a “sensitivity review” and classification were completed.