The uses and abuses of history: misuse of the history of Northern Ireland

3 April 2023

The uses and abuses of history: misuse of the history of Northern Ireland

Reported by Adisetu Joy Malih, CSaP Policy Intern and Sevcan Birdal, Communications Manager

This seminar explored the misuse of the history of Northern Ireland, with Dr Niamh Gallagher, University Associate Professor in Modern British and Irish History and Fellow of St Catharine's College, University of Cambridge.

Misuse of the history of Northern Ireland

Dr Gallagher began the seminar by presenting her primary concern – the misuse of the history of Northern Ireland by government ministers for political expediency. She argued that politicians are able to redefine historical events and offer new explanatory arguments for those events in order to justify and support current political purposes. After stating that it is important for historians to use their knowledge and expertise to provide a counterweight to misinterpretations, Dr Gallagher started discussing the arguments put forward by then-UK Prime Minister Liz Truss in the summer of 2022 such as making a direct connection between the Northern Ireland Protocol (Protocol) and the various concerns associated with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

Following the definition of the Protocol, which formed a part of the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union, governing trade and customs between the island of Ireland, the UK and the EU, Dr Gallagher took us through recent political arguments. In several ways, these arguments over the failure of the Protocol have sought to make direct links with political stability in Northern Ireland, the failure of the country’s power-sharing agreement and indeed threats to peace in Northern Ireland.

After discussing those arguments in a detailed way, Dr Gallagher argued that historians are able to offer a unique perspective on events and also said that their contribution and assessment of events have been vital in circumstances such as these when issues of national and international significance, such as the achievement of peace in the history of Northern Ireland, have been subjected to reinterpretation in order to serve the political interests of the day.

The role of history in politics

At the end of the presentation, a question and answer session was held with audience participation. During the session, a significant theme emerged around the need for more historians and the application of historical data to advise the government of the day. The participants discussed that several UK government departments have dedicated historical expertise and also argued the relative merits of a single ‘expert’ over using groups of experts in specific circumstances.

The discussion also covered what drove electoral politics in Northern Ireland. Dr Gallagher explained that the answer is more complicated than ideological affiliations and noted that the context has changed in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. She further argued that the Nationalist party in Northern Ireland has been more responsive to shifting political contexts than the Unionist party. Dr Gallagher concluded by emphasising that the view of the people of Northern Ireland is not clear-cut; different groups have different opinions along economic, institutional, business, and societal lines.

Image by Jason Murphy - Unsplash