The Stormont House Oral History Archive, PRONI, and the Meaning of Independence- Guest Post by Dr Anna Bryson

by Guest Post on October 2, 2015

We are delighted to welcome this guest post by Dr Anna Bryson. Anna is a Research Fellow at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast. A historian by training, she is currently working on an international research project on Lawyers, Conflict and Transition. Her most recent publication (with Sean McConville) is The Routledge Guide to Interviewing: Oral History, Social Inquiry & Investigation. Anna is a member of the Executive of CAJ and has acted as a consultant for a number of large-scale oral history initiatives. You can contact her at: a.bryson@qub.ac.uk

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) published last week the Summary of Measures that will be included in the Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement, SHA) Bill.

In parallel to this official process, a group of academics from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University have been working in partnership with the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) to develop ‘model legislation’ for the past-related elements of this Bill. As a historian now working in Queen’s School of Law, I was invited to join this team and to concentrate in particular on the development of an appropriate legislative framework for the proposed Oral History Archive (OHA). Our final Model Bill and accompanying Explanatory Notes have now been published online.

The Role of the OHA

The immediate public response to the NIO report has focused on the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) and the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR). Less attention has been paid to the OHA, a body tasked with providing ‘a central place for people from all backgrounds to share experiences and narratives relating to the Troubles and to draw together existing oral history projects.’

The scope of both the HIU and ICIR is necessarily limited: they have specific prosecutorial and information recovery functions. The OHA by contrast holds the potential to broaden the canvas on dealing with the past and to address hitherto neglected themes such as rural experiences of conflict, gender and class dimensions of violence, mental health, and generational shifts. Building on a significant corpus of existing accounts and resources it can go beyond narrow political interpretations of the past and provide important alternatives for those who wish to tell their story in full and in context, at a time and place that best suits their needs.

Political Independence

None of this will happen easily. From the outset the OHA will need to strike a delicate balance between creativity and sensitivity, courage and probity. The single most important principle – upon which it will flourish or fall – was agreed upon by the two governments and the five main political parties in Northern Ireland and enshrined in the Stormont House Agreement. It is that ‘the Archive will be independent and free from political interference’.

Achieving that independence requires a keen sense of history. This is not the first attempt to create an oral archive of the Troubles. In the course of the last decade I have served on the Advisory Board of half a dozen such initiatives and know that, if there is consensus on anything, it is that political interference must be avoided at all costs.

The inclusion of the OHA in the ‘single legislative vehicle’ for the implementation of the past-related elements of the Stormont House Agreement presents a welcome opportunity to enshrine the independence of the archive in statute. However, what has been officially proposed is that the OHA be established as part of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).

PRONI

There are some logistical and practical arguments for housing the Archive at PRONI. It is the official archive for Northern Ireland and is undoubtedly an invaluable resource for the preservation and archiving of public and private documentary records. Significant resources have also been spent on new purpose-built premises in the Titanic Quarter. However, the effectiveness of the OHA will be determined not by the location of its repository but rather by its model of governance.

The NIO proposes that the OHA will be ‘under the direction and control’ of the Deputy Keeper of the Records at PRONI. As stated quite explicitly in her most recently published annual report, ‘PRONI is a division of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and, as such, operates under the direction and control of the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, who is also the Keeper of the Records’. In an effort to address the obvious potential for direct political interference it is suggested that the OHA will have ‘operational independence’ and that the Deputy Keeper ‘who is a senior civil servant’ will make decisions about the procedures, conduct and contents of the archive. It is furthermore suggested that ‘Ministers will not have access to oral history records until they have been published by the Deputy Keeper’.

Hmmm. It will be clear to anyone familiar with the culture and practice of the public service that this amounts to a fig leaf. We consulted with one very senior former civil servant on the workability of this version of independence. His reply was instructive:
There may be, if you like, metaphysical seconds in which a senior civil servant has operational autonomy, but to whom is he or she accountable for the remainder of that minute, hour, day and week?

The issue of ministerial control of documents is but one element of a much wider conundrum. Departmental civil servants are bound – and rightly so – by a system of administrative subservience to democratically elected representatives. In practical terms this amounts to subservience to the minister of the day. A cursory glance at PRONI’s annual reports demonstrates that, under the watch of Sinn Féin Minister, Carál Ní Chuilín, the organisation has prioritised the theme of ‘Promoting Equality and Tackling Poverty and Social Exclusion’ and the development of ‘North-South co-operation’. Operational independence is well and good in theory but, in light of organisational impulses and constraints, it is difficult to envisage a career civil servant closing his or her ears when the political piper calls a tune.

Outreach and Engagement

The need for independence and freedom from political interference speaks to the fundamentally important issue of public perception. Buy-in from a suitably broad range of contributors cannot and should not be taken for granted. The NIO Summary of Measures rightly states that ‘all engagement with the OHA will be voluntary’. There is, however, no mention of the necessary outreach in Ireland, North and South, and in Britain – to raise awareness, test interest, avoid duplication, build trust and secure participation. It is very easy for those who have not previously engaged in this type of work to underestimate the time and effort that goes into such preparatory work.

Acknowledging that PRONI has no previous experience of collecting oral history material, the NIO proposes that ‘interviews will be conducted under the direction of the Deputy Keeper by expert practitioners’. In some respects this appears to be putting the cart before the horse. Would it not be more appropriate to give the ‘expert practitioners’ a seat at the decision making table, enabling them to help shape and direct the development of the archive? And to whom will these expert practitioners be under contract and answerable to – the Deputy Keeper or his or her parent Department?

Drawing Together and Working with Existing Projects

Oral history by its nature is predicated on co-operation and trust: a top-down model simply will not work. The Stormont House Agreement thus rightly states that the OHA will ‘attempt to draw together and work with existing oral history projects’. The NIO model seeks to address this by noting that the OHA will ‘receive and preserve oral histories collected by others’. This departs significantly from any notion of shared authority or mutually beneficial partnership and will do little to allay the fears of existing oral history groups that the proposed central archive might serve to dilute, diminish or even threaten their organisation. (In the interests of transparency it would be useful to see some detail on the extent of consultation with existing stakeholders and the nature of any proposed working arrangements.) The NIO document goes on to note that the ‘OHA will maintain a catalogue of closed interviews which will be preserved by PRONI but only available by signposting to relevant organisations’. This, it suggests ‘allows existing voluntary / community projects to preserve their interviews at PRONI but to continue to have exclusive publications rights’. Again the issue of independence is critically important. Existing groups should note, for example, that the moment PRONI accepts their collection for long-term preservation it assumes responsibilities in the eyes of the law and the application of ‘exclusive publications rights’ will be mediated by PRONI’s interpretation of their responsibilities and obligations.

Reconciling Risks

The NIO quite rightly emphasises that the OHA ‘will not be exempt from any court order served for the release of information in an oral history held by the archive, including requests for disclosure in relation to criminal investigations’. This was underlined in the mid-70s when PRONI sought to broaden the scope of its private records to include material relating to the Troubles. These were withheld from public access and stored in what was colloquially referred to as ‘the fridge’. However, once the existence of the material came to the RUC’s attention, it was duly handed over with unfortunate repercussions for both the contributors and civil servants involved. In more recent times the unfolding Boston College Tapes controversy has underlined in the sharpest possible terms that, under current legislation, oral history archives cannot offer a cast-iron guarantee of confidentiality.

There is nonetheless a danger that the proposed Archive could become overlaid by an excessively bureaucratic and legalistic approach. PRONI notes in its most recent report that it ‘is risk-averse in its preservation of the archive’. There can be no compromise on issues of ethical and legal probity but at the same time we need to ensure that those tasked with leading this archive are willing and able to seek creative and courageous ways of facilitating contributions from people of all persuasions.

Our Model

Balancing the practical and logistical case for housing the archive at PRONI with the compelling need to guarantee independence, we settled on the following as a way forward. PRONI – subject to the necessary checks and balances – could function as the shell for the proposed Oral History Archive but the governance model that we propose has statutory independence. It would be established by the First and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly, and governed by three Executive Directors (one of whom would be appointed in consultation with the Dublin government). A strong and diverse Advisory Board would represent the interests of existing oral history projects and networks and would assist the Executive Board with the development of strategy and policy, objectives and priorities. This pluralist body would also oversee complaints, financial regulation and the submission of reports to the Implementation and Reconciliation Group. The day-to-day work (research, outreach, interviewing, archiving and administrative support) would be undertaken by a Secretariat, under the direction of the Executive Directors. The necessary skills and attributes for all office holders are set out in some detail in our Model Bill.

To ensure adherence to international best practice at every stage of the process we make provision for a detailed code of practice (with particular guidelines for work with specific groups such as victims and young people). We also propose a central ‘training the trainers’ model as a cost-effective way of enabling the OHA to operate with as much flexibility and reach as possible.

To avoid a narrow and inward-looking approach we have tailored the governance structure to ensure meaningful participation and input from agencies ‘throughout the UK and Ireland’. In particular we emphasise that victims and survivors residing outside Northern Ireland must not be demeaned by what could be perceived as an invitation to make a token contribution to a Belfast-centric initiative.

To mitigate the possibility of the Archive becoming an anodyne repository of ‘safe’ and unchallenging narratives, we propose to disapply the Data Protection Acts and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 until such times as accounts have been published. This is not designed to encourage information about crimes that have not been processed and fully determined by the courts – the code of practice and training programme will make it abundantly clear that no such information can be accepted. Rather it simply acknowledges the considerable sensitivity of ‘experiences and narratives related to the Troubles’ and the need to encourage and facilitate as a wide a range of contributions as possible.

Whilst contributions to the archive should, for the most part, be accessible online, we suggest that opportunities should also be provided for people to hear and share their respective stories in a central, inclusive and welcoming space.

Cast in the right mould the OHA could make a valuable contribution to the process of dealing with the past and, ultimately, to reconciliation. Unfortunately the Summary of Measures proposed by the NIO fails adequately to address the foundational principle of ensuring independence. Past experience dictates that grasping the nettle of reconciliation requires long-term vision and a departure from penny-wise, pound-foolish approaches.
In the short time now available for consultation we urge political representatives and key stakeholders to reflect on the proposed measures and in particular to consider the alternatives put forward in our Model Bill.

Other members of the Model Bill drafting group have posted in relation to other SHA institutions. See Daniel Holder’s post The Historical Investigations Unit (HIU): assessing the NIO policy proposals and Louise Mallinder’s post on the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval

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