Interviews: The Poison Chalice of Researching the Troubles

By Martin McCleery  

The first point I would like to make is that I am not against oral histories. Indeed, I think they are of great importance. However, in relation to the Troubles I believe they have become, unfortunately, a poisoned chalice.

‘So you are going to conduct research into how individuals could kill during the Troubles, but you are not going to conduct interviews?’ A good friend and academic colleague asked me this at a conference recently with a look of disbelief on his face.  My answer: ‘Yeah that is exactly what I am going to do… You see interviews would be counterproductive.’  I am firmly of this belief, not only in relation to my own research, but also in regard to much recent research on the Troubles. My own current research examines the micro-dynamics that surrounds a number of ‘forgotten’ murders of the Troubles. If you like, it looks at the processes used by individuals which allowed them to kill irrespective of their socio-political motivations. It does so through the prism of a theory I call attacker advantage.[1] The project concentrates on the short space of time surrounding these events. Consequently, the use of interviews is not advocated because of problems associated with oral histories such as memory and post-hoc justifications.

Enough about my research! How have interviews become virtually meaningless in Troubles research? It may be easier to identify the type of oral histories that we do not need.  We do not need oral histories of the Troubles which are driven by self-serving factors, such as the promotion of a particular political agenda, or that are undertaken mainly for academic recognition. A cursory examination of recent Troubles research on republicanism, loyalism, the security forces, and other actors reveal a number of problematic works in this respect.

The problems with such research are many. The military conflict in Northern Ireland may be, for all intents and purposes, over. Yet the political conflict continues unabated. This arena includes a battle between all sides for control of the narrative of the Troubles. Former paramilitaries, the state, the security forces, and other actors all want their role in the conflict to be portrayed in a favourable light.  As a result the same story emerges time and time again in interviews; the same macro socio-political factors are highlighted and underpin accounts of the Troubles. Unionist discrimination, republican violence, state brutality, moral principles (to mention just a few) are repeated constantly. What is the point of conducting these interviews with the same familiar people relating the same familiar stories? There is not going to be a day when one of these interviewees comes up with some startling new revelation about their role in the conflict.

But the problem not only rests with the interviewees: arguably researchers are also part of the problem. As I have already alluded to, surely the time has come when academics stop using interviews to confirm their prevailing views of the conflict; when historians resist the urge to use interviews just to confirm a hypothesis that they have created, but do not necessarily believe, just so as they can get published; when emerging academics stop conducting interviews just to boost the number of primary sources they have utilised. Far more academic rigour is required if interviews are to have much value.

The problems of memory have long been recognised and are inextricably linked with oral histories. As such they also will plague those who intend to use interviews as a central research resource. False memory, memory loss, post-hoc justifications and deception will all have to be taken into account. As Elizabeth Loftus, the world’s leading false memory expert warns, ‘just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion… it doesn’t mean that it really happened.’[2]

I paint a gloomy picture but there is some light at the end of the tunnel. There have been some great oral history projects of the Troubles which have not been part of a political agenda or undertaken by researchers with a questionable approach. For example, the Ardoyne Commemoration Project conducted over 300 interviews in Ardoyne: The Untold Truth.[3] It told the stories of the 99 people from Ardoyne killed between 1969 and 1998. But these stories are free from political control and motivation, told as they are by the relatives and friends of the victims, along with eyewitnesses to these tragic events.

There is also hope for the future given that some other important aspects the history of the Troubles have received scant academic attention, such as the ways in which women experienced the conflict.[4]  These are the kind of projects that we need from all sections of society, which can negate the pitfalls that have befallen many of the oral histories of the Troubles, histories that are free from political control and undertaken by researchers with a genuine desire for truth. It can only be hoped that more of these chalices which are not poisoned will soon emerge.

[1] For a full explanation of this theory see McCleery, M. & Edwards, A., ‘The 1988 Murders of Corporal David Howes and Corporal Derek Wood: A Micro Dynamic Analysis of Political Violence During the Northern Ireland Conflict, Critical Military Studies, available at https://doi.org/10.1080/23337486.2017.1349369.

[2] J. Shaw, The Memory Illusion (London, 2016), p. 255.

[3] Ardoyne Commemoration Project, Ardoyne: The Untold Truth (Belfast, 2003).

[4] Some work has covered aspects of this issue see for example the excellent T. Kennan-Thompson, Irish Women and Street Politics 1956-1973 (Dublin, 2010).

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Martin McCleery is a Lecturer in Intelligence Studies in the School of Politics Cardiff. He has published research on unionism in the 1960s, internment, Bloody Sunday, and the murder of two army corporals in 1988. His current research projects include political violence, sectarianism and the ethics of the intelligence war. Follow him on Twitter @mjmccleery

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