Security policy and history writing (some questions and answers).

I did an interview recently with Christopher Owens which was published a few days ago on Anthony McIntyre’s The Pensive Quill platform. Christopher picked up on some interesting points (these largely follow on from his review of Belfast Battalion). Here’s a sample from it that, by accident, covers a key point with a strong contemporary resonance about the long term distorting effect the counter insurgency strategy ‘Information Policy’ has had on writing history here (you can read the full interview here).

Christopher Owens: What is it about the post Civil War-pre 1970 period of Belfast/IRA history that you find much more compelling in comparison to the recent conflict?

John Ó Néill: A number of reasons – originally, I’d been preparing material for a biography of Jimmy Steele and, bar Sean O Coinn’s A Rebel Voice, there wasn’t anything of any detail to provide a Belfast IRA context for his IRA activity after 1922. I’d noticed minor discrepancies in dates and events between the main histories of the IRA (like those by Tim Pat Coogan’s and John Bowyer-Bell) that I felt needed corrected and had accumulated various source materials for the Belfast IRA in that period that suggested there was scope for a book. The start point (the Civil War) and end point (September 1969) seemed obvious and, as far as possible, I tried to pace the book so that whole periods of years weren’t skipped or glossed over. I had partly chosen the end date because I wanted to try and concentrate on the chronology of events in Belfast up September 1969 without writing it as if everything that subsequently happened was pre-ordained.

I also avoided dealing with the post-1969 period for another reason. The application of Information Policy (British Army’s counter insurgency theory) and it’s pervasive outworking into media, academia, commentary and a conscious attempt to control the narrative of events has made writing actual histories of the post-1969 period incredibly problematic. A review of the literature on the role of the media (the likes of Bill Rolston and David Miller’s War on Words: A Northern Ireland Media Reader) makes it clear that a key aim of Information Policy was distorting perceptions so that, now, it is difficult to disentangle fiction from reality. Many people have become (through their own experiences) so heavily invested in a particular narrative it is hard to see how they could step back and engage with different perspectives. So, I didn’t want to get bogged down in that.

A reminder that you can read the full interview here.