Plans for an independent Public History project relating to The Troubles in Northern Ireland were announced by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris on Thursday, April 25.

The Northern Ireland Office said the project will see up to five historians granted full access to UK state archives, to provide an "independent and authoritative examination" of the UK Government’s policy towards Northern Ireland during The Troubles. 

Academics Lord Bew and Dr. Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid will co-chair an independent advisory panel representing a range of expertise and historical perspectives. 

The expert panel will make recommendations on key details of the project, including the selection of historians to write the ‘Public History.'

The Secretary of State has announced plans for a new independent, Public History relating to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

More details here:

— Northern Ireland Office (@NIOgov) April 25, 2024

The Northern Ireland Office said on Thursday that Lord Caine, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, "expressed the British Government’s commitment to the project by personally meeting panel members ahead of their first formal meeting in London this week.

"The Minister was keen to acknowledge the importance of the panel’s independence in conducting their work."

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harri said: “By opening up Government files to independent historians, including the records of previous administrations and those held across different departments and agencies, this Public History will help allow for a fuller examination of the Troubles than has ever been possible before. 

“I am grateful to Lord Bew, Dr. Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, and the panel members, whose exceptional knowledge and insight will play a key role in advancing public understanding of Northern Ireland’s difficult past.”

Lord Bew said: “I have long advocated for this Public History, and for opening sensitive information to scholars in the interest of securing a fuller picture of the state’s role during the Troubles.”

“I am delighted to co-chair this varied panel of eminent historians, which is reflective of the broad consultation we have had with over 40 academics. I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to share their views, which have shaped the form of this project.” 

Dr. Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid said: "As a historian, I am supportive of any endeavour to widen access to archival sources.

"I welcome the Government’s commitment to doing so via a transparent and rigorous process, and following extensive consultation with the academic community.

“In line with the recommendations made by Sir Joseph Pilling, this panel is eager to engage with as broad a constituency as possible during the course of this project and I look forward to collaborating with researchers across these islands in the coming months.”

As the Irish News notes, the public history project is being commissioned on the foot of a clause in the British government's Northern Ireland Legacy Act, which received royal assent in September despite widespread opposition.

Lord Caine, who is now involved with the public history project, was a sponsor of the Legacy Act, which is set to bring an end to Troubles inquests and civil cases that have not reached the point of verdict by May 1.

The plans for the public history project were met with some criticism on Thursday.

The Pat Finucane Center, a human rights group that advocated a non-violent resolution of the conflict on the island of Ireland, said in a post on X: "Are we supposed to believe that 'full access' will be given?"

The Center's post was reshared on X by Colum Eastwood, the head of Northern Ireland's SDLP party.

Are we supposed to believe that “full access” will be given? This is the same Secretary of State who withheld information from the Sean Brown & Fergal McCusker inquests and is now taking legal action. Information withheld in many other legal processes also.

— Pat Finucane Centre (@FinucaneCentre) April 25, 2024

Referring to Lord Caine's involvement, Relatives for Justice slammed the project as "quite frankly the gaslighting of our population."

Given the man at the centre is actively trying to stop the truth of the conflict from emerging in courts and through investigations this is quite frankly the gaslighting of our population

— Relatives 4 Justice #NeverGivingUp (@RelsForJustice) April 25, 2024

The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) echoed the sentiments put forth by Relatives for Justice.

We understand virtually all NI-based academics approached, would not be part of this.

When we met with Lord Caine, @annacbryson asked what the purpose of the official history was: response was that the British Government was entitled to put forward its version of history.

— CAJ (@CAJNi) April 25, 2024

CAJ Chairperson Anna Bryson, a professor at Queen's University School of Law, told the Irish News: “The timing of this launch of an ‘official history’ is particularly difficult for victims and survivors who will within days see the shutters come down on their hopes of accessing truth and justice through independent investigations with legal teeth.”

She added: “I look forward to full and transparent disclosure of the appointment and consultation process, including reference to all those who declined to engage.”