Oral histories and dealing with the past

5 Jan 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Jan 2015

Dealing with the past is our toughest local issue. The Stormont House Agreement included a commitment to using oral histories to conserve and promote the experiences of local people - here UU's Dr Adrian Grant explores their potential.

Numerous groups have, in recent years, suggested the establishment of an oral history archive as part of a package of measures to address the legacy of the Troubles.

In 2013, the ‘proposed agreement document’ resulting from the talks chaired by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan included a commitment that the Northern Ireland Executive would ‘enable the establishment of an archive for conflict-related oral histories, documents, and other relevant materials...’

While the parties to the Haass talks failed to reach agreement, there was some expectation that any eventual deal would build on the proposals. Consequently, when the Stormont House Agreement was reached on 23 December 2014, the commitment to establish an oral history archive was not a surprise inclusion.


The establishment of an oral history archive is not a standalone mechanism for dealing with the past, nor should it be viewed as an alternative to a more formal truth commission of the kind seen in post-Apartheid South Africa.

The archive should, and will, be one component in a package of measures designed to comprehensively address the legacy of the Troubles. In order to understand where the idea for an oral history archive came from, it is instructive to look briefly at the development of storytelling as a means of dealing with the past in this region.

Community activists, academics and others have been engaged in storytelling projects since the early 1990s. These projects have varied greatly in their aims, processes and outcomes. The therapeutic benefits of relaying one’s experiences of conflict have been noted both on the personal and societal levels by the projects carrying out this work.

Some projects concentrated on the process of storytelling and made it clear that they had no intention of recording any of the stories resulting from that process. Many more storytelling projects though, have set out to record the stories of their participants and make them available to the public or hold them in an archive.

Given that this kind of work has been on-going for more than two decades, there now exists a large number of conflict related ‘stories’ or ‘oral histories’.

The oral histories made available by community organisations and storytelling projects were published in books, and made available on CD, CD-ROM or DVD. More recently, oral histories of the Troubles have been placed on websites in the form of typed transcripts and streaming audio or audio-visual files. Advances in digital media technology mean that more and more storytelling projects have been able to professionally record oral histories and make them freely available at minimal cost.

The work that has been carried out over the past twenty years by a variety of groups and individuals has resulted in the creation of an invaluable record of the Troubles.

One of the big problems for those seeking to find, read or listen to this vast range of oral histories was that there was no dedicated central repository, or archive, where they could be placed. The thousands of oral histories of the conflict appear in a multitude of books, DVDs, websites and in some cases are stored away without provision for public access.

The many books and other media that were produced can, at times, be difficult to locate and the organisations behind some of the storytelling projects are now either defunct or do not have the resources to ensure long-term preservation and access to the materials.

Accounts of the Conflict

It was in this context that INCORE (International Conflict Research Institute) began working on the development of a new digital archive that would bring as many of these oral histories together as possible. This digital archive would ensure long-term preservation and secure storage at Ulster University and a new website would provide easy access to the oral histories through any Internet enabled device.

The archive and website, called Accounts of the Conflict (http://accounts.ulster.ac.uk) was launched in November 2014 at a two-day conference in Belfast where attendees explored the ethics, technicalities and practicalities of digitally archiving stories of conflict internationally.

Accounts of the Conflict, which was funded by the European Union’s PEACE III Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes body, provides access to the oral history transcripts, audio recordings and audio-visual recordings that are stored in the digital archive.

It also provides details of oral histories that are in the public domain, but not held in the digital archive (usually due to permission or copyright issues). Where possible, links are provided to redirect users to external websites holding the content. If the content is not available on the internet, users are provided with information about the publication or media in which the oral histories appeared.

Accounts of the Conflict is an evolving archive that allows storytelling projects to deposit their collections and make them available via the website. The infrastructure is also in place to begin accepting new oral histories in the future.

What next?

The commitment made in the Stormont House Agreement to establish an oral history archive by 2016 is to be welcomed. It is also encouraging to see reference in the Agreement to the work of 'existing oral history projects' and how there will be an attempt to draw them together, as well as collect new oral histories.

Given that the Accounts of the Conflict project has already done this, it would be wasteful and inefficient for the Executive to replicate or proceed with the proposed oral history archive without consulting, or working with the staff members at INCORE that were responsible for the development of Accounts of the Conflict.

Building an oral history archive from scratch in such a short time period as is outlined in the Agreement will be a tall order if the various technical, practical and ethical issues inherent in such a process are to be seriously considered.

It will be imperative for the Executive to work closely not only with those who collect oral histories, but also with those who have already built a suitable repository and have begun the process of archiving the many oral histories of the Troubles.

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