Burns Scholar Paul Bew Has Unique View of Irish History

Burns Scholar Paul Bew Has Unique View of Irish History

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

As Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies Paul Bew explains it, an historian's most useful asset is a pair of autonomous yet coordinated eyes - one attuned to the present while the other looks toward the past.

Bew has cultivated an international reputation for training his historian's eyes on one of history's most combustible settings, Northern Ireland. A professor of Irish Politics at Queen's University in Belfast, Bew has authored books and articles that examine aspects of Irish history ranging from 19th-century land controversies to the beginnings of the Good Friday peace accord, which passed its second anniversary last weekend.

Bew has also been a highly sought-after commentator in print and broadcast media on the tumultuous Northern Irish peace process, in particular for his expertise on Unionist history. Bew's talents have even put him within the arena of history itself, as an advisor to the British government's investigation of the infamous 1972 "Bloody Sunday" massacre of 13 people by British soldiers in Derry.

For Bew, a native of Belfast, past and present are inextricably linked in the way he approaches his craft, and that has made his tenure as Burns Scholar this academic year particularly rewarding. Even as he has utilized Burns' acclaimed resources to research early 19th-century Irish political history for a project, Bew explains, his experiences as an academic-cum-journalist enhance his impression of that age.

"The material gathered here is of tremendous value," he said. "When I read about the Active Union of 1800 linking Ireland and Britain, I don't see a very different world than the one laid out in the Good Friday agreement. Very similar phrases and notions will turn up in, say, documents about land ownership in the 1850s and documents about Good Friday almost 150 years later.

Burns Scholar in Irish Studies Paul Bew is an historical advisor for a tribunal investigating the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" massacre.

"Being there during the Good Friday negotiations, and seeing politicians near exhaustion making these critical choices, has improved my understanding of politics centuries ago," Bew continued. "You can certainly look at these things abstractedly and at a distance. But to see those moments when something must be done - or cannot be done - gives you an insight into what politicians go through."

Bew has been able to broaden his impressions through his involvement with the Bloody Sunday inquiry. It is "an extraordinary position" for an historian, he notes: Where in other research projects he would have to request and wait for materials, as an advisor to the tribunal "the stuff comes at you in loads."

Although he is hesitant at the moment to discuss fine details, Bew believes the inquiry will reveal most, if not all of the truth surrounding the British soldiers' firing on the illegal civil rights march 28 years ago. But the truth is unlikely to completely satisfy everyone, he adds - those who claim the incident was a tragically failed attempt to forestall IRA violence, or those who say it was part of an official British conspiracy to suppress Catholic activism.

Still, if it is not the cathartic event some might envision, the Bloody Sunday inquiry can be useful in helping Northern Ireland move beyond its years of conflict, Bew said.

"Over time, Bloody Sunday has taken on mythic elements," he said. "It's hard to say if events in Northern Ireland would've transpired differently with or without a Bloody Sunday. But I really do believe in the importance of telling the truth about the past. If we can establish as best as possible what happened, it will perhaps be an important step on the way to a new Northern Ireland."

With the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the peace process has faltered but not necessarily fallen apart, Bew says.

"I still think something like the agreement will work," said Bew, "but at the moment I can't think strategically through it. I suspect that may also be true of the parties involved, and so a period of reflection rather than action is probably what's needed now."

Bew adds that Boston College has a favorable reputation in most quarters of Northern Ireland because it has reached out to leaders from across the region's sociopolitical spectrum, from John Hume to David Trimble.

"BC's decision to give Trimble an honorary degree [at last year's Commencement] was a positively striking act," said Bew. "He's continued to try and promote the agreement in a very difficult situation, and in general has made a reasonable attempt to modernize Unionism and work with the Nationalists."

 

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