Sectarianism as ‘fact’?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2008), Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 16

Sir,

—In relation to the debate over Hidden History’s Coolacreasedocumentary, Brian Hanley (HI 16.1, Jan./Feb. 2008) says that ‘weshould accept the fact that there was undoubtedly an element ofsectarian conflict during the [Irish] revolution and that some peoplewere targeted for sectarian reasons’. But surely historians should onlyaccept as fact what is demonstrated as fact? If we are to accept thatthere was an element of sectarianism, we have to ask: when and wheredid it manifest itself, who were its perpetrators and its victims, andhow did it come about (not to mention the need for some proof)? As DrHanley himself acknowledges, ‘evidence for ethnic cleansing ofProtestants in the south doesn’t stack up’. Hidden History’sdocumentary on Coolacrease attempted to create a case for sectarianismagainst the IRA and, in a broader sense, the republican movement, wherenone demonstrably existed. Whatever its merits as sensational TV, withits wild accusations of ‘genital mutilation’, it highlights above allthe need for historians to be alert to what is trotted out as ‘fact’ inthis country. Had it been left unchallenged it would probably haveentered popular consciousness as historical fact despite a lack of anyreal evidence. Historians and commentators may have been tempted tobase their work on its conclusions, as had previously been the casewith that other major sectarian house of cards, the 1922 Dunmanwaykillings. Researchers who have tried to make the case for sectarianismhave so far failed to convince; indeed, the ensuing debates haveunderlined much evidence to the contrary. Perhaps revisionistresearchers will yet find their cause célèbre, but until they do,surely it does not make good or accurate historical sense to accept outof hand as ‘fact’ anything for which the evidence doesn’t stackup?

—Yours etc.,
NICK FOLLEY

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