Oral history and the Troubles: The importance of trust and the role of the interviewer

As several of the blog posts of Writing the Troubles illustrate, oral history is a particularly controversial subject in Northern Ireland. The past years have been a difficult time for researchers looking to use interviews with former paramilitaries and those advocating political violence, particularly since the “Boston College (BC) Oral History Project” debacle. Nonetheless, oral history not only provides a useful avenue into understanding political violence but talking to (former) activists often remains the only source available to researchers.
Since the controversy over the BC project, potential interview partners are increasingly suspicious. Drawing on my own experiences, I want to talk therefore about the intersubjectivity of the researcher and the narrator which, ultimately, leads to a question of trust. To be sure, if the researcher is unable to establish a certain level of trust, the interview process is ultimately doomed to fail.
In 2010 and 2011, I interviewed 24 members of a proscribed Irish Republican women’s organisation, Cumann na mBan.  A militant organisation founded in 1914, between 1970 and 1986, it became the women’s wing of the Provisional IRA. However, while the mainstream movement accepted the peace process in the mid-1990s, Cumann na mBan rejected the initiative splitting from the Provisionals to aligning itself to the radical Continuity Army Council.[1] Henceforth, Cumann na mBan has remained listed as a terrorist organisation under British law. My research focused on the organisation and its role in the conflict between 1969 and 1986, when it split from the Provisional IRA.
Interviewing (former) activists of a proscribed organisation made it incredibly important that I establish a trust between the narrators and myself. Among other factors, my background played a significant role in the establishment of this trust. Most interview partners had joined the Republican Movement either before or in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the ‘Troubles’. I was still a postgraduate student at the University of Vienna when developing my first contact with these women. Hence, many of them were the same age as my grandmother. I was perceived, consistent with the typology of Alexander Bogner and Wolfgang Menz, as a “layman.”[2] This positioning enabled me, on the one hand, to gain a high level of trust and, on the other to experience “reverse power relations.”[3] In other words, a graduate student who reminded them of their grandsons was not  perceived to be a  threat. However, this age difference could result in them patronising me, which impacted on the data collection. In the course of interviewing Northern Irish politicians, Joanne McEvoy, for example, found she was viewed as the “daughter” and referred to as “love,” “dear,” or “lass” by interview partners.[4]
My Austrian origin was also of great benefit in building trust.  On one occasion, off-the record-Eithne,[5] who had been a member of Cumann na mBan in West Belfast, told me:
‘Mhm. [nodding] You know, that’s why I gave you an interview. I speak to you because you are coming from Austria. I am not worried because you are from Europe. I am very worried when students from Britain come and say they want to talk to me. I always wonder why they want to interview me. What do they want to know? Why do they come? What are they doing with the interviews? To whom are they giving the interview recordings? Are they handing it over to someone? You never know! I would never do an interview with any student from Oxford or any of these universities because they are training the spooks there, MI5 and intelligence service.’[6]
Eithne knew little about my background except that I was a student from Austria.  She did not know any of my political views on Northern Ireland but assumed that I was impartial and trustworthy because I was European. At the same time, she admitted to being biased about British universities. She goes even further, suggesting that researchers from these institutions are not only politically biased when it comes to Northern Ireland, but, “spooks”, spies These comments show the importance of institutional background when it comes to the relationship between the researcher and the narrator.
Similarly, Aoife who had been a member of Cumann na mBan’s youth wing Cumann na gCailíní during the 1970s asked me: “By the way, is Austria a Catholic country?” Stunned by this question I stuttered: “Yes”, which led to her commenting: “That’s good, so you understand what I am talking about.”[7]This comment impressed upon me how narrators feel more comfortable, and therefore are more willing to share, when they feel understood by the interviewer. Yvonne McKenna suggests that sharing a background with her narrators allowed them to say things “they would not otherwise have said.”[8] In my case, their feeling of security was reinforced by the fact that I came from a Catholic country.  Aoife did not ask me if I was Catholic; instead, she merely assumed that I practise Catholicism. The Northern Ireland conflict is often portrayed as a war between a pro-British, Protestant majority and a pro-Irish, Catholic minority. Coming from a Catholic country was enough to satisfy my interview partner that I would understand the desires and woes of the Catholic minority, and the reasons which led to her Republican struggle.
The presumption that an – imagined – common background equates to shared worldviews has been observed by several scholars, including Kathleen Blee in her seminal study on women in the Ku-Klux-Klan. In the introduction, Blee notes: “My own background in Indiana (where I lived from primary school through college) and white skin led informants to assume – lacking spoken evidence to the contrary – that I shared their worldview.”[9] While it was her background and race, for me it was my supposed Catholicism that led informants and interview partners to see me as one of them. McEvoy has alluded to similar experiences, “where the respondent assumes the researcher is on their ‘side’.”[10]
Building trust and securing detailed interviews was immensely important. Cumann na mBan was a clandestine organisation, and do not issue statements or hold any documents. In these circumstances, interviews are the only means with which to conduct research on this organisation, which played an important, yet too often overlooked, role in the ‘Troubles’.
For a long time, these women have remained a footnote in the historiography of the ‘Troubles’. More recently, researchers like Theresa O`Keefe, Azrini Wahadin, and Martin Gilmartin, however, have published important studies revealing the role of Cumann na mBan and other Republican women. This is in large part thanks to interviews.[11] Without the use of oral history, these Republican women and their role in the conflict would still be covered in darkness; yet, the only way to get access and conduct an interview is if you win their trust. Thus, when we consider the value of interviews and the ‘Troubles’, we need to think as much about the narrator as about the interviewer.
[1] John F Morrison, Origins and Rise of Dissident Irish Republicanism: The Role and Impact of Organizational Splits(New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).
[2] Alexander Bogner and Wolfgang Menz, “Das Theoriegenerierende Experteninterview: Erkenntnisinteresse, Wissensformen, Interaktion,” in Das Experteninterview. Theorie, Methode, Anwendungen, ed. Alexander Bogner, Beate Littig, and Wolfgang Menz (Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2005), 62f.
[3] Yvonne McKenna, “Sisterhood? Exploring Power Relations in the Collection of Oral History,” Oral History 31, no. 1 (2003): 68.
[4] Joanne McEvoy, “Elite Interviewing in a Divided Society: Lessons from Northern Ireland,” Politics 26, no. 3 (2006): 185.
[5] Name changed.
[6] Field notes of Interview with Eithne, 29 January 2010, Belfast.
[7] Field notes of Interview with Aoife, 13 February 2010, Belfast.
[8] McKenna, “Sisterhood? Exploring Power Relations in the Collection of Oral History,” 67.
[9] Kathleen M Blee, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (Los Angeles: University of California, 2008), 5.
[10] McEvoy, “Elite Interviewing in a Divided Society: Lessons from Northern Ireland,” 184.
[11] Theresa O’Keefe, Feminist Identity Development and Activism in Revolutionary Movements (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Azrini Wahidin, Ex-Combatants, Gender and Peace in Northern Ireland: Women, Political Protest and the Prison Experience, ed. John Brewer, Palgrave Studies in Compromise after Conflict (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Niall Gilmartin, Female Combatants after Armed Struggle: Lost in Transition? (Taylor & Francis, 2018).
(Image: Burns Library, Boston College Flickr Account)
This article originally appeared on Writing The Troubles on 21 January 2019.

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