ICAN: Problematic Stories: Documenting Conflict during a Peace Process

“Problematic Stories: Documenting Conflict during a Peace Process”
Saturday, 24 March, 2012
NINE TENTHS UNDER – Performing the Peace
Playhouse ICAN – International Culture Arts Network in partnership with School of Creative Arts at Queen’s University, Belfast

Chaired by Declan Keeney, Queen’s University, Belfast and Dr Cahal McLaughlin, The Prisons Memory Archive and University of Ulster. This symposium will focus on the issues of recording memories from the Northern Irish conflict in the context of a peace process. Journalist Ed Moloney will talk about ‘The Belfast Project’, a controversial archive of multiple testimonies from former combatants involved in The Troubles. Dr Cahal McLaughlin will speak about The Prisons Memory Archive and an archive of 175 filmed interviews of people connected to the Maze & Long Kesh Prisons will be shown. Other speakers include filmmaker Alison Millar, and and Claire Hackett, who will also speak about Healing Through Remembering project, and Falls Community Council’s oral history archive, Dúchas.

This is the text of Ed Moloney’s talk.

Boston College Archive

Thank you ICAN for this chance to talk about the Boston College tapes controversy especially since it gives me the opportunity to clear the air about some aspects of this complex affair and to refute some disinformation that has been circulated by people whose interests, I believe, lie in the opposite direction of the Boston archive’s, which was to shed a light on dark places – in our case on our difficult past.

When I began preparing for this talk I asked the organisers what ground they would like me to cover and one answer that came back was why. Why had we created this archive in the first place?

Another way of putting that question is to ask why do oral history at all? This conference has as its inspiration the idea that history is rather like an iceberg, only one-tenth is visible while the vast bulk remains unseen and unheard. So where do we usually get that one-tenth of history from? We get it from two sets of people really. One group of course are the winners: the other, the leaders. Sometimes they’re the same people, but not always. Between them, for reasons that are understandable, they invariably capture and monopolise the narrative of conflicts like ours.

The other story that is rarely told is that of the rank and file and yet it is a story that is just as relevant, often illuminating and frequently more informative. In the Boston College archive that is what we set out to do in a modest way: to give the ordinary activist the opportunity to tell his and her stories, to let the people who really make history have their say – and allow everyone else the opportunity to learn from their stories.

It was an effort to record the story of the five-eighths if you like, a story every bit as valuable and insightful as those written from the commanding heights – and perhaps more objective too, as both leaders and winners have particularly large and sharp axes to grind.

The Troubles, the conflict, the war, whatever you’d like to call it had been the most violent and traumatic period in recent Irish history and I thought it vital that an attempt should be made to capture, before it was too late, the stories of those who had been at the cutting edge of the conflict. We needed to know why otherwise normal, family-loving people would agree to take up arms, use them and even kill for the cause they believed in. What is it that leads people to make such a dramatic change in their lives? A simple question but so hard to answer. The journalist and the amateur historian in me came together to say that we needed to know the answer to this and other important questions not just because it was an intrinsically worthwhile enterprise but because we owed it to all those who came after us.

We all knew the general, academic reasons why the Troubles started and we could all explain and describe the various phases that they went through but what we really didn’t know was how this was all seen at ground level within the republican and loyalist organisations. Nor did we really know much about the dynamics of the various groups that had fought the war. No-one was more aware of that than myself.

As this project was being developed I was working on a book about the history of the IRA with particular emphasis on its journey to the peace process and as I travelled on this road I came to realise how little I had really known about the IRA during all the years I had covered the Troubles as a reporter. And if I was beginning to realise that I knew less than I thought I did about the IRA there was no doubt about how little I knew about the Loyalists. I’d had many dealings with the Ulster Defence Association but the UVF was a different matter entirely. I knew next to nothing about it and to my knowledge only one or two journalists have ever got close to it. Yet it was a key group on the Loyalist side, more violent and responsible for more deaths than the UDA yet essentially it was closed off to the world. These groups had shaped and dominated our lives for decades yet what did we really know about the ways in which they worked? With all these organisations it was difficult to get any deeper than the surface and often a surface that skilled spin doctors had carefully polished and prepared so we would get only the reflected views they wanted us to see.

How these organisations had developed and grown and why, how they worked, how strategies were developed, how personalities affected all this and how these groups interacted with their communities, how they survived against the efforts of the security forces to destroy them were key questions. What were their lives like as members of the IRA and UVF, what were their experiences and what did they make of an existence spent in this way? And at the end of the conflict did they feel it had been worth it?

And then there were some of the key events of the Troubles: the civil rights period, the slide into violence, August 1969, the Falls curfew, internment, the Bloody Sundays and Fridays, the surge in Loyalist violence, the UWC strike, the Shankill Butchers and so. These were the events that shaped and formed the conflict but how were they seen and experienced at the level of the participants? Was it different from the versions we had been fed at the time?

This was all the stuff of real history and it seemed both necessary and important to try to do what could be done to collect it.

Just embarking on a project like this meant that we would ruffle feathers, particularly those of the leadership of the Provisionals who would object to a project such as this because they did not control it or its product. But we did not set out to ruffle feathers even though we knew that was bound to happen. Despite the best efforts of some to suggest otherwise this project was approached in a very scientific, scholarly and value-free fashion.

The idea of the archive had various stimuli. One was the Linenhall Library’s Political Collection, something that had always fascinated me and which I had long admired. The very first article I had published in Ireland was about the collection. I admired the extraordinary foresight that had led to its creation and throughout my career in journalism I always made sure that the Linenhall got copies of important documents that came my way. That, after all, is one of the ways in which history is preserved and recorded, one donated document at a time.

The second influence, to which I had been exposed in the late 1990’s, was the Irish Government’s Bureau of Military History’s archive on the struggle for Irish Independence between 1913 and 1921. It had been created in 1947 with the aim of recording the experiences of those who had fought on the republican side during the Anglo-Irish War, from the creation of the Irish Volunteer movement onwards.

What was intriguing about the archive was its size, some 1700 individual interviews, mostly noted rather than taped and conducted with the rank and file of the Volunteers, the IRA, Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizens Army, the IRB and SInn Fein. Although confined to just one side in the conflict what struck me about this archive is that it gave ordinary activists the chance to tell their stories.

One key point about the Bureau of Military History archive is that the Irish government could afford to wait a quarter of a century before beginning it. The period it studied encompassed just seven or eight years and those involved in 1913 say, would likely still be alive and their memories still reasonably reliable by 1947. Our conflict lasted some 30 or 40 years. People who were in the IRA or UVF in 1966 or 1969 would almost certainly be dead if researchers were to wait until 2030 before beginning their work. And since it was especially important to talk to the older, founder members of the various groups a certain urgency drove the impulse behind this idea.

But it was of course the Good Friday Agreement that really made the archive a viable proposition. Although there was still much territory to cover before the agreement could be said to be set in concrete it was obvious that the war was over when this idea began to take more tangible shape. By 2000 we’d had the Omagh bombing and the coalition of dissident groups responsible for that incident, the Real IRA, Continuity and the INLA, had broken apart and were either on or heading towards their own ceasefires or in serious decline. With the war ending or about to end the time was right to to start collecting first-hand accounts.

So it was, serendipitously, that towards the end of 2000 or the beginning of 2001, I was approached by Paul Bew, politics professor at QUB and a friend, who had just spent some time as a visiting lecturer at Boston College. While there the librarian, Bob O’Neill mentioned that the college was interested in beginning a collection, perhaps something like that at the Linenhall, to mark the ending of the Troubles. Paul asked if I had any ideas and after some thought I came back with the suggestion of the oral history archive.

The concept forming in my mind was more ambitious than the college was then prepared to take on. I wanted the IRA and other republican groups to form one part obviously, but also the Loyalist paramilitaries and the police, then the RUC. In time it might even be possible, I imagined, to extend the archive to the British Army, or at least to the UDR element of it.

But that would cost a lot of money. BC wanted to see how the first part dealing with Republicans went before committing to anything more ambitious or expensive but eventually we were able to expand the project to include the Ulster Volunteer Force and, briefly, the RUC. The UVF part of the project survived until the end but not so the RUC. Unfortunately the researcher that was provided turned out not to be fit for purpose.

The Republican part of the archive was first to get started quite simply because it was easier to do. And we had an interviewer, eminently well qualified, ready to go. Anthony McIntyre was a PhD student of Paul Bew’s (as incidentally was the UVF researcher, Wilson McArthur), his thesis was on the early development of the IRA and he had spent long enough in the IRA to know his way around.

Recently his detractors have decried him as a dissident but that is neither fair nor true. I think it would be more accurate to describe him as a dissenter, an apostate. A dissident wants the violence to continue but anyone who knows Mackers will know that his opposition to resuming violence is both genuine and deeply rooted. He was and is a classic and at times, I have to say, profoundly irritating iconoclast – although I say that as a friend – and knowing him as well as I do now I have often wondered how he was able to stay in any organisation much less a group like the IRA. He is a critic of the Adams leadership for sure. He supports the peace while critiquing the process but he’s also a critic of just about everybody else on the Irish political stage and that includes all the dissident groups. And that same iconoclastic set of mind made him, in my view, an asset. After all iconoclasts question everyone and everything they come across – and they rarely tolerate nonsense.

We had decided at an early stage that this project would be best handled by academically qualified former members or associates of the groups being studied. Not only would interviewees be more likely to trust them but they would know their way around a terrain that would be foreign and hostile to the conventional academic interviewer. They would also have well refined bullshit detectors not available to such people.

The security of the project was the number one issue on our minds when we set about preparing the ground. The threat came from two directions. The first was the republican movement. We did not seek nor did we expect to get the co-operation of the Provo leadership for an enterprise like this and I don’t think I need to go into detail about the reasons why.

If they were to co-operate then as sure as night followed day we would be fed a stream of interviewees ready to swear of a stack of bibles that Gerry had never been near the IRA in his life and nor had Martin (and remember that in 2000, Martin was also denying any IRA history. Only when the Bloody Sunday Tribunal threatened to challenge this, did his memory make a remarkable recovery). I’d had a stomach-full of this sort of manipulation as a journalist and the idea of pursuing this enterprise with the co-operation of their leadership could only have rendered it a piece of political vaudeville, as far removed from a serious analysis of the IRA as one could get.

At this point, I was nearing the mid-point in my research for A Secret History of the IRA and I had learned a number of valuable lessons. One was that there were lots of secrets that the Provo establishment would prefer to keep very closely hidden; another was that they would severely punish any members who betrayed those secrets. And I also knew very well that they would be ever on the alert and lookout for any chance that this might happen. Accordingly, I kept electronic communication to a minimum during the preparatory period and when we actually got started all emails and similarly transmitted documents were encrypted. A leak could have been disastrous for the researcher and the interviewees.

The second threat was from the security authorities but at that point it seemed less threatening than it does now. Prisoners were beginning to be released under the terms of the GFA and it was a fair bet that the final political settlement would, in return for decommissioning, include an amnesty of some sort. Indeed one was negotiated at Weston Park in 2005 but then, for reasons that confound me, it was torpedoed by Sinn Fein, apparently because it would close off their ability to demand inquiries into security force excesses. Their reluctance to let that go may, with hindsight, be judged one of the most foolish mistakes of the peace process.

Nonetheless, we were acutely aware that the interviews needed to be protected from the prying eyes of policemen and prosecutors and it was the first item in our negotiations with Boston College. I can go into all the details later about the various contracts that were drawn up and how they were interpreted and why it was that we believed that the contracts echoed Boston College’s assurances to us that the interviews were legally safe.

When we began we received an assurance from the librarian at Boston College that no interviews would be allowed to be deposited there if there was any risk attached to them and our clear understanding of that was that we were talking about the risk of the interviews falling into the hands of the RUC or some other section of the security apparatus. The project went ahead on that basis. It now appears from affidavits presented by Boston College to the courts over the last year or so that their private definition of that risk was very different from what we were told; that what they really meant was that they judged the possibility of such a thing happening as very low, based on conversations they had had with figures in NI public life. But that is not what we were told. Had we been told that then the project would have been stillborn.

At this point it is important to remember that the UVF was also involved in the Boston College project. They joined two years after the republican collection began. The UVF’s decision to take part followed meetings between their representatives and Boston College here in Belfast at which they asked for and were given specific assurances that the recently created PSNI would not be able to access any of their interviews.

In the case of the republican part of the archive, the dealings were between myself, Anthony McIntyre and Boston College. Neither the IRA nor Sinn Fein were involved. But in the UVF’s case their representatives did take part and knowing them as we do, I think it is beyond doubt that the UVF as a corporate entity would never have agreed to participate in such a project as this in the absence of such assurances.

We knew, or thought we knew who we were dealing with. Boston College is one of North America’s elite universities, with a well established name for involvement in Irish studies and a track record of participation in cross-community programmes intended to assist the peace process. They were the good guys, the reputable leaders of a distinguished school of learning, or so we believed, and we trusted them. When they gave us their word, we were inclined to believe them.

With the benefit of hindsight it is difficult not to conclude that in an eagerness to obtain an archive of considerable value and rarity, BC provided guarantees to us that they could not stand over, then took their eye off the ball. BC now says it was aware of the legal dangers all along and claim to have told us repeatedly but if that was true then why did BC allow the book, VFTG and the associated TV documentary, to be produced. BC’s legal department, after all, was intimately involved in the negotiations with the publisher, the TV producers and of course myself. These were the same people who drew up and approved the project’s contracts. If there was a risk that they were aware of why didn’t they raise it at this crucial point? And I can tell you that if they had told us of the risk then, neither myself nor Anthony McIntyre would ever have countenanced publication.

Sadly Boston College’s behaviour since the subpoenas were served has been nothing short of disgraceful. Although responsible for the guarantees that allowed the project to happen, BC then tried to put the blame on ourselves, that is myself and the researchers. That was a classic example of what I call Abu Ghraib syndrome, of the powerful dumping on the powerless, just as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their military commanders allowed army corporals and privates to carry the can for torture in Iraq so BC had behaved in the same way towards us.

My own suspicion is that if I had not leaked the story that subpoenas had been served on the archive to the New York Times in May 2011, BC would have quietly handed over the interviews. That’s a suspicion but what I do know for sure is that we were supposed to have been kept out of the circle of knowledge about the subpoenas and if there was such a plan and it had gone ahead, the first we would have known about them would be when the PSNI acted upon information in the interviews. To compound their disgraceful failure to stand up for its research project, the researchers and the interviewees, BC has refused to join with us in appealing the lower court’s judgement in favour of the PSNI.

Let us be in no doubt here about the gravity of Boston College’s failure to make a stand on this matter. People could well be killed. My researcher is at risk and so are the people he interviewed. All are at risk of being treated as informers by their former comrades. Some could end up in jail or at least face the possibility of criminal charges. When Boston College undertook this project they gave us and the interviewees a solemn promise that their confidentiality would be protected until death. Now some of them face the possibility of death and the betrayal of their confidentiality. Shame on them.

The people here at ICAN also asked that I address another question: what regrets do I have and what lessons can be learned? The regret I have goes beyond the decision to involve Boston College in this project for I have learned in the last few months that universities and colleges in the US, and for all I know on this side of the Atlantic as well, are almost universal in their institutional cowardice and cravenness.

It wasn’t just the choice of BC that was wrong but a wider mistake, and this is the lesson for others who follow in our footsteps. The mistake that we made, that I made, was to surrender control of the product, to let a second party take possession of the tapes and transcripts. Once we did that we put ourselves at the mercy of people who did not share our concern for the wellbeing of the interviewees and, when it came to the bit, were troubled only about their selfish, corporate interests.

The project that we undertook was and is important and I hope others try to replicate it but my advice would be to maintain control of the product even if that makes funding more difficult.

I fear however that the impact of the HET/PSNI’s effort to obtain these interviews will have far-reaching, negative implications not just for efforts to tell the full story of the Troubles but for similar research everywhere. We will fight these subpoenas with every breath in our bodies and we will also resist to the utmost any effort to produce criminal charges if they are handed over. The HET’s action here is not only wrong and hypocritical – contrast this investigation into the current handling of the Pat Finucane case for an example of what I mean – but the idea of pursuing participants in a conflict after a difficult peace has been reached is about as wrong-headed, stupid and counter productive as it is possible to be.

In the end the most insidious aspect of the HET/PSNI offensive against the Boston College is that it will effectively close down any effort to tell the story of the Troubles from the point of view of the foot soldiers. In that sense the HET is staking a claim on behalf of two groups that only they will be permitted to tell the story of the Troubles. One is the State through its security agencies and the other is the leaders who survived the war and now prosper in the peace. More than any other reason that is why their action, and the silence from those who should not be silent about this affair, should be condemned and resisted with all the force we can muster.

Thank you.

Ed Moloney is an Irish journalist and author. He worked for the Hibernia magazine and Magill before going on to serve as Northern Ireland editor for The Irish Times and subsequently for the Sunday Tribune. He is currently living and working in New York. His first book, Paisley, was a biography of Unionist leader Ian Paisley, co-authored by Andy Pollak and published in 1986. In 2002, he published a bestselling history of the Provisional IRA, A Secret History of the IRA. This was followed, in 2008, by a new edition of Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat. In March 2010, his book Voices from the Grave was published, featured interviews with Brendan Hughes and David Ervine, complied by researchers for Boston College. A documentary based on the book won the best television documentary prize at the annual Irish Film and Television Awards (IFTAs) in February 2011. Moloney was voted Irish Journalist of the Year in 1999. He also blogs at thebrokenelbow.com