Battle Over Northern Ireland Archive
From the Bureau for International Reporting: 14 years after peace came to Northern Ireland, a legal battle is erupting over the release of confidential interviews with former combatants of the Troubles. The US Department of Justice has subpoenaed several recordings being held at Boston College, on behalf of British law enforcement that is investigating a 40 year old murder. On Sept 7, The US First Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in this fascinating case that raises competing interests of US First Amendment law, peace and security in a still-fragile Northern Ireland, and potential justice for a horrible crime.
JEFFREY BROWN: And next, the ghosts of the past in Northern Ireland coming to life in a new legal battle that is playing out on both sides of the Atlantic.
NewsHour special correspondent Kira Kay has the story.
KIRA KAY: It has been 14 years since peace came to Northern Ireland with the so-called Good Friday Agreement that ended the three decades of sectarian conflict here known as the Troubles.
But vivid memories remain of the violence between nationalist militants like the IRA and the British army and loyalist paramilitaries that killed more than 3,000 people.
In 2001, a group of academics set out to collect the oral history of Northern Ireland’s combatants, they say to record the truth, before it was too late.
ANTHONY MCINTYRE, Belfast Project: I think we have to understand why people become involved in conflict, why people who would I live normal, peaceful lives are drawn into the most violent of conflicts. Once these people have died, those voices would be lost forever.
KIRA KAY: One-time IRA member Anthony McIntyre served 17 years in prison for murder of a loyalist foe.
After his release, he earned his Ph.D. He was hired by Irish journalist Ed Moloney to help create what they called the Belfast Project, an audio archive of around 40 interviews with former fighters.
William “Plum” Smith, a former loyalist combatant, was a participant.
WILLIAM ‘PLUM’ SMITH, former loyalist militant: We had a story that hadn’t been told, that needed to be told, so that people in the future from different countries involved in conflict could maybe look at our situation and benefit from it educationally.
KIRA KAY: An ocean away, Boston College was eager to include the Belfast Project in its renowned collection of Irish research.
JACK DUNN, Boston College: The enterprise of oral history has great importance to the academic world to helping to solve sectarian strife.
KIRA KAY: Jack Dunn is Boston College’s spokesman.
JACK DUNN: Being the repository of the Belfast Project, of these tapes regarding the Troubles, seemed like a logical thing for a university of our caliber to do.
WILLIAM “PLUM” SMITH: This was just a pure, simple one-page agreement that we signed.
KIRA KAY: Interviewees like William Smith were promised that their testimony would remain confidential until their deaths. And that’s how it went for years, the tapes hidden away under lock and key on Boston College’s campus.
But in 2010, that all changed, after infamous IRA commander Brendan Hughes died and his interviews were released.
BRENDAN HUGHES, former IRA commander: A lot of the stuff that I am saying here, I’m saying it in trust, because I have a trust in you. I have never, ever, ever admitted to being a member of the IRA, never. I have just done it here.
KIRA KAY: And then, last summer, a bombshell: The U.S. Department of Justice, acting on behalf of United Kingdom law enforcement, subpoenaed the tapes of several interview subjects who were still alive.
JACK DUNN: What led to the subpoenas was the fact that one of the participants, Dolours Price, had given an interview with Irish media, in which she had referenced the tapes and implicated herself in the murder and abduction of Jean McConville.
HELEN MCKENDRY: daughter of Jean McConville: It never goes away. You wake up with it in morning and it’s there at night when you go to bed. It just never leaves you. Even after 40 years, it’s still hard.
KIRA KAY: Helen McKendry was 15 years old in 1972, when her mother, Jean McConville, was branded an informant by the IRA.
HELEN MCKENDRY: The IRA came and kicked the door in. The kids were screaming, but they didn’t pay attention to anybody, just dragged my mother out of the house. And that was the last she was ever seen of.
KIRA KAY: McConville disappeared for three decades, until her body was found on a beach in 2003.
Word that the Boston College archives might hold answers spurred authorities to reinvigorate the case and raised the hopes of Helen and her husband, Seamus.
HELEN MCKENDRY: To me, it’s important that I know what’s on the tape and also maybe, you know, there will be a court case, and someone will pay for what they did to my mother.
SEAMUS MCKENDRY, husband of Helen McKendry: And I would implore them to release the tapes. It’s not just compassion we are looking for. It’s reality, you know? This might give my wife the peace she deserves.
KIRA KAY: But researcher Anthony McIntyre says there are greater considerations.
ANTHONY MCINTYRE: Regardless of what individual victims may want — and what they want is fully understandable — the researcher must at all times seek to protect their sources.
KIRA KAY: The Justice Department argues it is compelled to demand the interviews on behalf of the U.K. under something called the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty that promises cooperation on criminal investigations.
Jonathan Albano is a First Amendment lawyer working pro bono for the American Civil Liberties Union.
JONATHAN ALBANO, attorney: There are significant First Amendment issues raised when the government, in this case a foreign government, is seeking a judicial order requiring academics or journalists to turn over confidential materials.
KIRA KAY: Albano says the treaties the U.S. signs with its allies do not automatically override the protections given to journalists by the Supreme Court.
JONATHAN ALBANO: I’m not saying, so, therefore, all subpoenas are off-limits. What we are saying is this is an important enough area where people have the right to be heard, and you really do have to carefully engage in an analysis of, is there a real need what will be the potential harm, and is it worth imposing these kinds of burdens on protected First Amendment communications?
KIRA KAY: Back in Northern Ireland, there are concerns the tapes release will hinder, not help, the search for truth.
ANTHONY MCINTYRE: If the daughter of this particular victim gets answers through the Boston College tapes, then that is going to close down the very real potential for the other victims getting answers, because people will not come forward as part of a truth recovery process if the information that they divulge is to be used against them in courts.
KIRA KAY: Former militant William Smith says its already happening on the streets of Belfast, where he works with ex-combatants. And so he wants his tapes back.
WILLIAM “PLUM” SMITH: The damage that it’s doing to truth recovery, or conflict transformation, is tremendous. People will not talk now.
KIRA KAY: Anthony McIntyre suspects there is political motivation behind the British state’s demand for the archive.
Gerry Adams, the well-known Irish nationalist politician, was implicated in both the Brendan Hughes tapes and the Dolours Price interview. But he has repeatedly denied he was an IRA member or had anything to do with Jean McConville’s murder.
McIntyre says he’s now been labeled an informant. His wife, Carrie Twomey, is American. Her husband can’t travel to the U.S. because of his murder conviction, so she is lobbying on his behalf.
CARRIE TWOMEY, wife of Anthony McIntyre: I am an American citizen and my children are American citizens. And this is the actions of my government placing our lives in danger. And that is one of the messages that I took to Washington, D.C., when I met with the senatorial offices and members of Congress.
KIRA KAY: Twenty members of Congress have expressed their worries over the subpoenas, including Sen. John Kerry, who urged the State Department to work with the British to revoke their request, writing he was concerned about its impact on the Northern Ireland peace process.
It’s a concern shared by Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness.
MARTIN MCGUINNESS, Northern Ireland deputy first minister: Anybody reading the news reports from the United States here will be very concerned about how that situation is being used by elements who are not favorably disposed to the peace process, in order to use that situation to destabilize the progress that we have made.
KIRA KAY: But the legal battle is working its way through the American court system. Boston College sued to quash the subpoenas, but did agree to allow a judge to read transcripts of the interviews, despite the researchers’ strong objections.
And, in December, that judge found that the U.K.’s request concerned serious allegations of murder that weighed strongly in favor of disclosure of the confidential information. Boston College is now appealing that decision.
JACK DUNN: It is a struggle between obligations. We have an obligation as a university to uphold the enterprise of oral history and academic research, which we value greatly.
And yet we understand the government’s obligation to comply with the treaty with Great Britain. And I also feel an obligation for the McConville kids, who are looking for answers to their 40-year-old question regarding their mother’s horrific murder. So it’s very difficult.
KIRA KAY: Despite the impact this case could have on Northern Ireland and on American law, it remains unclear whether the information on the tapes could actually be admitted as evidence in any prosecution.
But Helen McKendry and her husband wait and hope they will soon have the truth, if not the justice, for what happened to her mother.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Oral arguments in the case begin next month in the Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.