This Case Merits Close Inspection
By Catherine Shannon
Special to the Boston Irish Reporter
The recent subpoenas issued to Boston College by the U. S. Department of Justice on behalf of the Police Service of Northern Ireland for the interview tapes and transcripts of two former Provisional IRA members, Brendan Hughes and Delores Price, that are contained in the Burns Library collection of interviews of both republican and loyalist para-militaries is a complicated and perplexing development, having legal, moral and professional historical aspects and ramifications. Not being a lawyer, it is above my pay grade to comment on the legal limits or exceptions to the promise of confidentiality until death under which the interviews were obtained by Ed Moloney and his interview team.
However, there are other aspects to this imbroglio that merit inquiry and consideration. The issues of why and what individuals are behind this PSNI request is intriguing, and there are various possible motives, some more honorable than others. On the one hand, a desire to damage severely the political influence of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams by linking him directly to the murder of Jean McConville and others who were disappeared by PIRA seems likely.
The request for the interview of Delores Price, who is still alive, suggests this as a motive since Price’s recent interview in a Belfast newspaper implies that she had first-hand knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Jean McConville’s disappearance.
Why the British authorities are targeting Adams now seems pointless when they undoubtedly could have done so in the past for other offenses, but probably did not do so once they knew he was attempting to move PIRA away from the armed struggle. Moloney’s book “Voices from the Grave,” undoubtedly contains all of the relevant information contained in Brendan Hughes’s oral testimony. Moreover, although Adams won his Co. Louth Dail seat easily, it is probable that the future path and policies of Sinn Fein in the south will be determined more by younger party members, such as Pearse Doherty, who have no direct association with the northern violence and who are more attuned to the priorities of the southern electorate than Gerry Adams.
On the other hand, having done some work with the Families of the Disappeared in recent years, I could not criticize them if they pressed every button and official to find out why and how their loved ones were killed and disappeared. Their concerns may have been the catalyst for this request.
British government backing of the PSNI request is especially perplexing given that London and Dublin jointly agreed on Boston College as the most neutral repository for the files of the Independent Monitoring Commission that oversaw the successful decommissioning of the main republican and loyalist paramilitary organizations. The subpoena action is very one-sided since no requests were made for any transcripts of loyalist paramilitaries. Indeed, the request seems especially hypocritical since the British government has resisted up to now a full and open inquiry into the murder of Catholic nationalist lawyer Pat Finucane, and other murders where, as Nuala O’Loan’s investigations showed, there is credible suspicion of Royal Ulster Constabulary and British army intelligence collusion in loyalist para-military murders of Catholics and republicans. Using material from the Boston College archive to build criminal cases against individual republicans while individual soldiers and police known to be implicated in the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings and the failure to protect Catholic solicitor Rosemary Nelson from loyalist death threats are not held accountable, reflects a double standard of justice.
Should the subpoenas prove successful, there could be multiple negative ramifications. Lives of interviewees or those they talked about could be endangered. It would eliminate the use of the oral history method from ever being used again when there is still so much to be learned about the conflict and its traumatic and tragic impact upon both sides of the northern Irish community. If the tapes were to be destroyed to preserve the confidentiality of the interviewees, as has been suggested, a unique and valuable resource for future scholars will be lost forever.
It is significant that one of the originators of the oral history project was Professor Paul Bew of Queen’s University, Belfast, whose politics are Unionist and who served as an advisor to Unionist leader David Trimble before and after the Good Friday Agreement. As a historian with deep and detailed knowledge of the complexities of Northern Irish history and politics, Professor Bew appreciated the huge value and significance that oral interviews of the respective combatants would ultimately bring to a ore complete and accurate understanding of the causes and nature of the conflict. I suspect he would not want this collection to be endangered in any way.
As a historian who has conducted oral history interviews of Northern Irish women about their experiences of the northern conflict I have a strong appreciation of the need for confidentiality and why it is crucial to providing credible historical perspective and evidence.
Lastly, the British government owes a debt of gratitude to Boston College, which as an institution has been in the forefront of advancing the Northern Irish peace process for at least two decades. The university provided a venue for Unionist politicians as well as loyalists to explain their positions, which gave Boston’s Irish Americans a more accurate understanding of the complexities of Northern Irish situation.
With funding from the U.S. government, the Irish Institute at BC has organized numerous programs for Northern Irish politicians, civil servants, and leaders in civic society that have advanced their skills in fostering cross-community cooperation and reconciliation. These programs have played a role in the noticeable improvement of community relations in many parts of the north. Indeed, the oral history project itself is a testament to the institution’s efforts to facilitate reconciliation by providing a way for paramilitaries from both sides to tell the truth about their motivations and participation. Such truth telling is often a way for individuals to eventually reconcile their past activities with personal struggles of conscience and often can lead to an individual commitment to prevent future outbreaks of violence.
On balance it would appear that withdrawing the subpoena would provide a greater service to individual and community reconciliation in Northern Ireland than would be gained by the surrender of the Hughes and Price interviews.
Catherine Shannon is Professor Emerita of History at Westfield State University. Between 1982 and 1998, she convened six conferences designed to facilitate the constitutional process to resolve the Northern Irish conflict. She has published a number of chapters and articles on the impact of the conflict on Northern Irish women.