Boston Strangled 1

Boston Strangled 

Private Eye, No. 1297, 16-29 September, 2011

The legal battle in the US that could threaten the entire peace process – and even end up with Gerry Adams himself in the dock.

A highly-charged legal battle is taking place in the US involving academic freedom and the Northern Ireland police investigation into the so-called “disappeared” – people murdered and secretly buried by the IRA – which is attracting little attention on this side of the Atlantic.

Yet it has the potential to damage the power-sharing government of Northern Ireland and the continuing peace process itself. It could even end up with Gerry Adams in the dock charged with one of the most notorious murders/killings of the Troubles.

Boston College, which has done much to “sell” the Good Friday Agreement to an American audience, holds a unique oral history of the Troubles – taped interviews with former paramilitaries, both nationalist and loyalist. They were obtained by historians, academics and journalists on the basis of guaranteed confidentiality – until death.

But now the college has been served with subpoenas, issued by the US attorney’s office on behalf of the British authorities, seeking access to every tape and transcript relating to one of the disappeared, Jean McConville, a widow and mother of ten, who – suspected of being an informant – was killed by the IRA in 1972.

The college has handed over the tapes and transcripts of one former IRA man, Brendan Hughes, because he died in 2008 – and his damning testimony is already in the public domain. But the college is fiercely resisting handing over any more, on the basis that not only does it threaten academic freedom but places some at risk of retribution.

The subpoenas follow publication last year in two Belfast newspapers of an interview with former IRA activist and Old Bailey bomber Dolours Price. As well as incriminating herself, she accuses Sinn Fein president and now Dail parliamentarian Gerry Adams of ordering the McConville murder. Publication forced Adams once again to come out with his standard denial of ever being an IRA member, let alone leader.

Price’s claims are not new. Indeed in both a film and a book – which Adams described as “libelous” – by Ed Moloney, the journalist responsible for gathering the Boston archive, the same allegations are levelled at the Sinn Fein leader by Brendan Hughes. But once it became clear that Adams could steer the IRA from its 30-year history of murder and violence, it seems it has never been in anyone’s long term interest to actively investigate him – or indeed Martin McGuinness, over whom other murderous IRA allegations hang.

As many of those involved in the peace process, including the independent body set up to enable the disarming of the IRA, agreed: “However reprehensible some acts are that were committed in the past, at some point a line needs to be drawn under them – never to forget, but to be able to move on.”

But for the families of the disappeared who are desperate to know what happened to their loved ones, forgetting and moving on is not an option – and that is no doubt what is now driving the moves against the academics at Boston.

The highly questionable value of the tapes as admissible evidence (the tapes were made some years ago) gives weight to those who believe the attempt to have them released is little more than a fishing exercise.

The Eye has also learnt that the subpoenas are based on a false claim that one of the interviews with Price, published in the Sunday Life newspaper in February last year, was based on an interview with the Boston College project – suggesting it had already put recordings in the public domain. That is not true; and no doubt the college will hope that this fundamental flaw in the legal process could lead to the quashing of the subpoenas.

As Ed Moloney wrote recently in the Boston Globe: “The stability of the power-sharing government in Belfast could conceivably be threatened by this case. The United States played a huge role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland; wouldn’t it be ironic if it now played a part in undoing it?” Watch this space.