‘A Chilling Effect on Oral History in This Country’

‘A Chilling Effect on Oral History in This Country’
Q&A With ‘Belfast Project’ Director Ed Moloney
TheWildGeese.com’s Mark Connor interviews

Britain-born journalist Ed Moloney, who covered The Troubles from his posting in Belfast from 1977 to 2001, headed Boston College’s Belfast Project from its inception till its close in 2005. TheWildGeese.com’s Mark Connor put some questions to Moloney last week via Skype, about the subpoenas that the British government filed in May and August demanding access to confidential interviews that the oral-history project gathered from two IRA members. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts delivered the subpoenas on behalf of unidentified British authorities, according to news accounts. In 2002, Moloney authored “A Secret History of the IRA,” and has authored a biography of Loyalist demagogue Rev. Ian Paisley. In 2010, Moloney’s book “Voices from the Grave” was published, which features interviews, compiled as part of the Belfast Project, with two central figures in the Troubles, both now-deceased; IRA member Brendan Hughes and Ulster Volunteer Force member-turned-politician David Ervine. Moloney, now based in New York City, shared with TheWildGeese.com his concern about the threat the subpoenas pose to all oral-history projects. (For more of Moloney’s views on the subpoenas, visit his blog at https://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/)

TheWildGeese.com: Mr. Moloney, what led you in the direction of becoming a journalist and specifically into this area of journalism?

Ed Moloney: I became a journalist partly because I hated teaching and wanted to get out of it, partly because I enjoyed both researching and writing and was just plain nosy and partly because of a fascination with the politics of Northern Ireland. I was a student at QUB (Queens University Belfast) when the civil rights struggle began, observed it up close, and, I suppose, got addicted.

At this stage, this is not an issue that affects journalists, although it may at a later stage. … It is an issue that affects academic freedom and the ability of oral historians to collect life accounts from all sorts of people. If we lose this case, it will have a chilling effect on oral history in America, and that is important. What oral history does is tell the story of people who are not powerful, but ordinary participants in society. If they are discouraged from telling their stories, it means that history and the explanation of society is even more in the control of the powerful than it already is. The sort of examples I am thinking of is, say, people who were involved in the Black Panther movement, which was very close ideologically to the IRA. If there is a risk that the FBI will come looking for their interviews in order to press criminal charges, then they will not speak to oral historians, and their stories will be lost forever. Instead, we will have to rely on the Al Sharptons of America to tell a story of which they were never a part.

WG: My understanding is that there were 60 subjects interviewed in this project. First, is that the specific number or were there more, and second, what prompted the (Belfast) Project, what was the express purpose behind it?

Ed Moloney: I have never given any figure as to the number of interviewees and never would. It was the Good Friday Agreement, or rather the end of the conflict that it signaled, that was the spur for the project. A similar project had been conducted in the South [the lower 26 counties, eventually named The Republic of Ireland] after the Anglo-Irish War, and I thought it was important to tell a similar story, that of those on both sides who had fought in the war. But the Anglo-Irish War was very short compared to the Troubles in the North. In the South, they could wait 20 years or so for passions to quiet before starting the project. Our conflict had already lasted for 30 years, those involved were getting old, especially people who had been there at the start. So there was an urgency to get it going before key people died. Essentially, it was done to ensure that the unique viewpoint of those in the trenches was told when the history of the troubles was written.

WG: How did you convince so many combatants—and specifically Irish Republican and British Loyalist—to open up to you about their involvement? Did you conduct all of these interviews or most of them yourself? Were you seen as a neutral party or generally trusted and/or suspected by your subjects as more Nationalist or Unionist in your identity when you interacted?

Ed Moloney: I did none of the interviews at all. The project would not have been possible had I tried to do that. The researchers, one for IRA (members) and one for UVF, were chosen a) because of their academic qualifications, a Ph.D. in one case, an Honours degree in the other and b) because of their own association with the groups being interviewed. It was obvious that people who had been in the IRA or UVF would not open up to journalists or other academics, but would be prepared to do so to people from their own background who they could trust. So I played no part in the interviews, and although I suggested names, it was up to the researchers to choose interviewees and persuade them to talk. Although I read the interviews and made comments and suggestions, I did not know, nor want to know who was being interviewed, although obviously I could guess at some. That way, security and trust was strengthened.

WG: As a veteran journalist, can you first describe your personal stake in these subpoenas and, secondly, elaborate on what it means for all journalists and the public at large? Are you aware of previous court rulings related to your case, and do you have an expectation of how your situation will finally be resolved?

Ed Moloney: I don’t know how our case will be resolved, but obviously we hope to win. We have a great lawyer working for us, Eamonn Dornan, who has put together a very clever argument based upon the U.S. Senate’s promise and commitment they got from the British that no person involved in anything prior to the GFA (Good Friday Agreement) could be sought for extradition in the U.S. If they can’t be extradited, then neither should their interviews be extradited. When we started this project, it was pre-9/11. Then we had the attacks, and the story thereafter in the U.S. has been one of unhampered state surveillance and unprecedented powers by people like the FBI to snoop and spy, and we, unfortunately, have been caught up in that. But for 9/11, Bush, Obama, and Osama Bin Laden, I don’t think this would be happening because the authorities wouldn’t dare.

WG: I understand that both Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price told you during interviews that Gerry Adams ordered the killing of Jean McConville. I also understand that the British government’s interest in getting a hold of the interviews includes finding evidence of who killed her. There are other implications from an intelligence point of view, including discovery of what information about British agents has been documented, in which the British government must surely also be interested. So from a journalist’s point of view and from the point of view of a citizen in a democracy, how fair do you feel the national security argument is in this or related cases, especially given that a treaty to end the conflict was signed in 1998?

Ed Moloney: Your understanding is not correct. Brendan Hughes certainly did name Adams as the person who ordered the killing of Jean McConville, but there is no evidence that in her interviews with BC (Boston College) that Dolours Price did the same. It is important to understand how this all happened and the background. Dolours Price is an IRA veteran, but she has also been psychologically scarred by her experiences in the IRA. She suffers from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome) … and suffers from substance abuse. Her condition has deteriorated in recent years, a long time after she gave her interviews to BC. In February 2010, Dolours was in a psychiatric hospital in Dublin and while there she contacted the Irish News in Belfast and said she had things to tell the paper. That weekend, she was given leave to go home, but she was technically still under psychiatric care from the hospital. The Irish News‘ journalist Allison Morris arrived at her home and tape-recorded the interview. Dolours told a story about her involvement in the disappearance of several people in 1972, including Jean McConville. Toward the end of the interview, one of her sons arrived home and realized what was happening. He told Morris that his mother was a psychiatric patient, was taking drugs and was not in a fit state to give anyone an interview, that whatever she said was totally unreliable. He demanded that the interview end and that the tape not be used. Morris refused. He then phoned his aunt, who repeated the demand and was again refused. She then phoned the editor of the Irish News, and, after much discussion, he said that he would use the interview but agreed to keep “the juicy bits” out to minimize the damage to Dolours Price, which he did. We believe that what happened next was that Allison Morris betrayed Dolours Price and reneged on the agreement with her family and passed the tape on to a friend, Ciaran Barnes, who worked in the Sunday Life, a tabloid Belfast newspaper. He wrote up the story with “the juicy bits” very much in, and, in order to disguise the fact that he had got the information from Allison Morris’ tape, wrote the piece in such a way that it appeared that he had gained access to Dolours Price’s taped interviews at Boston College, which needless to say was impossible. It is on the basis of this deception that the subpoenas were served on Boston College, that the information in Barnes’ article came from BC when it didn’t. The information, in fact, came from the Irish News tape, which was passed on, in contravention of an agreement with Dolours Price’s family, to Barnes. Whether the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) have ever tried to obtain the Irish News tape is a mystery, which no one seems able to solve. But there is no doubt that the subpoenas served on BC are based on a lie, that the admissions Dolours Price allegedly made and which were reported in the Sunday Life came from Boston College. They did not. …

This is what the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney (Carmen M. Ortiz) had to say in her subpoena to justify the demand for Dolours Price’s interviews:

“Ms. Price’s interviews by Boston College were the subject of news reports published in Northern Ireland in 2010, in which Ms. Price admitted her involvement in the murder and ‘disappearances’ of at least four persons whom the IRA targeted: Jean McConville, Joe Lynskey, Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee. See Exhibits 1 and 2. Moreover according to one news report, the reporter was permitted to listen to portions of Ms. Price’s Boston College interviews.”

That last sentence is a lie. He (Barnes) was not and never would be permitted access to Boston College’s interviews. Boston College is the victim of journalistic ethics in Belfast that are on a par with Rupert Murdoch’s hacking operations, and you can quote me.

WG: What can readers of The Wild Geese do to lend support for you in your struggle to protect your sources in the case? Is there a central location on the web or elsewhere for information and also to contact or advocate?

Ed Moloney: I would ask your readers to write to their congressmen/senators along the following lines:

PLEASE TAKE ACTION ON THIS VERY IMPORTANT ISSUE.
U. S. RESIDENTS:
Write Your Representative:
http://www.house.gov/writerep/

Tell them you are calling on them to use their good office to put an end to the legal fiasco surrounding the subpoena of oral history tapes of the IRA from Boston College by the PSNI. (Refer them to the Boston College Subpoena News on Facebook for complete details and updates).

Mention that you can’t understand why the U.S. government is taking drastic legal action against a U.S. college on behalf of a foreign government? Tell them you don’t see any reason why the U.S. has to be party to this investigation. There is nothing positive to be gained by these actions and it will only serve to jeopardize the lives of all those involved in the project.

Make sure you point out that the PSNI are only interested in republican oral histories and that they have not demanded the same access to oral histories given by loyalists. Explain that you feel the focus on IRA interviews seems to support the notion that the inquiry is “politically motivated.”

Let them know that such credible Irish organizations in the USA, namely the AOH, the Irish American Unity Conference and the Brehon Law Society have joined the campaign to help put an end to this politically motivated fishing expedition. Tell your representative that you are concerned that there exists the potential to destabilize the Good Friday Agreement if the PSNI continues to take legal action against Boston College.

Make sure you sign off by letting them know you would appreciate the courtesy of a reply from them as to how they can be of assistance in this matter.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Neither reporters Ciaran Barnes nor Allison Morris could be reached for comment on Moloney’s assertions about their actions with Morris’ interview with Dolours Price. We e-mailed Sunday Life Editor Martin Breen the following Oct. 4: “We’ve interviewed Ed Moloney about developments with the British government’s subpoenas issued to Boston College, demanding access to two interviews from its oral history project. Moloney says that one of your reporters, Ciaran Barnes, received audio of an interview conducted by Allison Morris of the Irish News with Dolours Price, and used it as the basis of some reports you published, without revealing the source of the quotations. Moloney says that Morris violated an agreement with an Irish News editor, made with Price’s family, to not cause to have published “the juiciest bits,” which, according to Moloney, subsequently appeared in Barnes’ reporting. We’d like a response from the newspaper, ideally one from Barnes himself, about these assertions. Can you assist?” The following day, Breen e-mailed TheWildGeese.com the following in reply: “Sunday Life did not name its sources in the article and has no intention of naming them now.” Moloney told TheWildGeese.com that his information about Price’s condition the day Morris interviewed Price and the details of the Irish News’ attempt to meet the concerns of Price’s family came from directly from Price’s family.]