Boston College: The Role Of The Irish News and Sunday Life
The Broken Elbow
The Irish history website, TheWildGeese.com has been hosting a debate between myself and Noel Doran, the editor of the Irish News in Belfast over who was ultimately responsible for the issuing of subpoenas by the PSNI in conjunction with the US Department of Justice seeking oral history material stored at Boston College, Massachusetts.
(Many thanks are due to The Wild Geese, incidentally, for performing this valuable function)
The first subpoena demanded that interviews with the former IRA bomber Dolours Price be handed over to detectives from the PSNI and a second, later subpoena sought any others that deal with the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972 that were collected by the college as part of a Troubles-based oral history project. (The PSNI also wanted Brendan Hughes’ interviews but these were already in the public domain and published in the book Voices From The Grave)
As the former director of the Belfast Project, as it was called, which collected the Boston College interviews, it has been my contention that the subpoenas would never have been issued, and the oral history archive would have remained secure & undisturbed, but for the actions of two reporters at the Irish News and Sunday Life.
In February, 2010 an Irish News reporter, Allison Morris taped an interview with Dolours Price at her home in Dublin about her alleged role in a number of IRA ‘disappearances’ carried out in 1972. As a result of family objections, largely because of Dolours Price’s troubled psychological condition at the time, the article that eventually appeared was toned down; “the juicy bits”, as one family member described them, were largely left out.
If matters had been left at that, everything would have been fine. But it is my strong belief that the tape was then passed on to another journalist, Ciaran Barnes of the Sunday Life, a small Belfast tabloid, and it was this that caused the trouble. Three days later Barnes’ article, a sensationalised account of Dolours Price’s alleged role in the disappearance of Jean McConville and others appeared in the Sunday Life. The story, he claimed, was based on tape recordings that he had listened to.
In May 2011, a few days after the US Department of Justice served subpoenas on Boston College, the Regional Press (i.e. provincial newspapers) awards ceremony was held in London. Hosted by the Society of Editors, the three NI-based players in the Boston College drama, Irish News editor Noel Doran, Irish News reporter Allison Morris and Sunday Life reporter Ciaran Barnes all won prizes. Here Barnes accepts the Specialist Writer of the Year award.
The problem was that he had written the story in such a way as to strongly suggest that the tapes he listened to had come from the archive stored at Boston College. Since I knew this was nonsense, that it simply could not have happened, I concluded that Barnes did this to deflect attention away from the real source, the tape recording made by Allison Morris of the Irish News.
Barnes’ alleged access to the Boston College archive was cited by the US Attorney in Massachusetts as justification for serving the subpoenas. Her implied logic went like this: since we had apparently broken the seal of confidentiality given to Dolours Price by handing the interview over to Barnes we could no longer use that defence and must therefore surrender the material.
The US Attorney’s claim is baseless, however. Ciaran Barnes was never allowed to hear Boston College’s interviews and neither he nor the US Attorney & the PSNI know whether Barnes’ article in any way reflected what Dolours Price had really said in her Boston College interview. Instead his information came from Allison Morris’ tape, something that we have concluded in the weeks and months since the subpoenas were served. Establishing the truth of this would demonstrate that the subpoenas were unjustified and unwarranted and should therefore be withdrawn. That is why I raised the issue when The Wild Geese asked to interview me about the Boston College affair.
Because of limitations on wordage imposed by The Wild Geese I wasn’t able to answer all of Noel Doran’s points on that site and confined myself to two major elements of his defence. I said I would answer the other issues here.
One complaint he made was that I had not run my allegations past him first. That would have been appropriate if I was a disinterested, uninvolved reporter assigned by a news desk to write the story up in a ‘he says/they say’ way. But I am not that reporter. Instead I am the injured party in a far-reaching dispute with other parties over events whose consequences are serious not just for those involved but for the long and proud tradition of oral history in the United States.
A pertinent analogy would be that of Sharon Bialek, the former National Restaurant Association staffer who recently accused Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain of sexual harrassment. If Noel Doran’s logic was followed in that instance then she should have checked with Cain before going public. (“Can I just clarify something Herman before the press conference? When you pulled my head down to your crotch were you looking for a blow job or just inviting me to admire the exquisite artwork on your new leather belt?”) I think not. I make my case, Noel Doran makes his and let the readers judge.
That was one reason why I suggested to The Wild Geese that they get a response both from the Irish News and the Sunday Life. Since I had a dog in the fight, I was not the one to do that. For whatever reason Allison Morris apparently did not respond while the Sunday Life said the paper was not prepared to discuss Ciaran Barnes’ sources for its Dolours Price story.
Noel Doran also disputes the account given to us by members of the Price family and describes at some length his interaction with Dolours Price’s sister, Marian.
Since Marian Price is currently being held on remand at Maghaberry jail and may not be able to read much less respond to this debate, it is rather pointless going back and forth without her input. Suffice it to say that we stand over our version of events.
Noel Doran’s article on The Wild Geese was not the only response from the Irish News on this matter. On October 19th, Allison Morris finally broke her silence and penned this article for her newspaper.
I emailed Noel Doran asking for the right of reply which he granted but with the proviso that my article had to be limited to 500 words. In contrast, Allison Morris’ piece was some 750 words long and limiting my response meant that I was not able to answer every point that she made.
For instance, she wrote that researcher Anthony McIntyre had interviewed people, “most of whom were actively damaged souls dissatisfied with the direction taken by Sinn Fein”. How does she know this? Has she been granted access to the entire archive and read/listened to all the interviews? Of course not. She does not and cannot know who has been interviewed, what they said or what their views were about the Sinn Fein strategy.
Her logic is fatally flawed: because Brendan Hughes was critical of his old colleague Gerry Adams it follows that everyone else interviewed by Boston College must be similarly inclined. Nor does she know who was or was not “damaged” – as nor do I – as she put it. And what does she mean by “damaged” anyway? Is she suggesting that we only sought out people psychologically scarred by the Troubles? If so she should produce the evidence.
I am naturally limited by what I can say about all this but since it is a canard that has gained some currency – not least because of Sinn Fein’s displeasure and anger at Brendan Hughes’ interviews – I feel it is legitimate and necessary to point out that this is not a Provisional IRA archive but a republican archive and its reach stretches across the full spectrum of that tradition’s ideology during the length of the Troubles. After all more than the Provos were involved on the Nationalist side of the conflict.
The only criteria that were applied were these: Was the person willing to give an interview and would they tell the truth, as best as could be ascertained? I can tell you that it was not an easy task persuading people to talk about their paramilitary pasts and that in itself severely limited the size of the pool within which we could fish. As to whether the truth was being told, that is always difficult to judge. But some lies are so obvious, like “I was never in the IRA, only in Sinn Fein”, or “The Official IRA ceased to exist in 1972”, or “The INLA never traded guns or intelligence with Loyalists” that they announced themselves and excluded their tellers from our sort of exercise.
She also suggested that it was Brendan Hughes’ interview which led to the subpoenas being issued when she knows full well it was the Sunday Life story, based on her tapes, which did that.
Despite being denied the space to answer all these points I nonetheless sent Noel Doran the following 500 word article:
Oct 23 – In her weekly column (October 19th), written to answer allegations I made concerning her tape-recorded interview with Dolours Price and its role in the serving of subpoenas on Boston College, your correspondent Allison Morris failed to list, much less answer them. Your readers deserve to know what they were so I will rehearse them here.
At the time of the interview, Dolours Price was under the care of a psychiatric hospital in Dublin and taking strong medication, key facts notably absent from Allison Morris’ column. Dolours was unwell and her family believed that the interview should never have been authorised nor its contents divulged. They even asked Allison Morris to leave her home during the interview but she did not do so.
Allison Morris now claims that the interview was not used and instead her article was based on a separate statement from Dolours Price that she would go to the Disappeared Commission. This is Jesuitical hair-splitting and mendacious since a casual reading of her piece shows that it was based on much more.
If her article was not based on her interview then Allison Morris needs to explain why the chairman of the judges of the Society of Editors praised her “three-page interview with London bomber Dolours Price”, for which he awarded her the Daily/Sunday reporter of the year prize last May.
What happened after the interview was unforgivable. Allison Morris’ tape was passed on to the Sunday Life which wrote the story so that it appeared the reporter had gained access to Dolours Price’s interviews with Boston College when no such thing had happened or would ever have been permitted.
This claimed breach of confidentiality served to justify the subpoenas presented by the US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts which said in its affidavit to the federal court: “….the reporter (Ciaran Barnes) was permitted to listen to portions of Ms Price’s Boston College interviews”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe the Sunday Life wrote its report in this way to hide the real origin of its story, viz Allison Morris’ tape.
Behaviour like this is staggeringly unethical. Its potential consequences, not least for the future of oral history in the US as well as for all those concerned, are unthinkable.
Alison Morris’ astonishing and unsettling disclosure that the PSNI approached the Irish News only after the subpoenas were served, when our responding affidavits highlighted the above facts, begs obvious questions: was the PSNI monstrously incompetent or just giving preferential treatment to NI’s premier Catholic daily paper?
To deflect from her misdeeds, Ms Morris accused me of hypocrisy, of “having…..published a book based on testimony from equally damaged souls”. This is a reference to Brendan Hughes. Whatever his problems, he was not a psychiatric patient on medication. He wanted his account published. That became possible when he died and the pledge of confidentiality was lifted. We treated Brendan Hughes with scrupulous probity. Can Allison Morris say she behaved similarly towards Dolours Price?
The article never appeared. I received the following email from Noel Doran explaining his reasons for not publishing it:
As I said in my last email to you, we would be happy to provide you with a right of reply to the Allison Morris column of October 19. What you have actually offered is a list of separate allegations which, as I have already demonstrated through my detailed factual statement to TheWildGeese.com, are almost all false. If you wish to challenge other decisions taken by the Sunday Life, the PSNI or the Society of Editors, you should contact them directly. We remain ready to give you the opportunity to respond to the points Allison put forward, but, for legal reasons alone, no responsible newspaper could consider publishing your initial contribution. If you wish to revise it, let me know.
I then wrote the following letter to the Irish News hoping that it would see the light of day in the paper’s columns. It never did.
On October 18th, I received the following email from your correspondent, Allison Morris:
In my regular Irish News column due to be published tomorrow, I will be responding to allegations made by yourself during a recent interview with TheWildGeese.com regarding my conduct. A rebuttal has also been submitted to The Wild Geese by Irish News editor Noel Doran for publication.
Your readers should know that my interview with the Wild Geese website concerned the role of the Irish News and Allison Morris in the subpoenas served against Boston College by the US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts on behalf of the PSNI seeking interviews with former paramilitary activists archived there.
Allison Morris’ article duly appeared but she evaded most of what was in my Wild Geese interview and instead ploughed a different field, for instance claiming that Boston College interviewers had chosen as subjects only people who were opposed to the peace process, something she has absolutely no way of knowing. I asked for the right of reply which the editor granted me and I duly sent the article in for publication.
However in an email to me from the editor of the Irish News yesterday I was told that I can only have right of reply to those of my allegations that Allison chose to write about along with spurious additional assertions on her part and nothing else, and that since she chose to ignore the bulk of what I said in that Wild Geese interview that none of my article can therefore appear in the Irish News. This is a novel way of approaching such matters. Person A makes 10 allegations against person B who replies by writing an article in Northern Ireland’s largest Catholic newspaper but answers only 1 of those allegations. Person A asks to respond to that article, is told that he can but only if he ignores the other nine allegations which haven’t been answered and this, person A is told, settles the matter. In another field of activity they might call this kangaroo justice.
I am puzzled as to why the Irish News is behaving like this? If the Irish News has truly been maligned by my allegations and have an answer for them then you would lose absolutely nothing by publishing my right to reply article because, presumably, you would have an answer to all that I say. The fact that you will not give space to my article can lead people to only one conclusion.
A number of issues arise out of all this. One is the behaviour of the PSNI. TheIrish News and Sunday Life articles appeared in February 2010 but the PSNI made no move on the matter of Dolours Price until March 2011 when the procedure for serving subpoenas was initiated. In the prior thirteen months PSNI detectives had made no effort at all, as far as one can ascertain, to interview either Allison Morris or Ciaran Barnes or even to approach their newspapers. Even though the PSNI, its predecessor, the RUC and even Scotland Yard have used subpoenas without compunction in the past and did so with considerable speed against other reporters & newspapers in Northern Ireland no such thing happened to the Irish News or the Sunday Life. Why not?
Instead the only action taken was against Boston College. Only after the college responded to the subpoenas by pointing out that the college had not made its archive available to Ciaran Barnes and that his story was instead based upon Allison Morris’ tape-recorded interview, did detectives in the PSNI stir themselves to perform a task that should have been the first item on their to-do list. It took until June of this year, nearly a month after Boston College had delivered its affidavits and sixteen months after the Irish News and Sunday Life articles were published, for the PSNI to finally get round to questioning Allison Morris. By which time of course she was able to tell them that she had “not retained” the “material” for the story she wrote, i.e. her tape was now swimming with the fishes. Quelle surprise!
So here we have a situation in which the full powers and majesty of the US Department of Justice are being deployed against one of America’s premier colleges on behalf of a police force which didn’t perform even the minimum investigation before seeking its co-operation. They never asked simple questions like: ‘Did Ciaran Barnes really get hold of Dolours Price’s Boston College interview and if so, does he still have it?’, or ‘Are we absolutely sure she said what he claims she said?’ How extraordinary! How do Americans feel about being used in such a shoddy & incompetent way by a foreign police force?
Another issue is this. Whatever about the proprieties of interviewing Dolours Price while she was receiving psychiatric care, Noel Doran behaved properly by not running the full interview when he was made aware of her family’s concerns over her health (even if parts of Allison Morris’ article were clearly based on that interview).
He made a deal with her family which I cannot think he personally dishonoured or ever had any intention to dishonour. But someone did. The logic of events points in only one direction: a person with access to it, made Allison Morris’ tape available to Ciaran Barnes and by so doing betrayed the arrangement Noel Doran had made with the Price family and thus enabled the PSNI to issue subpoenas against Boston College. If I were in his shoes I would be very angry and would want to know exactly who that person was so I could take the appropriate action.
The final issue concerns Ciaran Barnes and the Sunday Life. I understand fully their reluctance to reveal the sources for their Dolours Price story. If I was them I would respond in the same way. But there is nothing to stop them from making it clear that Boston College was not their source, that no-one from the college or the Belfast Project assisted them and that they did not have access to Dolours Price’s interviews lodged at the college. That would not entail naming their source but in this way they could still emerge from this wretched affair with honour.