Back when I was a lad, and there were no such things as blogs or Fox and Friends, Dr. Tom Hachey used to teach the introductory world-history class to freshmen at Marquette University. These courses are very large clusters of fuck on their best days, which are not many, and Tom taught his in the Varsity Theater on Wisconsin Avenue where, on weekends, he was replaced by those surreal movie double-features common to both college movie theaters and the early 1970’s. (My favorite was the one that paired up Lady Sings the Blues and Bananas. I may have brought a different date to each movie. Things are a little cloudy.) Anyway, Tom braved this undergraduate hell for many years before moving along to Boston College.
Once there, he set about building the finest Irish studies department on this side of the pond. A few years ago, his Center for Irish Studies embarked on what it called The Belfast Project, a series of extensive oral-history interviews with as many of the principal players, Protestant and Catholic, as could be found regarding the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the period from roughly 1969 to the Good Friday peace accords. Participants were assured that their contributions would be kept in strictest confidence. Many of the participants were people deeply engaged in the violence that wracked the place over three decades, and they were encouraged to talk about their part in all of it. It was considered to be an important project in the ongoing truth and reconciliation efforts that have been so vital to the peace process that finally took hold in the north of Ireland. It also is the kind of thing in which historians have been engaged for years regarding a number of different topics, an attempt to get living participants in history to set down their personal recollections before everybody involved dies off.
Which, of course, was the British government’s cue to come tromping back on stage with a club in its hand and both feet in its mouth.
The British government has issued subpoenas demanding that B.C. turn over many of the interviews. The United States government has joined in the effort. The British claim that they are looking for evidence of crimes still unsolved, but that is likely all your arse. As has been pointed out by Kevin Cullen, the Boston Globe columnist whose work during the Troubles would have won him about six Pulitzers, had the elite American press ever given a good goddamn about Ireland, the British government’s interest in this material seems rather specifically political. As Cullen reported in the Globe last June…
In an interview in Dublin last month, a former senior member of the IRA told The Boston Globe that many former members of the IRA believe the subpoenas are the work of disgruntled police officers in Northern Ireland and are aimed at embarrassing Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the party that used to be the political wing of the IRA. Adams has always denied he was a member of the IRA. The records being sought are interviews with two former members of the IRA, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, who were highly critical of Adams’s stewardship of the peace process. Both Hughes and Price have alleged that Adams was a senior member of the IRA, involved directly in killings, abductions, and other acts of IRA violence. Hughes died in 2008. Adams is not mentioned in the BC filings, but some BC officials privately believe the subpoenas are aimed at embarrassing Adams following his election earlier this year to the Republic of Ireland’s parliament.
Also, the interest of the British in unsolved crimes seems strangely, well, limited. In August, Cullen pointed out in his column, that,
Given the hundreds of unsolved murders that took place during the Troubles, the idea that the only one of interest in those BC files happens to implicate the leader of the party that represents the majority of Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland shows what this is all about. This isn’t about justice. It’s about revenge. And if this is followed through to its logical conclusion, the power-sharing government will collapse in a sea of recrimination.
Unless the British government plans to break out the kangaroo suits again — always a possibility when dealing with Ireland — almost anything they glean from the materials under subpoena is likely inadmissable in court on a number of grounds. More likely, as the Irish American Unity Council pointed out in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the demands from the British government coincide rather too neatly with the success achieved by Nationalist candidates in the Irish election last February. (The subpoenas were issued at the beginning of March.) What is more than likely is that the British are fishing around for material that they can use to embarrass Nationalist politicians, most notably Adams, who was elected to the Dail Eireann earlier this year. Given the continuing fragility of the peace process, all of this looks grotesquely ham-handed. These dangers are not imaginary. Again, as Cullen reported in June…
Anthony McIntyre, the former IRA volunteer who interviewed former IRA members for the BC project, said in an affidavit that the home next to his in Belfast was attacked with excrement, in what he said was a case of mistaken identity, after a book based in part on the interviews he conducted with Hughes was published. “There were reports in the press of death threats to myself,” wrote McIntyre, who served 18 years in prison for killing a loyalist fighter. “I am of the view that the more the Belfast Project interviews reveal about how deeply matters of the IRA were discussed, the greater the danger that I as the primary researcher will face.”
Which is not even to mention the offense against freedom of inquiry that this represents. It would be nice to see the community of historians engaged on this issue, which seeks to make academic freedom an accomplice to sour political vengeance.