Seizure of files could mean we’ll never hear the truth

Seizure of files could mean we’ll never hear the truth
Unravelling the Boston College history project could damage the principle of confidentiality, writes Brian Rowan
Thursday, 5 January 2012
Belfast Telegraph

In recent years Northern Ireland has become a kind of visiting post for those living in international conflict zones and who want to learn about peace building and processes.

They come to speak to those who have been at the coalface of the various ‘wars’ – former prisoners and ex-combatants; republican and loyalist.

And they also want to learn about media reporting of conflict, who we talked to and didn’t talk to. Did we talk to all sides, or take sides?

A few weeks ago it was a Basque delegation, visiting not long after ETA had declared a definitive cessation of violence.

Iraqi parliamentarians have been here, and journalists from the Middle East.

Some think we have all the answers and the peace formula.

And, while our process has dotted i’s and crossed t’s on many of the big issues – ceasefires, arms decommissioning, prisoners, new politics and policing – there is still unfinished business.

Most of this relates to the question of the past – to the victims issue and to what is called truth or information recovery.

And the difficulties that still exist can be seen in the legal action to gain access to recorded interviews that are part of a history project within Boston College.

Republicans and loyalists were interviewed on the basis of confidentiality; that their contributions would remain secret until after death.

But the police here are interested in recordings and transcripts relating to the abduction and execution of mother-of-10 Jean McConville, whose body was disappeared by the IRA in 1972. Her remains were not found until 2003, and the story is one of the most horrific chapters in a decades-long conflict.

In his interviews for the Boston project, former senior IRA figure Brendan Hughes, who died in 2008, implicates Gerry Adams in the killing, something the Sinn Fein President has repeatedly denied.

The police have reason to believe that there is other information in other interviews held in Boston College, and, understandably, they want access to it. None of this should surprise us.

It happens in the world of journalism and reporting – material, video and photographs, is often sought when police believe it has an evidential worth.

You can go back to the killings of two corporals at an IRA funeral in 1988, and, more recently, to the riots that are still part of unsettled marching disputes.

Investigation is still part of what happens here.

There is no amnesty, no agreed truth and reconciliation process, and, so, there is still the possibility of arrest and prosecution.

In all of this there is a danger the Boston project could unravel.

Two senior loyalists – William ‘Plum’ Smith and Winston ‘Winkie’ Rea – have told this newspaper they want their interviews returned.

Their concern, they say, is not about the content, but about the principle.

“I have asked for the tapes back because Boston College cannot guarantee the basis on which the interviews were given,” Smith said.

This is a reference to confidentiality until after death.

Smith was in the group that recently spoke to the visiting Basque delegation, as was the senior UDA figure Jackie McDonald.

These are the people the visitors most want to speak to – and their republican equivalents.

But what is happening in Boston could damage these types of engagements.

This is the wider “ramifications” that Smith has referred to.

If those who fought at the coalface still think there is a chance of being pursued by police, then they will keep their stories and experiences to themselves.

What is happening in Boston will play into other story-telling arenas.

The ‘wars’ are not yet history and are far from being forgotten.

We know the Historical Enquiries Team will continue its work until the end of 2013. And then at a political level the big questions of amnesty, truth recovery and story-telling will have to be considered.

Some now realise they have spoken too soon, and are trying to swallow their words.