Wall Street Journal: IRA History Project Snags U.S. School

School Fights Release of IRA-Related Tapes
Boston College Says Demand by Northern Ireland Police Infringes on Academic Freedom; Others Cite Risk of Retribution
Wall Street Journal
9 January 2012

A U.S. appeals court is weighing whether Boston College must turn over to criminal investigators recordings from an oral history project about Northern Ireland that could expose embarrassing secrets of the Irish Republican Army’s past.

The case suggests new legal hurdles and costs for universities that gather historical records of conflicts around the world.

At the heart of the legal dispute is the unsolved, nearly 40-year-old killing of Jean McConville, a widowed mother abducted in front of her children and murdered by the IRA as a suspected spy for the British government. The IRA has admitted to the murder though the killers never were identified.

Her death came as violence swept through Northern Ireland in the 1970s, with paramilitary groups targeting civilians and each other. The McConville case went nowhere for decades. Her body was discovered in 2003 when a beach embankment washed away, but it offered few clues about the killers.

A 2010 book included an account of her murder by Brendan Hughes, now dead, who had been in the IRA. Around the same time, an Irish newspaper reported that former IRA member Dolours Price said she drove Ms. McConville to the killers. Both accounts offered fresh versions of the killing, and both suggested that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams gave the orders that led to her death.

Mr. Adams has long denied being a member of the IRA or having anything to do with Ms. McConville’s death. In 2005, the IRA renounced violence.

Mr. Hughes and Ms. Price had given extensive interviews to researchers for Boston College who compiled first-person accounts from ex-paramilitary members on both sides of the conflict. Researchers had promised participants their stories wouldn’t be shared until after their deaths, but earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department, acting on behalf of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, sought to force the college to turn over any material about Ms. McConville.

In particular, they are seeking the tapes of Ms. Price, who was once married to the actor Stephen Rea and currently lives near Dublin. She couldn’t be reached for comment.

Boston College has spent months arguing in federal court that turning over the archive material would infringe upon academic and journalistic freedom. But late last month, a judge in U.S. District Court in Boston ordered the material be provided. A federal appeals court issued a stay while it reviews the case.

Supporters of the IRA’s political arm, Sinn Fein, and Irish-American activists who have long backed the IRA’s cause contend the demand for the material is more a politically motivated witch hunt against Mr. Adams than a serious criminal probe.

“Had I thought for a minute that anybody may have faced prosecution or had any of these tapes subject to subpoena, I would not have been involved in the project,” said Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member who conducted many of the Boston College interviews.

Mr. McIntyre contends that if the material is given to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, some of those who spoke to him may face violent retribution from their former compatriots.

Kevin Winters, a Belfast lawyer, represents at least four people who participated in the project and are now seeking to get their tapes returned before they may be turned over to investigators. “They took part in this as a positive contribution to the peace process, to later find out they’re being used potentially as pawns to serve some sort of political agenda,” said Mr. Winters.

A spokesman for Mr. Adams declined to comment on the battle over the oral-history records, saying “it is a matter for the U.S. courts and Boston College.”

James Cullen, an American lawyer who has long been involved in issues surrounding Northern Ireland, said he had already been approached by other academic historians concerned about the case.

If the IRA material is turned over to investigators, he said, “you will never be able to get the other side of history that was out there. You will be left with the government’s version, or the victor’s version.”

A spokeswoman for the Northern Ireland police declined to discuss the case in detail, saying only that the investigation continues and the agency looks forward “to an early conclusion” by the appeals court in the U.S.

Separately, a person close to the investigation denied the accusations of a witch hunt, and said authorities’ interest is in solving the case of Jean McConville.

By most tellings of the McConville abduction, many people were party to it, possibly two dozen or more. It’s not clear how many are still alive.

Mark Thompson, a member of the group Relatives for Justice, founded by relatives of those killed by British government forces, said he had qualms about trying to prosecute the killers but would like to see some kind of truth commission established.

“We have all of these running sores across our society,” he said. “I had a brother killed, and I don’t want to see the people who did that put in jail, but I do want to see the truth about that.”

Danny Morrison, a longtime ally of Mr. Adams, dismissed the Boston College oral history project as unreliable tales spun by disaffected ex-IRA members. “Who in their right mind admits to carrying out armed actions? When I was interrogated for seven days, I would never admit to anything,” he said.

A Lengthy Trail
Key events in the probe of Jean McConville’s murder

1972 Jean McConville, a widow with 10 children, is abducted from her Belfast home, driven to an unknown location and killed.

1995 Northern Ireland police finally investigate her disappearance but find few leads.

1999 The IRA admitted it killed Ms. McConville and other people it suspected of being informants.

2003 Ms. McConville’s body is discovered on a beach. She had been shot in the back of the head.

2006 Police ombudsman says investigators didn’t properly probe her disappearance, partly because they believed it was a hoax.

2010 An Irish newspaper says ex-IRA member Dolours Price discussed her alleged role as a driver in IRA killings, including that of Ms. McConville. The same year, in a book based on Boston College’s oral history project, ex-IRA member Brendan Hughes claims Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams gave orders leading to Ms. McConville’s death, an allegation he has denied.

—Source: Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland