Could the secret archive in Boston end our peace?
Published on Wednesday 11 January 2012
A US courtroom battle to make public secret recordings of former paramilitaries could have significant unforeseen consequences for the Stormont Assembly, writes SAM McBRIDE
THERE is increasing interest in the Stormont corridors about a legal battle 4,000 miles away which barely made the headlines in Northern Ireland when it began last May.
The PSNI’s attempt to obtain secret recordings of paramilitaries held in a Boston College vault could even threaten the future of the seemingly comfortable DUP/Sinn Fein-led administration in Belfast, some now claim.
That appears unlikely, given how much each of the parties of the current settlement have to lose if it fails.
But the mystery surrounding the tapes – the identity of the paramilitaries, what they said and even the number of tapes is known only to a handful of people – has increased interest in their contents.
The Belfast Project, as Boston College named its undertaking, was overseen by one of the most respected authors on the Troubles and their aftermath, Ed Moloney, who began work on it in 2001.
Though until recent years few were aware of it, Boston College had since then been quietly assembling the archive (believed to contain at least 80 interviews) which may hold the most honest account of the Troubles from those involved in the vast majority of murders – the terrorists.
Members of the IRA, UVF, UDA and various other terrorist groups were particularly honest, the college said, because each of the interviews was given on the strict understanding that it would not be made public until after each individual’s death.
That pledge, and the fact the archive was to be stored outside the UK in the US, meant that fears of prosecution were, in the minds of participants, removed and they could speak candidly without fear of incriminating themselves.
Almost two years ago Mr Moloney, a former northern editor of The Irish Times, published a book based on two of those interviews – former IRA commander Brendan Hughes and former UVF bomber and PUP politician David Ervine.
It was the testimony of Hughes – a senior IRA figure in 1970s Belfast who was closely linked to Gerry Adams before they fell out – that Mr Adams had ordered the west Belfast murder of Jean McConville (claims which Mr Adams strenuously denied) which first led to calls for police to see if there was fresh evidence which could solve some of the Troubles’ most barbaric crimes.
Subsequent newspaper articles identifying that former IRA bomber Dolours Price had deposited an interview with the college and her admission that she drove Mrs McConville to her death, led police to subpoena her tape.
Former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre (who in recent years has been a fierce critic of Sinn Fein) was employed as a researcher for the project to interview republicans.
Both men have now sharply fallen out with Boston College, which initially fought the case in the US courts but last month announced that it would not appeal an initial legal defeat and has now handed over a number of transcripts to the court to allow the judge to decide whether they should be released.
Mr McIntyre says that no one was pressured into speaking about their past but that in every case the Boston College assurance of complete confidentiality until their death was crucial.
“No one would have been interested in giving frank interviews unless there were stringent guarantees and I would never have been involved without those guarantees,” he says.
The Louth man had “absolutely no fears” over the security of the interviews until the first subpoena arrived on May 5, 2011.
However, he soon developed serious concerns about the college’s determination to fight the attempts to access the archive after discrepancies between what the college was saying publicly and telling him privately.
He and Mr Moloney were concerned about further attempts to access more of the interviews and suggested to the college that the archive be temporarily transferred to his custody in the Republic of Ireland, where they calculated political and legal factors would make it more difficult for the PSNI to obtain.
Mr McIntyre confirmed that he had made clear he was prepared to go to prison rather than surrender the interviews.
However, in a June 2 email to Mr Moloney, Professor Hachey declined the offer, stating that “under no circumstances would BC allow the documents to be sent to an alternative site (be it in the US or Ireland) as they [the college’s lawyers] felt that did violate the understanding that we had with participants re: the safe deposit of their recollections”.
Mr McIntyre dismisses this and says that the college has itself broken confidentiality by giving the interviews to the court.
He says that the college’s approach – both in refusing to take steps to protect the archive and then handing many of the interviews to a court – demonstrates selfishness.
“It was very short-sighted and self-serving. What they have done certainly has not had the interests of interviewees at heart.
“After the first subpoena, the archive was endangered and they made no moves to protect it. A researcher’s duty is to protect sources from any harm.
“I believe that their behaviour has selfishly put the institution ahead of the interviewees.”
The relationship between the project workers and the college has now broken down, he says, and they have now called for the destruction of the archive – something which would destroy what may be some of the most historically significant artefacts relating to the Troubles.
Last week Mr Moloney told the BBC he possessed information that the British government “does not want to own…quite the reverse, there is a wish this thing would go away”.
Asked to expand on what he meant by that, Mr Moloney told the News Letter that the UK authorities had made a mistake in pursuing the case “in the sense that they really didn’t fully grasp what they are doing and its implications”.
The author, who now lives in New York, said: “The damage done to Northern Ireland’s ability to deal with the past, which I think is a very vital part in assuring that the future remains peaceful, is going to be [such that it is] almost impossible because of this.
“People will be very reluctant to come forward in almost any forum if they feel there is going to be a penalty – if they are going to be hounded or put on trial.”
On Monday, Secretary of State Owen Paterson convened talks between the local parties on ‘dealing with the past’.
But Mr Moloney is scathing about local politicians for abdicating their responsibility to deal maturely with such a difficult issue: `“There has been a failure of politicians in Northern Ireland to face up to dealing with the past in a way which allows people to honestly tell stories without fear of recrimination.
“It is one thing pursuing people who are continuing to oppose the process but there is a distinction between them and those who said they were ending this with a compromise that a lot of their people didn’t like but they were going to do it and the assumption – and practice – was until recently that there would be no retribution.
“But that’s not happening, according to this.
“If this goes forward, anyone in the PSNI who is capable of reading a book or a newspaper is going to realise that this will involve in some way the leadership of organisations like the Provisionals who were the architects of the peace process.”
However, last week the family of Mrs McConville made clear that they want to see the police do all within their power – including accessing the tapes – to bring her killers to justice.
Mr Moloney says that he understands their viewpoint but that the police have to look to the wider public interest – the reason why, he says “the authorities in the past haven’t pursued various lines of inquiry”.
He said that what happened to Mrs McConville was “unforgivable and should not have happened…they deserve to know the truth but the truth in this way is all about revenge and recrimination and the consequences for the wider community are profound”.
The former Irish journalist of the year said that he has no doubts about the need for “some form of amnesty”, something which he said should have been negotiated formally as part of the Belfast Agreement to cover everyone – the paramilitaries, soldiers, the intelligence services and others.
That suggestion – put forward by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley before their infamous 2009 report (which did not include it) – led to a furious response from many unionists.
And as recently as Monday senior DUP figure Arlene Foster (whose party has called for the Boston files to be released) warned that “the need for justice is still absolutely vital” and specifically committed her party to opposing any process which includes “any amnesty or proposal which could allow some individuals to escape justice for their actions”.
As it is, anyone convicted of a Troubles-related crime would only serve a maximum of two years before being released under the Good Friday release scheme.
Mr McIntyre says that The Belfast Project proved that if people are guaranteed they will not be prosecuted then many will open up about their role in the Troubles.
“We know that people will not be forthcoming about the past if there are threats of prosecutions but we also know they will be forthcoming about the past if there aren’t prosecutions.”
The secretary of state has suggested that the Boston College template of academics and historians interviewing former paramilitaries about their involvement in the Troubles may be the best method of getting to the truth of what took place in Northern Ireland.
But Mr McIntyre says that the current police attempt to get the interviews means that Mr Paterson is “sabotaging his own logic”.
“What historian or academic would get information from former combatants under the current situation?
“It makes me think that at some level within the British state there is strong opposition to truth recovery because of the impact which it would have on them.”
Mr McIntyre says he can understand why victims want the police to pursue all avenues which may lead to a prosecution of their loved one’s murderers, but adds: “The problem here is: How many victims are going to find out the truth?
“Truth gathered for prosecuting purposes will be inconsequential compared to the truth gathered here.”
When asked whether truth and justice are now irreconcilable, he says: “It depends on how people define justice. If people are able to reconcile justice with truth and bringing it out, then yes. But if justice is the arbitrary and indiscriminate selection of people to prosecute, then certainly no.”
So does he believe that in persuading former paramilitaries to talk, the damage has already been done or if the current court challenge succeeds will others be persuaded to talk candidly?
“I don’t think it is too late if the tapes are not handed over, but people just wouldn’t be as confident. There would have to be much, much stronger cast iron guarantees given in any truth recovery process but if we win the case it certainly enhances the chances [of former paramilitaries speaking].”
Both Mr McIntyre and Mr Moloney have a considerable vested interest in the archive staying secret until the interviewees die – not only have they invested personal credibility in persuading former paramilitaries to talk candidly on tape, but Mr McIntyre has said that he fears for his life if the tapes get out.
Nonetheless, given that so few people know what is on the tapes and considering the dramatic testimony of Hughes in one of the two tapes to have been released, their concerns cannot be dismissed out of hand.
If, as Mr Moloney suggests, the British government has become embarrassed by the entire affair, then the court battle may already be going through the motions.
Many unionists, and even some republicans, believe that is the reason why serious allegations against senior Sinn Fein figures have never appeared to be investigated.
Just last week the 1981 cabinet papers revealed a suggestion by the UK’s most senior military officer to arrest Mr Adams, which appears to not have been acted upon.
However, if the UK government is prepared to press ahead with prosecutions against those accused of Troubles crimes, many victims of terrorism will be delighted.
But no one can know the consequences.
Scores of paramilitaries interviewed – few know their names
TWO years ago I visited the Burns Library at Boston College and interviewed Professor Thomas Hachey – custodian of the archive – about the project’s significance.