Scores of paramilitaries interviewed – few know their names
By Sam McBride
Published on Wednesday 11 January 2012
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.
Professor Hachey, director of the Irish Institute at the Jesuit college, explained as candidly as confidentiality allowed what the archive entailed and the sort of people whose interviews it contained.
The genial historian said that scores of interviews with loyalist and republican paramilitaries had been conducted on behalf of the university over the previous nine years.
Each of the individuals whom Boston College had approached agreed to speak frankly on the understanding that their account would not be released until after their death, he stressed.
No one other than those involved in the interviews knew who had spoken to the academics, with the exception of two dead men – senior IRA member Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes and David Ervine from the UVF, whose accounts were about to be published in Ed Moloney’s book Voices From The Grave and eventually made into an RTE documentary.
When he spoke to the News Letter in early 2010, Prof Hachey explained that the Troubles oral history project began in 2001 when the late Irish-American businessman Tom Tracy – known for his love of, and visits to, Northern Ireland – gave the college a large donation for the research.
“He was indisputably a remarkable man of considerable means who came over to Northern Ireland as your typical, I would say, Irish-American nationalist who didn’t understand anything about the situation very well,” Prof Hachey said.
“But he was a very sharp businessman and wasn’t there very long until he came to appreciate that there is a cultural divide [in Northern Ireland] – it’s not a political divide and the sectarian issue is really just the surface.
“He came back to the States with an appreciation that this was a conflict that had two sides to it and he started to think of the means by which he might make a contribution to the peace and reconciliation process.”
Prof Hachey, who is director of the Irish Institute at Boston College, did not say what new information about some of the Troubles’ atrocities will be contained in the accounts, but made clear that those who spoke to the college knew what they were talking about.
“The people that we went out and interviewed were not gophers – people who were simply sent out on missions and had no idea who was sending them or why – nor was it the upper echelon, which is to say whomever the leadership may have been on the loyalist side or nationalist side.
“That sort of thing has been done by the BBC, NBC…this was really about the operational level. This first book which will be published does include two very prominent people – all [in the archive] won’t be equally prominent but all will have played similar roles.
“We began this oral history on the understanding that the documents would be sequested and embargoed in the archives at the Burns Library here in Boston.
“That seemed to be very reassuring to a number of people.
“We’re doing this not for ourselves but for posterity. But, by the same token, one would like to think that it would be possible to assess and analyse this at a time when there are still people around who are contemporary to this and can make judgments as to whether this was a fair reflection of what took place.”
Prof Hachey said he believed that many of those who agreed to be interviewed had done so to unburden themselves.
“It’s a catharsis for some of them when they’ve suffered so much…I’d like to think in most cases they were motivated by wanting to tell their story but for some of them it was probably to settle old scores and they would give a very jaundiced account. But that’s true of all oral history.”
He said that there would likely be more books in coming years as those who were interviewed died.
At the interview it was clear that the archive was significant (and the News Letter reported its existence on our front page) but there was no suggestion that the police would attempt to access the tapes.
Indeed, it was more than 12 months later before a request to access the files would be filed on behalf of the PSNI.
Could the Secret Archive in Boston End Our Peace