Times of London: Ulster needs peace. But it needs truth more

Ulster needs peace. But it needs truth more
David Aaronovitch
Times of London
January 12 2012

It’s the hardest of moral dilemmas – does one family’s desire for justice trump the goal of ending all the violence?

From my 15th to my 44th year the words “Northern Ireland” would appear on news bulletins on most days. As a British student leader I was threatened by IRA supporters in Belfast during the hunger strikes and one of my first assignments as a journalist followed the bombing of an Ulster country pub in which eleven soldiers and six civilians were killed.

But just as “the Troubles” created monsters, they also gave birth to some heroes, including a number of remarkable journalists.
One of them, to whom I spoke several times to try to understand what was going on, was a man called Ed Moloney, an Englishman who had become an expert on the Provisional IRA. People such as Ed worked the difficult beat with intelligence and tenacity.

We’re nearly 30 years on from the Droppin Well atrocity. Visiting Belfast for me now is about flying into George Best airport to take part in religious affairs programmes, not about staring down the barrel of an army rifle poking out of a Land Rover or shady meetings with awful little men who have probably killed people, being on the end of a Paisleyite harangue, negotiating the special gates in the city centre or receiving hinted warnings about my continued behaviour.

When we say “things have got better” in Northern Ireland, we make the grandest of understatements. We bank the change and move on.

Move on maybe too quickly. Because it is only in the past week that I have become aware of a very significant controversy involving Ed Moloney, but one that has been going on for some time. And what fascinates me about this case is its intractability — the extraordinary difficulty that a neutral person would have in deciding what is right.

It goes like this. After the ceasefire and the Good Friday agreement effectively ended the Troubles, Mr Moloney became director of what is known as the Boston College project (named after the Catholic university in the US that funded and facilitated it).

The project involved interviewing former terrorists from both republican and Unionist paramilitary groups, on the strict condition that their testimonies would not be used until after their deaths. On that basis a number of people who had been involved in acts of violence related their experiences to Mr Moloney or others. The value of the project was that it would create a store of information available to future historians and others and permit a far more sophisticated understanding of what motivated otherwise ordinary people to do terrible things. One of the interviewees was a leading IRA man named Brendan Hughes — notorious in his day — who, before his death in 2008, told Mr Moloney about the “disappearing” (kidnapping and murder) of Jean McConville in 1972.

We know this because Mr Moloney subsequently published a book titled Beyond the Grave in which Hughes charged that a Provo squad nicknamed “the Unknowns”, led by the young Gerry Adams, had carried out the abduction and killing. Mr Adams denies this. Hughes also claimed that the same group had carried out several similar operations.

What other revelations are contained in Boston College testimonies made by living former terrorists, such as Dolours Price (also alleged to have been a member of the Unknowns), we don’t know. But the Police Service of Northern Ireland would certainly like to.

Last year the PSNI applied to the US Government, in effect, for access to the Boston College project archives to search for further evidence in the McConville case. Over Christmas the college was ordered to open its archives to the US authorities, who in turn have yet to decide whether to make them available to the PSNI. There are complex legal arguments about all this, but they aren’t what interests me. I was much more taken with part of Mr Moloney’s furious reaction to what he saw as the Boston College cave-in to the authorities’ requests, and with what seemed to me an almost insoluble tension between the needs of justice and the need for peace.

Mr Moloney’s main argument has been the loss to learning and statecraft represented by the effective betrayal of promises made to interviewees. The project depended, and still depends, on the lifetime confidentiality vouchsafed to former terrorists. Take that away and we lose any chance of adding to this invaluable information. In this sense Mr Moloney’s argument is not unlike that made by other serious journalists for the protection of sources. Take away that protection and you lose the stories. Mr Moloney’s claim is backed up not only by some of those who participated in the project but, frankly, also by common sense.

But there is a second argument, not made by Mr Moloney, yet hanging heavily in the ether. It is that the peace process has succeeded partly because we have not sought too assiduously to examine who did what in the bloody recent past.

Not only have terrorists been released and pardoned, but it was also decided not to seek extradition in many cases of terrorists who had fled abroad on the ground that, as Charles Clarke put it when Home Secretary, it was “neither proportionate nor in the public interest”.

It hasn’t been in the public interest to go after men such as Gerry Adams, who has been central to the business of stopping the killing and mayhem and who has displayed courage and statesmanship in doing so. Or, to put it at its most basic, it’s a calculation about the balance of advantage — preventing future McConvilles at the posthumous expense of unresurrectable past ones.

On the other side is justice. Suppose that I had begun this piece by telling how a dozen armed men and women had broken into the flat of the 37-year-old Jean McConville and had, in front of seven of her ten young children, abducted her. Told how they were left to be looked after by their 15-year-old sister until, three weeks later, a stranger came back with Jean’s purse, 52p and three rings.

Told how Jean herself was taken to the Republic of Ireland, shot in the head and buried in an unmarked grave on a beach. Might you feel that the family’s desire for the truth trumped the needs of future peace and enlightenment?

I honestly don’t know. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people have lived who would have died had it not been for the peace process. And I share Mr Moloney’s instinct about the value of his archive. But I can’t help feeling that while there has been a reconciliation process, there hasn’t been truth. One day soon there has to be.