A 21st Century Pandora’s Box: Boston College, US Courts and News Media Stirring Embers in Northern Ireland

A 21st Century Pandora’s Box: Boston College, US Courts and News Media Stirring Embers in Northern Ireland
Stephanie Abrams

How did Boston College and the US District Court get enmeshed in a legal battle about the release of taped interviews with IRA members’ interviews about their memories and involvment in The Troubles in the North? Can we view this story as a simple transaction between two governments assisting one another in a criminal investigation or do we have to recognize the domino effect of such participation? Shouldn’t Boston College’s promise to the authors of the tapes be upheld as part of journalistic free speech, protection of sources, and protection of academic freedom? Are we truly required to pass along documents that would be equivalent to handing the UK a granade with the pin removed that would jeopardize those caputred on the tapes and their families, friends,and the neighbors who live near them? Anyone with knowledge of the history of Northern Ireland would never allow this to happen. There are so many unpunished for needs that hurt others on both sides. Trying to even the score by bringing selected individuals “to justice” might win a battle but create a war. And now that peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland, who would want to risk that?  If you saw the report from Belfast last night as I did on CBS news, maybe you need some insights to help you understand why the release of these tapes from the US  for publication and action by the UK is not a good thing.  And I can only hope that those in America who care about Ireland and its people will raise up those beautiful and rowdy singing voices and let your thoughts be known to your representatives if you believe that peace is best served by leaving the tapes archived as promised on this side of the ocean.  Just maybe there’s a road that leads to President Obama’s executive powers (known in Ireland as President O’ Bama since the discovery of his Irish roots in County Offaly) to intercede on behalf of academic freedom and common sense, maybe the extension of the kind of Common Sense that Thomas Paine had in mind, to derail the early publication and potential reprisals that could result from this counter-peace measure.

It is ironic that 40 years and 2 weeks ago, on January 30, 1972, a demonstration by a group of unarmed residents of Derry, Northern Ireland, protesting conditions and treatment of Catholics under British rule and at the hands of the British, were massacred by the British Army.  That day, Bloody Sunday, called “Domhnach na Fola” in Irish, will never be forgotten. That event resulted in an inquiry of the actions of the British soldiers and they were  found to be guiltless of wrong-doing.  The coroner presiding over the “Bloody Sunday” inquest accused the British army of “sheer unadulterated murder.” But the inquest cleared the soldiers  and the case was closed.  Fourteen men of all ages, five of which were 17 years old, all died as a result of that even.

With peace and sanity and logic being applied decades later, there is a second inquiry in progress related to the Bloody Sunday incident. This is unprecedented in Northern Ireland and the UK because results of inquests are never second-guessed. But a second inquest is in progress due to a closer look at the evidence and there is hope that a fair look is taken.  Those who live in Northern Ireland point to the fact that peace reigns there and life has changed over decades which results in a willingness to fairly evaluate the events of that terrible day. If the second inquest results in an overturning of the original findings and the British soldiers are found guilty of the massacre, that, too, would go a long way to reassure all who live in Northern Ireland that all citizens in Northern Ireland are deemed to be equal and of equal value as people.

Let me introduce you to someone very special in the peace process.This is John Hume, 1998 Nobel Peace Prize c0-winner, who, along with David Trimble, was awarded the prize  ”for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland.”   That’s me, in the photo below, standing with John Hume in Derry, Northern Ireland, in front of a plaque that memorializes the respect, admiration, and appreciation for the US Marines and their officers who used what is now the Beech Hill Country House in Derry as US Marines Headquarters in World Word II where they, with the US Navy, patrolled the coastline of Northern Ireland in search of German U-b0ats that were headed for US shores. (Interestingly, on February 8, 2012, just 2 days ago, a sunken U-boat was found off the coast of Cape Cod, MA!)

This is the Beech Hill Country House where I have had the privilege of meeting with John Hume on three occasions in the last few years. The first time I met John, we were scheduled to meet in the lounge of the hotel at 5pm with the expectation that we’d enjoy an hour or two of conversation over drinks. The meeting was intense and fascinating and apparently John was as interested in the conversation  as I was and with what the Irish would call “good craic.” Drinks turned into dinner and after-dinner back in the lounge of Beech Hill Country House.  At 10:30pm, Helen Quigley, then Mayor of Derry, joined us and the evening came to an end after midnight when we were all too exhausted to speak any longer. With a little more stamina, we could have pulled an all-nighter and chatted right into dawn and breakfast!

And this is me with Helen Quigley, Mayor of Derry, at the end of the evening at an hour that was already into the new day at the front entrance of the Beech Hill Country House.

John Hume and I, joined by my husband from the outset and Helen Quigley later, talked about  the history of “The Troubles” and the realities of the events. We talked about the value of  The Peace and how everyone learned how much better life is when peace reigns.  We had already traveled from the countryside-like setting of the Beech Hill Country House into Derry Town where murals depicting The Troubles have become not only a memorial to the past but also a tourism attraction in a city where people do all the normal everyday things like anywhere else: going to the post office, having coffee in a cafe, shopping, stopping to chat with friends or asking for directions and touring the historic wall and buildings that need to be seen to understand the history of Derry, in particular, and Northern Ireland, in general.

John Hume worked tirelessly with President Bill Clinton, shown here with Hillary Clinton who worked with the Women’s Movement in Northern Ireland, Pat Hume, John’s wife, and Patsy O’Kane, owner of Beech Hill Country House in Derry, Northern Ireland, to effect peace in Northern Ireland. The message of the Saint Patrick Centre in County Down, Northern Ireland, is the message of Patrick: Reconciliation. Peace in Northern Ireland is a living, breathing entity and one that the residents have come to appreciate, enjoy, blossom and prosper in.

John Hume talked about the US contribution to peace in Northern Ireland  which came from the efforts of The Four Horsemen: Tip O’Neill, Hugh Carey, Daniel Moynihan, and Ted Kennedy whose photo is also found in the entry way at Beech Hill Country House.  And the good that followed has been enjoyed by all.

Nonetheless, the memories are still there of wrongdoings, of loved ones injured, mamed and lost, of evil acts that can never be righted especially where they relate to those who are gone and cannot be ressurected. It was, in every sense, a war. And the end of the war and its ensuing peace are so much better for everyone and everything.

Of course, in typical news media fashion, when The Troubles flared, they were front page news. When the IRA poured concrete on their weapons, the story was buried on page 92 somewhere between obituaries and the crossword puzzle. Peace, unfortunately, is not seen as sexy as war but war sells newspapers and products.

And now, at a time when a downturn in economics often brings out the worst in people, the US court system may become the unwitting participant in opening a pandora’s box of wounds and hurts and retaliations that could certainly follow by releasing to the UK and Northern Ireland copies of tapes that were made, and archived at Boston College,  by former IRA member Anthony McIntyre and Ed Maloney and placed for safe-keeping at the college as part of their Belfast Project. The tapes record testimony as part of an oral history of The Troubles and it is believed that the tapes contain testimony from IRA members and other individuals about their own and others’ nefarious deeds.  The tapes were given to the college when the school provided absolute assurances that the tapes would never be made public until after  all those involved were dead. Clearly, there is concern for the safety of those still living, and I would add their families and loved ones, if these tapes are released.

Because of a treaty the US has with the UK, there is reciprocal agreement to assist one another in crime investigations. Boston College was subpoenaed by a US court to obtain the tapes. Maloney and McIntyre’s lawyers  submitted a motion to US District Court Judge William C. Young who is handling this case to see if his decision can be delayed on the grounds that taking these tapes from Boston College violates academic freedom. Their claim also notes that giving these tapes  to  Northern Ireland  could have serious negative impact on the peace process and threaten the lives and safety of all  involved.  Done well, perhaps the judge can delay to ruling indefinately and turn them after the point when they cannot be the fuse that lights the keg.

You don’t have to be a jurist, a politician, an historian or a humanitarian to know what a volcanic eruption can result from the release and publication of those tapes. And I have to wonder how the US court system  can consider lighting the match, tossing it in the air and then being surprised when it lands on a powder keg. Can we brush off our participation in this request as the innocent by-stander in due process and have a  ”Gee I only wanted to create some light to see what time it was when I lit the match and we never expected anything like that to happen” response.  We must not, in a cavalier manner, go through the motions of “they asked for it and we have to give it to them” syndrome without thinking through the role we would be playing in precipitating the potential unraveling of the peace process that so many have put some much into making happen in Northern Ireland.

There were great losses felt by families on both sides. Ripping open not-very-old wounds cannot have a positive effect on the peace that reigns today and  cannot be considered by any thinking person to be a good thing. This monument, shown below, in Derry to the fifteen (15) men who were massacred by British soldiers, of which 5 were 17 years old,  memorializes the loss of life on Bloody Sunday, when the unarmed group of protesters were killed. The event is currently under scrutiny in a second inquiry to examine the actions of the soldiers. A second inquest is  something that has never happened before because once an inquiry finds no wrong-doing the issue is closed. Clearly, there are questions about what was done, by whom to whom,and there is no way to right the past. Watch the film, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” something I just couldn’t do past the first 20 minutes, to get insights into what life was once like for Catholics living in Protestant Northern Ireland.

Could a Boston College project create serious problems for people living peacefully in Ireland? People! Get real and wake up to realities! I am knocked out by the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley report that I saw last evening at 7:30pm Eastern Time. The reporter was in Belfast, Northern Ireland weaving with enthusiasm the story about confessions by IRA members caught on tape that are archived at Boston College.  It is reported that these tapes include testimonials surrounding violence of events past during the period in Ireland and Northern Ireland’s history referred to as “The Troubles.”

While the next story on that news program was about the spewing of lava from Mt. Etna, let me tell you that steam was pouring from every orifice of my body about the tapes, Boston College, our courts that I hope will not cave in.  The irresponsible reporting and irresponsible stirring of emotions and memories of tragic incidents in Northern Ireland’s past  just make my blood boil!   It’s clear that all involved in this story don’t have any sense of what it took to bring peace to this region of the world , how much the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland treasure this peaceful state and see how wonderful peace is to happy living and how clear the memories are of tragic deaths, persecution, hardships of all kinds  and that there are those who are alive today who will find themselves embroilled in the tragedies of the past which could unravel all the good that has been done to bring about peace.  This is one of those stories that is not a distant memory and, handled poorly, especially by the news media that thrives on  muckraking and creating ratings by fanning embers, has the potential of opening old wounds which could clearly put lives in jeopardy and create unnecessary and unwanted tensions and, Heaven Help Us, worse!

One can only hope that the US judicial system will not be duped into participating in opening Pandora’s Box. It was Chaucer who first penned the thought,  ’It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.’ (‘Troylus and Crisedye,’ 1374) – and Dickens who brought the idea to more modern language: ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ Maybe the UK judicial system can take a lesson from its illustrious literary figures.