Irish Radio Network: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson discusses Boston College Case

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson discusses Boston College Case
Irish Radio Network USA
New York City
Saturday 24 March 2012

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Owen Paterson (OP), is asked about Boston College subpoenas during interview with Adrian Flannelly (AF)

(11:39 topic of Boston College subpoena addressed)

Adrian Flannelly (AF): Now, before we get on to the great number of exciting events and happenings, both historic and cultural, a couple of items: sore points, that are garnering a lot of attention on this side. Last time you were here, we made reference to the Boston papers, the Boston tapes, an Oral History undertaken by Boston College (and) that those tapes were subpoenaed. I had thought at that point that this was something that perhaps you could have some input into by going back to Ireland, perhaps checking with the PSNI, as to why and whatever. And before we even got out of here, it had become a huge international issue involving our highest level of government here. Everybody has been on board with this. Did that come up in any of your meetings in Washington since you came out here?

Owen Paterson (OP): No, I don’t think it did, actually. I’m fully aware it has caused some comment here. The position’s very simple. I’ve been to Boston College. I’ve had meetings with Professor Hachey and I was very enthused by what they were doing. And that’s partly why I went down to North Carolina to see the Civil Rights Archive. I think that there is real merit in oral archives, and getting information in raw form from people who might have been through some pretty dramatic historical moments and to get their personal experiences.

Now, I’m fully aware that these will be very subjective comments, these will be from people who might be elderly, they might’ve been brutal about it, they might (coughs) have some alcoholic problems or whatever, they may not remember very clearly, they may, very seriously, have an axe to grind. But I think it’s worth getting the raw information, I think this… when looking at this… I mean, it’s a useful exercise. So it was very interesting seeing what Boston were doing and it’s similar to what the CAIN archives is down in Belfast and The Linenhall Library and other ones like that.

But we believe very strongly that the police must have complete independence operationally.

Now we had policing devolved, which we strongly supported, a few months before we came to power. So the police report to an elected Justice Minister, David Ford. They report to an elected police board with members of all political parties on it. They’re probably about the most supervised police force in the western world, because there’s a Police Ombudsman, reviewing their day-to-day activities and anyone can complain.

It would be wholly inappropriate for me to interfere in any way in the operational independence of the police or the prosecution service. We believe very strongly in the separation of powers, which is a concept (scoffs) widely understood across the United States.

The first I knew about this move was when I read about it in the papers. We knew absolutely nothing about it.

The PSNI have complete jurisdiction to pursue every line of enquiry. They put in an application through the usual channels. I think it would have been very odd, actually, for the Home Secretary who approved this in, I think almost a routine way, to have interfered. It would have looked odd.

We believe very strongly there can be no amnesty.

We have a real duty to the victims and they have to take paramountcy and I think the police have a duty to follow every possible lead to bring people to justice who may’ve been involved in some terrible crimes. We have an absolute duty as a state to support the law enforcement agencies. But to interfere with their decision making would be quite wrong.

AF: I think, Secretary of State Owen Patterson, that obviously there are people who are looking at this from a very different perspective and seeing that’s kind of a lop-sided view with respect to what is interference and what is, for instance, something that perhaps you, or the powers-that-be in Northern Ireland can do particularly in, I have to go back to the Finucane case again. There is something between those two that’s like: “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” and it becomes murky from people who have very different viewpoints on both of those issues.

OP: Oh no, I think it’s very important that the UK government is, obviously, completely impartial, and stands back from a lot of the agencies handling the past, which are now in devolved hands. So we’ve been on the record and the Prime Minister’s been very clear and we are very strong supporters of the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, which was set up under the last government. They’re investigating three thousand, two hundred and sixty-eight deaths. Sixty percent of which were, according to David McKittrick’s book, which is widely respected, sixty percent caused by Republican paramilitaries, thirty percent by Loyalist paramilitaries and ten percent by The State.

We inherited a number of enquiries and we’ve been completely straight. The minute they are ready we have gone to Parliament, we’ve published them and we’ve made statements as, I think, was right. So we didn’t flinch from any of this.

We did inherit, and you’ve touched on the Finucane case, we did inherit a commitment from the last government, to have an enquiry into the death of Pat Finucane, which was a perfectly appalling event.

You may have also heard it was a complete stand-off. This was going nowhere.

The last government had made a commitment to have an enquiry but it also passed The Enquiries Act. And the family didn’t accept the terms of The Enquiries Act under which the enquiry would be conducted.

And we were determined to unlock this impasse. I was the first Secretary of State for years to write to Mrs. Finucane and certainly, the first Secretary of State to meet her. I met her a few months after we came to power. And I said we wanted to get to the truth. We did not have hang-ups; whether this was a meeting of public enquiry or whatever…we wanted to get to the truth.

Because the Finucane case has been the subject of what’s possibly the largest police investigation in British history. There are over a million documents in The Stevens Archive. There are nine thousand, two hundred and sixty-five witness statements. There’s sixteen thousand exhibits. And Stevens concluded that there had been collusion by some agents of the British state.

So we discussed this; and discussed it in detail with the Prime Minister. And I think we made a very bold decision: we agreed that he would apologise in person to the family because sadly, getting back to previous comments, many of the witnesses are dead. There are fewer key witnesses alive when we look into the Finucane case than there were around for the Saville Enquiry.

And we made a much, much more extensive archive available to Desmond DeSilva to do a review of all these papers than was available to Saville.

So, we’ve done those two things: We had the family into Downing Street. The Prime Minister apologised in person.

I went to Parliament the next day and made a full apology there and announced that this lawyer of impeccable international reputation, who fought off three assassination attempts when he’s getting sixteen people off death row in Sierra Leone, has complete access to all our papers and is expected to report back in December with the truth. And he may find out what happened and he may be very uncomfortable for us but we think that it’s the quickest, and fastest and most effective way to get to the truth.

As an example, there’s sort of hang-ups about these enquiries as this being the route…if you look at the Billy Wright enquiry, which was conducted by some very senior lawyers with immense professionalism: it cost thirty million pounds, and you have to compare the thirty million pounds for Billy Wright, one death, with the thirty-four million pounds for the three thousand two hundred and sixty-eight deaths, which is the HET’s original budget. It went on twice as longed as planned and yet that enquiry, carried out by scrupulously professional lawyers, didn’t establish how two pistols were smuggled into Europe’s most secure gaol.

And then the other myth which I would like to comment on, is this: that only by having an enquiry can you summon witnesses.

Ian Paisley, Jr. very respected and later, an MP, refused to go and give evidence to The Wright Enquiry. No matter how many legal blandishments he got. He did not go. So on that basis, I think we have made a very bold decision: we made a fulsome apology, and we’re just generally really, really sorry that Mrs. Finucane hasn’t accepted it. Because we would love her to work with DeSilva and all we really want is exactly what she wants. We just want to get to the truth.

AF: Secretary of State Owen Paterson, I fully understand and I accept what you say but I just want to double-back to the Boston College tapes one more time. Obviously, there are many efforts on this side of The Atlantic to get to the US Attorney General to back-off, to withdraw; and some political implications on this side here. You have said that it is really not your place to interfere one way or the other with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. So you would then….would it be correct to say that however this comes out, then that’s the way that it is? If there was an objection from here or something, would you, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would get into it at that stage of the game and say: “Excuse me. We need those tapes. We need to have that evidence.”?

OP: I’ve said emphatically it’s not for me to get involved in any way at all. The Police Service of Northern Ireland must follow every evidential track that comes along in order to try to bring justice to the victims. It’s absolutely not for me to get involved in any way where they go.

Now, as a layman, and I stress very much I’m a layman, I’m not a lawyer, I have no idea what value there is in the information they might get, because as I understand it, these interviews were given voluntarily, they’re not on oath, I don’t think there was a lawyer present, I have absolutely no idea what value they have as evidence.

But we very strictly have to respect the independence of the police in operational matters. We have to respect the independence of the judicial system; either here or in the UK- it is not for me to interfere in the process. As I said, we knew nothing about this. The first I read about it was in the newspapers. And that’s how it should be.

23:26 (AF moves on; topic ends)


PREVIOUSLY: OCTOBER 2011

Adrian Flannelly interviews Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson
Irish Radio Network USA
New York City
Saturday 29 October 2011

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Owen Paterson (OP), is asked about Boston College subpoenas during interview with Adrian Flannelly (AF)

(31:05 topic of Boston College subpoena addressed)

Adrian Flannelly (AF): One last thorny issue because you do bring with you a lot of good news but again there’s obviously a high level of controversy with respect to the investigation into Boston College and it seems like, excuse the pun, all guns blazing, to get the transcripts of what was supposed to have been an oral history of people involved in armed struggle. What is the latest on that?

Owen Paterson (OP): Well, the latest is, I hoped actually to go there and meet Thomas Hachey on Monday, but there was a key vote in the House of Commons, and I didn’t go. I went there, probably about a year ago, and we were enormously impressed by what they were doing.

We… the British Government… We don’t own the past and handling the past, an awful lot of the agencies doing that are devolved … well, we already talked about the HET [Historical Enquiries Team], the Police Ombudsmen reports to David Ford, the Minister for Justice, and all those doing health care, and remedial care, they obviously report in to local ministers.

There is a way in which that the UK Government, I think, can help; there was a debate in the Assembly [Stormont] the other day, and we have been talking to local parties consistently since we gained power and sadly there’s no real consensus.

But I think there is some agreement that by capturing information which is one of the recommendations of Eames-Bradley that some good could come out of that. And we need to capture this information, the story-telling, now, fast, because these people who are going to participate are getting older, their memories are fading… some of them, sadly, are getting ill. Some will die soon.

So we’re… I was very impressed by what Boston College have done and I’ve been to look at other archives, like CAIN archive in Belfast, the Linenhall Library and others, we’ve looked at some possibilities in GB.

But the first we heard about this move was in the press.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is entirely independent. It’s always been right that the Chief Constable has total operational independence and it would be quite wrong for us to interfere.

So this case is now in the American courts. Now, I’m not a lawyer, not in English law, I haven’t a clue about American law, and it will take its course. I’ve absolutely no idea how it will progress. But it would be quite wrong for us to interfere in the criminal justice process.

This was a decision taken by the PSNI. For my part, I’m a, I’ve just said, I’m a big admirer of all these archives. I think it’s a very useful way of going forward.

But this was absolutely nothing to do with the Northern Ireland Office. This was the PSNI going about its work.

34:16 (AF moves on; topic ends)