Boston College Oral History Archive – Dealing with the Past: BBC Radio Ulster Talkback Transcript

Boston College Oral History Archive – Dealing with the Past
Transcript – BBC Radio Ulster Talkback
Audio Available until 16 July 2012
Monday 9 July 2012

Wendy Austin (WA) interviews former RUC Inspector Norman Hamill (NH), Tommy McKearney (TM), author, lecturer and former IRA Volunteer and psychologist Roger Bailey (RB).


Wendy Austin (WA): We’ve been hearing a great deal about the Boston College tapes – those recordings made by researchers with numbers of people who were involved in The Troubles.

A court in America, as you have heard, has ordered the release to the PSNI of a contribution made by Dolours Price which she thought only be made public after her death.

Two lots have already been published: the memoirs of the late former IRA Commander Brendan Hughes and the PUP leader David Ervine in the book, Voices From the Grave.

But what it is that makes people want to be so frank about what they did during The Troubles? Are they setting the record straight? Or are they just unburdening themselves?

Let’s talk about this.

Roger Bailey’s a psychologist; he’s in the studio with me. Norman Hamill’s a former RUC Inspector and Tommy McKearney’s a former IRA prisoner.

Tommy McKearney, we were talking about this among ourselves this morning… is there a point that you reach where there’s something that you just are dying to tell someone and perhaps a researcher like this comes along and gets you at just the right moment?

Tommy McKearney (TM): There may well be something like that for some people.

I think there’s a variety of reasons why people would want to put their memoirs or their recollections of the past down. I think in the case of many of my old comrades they would see it, to a certain extent, as putting the record straight; something that wasn’t possible through the years of The Troubles for obvious reasons. There would have been legal sanction if they had done so in alot of cases and moreover there still actually is.

For many in the IRA they took, and would still I would argue take the view, that they were justified, and I mean I can accept that’s a controversial position for many of your listeners but taken that’s the way the former IRA would look at it, and that they do believe this is an opportunity to put down something for posterity that, if in years to come that, when the heat has to an extent has been removed from the situation, that historians can look at this dispassionately and examine the IRA view as well as what would have been the well recorded public view of the state and of the wider media which wasn’t always amenable or open to the IRA position.

WA: Roger Bailey… of course one man setting the record straight is another’s re-writing history, isn’t it?

Roger Bailey (RB): It is, absolutely.

I think Tommy’s right. There’s a variety of reasons for any of our behaviours.

One reason can be to unburden; to be able to share things that you can’t do publicly, that you couldn’t face doing during your lifetime but that you want to do for history’s sake.

Another can be trauma.

Trauma, as we know can leave people feeling guilty irrespective of the reality of that guilt; we call it survivor guilt.

And sometimes there’s a need to try and share those things that we feel, rightly or wrongly, guilty for to unburden ourselves to get rid of that and that can be as big a motivation.

WA: What about the people that you would have interviewed over the years, Norman Hamill, were there ever people sitting on the other side of a desk from you who wanted to tell you something whether it was to unburden themselves or for what ever reason….but they were just dying to tell you

What had actually happened?

Norman Hamill (NH): No. And it would be pretty rare that anyone would want to unburden themselves of a very serious matter.

I mean people confess to not returning their library books or to a traffic offence or to fiddling their taxes but it’s very rare indeed that people would want to confess to what is serious crime.

But I can well understand Tommy’s point that those who felt that they were shaping history would want to have their part recorded. And I can understand that. At that is, in one sense, it’s a very valuable contribution to the first draft of history.

Of course, those who contributed to the Boston tapes didn’t in any sense feel they were making a confession.

They would have felt that they were just explaining their action and that and they’re recording history and of course on the condition that what they had to say wouldn’t be published or released during their lifetime.

WA: How foolish was that, do you think?

NH: Well, it may have been naïve to some extent on their part.

I’ve considered this from both points of view. And I can well understand that the history is important. And that’s good.

But on the other hand of course the police will say that they have an overwhelming obligation to investigate crime and that where privilege doesn’t exist they’re going to proceed and try and get all the evidence they can.

And of course, there’s no real privilege in telling your story to a college.

WA: If you really do want to tell your story, Roger, as Norman said, they wouldn’t have felt that they were making confession but perhaps they were unburdening themselves, perhaps they were, as Tommy said, setting the record straight, perhaps there was a degree of justification in it.

Is there maybe a timeliness in this that after the Good Friday Agreement there were a number of situations where people did seem to be able to talk – The Bloody Sunday enquiry for instance where if you gave evidence there was immunity.

Maybe some of these people who contributed in this way were lulled into what seems to have been a false sense of security?

RB: I think you’re probably right, Wendy.

It sounds as though they felt they had a situation in which they could talk almost anonymously until the time of their death just to set something onto the record for history. And unfortunately academics can’t protect their sources in the way that journalists would.

And the reason that journalists protect their sources is of course because people wouldn’t talk to them otherwise because they feel that they’re going to be exposed.

So I think to some degree, once one understand the process of law, this would set back academic process. But the process of coming to terms with what we’ve done during The Troubles, what we’ve experienced, those things that have happened….I mean, we’ve seen in South Africa the need to share and to be open.

And I’m not sure we’ve had that same experience in Northern Ireland in the same kind of way. I know there have been many attempts for that to happen.

And it may have been this provided or seemed to provide an opportunity to talk in a very confidential way about all of the things that one had experienced or they had experienced without feeling judged or without being worried that it’ll cause more trouble or hit the public domain.

WA: Tommy McKearney, it’s a very interesting phrase that Norman Hamill used there where he talked about “the first draft history” because there will be alot of people listening to this who’ll be saying: this is self-justification from some of those who were involved…..they’re re-writing history… they’re making the story fit their version of things.

TM: Yes. And I am sure people will say that.

But anybody that recounts their recollection – they are telling their version of history.

So there certainly will be that. I’m not so sure that one is attempting to re-write history, because keep in mind in this particular circumstance, people were not acting – it wasn’t as if they were going public or broadcasting it.

They were giving, as far as I can understand, they were giving their version of happened. And I would assume that if academics were to interview members of the RUC or the British Army or the British government that they would tell the story as they saw it at the time.

So I think in the end it’s up to academics at some stage to try and sift through the evidence and back it up with hard evidence as to which story is the more liable to be believed.

But I think there’s two aspects to this: one is there’s the historical aspect to it which had its own validity and in Roger’s term…I’m not so sure that academics haven’t got the same responsibility that journalists. Journalists don’t enjoy any legal privilege in terms of protecting their sources.

WA: Clearly, academics don’t either.

TM: Well that’s the problem.

I just wish the academics showed the same battle that the journalists have shown so many times in the past. But keep in mind it’s not just history I think there’s also something else here.

That there are lessons to be learned from The Northern Irish conflict.

And if people aren’t free to give their view and tell their story it’s going to be more difficult to take those lessons and to apply them elsewhere if there isn’t some way of recounting one’s story and how they viewed a situation at a particular time.

So I think there’s two things at risk here: there’s the academic situation which is at risk and also there’s the wider thing of other areas of conflict which might benefit from the lessons of our conflict if they have an opportunity to study it.

And that has to be taken into consideration as well in this case.

WA: Norman Hamill, would you agree with Tommy McKearney there? Do we need to find ways for the story to be told?

Or, as someone who has just said to me in a Tweet: Are there too many in a hurry to write books and make money “on the backs of the dead” is how this person has put it. Maybe the academic aspect of this softened that up a bit in a kind of way?

NH: I wouldn’t agree with the person that tweeted that view but I would tend to agree with Tommy McKearney in that the recoding of history is important.

We do need to find ways in which the facts of our recent troubles can be fully explained. And history can make a vital contribution to that.

I can also see it from the police point of view of course in that they have this overwhelming responsibility.

But I’m always amazed when I read the histories of recent troubles, such as books by Professor Bowyer Bell and the IRA in the 50’s and Tim Pat Coogan and others, who’ve written more recent accounts of The Troubles.

There’s a remarkable amount of detail there. And that detail is important and useful. So we need to see this from both points of view.

It’s a very difficult question. There are no easy answers here.

WA: In your view Norman, would it just have been more straightforward to have some kind of truth and reconciliation situation rather than all of this nibbling at the edges, if I can put it like that?

NH: Well, it possibly would have been but I also recognise the difficulties of that because our politicians haven’t been able to get to grips with it. It’s just in the “too difficult to handle” category.

And I also realise and I’m fully aware that there’s a need not just for paramilitaries to come clean there’s a need for the state come clean in the past, too. And I’m far from satisfied that that’s going to happen.

WA: You’re nodding your head in agreement there, Roger.

RB: Yes. I don’t think we can have a partial situation I think we have to have a total situation in terms of understanding what happened, acknowledging what happened and making it absolutely clear.

And I think probably the state would be as worried about going public as much as an individual would if there were a means of gathering the evidence probably it’s going to take fifty-sixty years for it to become free, in terms of information for people to be able to look at the total picture.

But I think it is a shame that we’re not able to gather information confidentially in an academic way to enable us to learn from it.

We’ve studied and learned a great deal from the Second World War from some of the horrific things happened at that time. It informed a great deal of my discipline in terms of psychology as we went forward.

And I think we all have a duty to try and learn as much as we possibly can from the experiences of people across a wide spectrum during the time of The Troubles.

WA: I suppose in some ways the way that this has been set up mirrors slightly the way in which Cabinet papers and that kind of thing are disclosed: quite a way down the line.

But are you saying that because I suppose of the recentness of what’s happened here and the continuing ramifications of it that actually we’d have been better more about sooner rather than later?

RB: Yeah, I think so but I very much doubt that that’ll happen. I’ll have to agree with Tommy.

I think that governments protect themselves extremely well and they have an incredible number of systems there to do that. And they’re not liable to come clean. I think for them that they would feel they were far too vulnerable

Eventually we’ll get the whole story but I think that the “official line”, if you’d like, will be the last one to come out.

WA: Tommy McKearney, Denis in Carrigallen has sent a text in; he says: can someone explain how releasing the Boston College tapes could harm the peace process? It’s once again Republicans not wanting the truth other than their version of the truth to be heard.

TM: Well, I can take his point.

But look: all sides to a conflict want to put their story, to put their interpretation out – there’s nothing unusual about that and I don’t think Republicans are unique in that if Republicans wish to tell their side of the story.

The thing that I think is emerging from this as we’re talking is the aspect of unraveling of what has happened in the past.

And the real problem would appear that to be while we’re talking about some form of truth commission we tend at this point in time to look towards the individual with the possibility and the potential, and the real potential, there of penalising the individual rather than looking at this as what it was: it was a society in conflict, not just individuals.

It’s possibly is possible to look at it in it’s wider context without identifying individuals and therefore penalising them because I think that’s the real issue that’s at stake here.

The peace process at this point in time…I don’t think that this will necessarily endanger the peace process because it’s very well embedded but it could undermine the good will that exists if we’re going to continuously look to a limited number of individuals. Because it wasn’t a limited number of individuals who were responsible for all the crisis that took place in Northern Ireland over thirty to forty years.

And at the end of the day we’re never going to be able to actually bring to task all of those that were responsible from within the state and within the various organisations, my own organisation included.

WA: Billy has texted in, he says if these documents are all released maybe people who have suffered at the terrorists hands will learn what they never would have otherwise have heard. Johnny has called in about this. Hello! Johnny.

Johnny: Hello, how you keeping, Champ?

WA: I’m extremely well, thanks. What did you want to say about this?

Johnny: I’ve just been listening to it here and working. I’m sort of thinking of the angle, and people might not agree with me here, but let’s be real: it was called “a dirty war” and legitimately where was the government’s hidden hand in it?

Now I think to myself where the basis where a basis Truth and Reconciliation Commission was concerned – imagine if people that were involved in the paramilitaries, Loyalist, Republican all persuasions, were allowed to make a tape and it was basically a tape in their last days that was guaranteed of the truth with the past.

Does anybody realistically think the government’s going to allow that?

And that’s the question I’m putting forward.

WA: Do you think there’s a government agenda in this?

Johnny: Well let’s be real – is somebody going to tell me there wasn’t?

WA: Norman Hamill?

Johnny: Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an old man, I’m not a young man but my eyes are wide open and I do honestly believe that I don’t feel it would suit the government if that was the basis of Voices From the Grave.

WA: What do you think, Norman Hamill?

NH: The whole issue is enormously difficult but I think on balance I tend to come down on the side of thinking that the police are making a mistake in seeking these tapes because it is important that history is accurately recorded and that can make a contribution to our understanding.

And after all, we do have a mature attitude to the past now. People aren’t going to serve lengthy prison sentences for anything they’ve done.

So I think on balance it would have been better if the police had let this drop.

WA: Someone has texted and say that the discussion so far presupposes that those telling their story were being truthful – where’s the evidence that this is the case? People will airbrush their culpability out of their recollections. That must always be a worry, Norman.

NH: Yes, of course it is. But academic historians are well capable of assessing the evidence in view of what we know already so that’s only a very limited danger I think because we know a good deal about what happened.

WA: Roger?

RB: Yeah, I think I agree.

We know a great deal about human psychology and academics will be capable of understanding that both from an involuntary point of view and with a bias people can alter their recollections. But they are well equipped to deal with that.

I think we’ve got two very different things: we’ve have the law and the obligation of the law and the obligation of the police to uphold the law. And the law is categorical it’s not there, although I don’t disagree with the policeman on the phone about this, but the law is pretty categorical.

I think generally speaking it would have been if this hadn’t happened because it will destroy confidence in people being able to tell their story and not to fear that it’s going to be leaked. To tell it for history, honestly and in as an unbiased and objective way as they can from the point of view that they had.

And I think that’s invaluable if we were able to get that.

So I think it is sad that this has happened.

And it does point up the fact that we weren’t able to get to a point of truth and reconciliation and so we are left with this leaky situation where people are striving to do something along those lines but they have no mechanism.

WA: Tommy McKearney, were you asked to contribute to this? And if you were, did you do so? Would you have done so?

TM: I think there’s a, what would you say here? There’s a certain element that I would prefer not either to confirm or deny whether I have took part in this.

But I have contributed to many academic pieces of research it’s one of the things that ex-prisoners of my generation have found many, many requests coming in from students, PhD students even, students doing primary degrees.

And on occasions I’ve noticed youngsters during A Levels asking me for help with their studies and sometimes it’s very often doing a favour for a friend or the children of a friend that causes us to do it.

WA: Are you totally straight with them or is there a temptation to either big yourself up a bit or play down the role that you played or do you get the rose-tinted spectacles out?

TM: No, no. Usually I, and this is a very personal thing, usually I take the view that when I’m during an interview I’ll be somewhat guarded on the basis that the interview was going to be written up for, in this case, not archives but for academic examination at exam level.

So I’d be a little but more guarded. I would never use names or put down names or anything like that.

It’s a well publicly known fact that I was a member of the IRA so I don’t deny that in my talk generally about it and usually that is sufficient.

But the aspect of telling the truth I do feel, and it’s a well-known fact, that when someone is being interviewed publicly they’re less liable to be absolutely frank or if they believe that what they’re saying will be opened to the public they’ll much less likely to be frank than if they believe that they’re talking for well…it’s not off the record, but it would be for the record in a considerable period of time…that it’s for historical reasons rather than immediate publication.

So what I do believe is what’s happening with this case is that because people are now going to be afraid to speak the plain, unvarnished truth, that we’re going to lose alot of that and that will not be accessible in fifty, sixty or a hundred years time.

Just in the broader historical sense – 1788 was a huge event in Irish history (but) because of the climate of the time a huge number of the old United Irish people were afraid to record their history and historians are now lamenting the loss of that, not because they’re taking one side or another, but they’re just seeing it as an enormous loss to history of this country.

And I think the same thing may happen again if this continues.

WA: Norman Hamill, often there are people calling in and saying how admissible is this likely to be… given I think it was either Tommy or yourself who talked about the fact that this could well undermine the good will that exists at the moment. Taking that as a distinct possibility, will it have been worth it? Will any of this be admissible were it to come to a point where maybe it was in court ?

NH: Well yes, technically it could be admissible.

WA: They weren’t under oath or anything, were they?

NH: Sorry?

WA: They weren’t under oath.

NH: No. But if anyone makes a confession to anyone else even the fact that they’re not under oath, they’re not under caution, doesn’t make it inadmissible.

It may have less weight – given less weight- in court. But it is admissible evidence, yes. Depending entirely on what they say, of course.

But I can imagine there are circumstances where what people have told an academic researcher is admissible in court, yes.

WA: And would you foresee this ending up in court or will it end up with a situation where it’s bogged down in the legalities, if you’d like? There’s going to be an appeal against this. There are obviously lots more tapes as well.

Could we get to a point where actually the good will had gone down the drain and nothing comes out of it anyway?

NH: Yes. I think it’s much more likely to get bogged down in the legal quagmire.

I don’t think it’s ever really likely to go to court which is one of the reasons why I say it would have probably been more sensible if the police had any way of allowing this to drop.

The problem is they don’t feel they have.

WA: Roger Bailey….What do you feel? I mean, what’s your gut instinct about all of this or about the psychology of it all?

RB: I think perhaps there’s a great deal more to this than we’re talking about.

We’re talking about alot of issues about people talking about their side and putting across their point of view. We’re also, I would presume, taking about butchery.

We’re talking about people engaging in the most horrific acts against one another and understanding, as we had to do after the Second World War, what can drive people to the point where they behave in ways which no civilised person would ever behave in.

And I think that’s not something that we can share easily without seriously traumatising whoever it is we’re going to share with. It is something that can be shared with an academic researcher in a frank and open way.

Even if the individual doesn’t have the answer, doesn’t know why it happened but wants to contribute so that perhaps in the future we might know a little bit more about how that happened and why that happened.

WA: Fascinating topic and thanks all of you very much indeed for coming on and discussing it today.

Quite of few more texts in on it: One says: What of academic bias? Many academics bring their own agendas when they review material.

Ricky says the government wouldn’t welcome the investigation or publishing of the files or interviews because it would only open up a possibly endless can of worms particularly to some of those sitting in power at the minute.

And just the last text in for the moment: If a college in Ireland held taped information given by those responsible for 9-11 wouldn’t we understand the American police wanting to investigate them? Interesting points.

12:32 (This portion ends)