Northern Ireland conflict archives should not fall into police hands
The raid by the Northern Ireland police service on Boston College’s archive of the conflict sets a dangerous precedent
Comment is free, guardian.co.uk
Tuesday 10 July 2012
In 2001, three short years after the Good Friday agreement had seemingly drawn the curtain on the violent political conflict in the north of Ireland, the Belfast Project took its first breath. It was devised in Boston College, Massachusetts, by specialists in the study of Irish affairs and the archiving of matters flowing from such study. Its specific purpose was to enhance knowledge about the Northern Ireland conflict through tapping into the minds of those who were involved, and whose narratives would be lost forever, were some effort not made to retrieve them for posterity and wider society.
Last year the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) launched a fishing expedition through the US justice department that aimed at plundering the fruits of that research stored in the Boston College archive. It sought material that it claimed may be of use to it as prosecution evidence. Its raiding foray focused on the 1972 killing of Jean McConville which prompted this from Chris Bray in the Irish Times:
“the PSNI and its predecessor agency, the RUC … ignored the murder of Jean McConville for nearly 40 years. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland told us precisely that in a 2006 report that found almost no paper trail at all connected to that murder.”
Despite the verdict favouring the PSNI delivered by the court of appeal in Boston, it remains crucially important from an academic and journalist perspective that nothing from the Boston archive falls into the hands of the PSNI. As Michelle Stanistreet, the NUJ general secretary, has argued, the ruling has “significant implications” for academic and journalistic research.
This is one reason that the ongoing legal battle Ed Moloney and I have fought to protect the archive will continue. Academics, journalists and historians are not gatherers of evidence for the state. If they cross the line that so clearly demarcates their position from police detectives, the effects on the production of knowledge can only be suffocating.
In terms of public understanding, the fallout is already being felt. In the Guardian it has been reported that a London university project similar to that of Boston College, this time involving former security forces personnel with experience of the Northern Irish conflict, has had to be abandoned because of the PSNI assault on the Boston College archive.
Public understanding will be all the more impoverished as a result of that.
If the Boston College project was such an invidious exercise as some are now prone to charge, it seems incomprehensible that the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, would ever have recommended it as a template for truth recovery.
That he subsequently came to back the PSNI attempt to sabotage it is another political U-turn in relation to addressing the past that requires considerable elucidation.
Moreover, the double standards of the British state are on full display. It refuses access to the archives in the possession of its security services to the family of the murdered solicitor Pat Finucane, despite David Cameron admitting security force collusion in Finucane’s death.
This throws into sharp focus a very tendentious mining of the past and helps explain the considerable suspicion in the nationalist/republican community and beyond that elements of the British state are not merely investigating the past but are seeking to reconstruct it in a way that distorts a more rounded appreciation.
Ultimately, law enforcement agencies, which cannot escape culpability for Northern Ireland’s “dirty war”, are now trying to shape society’s knowledge of that war by seeking to monopolise control over what unfolds from the past while simultaneously relegating the role of academic and journalistic researchers. Any agency other than law enforcement is liable to be sabotaged. A law enforcement view of history is a partial and self-serving one, which seeks to conceal rather than reveal.