Grappling with a troubling memoir of Ulster’s bitter past

Grappling with a troubling memoir of Ulster’s bitter past
Alan Taylor
The Herald Scotland

IN the grounds of the Dunadry Hotel in County Antrim is a giant lime tree.

Or so it seems. On closer inspection it is clear that it is not one tree but two which, in their more than 100 years of existence, have grown together until they have become inseparable.

It was in May 1998 beneath what’s known locally as the “metaphor” tree that Tony Blair was photographed sitting between David Trimble and John Hume. Then just a year into his prime ministership, Mr Blair looks ridiculously young and preternaturally perky. As well he might, because a month earlier he had persuaded the majority of Northern Ireland’s warring political parties to sign the Good Friday Agreement which brought to a close that most violent and destructive period in the province’s history.

These last 13 years have demonstrated that even the most fractured of communities can live in harmony where there is a common will and a determination not to sink back into the sewer of past enmity. But it would be extremely naive to suggest that the Troubles have not left a legacy that is still problematic in this green and most lush of landscapes.

This is especially pertinent during what’s known as the marching season, which culminates on July 12 when Orangemen hold their annual parades. For those involved in the celebrations it is a day that is much anticipated, like the miners’ galas of yore. In the Belfast-based News Letter several pages are given over in the days proceeding the “glorious” Twelfth to the preparations for tomorrow’s event. It estimates that up to 60,000 Orangemen will be on parade at 19 venues across Ireland, at which there will be 800 bands representing 1300 lodges.

As ever, there is a certain amount of discord surrounding the Twelfth. This year it is focused on the Ardoyne area in Belfast, with which students of the Troubles are all too sadly familiar. While one hopes that wise counsel will prevail and that the parades will go on their merry way rejoicing, there looms in the muggy Irish air another source of discord that could be much more injurious to the peace process. This concerns what’s known as the Boston College Belfast Project. Between 2001 and 2006, at the instigation of the respected Irish journalist Ed Maloney and Anthony McIntyre, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, interviews were conducted and recorded with other ex-IRA members. These conversations were made under the strict proviso that confidentiality would be respected and that the tapes would not be released until the interviewee had died. Understandably, a number of those interviewed were fearful that if their testimony was known their lives could be in danger. Subsequently, the tapes were lodged in Boston College.

In February 2010, however, a woman called Dolours Price, who had agreed to be interviewed for the Belfast Project, gave another interview to the Irish News in which she confessed to her part in the killing in 1972 of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 accused of being an IRA informer. Price, who was formerly in the Provisional IRA, served seven years for her involvement in the bombing of the Old Bailey in 1973. Once married to the Oscar-nominated actor Stephen Rea, she said she had been in the car containing the kidnapped Mrs McConville, who was driven to a lonely spot, interrogated and murdered. Price also said it was Gerry Adams, now President of Sein Fein, who ordered the killing of Mrs McConville. For his part, Mr Adams has always strenuously denied that he had any connection with the IRA.

Then, last year, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) launched what Mr McIntyre has described as “a fishing expedition” through the US Justice Department aimed at getting access to the material in Boston College. This expedition is ongoing and how many fish it catches may yet depend on America’s Supreme Court. In the meantime, Mr McIntyre and Mr Moloney are concerned about the implications of the disclosure of information given in camera. Mr McIntyre said: “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.”

His anxiety is understandable and commendable. Once a promise is made it is shocking that it can be broken in such a manner. Ultimately, it is a question of trust. It is quite normal, for example, for libraries and universities to be given material on the basis that it can only be seen, if at all, by bona fide researchers. Usually there are good reasons for this sanction, such as a desire not to inflict unnecessary pain on other people. It can be infuriating, as I have sometimes personally discovered, but it is also reassuring. The alternative is full disclosure which would lead many people to destroy rather than deposit material of a sensitive, inflammatory or incriminatory nature. That, in the long term, would obviously be deleterious to future scholars. If the Boston tapes are handed over to the PSNI the reverberations will be felt not only in Ireland but all around the globe.

For the moment, though, it is not only the ethics of this case that is exercising the commentariat. By speaking out, Dolours Price has reopened a can of worms that seems never to stay closed for long. No fan of Gerry Adams, she has presented others among his adversaries with the wherewithal to drag him into the bog from which he has never fully been able to extricate himself.

What exactly was his role in the Troubles? Even today, after all these years and all the acres of print, it is hard to fathom. Who knows, he may yet appear in court and be made to account for his past. Certainly, Jean McConville’s family deserves to know what happened to her and by whom, as do others related to those who are known as the “disappeared”. One cannot help but feel that right now Northern Ireland needs another round of enervating infighting like Andy Murray needs another Wimbledon final against Roger Federer. In this place in which peace comes dropping slow more reconciliation and less recrimination is sometimes best for all concerned.