This IRA ruling has put us on a perilous road

This IRA ruling has put us on a perilous road
The rule of law has trumped the rights of academic researchers
Paul Bew
Sunday Times
July 9 2012

In his classic work on Shakespeare, A. C. Bradley defined tragedy not as the conflict between right and wrong but between two great rights. Not for the first time in Irish history this principle is in play.

The ruling by a US court that Boston College must hand over to Northern Ireland’s police a tape from an oral history project is a clash of two rights.

The college wanted to build up an archive on the Troubles that would be invaluable to researchers. Under the project director, Ed Moloney, a team gathered testimonies from republican and loyalist paramilitaries. They intended that the tapes would remain confidential in a Boston archive until at least the deaths of those interviewed. The aim was noble: to give future
generations a deeper understanding of a dreadful sectarian conflict at the heart of a liberal democracy that cost more than three and half thousand lives.

But this has come into conflict with another principle — the rights of victims. When it was made public that one of the tapes contained possible evidence relating to a serious crime, the victims’s family argued that it should be disclosed. The police in Northern Ireland took up the case.

In the new atmosphere created since 9/11, the US justice system, not always responsive in the past to British requests in IRA matters, responded sympathetically. The rule of law, it said, trumps the rights of researchers, and ordered the release of the most sensitive tape, by the former IRA member Dolours Price. Even those who accept the paramount rights of victims must
acknowledge a serious downside. Most important is a possible threat to the researchers’ lives.

Second, while some good work will still go on, there is undeniably a chilling effect on similar projects, including those that might have embraced different witnesses, such as policemen, politicians and community leaders. Those who hoped oral history might be a weapon in the struggle to preserve an honest account of the Troubles and, in so doing, pay homage to the victims are likely to be disappointed.

Tony Blair once said that the answer to the Northern Ireland problem required the criminal justice system to be turned upside down. After the early releases under the Good Friday Agreement it is easy to see how Boston College believed a de facto amnesty was in place. In fact there is no amnesty, as was confirmed by the decision to see if murder charges can be brought over Bloody Sunday. We are on a perilous road that may lead to the opening of old sores. The irony is that the Boston project was conceived as part of a process to aid understanding and reconciliation.

Paul Bew, Professor of Irish Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, was a visiting professor at Boston College 1999-2000