Transcript: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson interviewed on RTE about Boston College case

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson interviewed on RTE about Boston College case
RTÉ Radio 1
Today with Pat Kenny
Thursday 19 July 2012

Pat Kenny (PK) interviews Northern Ireland Secretary of State Owen Paterson (OP). This transcript is a segment of the interview discussing The Belfast Project, the oral history archive at Boston College.

(Segment begins time stamp 20:33)

Pat Kenny (PK): Another issue which crosses your desk would be that issue of Boston College and the recollections which were given in confidence to the researchers and which now are to be released, or part of them to be released, to the PSNI.

There’s a kind of a worrying precedent about that. I mean, it is a court finding, but there’s a worrying precedent about even seeking information which is given in confidence for historical purposes.

The British government itself has its thirty year rule and its fifty year rule and its one hundred year rule – things that are so sensitive that you’ve got to make sure that people are long dead and buried, their relatives and their grandchildren, before it’s released. So the principle is well established.

Owen Paterson (OP): Well, actually as a government we’re going down from thirty year rule to a twenty year because we are in favour of transparency.

Boston College is a genuine, real problem. It’s a clash of very two very important themes.

I mean, I’ve been there. I’ve met Thomas Hachey. I was really impressed with what they are doing. And I’m very taken by the idea of establishing oral archives and capturing a pool of data and information and stories which historians can then work on.

And actually when I went over to Saint Patrick’s in March, I went to North Carolina to see The Civil Rights oral archive there. And I think that there’s real merit I think in encouraging people to come forward to oral archives while they’re still alive because of course many of the participants are sadly getting older and their memories are getting more faulty.

And I’m quite relaxed that the information you’d get would be completely subjective, people may have an axe to grind, it may be faulty.

But that’s not a problem. Let’s just get all this information recorded and then let historians loose…

So the broad principle of what they were doing I was very much in favour of. And of course the idea that there was effectively an amnesty of death – that nothing would be published until someone was dead – was a very interesting idea.

But, and there’s an enormous BUT that comes in here, we have always said that the rule of law must prevail and that the police have and absolute duty to follow up every possible lead seeking justice for victims and relatives of victims.

And here you have a clash of two massive principles.

So we have always strictly respected the operation and the independence of the police.

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

So this was treated as a routine approach by the PSNI who went to the Home Office, who are the normal liaison ministry working with foreign jurisdictions, and the Home Office, I think quite rightly, didn’t interfere either.

Because if the PSNI seriously think have a lead which could lead to information which could lead possibly to a further process which could bring justice for a victim, and don’t forget how the relatives of the victims have suffered terribly over the years as well, I think The Home Office was quite right to stand back. They never told us. And we read about it in the newspapers.

PK: Anything that is given to the historians by people who are now deceased has no evidential value because it literally is the subjective recollections of somebody who could, in theory, be self-serving…wanting to write their own version of history.

But where there are living people who have given in confidence information then of course they can be sworn in evidence and convictions or otherwise may ensue.

But it’s the principle that people want to give it while they’re alive, want to give their version of things and then find themselves subject to some sort of policing and judicial process.

It’s deeply uncomfortable and it may inhibit the writing of a true an accurate history. Before you came on we were talking to T. Ryle Dwyer about the activities of Michael Collins and Winston Churchill. And it’s good that we can know the full truth of what they were at. But it would not have been politic for Lloyd George to admit the goings-on at the time.

OP: No, I think you’ve explained it very, very clearly: that there is a real conundrum here.

It would be very good for future generations to have completely open, unrestricted recollections. You’re quite right, people might have an axe to grind. And I’m absolutely not a lawyer, but you’d have to wonder what the evidential value is of possibly some of these submission which are not made on oath or may not have proper witnesses and all the rest of it – and that’s for lawyers to determine.

But I think as a way of resolving the past I think we also have to recognise there is a massive interest in trying to get justice for victims and the benefit that brings to their relations. So I think we probably have to accept that I think that probably does override the academic interest in having an absolute and pure unadulterated record.

PK: We have this constructive ambiguity, the phrase so famously used Tony Blair and so famously practised by Bertie Ahern you know…Gerry Adams was never a member of the IRA, he says so therefore objectively that’s supposed to be a fact…Martin McGuinness left the IRA at a particular time and we find that a “convenience” whether it is true or otherwise.

And then you have this process which conspiracy theorists say are deliberately brought about to bring Gerry Adams into the frame for the disappearance of Jean McConville.

So sometimes things are a convenience and we indulge in constructive ambiguity and allow our systems to proceed to a particular end but this one seems to run counter to that process.

OP: I think you’re absolutely right.

We can get back to our earlier comments…that it’s absolutely central to the whole process that people should pursue their ambitions by legitimate, democratic means. And that is now happening.

But I think on the conundrum we face, it is very important to see that the police have a duty to victims. They have to pursue every single lead. And there’s no way this is a conspiracy. I mean, I knew absolutely nothing about this.

PK: So they have utter autonomy in this regard?

OP: Yeah, absolutely and we’ve always respected that and that’s absolutely fundamental – and it gets back to our comments on the earlier subject we were discussing. You’ve got to have an independent police who have no political interference. You’ve got to have a judicial system with no political interference.

So I knew absolutely nothing about this.

I’d be extraordinarily stupid to try to interfere in any way with any sort of possible political goal. There cannot be any of this. This has to be the police pursuing a lead and fulfilling their duty to the victims and the victims’ families.

(Segment ends time stamp 27:41)

See previously:
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson discusses Boston College Case
(March 24, 2012 interview transcript and October 29 2011 interview transcript)

Irish Americans Meet Paterson in NY
(November 9, 2011)