Who owns history? The Boston College subpoenas…

Who owns history? The Boston College subpoenas…
by Fin Dwyer
Irish History Podcast
July 27, 2012

Background of the case

The Belfast Project at Boston College has collected an enormous archive of material on Northern Ireland over the past 40 years. Its most controversial project is a research programme that has seen people directly involved in the troubles give recorded testimonies of their experiences.

The interviewees are primarily from a republican background but also includes some loyalists. The recordings were carried out by former IRA volunteer and prisoner Anthony McIntyre in conjunction with the journalist and author Ed Moloney. Those interviewed participated on the basis that the tapes would be stored in the archives of Boston College and published only after their deaths.

This caveat of publishing posthumously was the basis of the project as the interviews were for the main about illegal activities. The first glimpse of the historical significance of these recordings was evident in the release of “Voices From the Grave” a published account of loyalist David Irvine and republican Brendan Hughes’ testimonies. These were first hand accounts not only of activities but also the motivations of two key figures in their respective movements. While at times they make very unpleasant reading, from a historical point of view these testimonies are a great insight into why people got involved in paramilitaries and how the troubles not only began but evolved. This project has the possibility to bring our understanding of the troubles to a new level given these direct testimonies of those involved.

Why is it in the news?

Boston College was recently subpoenaed by the US Department of Justice working with the Historical Crimes Unit of the PSNI (the Police Service of Northern Ireland) to hand over the recording by Dolores Price, a former IRA volunteer. Price as admitted to being involved in the killing of Jean Mc Conville. Jean Mc Conville was a widow and mother of ten who was killed by the IRA in 1972 and her body was buried in secret amid accusations she had been an informer for the British Security Forces. This has been strenuously denied by her family.

The Historical Crimes Unit investigating the killing have successfully won an order in US court forcing the tapes to be handed over. This decision is being challenged in the courts by Anthony Mc Intyre and Ed Moloney. Mc Intyre has argued here that the decision is disastrous for history and that they are politically motivated.

It is difficult to exactly understand specifically why the PSNI want the tapes now given Jean Mc Conville’s murder was largely ignored for decades and these tapes are very unlikely to be admissible as evidence in court. In terms of history the consequences are unfortunately all too clear and the impact on oral history cannot be understated.

As Anthony Mc Intyre himself points out the role of historians is not to collect information for the state. Histories and historians if to be worthwhile must be independent. If it is not we will increasingly get served up soviet style history where there is only one version – that of the state. In a conflict like that in the North it is crucial we get the views of others given the direct role of the state in the troubles.

An all too common assumption is that of the benign role of the state in the conflict. The portrayal of the British and Irish governments as mediators in a vicious sectarian war is deeply problematic given our historical understanding of events. It is clear now the British government had a direct involvement not just through the army and police but through the role of its agents who were involved in numerous murders. The most notorious was perhaps Freddie Scappaticci a British agent who was also an active member of the IRA internal security unit the so called “nutting squad”. State involvement was not just limited to infiltration of republicanism by any means. Currently Mark Haddock a former UVF commander is now in court for murder was also a British informer. It is widely suspected these individuals were protected despite the fact they were involved in several brutal killings.

Due to such involvement our historical understanding of these events if to be dependeable can not be based on records the British of for that matter the Irish government as they are not neutral or dependable sources. Indeed recently it emerged the British government had “sanitised” its accounts of its brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya  in the the 1950′s by destroying documents. In this light it is crucial we have the views from all sides and perspectives and the only way to do this is through a project like that at Boston College which offers confidentiality.

The historical importance of such evidence was seen in Brendan Hughes’ account when he revealed his understanding of how British Intelligence had infiltrated in the IRA in Belfast and how they were involved in murders, something that the British or Irish government records are unlikely to contain. To understand this mirky history we need a “warts and all account”. In this light testimonies will involve an admission of guilt if they are to be honest and therefore need to be confidential.


While it is entirely understandable that the Mc Conville family want to find out what happened to their mother the Boston tape are not the solution as they are not evidence. The PSNI should not try resolve their and their predecessors the RUC’s, shortcomings by attacking and effectively destroying the work of others. The tapes were recorded on the basis that they would not be used in this manner and if they are, it will make future projects of this nature impossible. If successful a similar project focusing on loyalist organisations would reap great dividends.

Sadly the reality is that the P.S.N.I.’s actions have already done massive damage to oral history projects on modern Irish history. It is difficult to accurately assess the impact of this case. The damage will only be fully evident in perhaps 40 or 50 years if, when most protagonists involved in the troubles have carried their stories to the grave and we will only then realise what has been lost.

Indeed as Ireland prepares to celebrate its centenaries of 1913 – 1922 period its worth remembering our understanding of these events is based on the archives of a similar project. Between 1947 -1957 the Bureau of Military History conducted interviews with people who had been involved the Irish struggle for Independence between 1913 – 1921. Over the ten years 1773 witness statements were collected giving a key insight into events of the period. These testimonies were recorded on the promise that none were to be released when the last participant died which saw them released in 2003. To understand the troubles we need a similar resource and given the specifics of the situation it is unlikely either the British and Irish government will give a voice to those directly involved in either the IRA or UVF. In this light it is essential to keep Boston’s archive beyond the reach of the PSNI.

If you want to help

If you want to help keep the Boston Archive beyond the reach of the PSNI check out the blog https://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/

If you live in the US

Readers in the US can contact their local congressperson , and ask them to follow Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Senator Kerry’s lead on the issue in asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder to secure a withdrawal of the subpoena.

If you live in the UK

Readers in the UK can write to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson  and Home Office Secretary Theresa May  informing them of the chilling effect this is having and the damage this subpoena is doing, and ask them to withdraw the British MLAT (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty) request for the subpoena.

If you live in Ireland.

Irish readers can contact Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs Joe Costello and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore to express their dismay at this action and ask them to call for a British withdrawal of the subpoena request.