Boston College tapes: PSNI to get access to Dolours Price interviews
Just before going to press (15 April 2013) the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal to overturn an earlier high court ruling to hand over transcripts recorded with convicted IRA bomber Dolours Price as part of Boston College’s ‘Belfast Project’. Ruan O’Donnell reports on the implications, both for scholarly research on the ‘Troubles’ and for the Peace Process itself.
The dramatic news that transcripts of controversial recordings are to be handed over to the PSNI in Northern Ireland has sent shockwaves through American academia. Although it was never certain if researchers had the authority to guarantee total confidentiality or binding terms of information disclosure, the prising open of a closed archive with a view to aiding the prosecution of persons in another jurisdiction was inconceivable. Best practice for all serious interviewers has now been voided. Historians of the recent past must now ponder on how to ensure that their work does not extend to collusion. This is the current legacy of the Boston Colleges tapes imbroglio, albeit an outcome that had not been foreseen by anyone involved.
The sudden death of Dolours Price in Malahide, Dublin, on 23 January 2013 had refocused international attention on the then unresolved ‘Boston College tapes’ controversy. Price had indicated in 2010 that a deposition she had contributed to the American college’s ‘Belfast Project’ may have contained material pertinent to PSNI investigations into several IRA killings in the early 1970s. It was inferred that this first hand perspective extended to the December 1972 IRA shooting and disappearance of Jean McConville in which Price had admitted a role. The incident had featured in Ed Moloney’s Voices from the grave book in March 2010 and in an RTÉ documentary of the same name broadcast in October 2010.
Moloney cited interviews with former Belfast IRA commander Brendan Hughes, one of a number collected between 2001 and 2006 when Anthony McIntyre was the lead researcher. The Hughes transcript had been sealed prior to his death in February 2008 as per an agreement with the John J. Burns Library of Boston College, custodians of the formerly secret archive. In February 2010 Price, who had been active in the IRA when Hughes was a senior member, corroborated aspects of what he had imparted. Her primary interest was then in a different ‘disappeared’ incident concerning Joe Lynskey who was also shot and buried in an unmarked location by the IRA. Price pursued the matter with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR) and in the course of an Irish News interview volunteered that she had participated in the ‘Belfast Project’. It was widely and evidently wrongly speculated that this included information on the fate of Jean McConville.
Special provision was made in Irish and British law in 1999 to effectively immunise persons assisting the ICLVR from prosecution. However, there is neither a statute of limitations nor general amnesty to indemnify those formerly engaged in political violence in Ireland. The possibility of incriminating Burns Library recordings being produced in a Belfast court could not be discounted. This scenario became far more likely on 5 May 2011 when a federal subpoena was delivered to the Burns Library demanding surrender of certain interviews. The novel utilisation of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (2003) by the US attorney for Massachusetts enabled his office to act in place of the United Kingdom. In a further twist to a complicated test case with potentially great bearing on academic freedom in December 2012 a Federal Court of Appeals imposed a ‘stay’ on the surrender of the material, a stay now lifted with the recent Supreme Court decision.
Although successful, the PSNI seem destined for disappointment vis-a-vis what has been surrendered in Massachusetts. On 27 February 2013 Moloney informed the Society of American Archivists that Price had ‘never mentioned McConville in her B[oston] C[ollege] interview’ and that he had previously attested to this most salient detail in ‘a court affidavit’.
Notwithstanding long-term bouts of serious ill-health, the death of Price aged sixty-one was decidedly premature and attributed by many to the privations she had suffered when imprisoned in Brixton, Durham and Armagh. As one of the nine ‘Belfast Ten’ prisoners convicted in 1974 for IRA bombings in London, she and sister Marian endured a gruelling hunger strike of over 200 days in Brixton Prison, which was prolonged by force-feeding. Other co-defendants fasted to the brink of death, including Gerry Kelly and Hugh Feeney. Mayoman Michael Gaughan, jailed for other IRA offences in England, was force-fed to death in Parkhurst in June 1974 opening the way for a compact which resulted in the repatriation of the sisters to Armagh Goal in March 1975. Kelly and Feeney followed to Long Kesh, although the strategic value of retaining IRA prisoners in England then halted the flow until the Peace Process transformed the ‘Long War’. The fatal hungerstrike of Frank Stagg in Wakefield in February 1976 failed to advance the timetable.
The sisters separately received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy in 1980-1981 arising from their struggles with anorexia nervosa and related illnesses. Dolours Price was transferred from Armagh to a Belfast hospital and released on 22 April 1981. She suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating and common affliction in modern war zones. Price retreated from public view until the 1990s when she was critical of compromises made by the Republican Movement as it negotiated the Peace Process. While her marriage to actor and cultural activist Stephen Rea prompted occasional intrusive press commentary, it was Marian Price who tended to attract greater and more negative media attention from the late 1990s due to her involvement with the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, a legal body which supported the political objectives of the proscribed Real IRA.
Marian Price was jailed for alleged offences committed at the April 2011 Easter commemoration in Derry during which a masked Real IRA member delivered an address. Other serious charges then emerged after her remanding to Maghaberry Prison. This triggered a health relapse and her eventual relocation following public outcry to Hydebank Prison. She has since been moved to secure confinement in Belfast City Hospital. At the time of her death, Dolours Price was deeply engaged in a broad-based public campaign to free her sister who was too ill to attend most of the funeral arrangements. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are among the Sinn Féin leaders who have renewed calls for her emancipation.
News of the demise of Dolours Price revived the Boston College tapes story as it was assumed that parts of her deposition would become public, as had occurred with the oral history legacy of Brendan Hughes and David Ervine. Moloney clarified that the death of interviewees would not trigger an automatic release of files. It was claimed that Hughes had made a specific request for his account to be publicised within a short period of his death, aspects of which surprised former republican associates in 2010. The Burns Library, however, retains the exclusive right to publish accounts of deceased donors and may do so unilaterally at any time. The particular files requested by the PSNI remained in limbo until the US Supreme Court’s decision on 15 April 2013, a decision that will now significantly determine the parameters of future ‘Troubles’ history in Ireland.
What is now a major crisis for research ethics is also a major test of British commitment to preserving the pragmatic spirit of the Peace Process. Current policing in the North would seem to be intelligence-led, courtesy of MI5, MI6 and the Special Branch. As such, it would not only be untoward but threatening to the status quo if archival material was actually used to prosecute persons at the helm of the ongoing and still challenging process of Anglo-Irish raproachment. Prime Minister Cameron retains his interest in Ireland according to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers in a recent statement. This must now be urgently demonstrated. Meanwhile, historians on both sides of the Atlantic must reflect on the integrity of their profession and the means necessary to prevail in a newly dark time.
Ruan O’Donnell is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Limerick. His most recent book is Special Category, The IRA in English prisons, 1968-1978 (Irish Academic Press, (Dublin, 2012).