The Belfast Project and the Future of Oral History Projects
Brooke Gladstone interviews Anthony McIntyre and Jack Dunn
On The Media
National Public Radio
31 January 2014
Begun in 2000, the Belfast Project was an oral history project that aimed to document combatants’ stories in the clashes between the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force in the 1970s through the 1990s. But the charged nature of what interviewees told the project has brought immense pressure on the project’s organizers to release records of the interviews, which they’d promised to keep secret. Brooke talks with Anthony McIntyre who recorded many of the interviews for the project.
Brook Gladstone: It seems that oral histories are generally ignored unless they make history. The Belfast Project is an archive of taped recollections of members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Irish Loyalist Army [sic] who warred against each other from the 70s into the 90s.
The bomb blew apart the Horse and Groom pub in Guildford killing five people and injuring 50 more. An hour later another pub 200 yards up the road was also bombed. Then a month later at Woolwich in South London another soldiers’ pub was bombed and two people were killed.
BG: They were promised that their stories would stay secret until after their deaths. That promise was broken this month aggravating a wound that has never healed despite 15 years of peace. Some thirty five hundred people were killed in Ireland’s so called time of troubles. The Belfast Project intended to preserve the IRA stories inside the Boston College Library. But when reports emerged about the substance of two of the interviews the British government used the Mutual Legal Assistance between the US and the UK to obtain them and much more. In particular the British authorities wanted access to interviews that touched on the unsolved murder of Jean McConville
News Report: “Jean McConville’s abduction, torture, murder and secret burial by the IRA nearly 40 years ago leaves many unanswered questions. The mother of ten’s body was dumped on a County Louth beach and despite extensive searches was only found in 2003 by a passing walker.”
Beth McMurtrie, whose magisterial piece about the Belfast Project ran recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, called McConville’s case a uniquely tragic atrocity. The widowed mother of ten was dragged from her house in front of her then kids in 1972 and murdered as a suspected informer. Among the interviews archived in the Belfast project are some that implicate Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein party, often called the IRA’s political wing.
Anthony McIntyre whose credentials include a PhD in political science began recording the oral histories in the spring of 2001, for nearly six years collecting 26 interviews with IRA members, people who had every reason to trust him.
AM: I served a life sentence for IRA activity including the killing of a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force. And I have been involved … in the hunger strikes back in 1981 and 1980. And on the blanket protest along with Bobby Sands. I first went to prison when I was 16 and released when I was 18. I returned to prison when I was 18 and was released when I was 35. And I was known to these people to be trustworthy.
BG: What promises did you make to them?
AM: that these interviews would not be released until their death or with their consent prior to that. And that neither the Provisional IRA nor the British state would be allowed to access those interviews.
BG: One of your interviewees, Brendan Hughes, died and a book came out by your collaborator on the project, journalist Ed Moloney. In the book Brendan Hughes figured prominently. He told you that Gerry Adams was involved in the murder of Jean McConville, something that Adams has denied. Here is a little bit of Brendan Hughes’ tape.
“I never carried out a major operation without the OK or the order from Gerry. And for him to sit in his plush office in Westminster or Stormont or wherever, and deny it … I mean it is like Hitler denying that there was ever a Holocaust.”
AM: Well, during the course of the interview, Brendan revealed a lot of his life in the IRA. Gerry Adams was his operational commander in Belfast, and that Gerry Adams had ordered the killing of Jean McConville, had ordered the London bombings and had ordered a lot of IRA activity. Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams were very close comrades in the IRA back in the day.
BG: Boston College having been confronted with this order to turn over the entire archive calls it a victory that it doesn’t have to turn the whole thing over, only eleven documents.
AM: What Boston College secured was a minimising of the defeat. That is what we secured. The state seemed to have a view that ‘we were dealing with pushover professors and we will get anything we want out of them.’ And they weren’t far wrong.
BG: Pushover professors?
BG: And they weren’t very far wrong you were saying?
AM: No, they weren’t very far wrong. There should never have been a discussion about whether we do this or we don’t. They should have been straight out of the traps and said ‘We will face this head on.’
BG: Hmm Hmm
AM: Rather Boston College were transmitting messages to the Justice Department and law enforcement that ‘we are willing to fold if you give us the right opportunity.’ But unfortunately for Boston College, myself, my wife, and Ed Moloney decided to stand and fight. And because we fought Boston College then were embarrassed.
BG: Okay. Let’s, let’s consider the arguments on both sides of this issue. The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said in a special on CNN that nobody is above the law:
“We have been quite clear as a government there can be no concept of an amnesty. So, we have to support the police in bringing those who committed crimes to justice.”
AM: That’s fine. What he actually means is that nobody outside law enforcement is above the law. Because the British authorities have withheld vital information from the relatives of the murdered human rights lawyer, Pat Finucane, murdered by agents of the British state. The British state have withheld vital documents from the victims and families of the people killed in the Dublin Monaghan bombings in May 1974.
BG: I hear what you are saying. That they are, they are having a double standard.
AM: Well, absolutely. But I mean people in Boston and America should know about British double standards from the War of Independence out there …
AM: So I don’t think you should be too surprised about British double standards.
BG: Okay then. The argument for the lawyer for the McConville family says that the wounds of the troubles can never heal while injustice like the murder of Mrs McConville is allowed to fester.
AM: I have a great deal of sympathy for the lawyer’s sentiment and I have enormous sympathy for the family of Jean McConville and the family of any person killed. But it is not the task of a researcher to become a gatherer of evidence for law enforcement. Even for clergy men – now one can argue that researchers produce knowledge and clergymen produce nonsense …
AM: …, yet clergymen are allowed to maintain confidentiality and researchers aren’t. It seems to me to be a bizarre situation. There are certain obstacles that have to stand in the way of the state for the betterment of society. And I think that academics and journalists need to be protected from this sort of encroachment and incursion. If the only view of society that we have, the only view of the past is that of law enforcement we will learn very little from it.
BG: But how can it really effect policy and improve somebody’s life if you don’t get to look into it until thirty years hence and the people who committed the wrongdoing on both sides of the struggle are never brought to account.
AM: Well, I mean we have a situation in the North where the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that the Criminal Justice system had to be turned on its head in order to bring about the Good Friday Agreement. Basically politics in the North of Ireland did trump justice. And it has also trumped truth.
Truth in the North of Ireland is used for recrimination not for reconciliation. They want to use it to – yesterday’s issues to fight the political battles of today.
This information wasn’t gathered by ourselves as researchers to hand over to relatives. Because people are simply going to clam up. All the knowledge that could have been brought to the families at some point under a variety of processes about truth recovery and the past has now been sabotaged by this issue.
It is very sad that the McConvilles cannot get the truth. I think that the McConville family are behaving nobly and honourably. It’s just that I represent a different constituency of knowledge and ‘ne’er the twain shall meet.’
BG: Ed Moloney, your colleague in the Belfast Project, has said that the release of the tapes could endanger your life. Do you really think that’s a realistic concern?
AM: I am going to see people coming for me even when they are not coming for me
AM: because I am in the eye of the storm and I am sensitive. Former colleagues can be very vitriolic and bitter. Some of them with great audacity and chutzpah …
BG: (laughs) …
AM: who many of us have for a long time suspected of being informers are now calling the participants of the Boston College project informers. It’s a load of old hooey. But we must be very cautious. But if you are asking me do I live under the bed fearful that I am going to be attacked imminently? No I don’t.
BG: Anthony McIntyre is an independent scholar.
Brooke speaks with Jack Dunn, the Director of the Boston College News and Public Affairs office about what Boston College has done to protect the tapes from the Belfast Project and the future of academic oral history projects.
Jack Dunn is the director of the news and public affairs office at Boston College. He says Boston College did everything in its power to protect the interviews.
JD: We hired the best lawyer available to fight the subpoenas and we won a significant court case that reduced the number of recorded materials from 85 to 11 interviews that were ultimately required to go over to the Police Services of Northern Ireland.
BG: McIntyre says that rather than lobbying politicians to protect the manuscripts the College instead set about undermining him and Moloney. Now you claim, I think, that the comments by McIntyre and Moloney hurt your efforts to protect …
JD: Oh they did.
BG: … the manuscript.
JD: What happened is the first subpoena occurred shortly after Ed Moloney published his book Voices from the Grave and after his video of the same name was released in Ireland. There is no doubt in our mind that the children of Jean McConville – who are victims themselves in this – they heard that there was a university that had in its archives recordings of conversations with IRA members that could shed light on their mother’s murder. So they apparently sought the help of the Police Services of Northern Ireland to issue a subpoena to the United States. And then to our astonishment Ed Moloney said in interviews in American newspapers that Boston College should burn the tapes and that sort of rhetoric that we might somehow burn materials which is something no university would ever consider, no doubt prompted the second subpoena.
BG: McIntyre says that the loss to history of this whole episode is very grave: it irreparably harms the possibility that people will really know what happened during the Troubles. And Boston College should have had the courage to stand up and engage in an act of civil disobedience.
JD: It is just a clash of cultures between an American university that is obviously going to be respondent to a US court subpoena and an individual from Northern Ireland with a long, criminal record who just seems to have a utter disregard for the legal process and a suspicion of any authority.
BG: What about the issue of the loss to history?
JD: The shame of it is that Anthony conducted the interviews with the IRA members and those who have heard the tapes said his work was very weak. Kevin O’Neill from Boston College said that he was stunned by how leading the questions were.
BG: You feel he conducted shoddy interviews?
JD: A lot of critics such as Danny Morrison, a former IRA member himself, have been critical of Anthony McIntyre suggesting that he interviewed only people who held the same viewpoint that he did, people who would be critical of Gerry Adams.
BG: McIntyre has pushed back and said that the efforts by the Irish police to get the tape is part of a campaign against Gerry Adams. So everyone is charging this is a campaign against Gerry Adams. But perhaps not admissible as evidence. Right?
JD: Probably not. I think Mr McIntyre and I would agree on that, that the information would probably not have value in a court of law. As we all have pointed out one of the great ironies is that Boston College in this very Burns Library holds the recordings of the conversations that led to the various paramilitary groups laying down their arms. And the condition is they will not be available to anyone for thirty years. The Police Services of Northern Ireland have gone after the tapes of the IRA members but never requested the tapes of UVF members.
BG: Has Boston College changed its procedures for gathering oral histories?
JD: I think everyone in the world will change the way they undertake oral histories. When this project began in 200o everyone followed the Colombia University model which said oral histories really wouldn’t be subject to Institutional Review Board. I think that has changed. There would certainly be a heightened scrutiny today. All of the participants entered into this agreement with good intentions. Some good came of it. Clearly mistakes were made on all four of the parties involved. And the reality is that the promise of the Belfast project has been lessened. The political reality clearly got in the way and now I think we have all learned a need for heightened caution as anyone embarks on such a project.
BG: Jack, thank you very much.
JD: Thank you for having me.
BG: Jack Dunn directs the News and Public Affairs office at Boston College.