Why have the Boston College tapes and the death of Mrs Jean McConville become entwined?
“It’s the obligation of a researcher to destroy their material before allowing it to fall into the hands of anyone who would bring it to harm. Boston College had an obligation to engage in an act of civil disobedience.” —Anthony McIntyre
The furore over the Boston College Tapes has been slow burning and it is worth recapping how we reached where we are today. The tapes were part of a Belfast oral history project which was under the auspices of the Irish studies department of Boston College a prestigious US academic institution. They consisted of a series of interviews with former members of Irish republican and loyalist paramilitaries. Those who agreed to participate did so after receiving guarantees the tapes would not be released until they were dead.
The lead researcher in Ireland Anthony McIntyre believed his interviewees had a solid guarantee from the college that their recollections were secure. He certainly wasn’t aware of MLAT a US-UK treaty, although he might have been if the college had carried out its duty of care and checked with their lawyers before collecting an archive of interviews in which former members of the PIRA and UVF spoke in some detail about their paramilitary careers.
During the period when the Belfast Oral History Project (BOHP) was being set up, a firm belief was developing amongst a number of former members of the PIRA that the history of their struggle was being rewritten in an attempt to justify the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and not just by the British government and their mainstream media friends but also by the current leadership of Sinn Féin.
As one former IRA man said to me: “Not one volunteer went to war so Martin McGuinness could become deputy first minister in a British owned statelet but that is how our struggle is being spun today.”
It’s true on the republican side the majority of those who were interviewed for the oral history project were no longer supporters of Sinn Féin, however if the Sinn Féin leadership had not placed a three line whip against its members participating it may have been more balanced, but just because this was not the case it does not invalidate it as Gerry Adams recently said.
It’s not true as some have claimed the republican interviewees belonged to, or supported dissident republican groups. Far from it in fact as most, including Brendan Hughes and McIntyre, welcomed the ceasefire, and the ending of the military campaign. The line they would not cross was Sinn Féin’s support for British institutions in Northern Ireland, especially the police. Which is not really surprising as opposition to British institutions in Ireland has been a bedrock policy of Irish republicanism since the 19th century. Even many of those who remain in SF will tell you accepting the writ of the PSNI has been a very bitter pill to swallow.
The Belfast oral history project is an academic study which collated first hand accounts about why, and how the men and women interviewed volunteered for Óglaigh na hÉireann and fought the bloodiest military insurrection against the British State since the English civil war. Surely a worthwhile project which would have had great value for future historians and political strategists.
Gerry Adams was being disingenuous when he claimed last week the project was “flawed and biased from the outset. It was an entirely bogus, shoddy and self-serving effort. It was not a genuine or serious or ethically based history project.” Not least because he has attempted to airbrush out of Republican history former comrades who went on to disagree with his strategy and tactics.
If he had his way some of the most prominent players within the IRA over the last four decades would have been permanently consigned to the cutting room floor. The whole purpose of oral history is to give people a voice in the future which is far too often denied them. As L P Hartley said: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The BOHP was an attempt to ensure when future generations study the PIRA’s insurgency it will not alone be through the prism of the British and Irish establishments and the mainstream media. The BOHP would have at the very least preserved a public record of those who fought on the losing side in that conflict, yet refused to make the compromises demanded of them.
Although we do not know what is on all of the tapes, only Moloney and McIntyre know that, we have caught a glimpse of their importance to future historians The interviewees have undoubtedly revealed information about the inner workings of the IRA and shed new light on important historic events.
The trust and confidence the republican interviewees have in Anthony McIntyre is best demonstrated by the fact since this brouhaha blew up not one has publicly criticised him or doubted his integrity. As one of them said: “I needed to know the guy I was telling this to could be trusted one billion percent.”
The Project begins to unravel
Sadly the thing started to unravel after the death of two of its participants, David Irvine, a former member of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and later a leading politician and member of the Progressive Unionist Party, and Brendan Hughes, a senior member of the IRA who along with Ivor Bell and Gerry Adams made up the trio of northerners who developed and oversaw military strategy and tactics for much of the 1970s.
In March 2010, Ed Moloney’s book Voices from the Grave was published, which featured interviews with Hughes and Ervine, compiled by researchers for Boston College. Moloney, who was the project director of the Belfast Oral History Project, based the book on the interviews given by Hughes and Ervine. Excerpts from the book have Hughes discussing his role and the role of Gerry Adams in the IRA, including their alleged role in regards to the contentious disappearance of Jean McConville, a mother of ten who was executed by the IRA for acting as an informer for the British Army. In October 2010, RTÉ also broadcast a documentary co-produced by Moloney based on Voices from the Grave in which similar accusations were made.
Once this book was published the British police in Ireland took a keen interest in the tapes and with the full support of the UK government they eventually asked and then demanded access to the Boston College tapes archive under the mutual legal assistance treaty, as they claimed they were relevant in an ongoing murder enquiry.
To cut a long story short the first subpoena arrived on May 5, 2011. Its contents were under seal. Boston College was told the U.S. Department of Justice, acting under a mutual-legal-assistance treaty with the UK, was seeking the interviews of Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, for help in a criminal investigation in Northern Ireland involving kidnapping and murder.
Within weeks Boston College turned over the Hughes interviews to the US Justice Department and it became clear the college had no intention of fighting within the US legal system to uphold an imported academic principle. Thus Moloney and McIntyre decided to continue the struggle on their own, although they fought a rearguard action and did gain some support in the USA, but without the college in their corner it was always a long shot, and by issuing the following statement the college spokesman Jack Dunn had clearly moved into the camp of the Justice Department:
“Had our efforts gone to Congress in identifying supporters, to work with the State Department and the Department of Justice, we could have been more effective. But our efforts were involved in legal matters and distancing ourselves from the reckless rhetoric of Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre.”
Eight months after the first subpoena was served, Judge William G. Young of the U.S. District Court in Boston ordered Boston College to turn over Dolours Price’s interviews as well as 85 interviews of seven other former IRA members that he deemed relevant to the investigation. It should be noted by fighting their rearguard action in the US courts McIntyre and Moloney did restrict the British police gaining access to all of the tapes.
Given Mr Adams harsh criticism of the Belfast oral history project I feel it is only fair to remind him what Judge Young said about the project after reading the transcripts of the tapes.
“This was a bona fide academic exercise of considerable intellectual merit … These materials are of interest, valid academic interest historian, sociologist, the student of religion, the student of youth movements, academics who are interested in insurgency and counter-insurgency and terrorism and counter-terrorism. They’re of interest to those who study the history of religions.”
That is a long way from what Gerry Adams claimed:
“flawed and biased from the outset. It was an entirely bogus, shoddy and self-serving effort. It was not a genuine or serious or ethically based history project.”
What can one make of this brouhaha?
For the wider world what this case highlights is treaties between the USA and less powerful nations are not the harmless entities they’re often portrayed as. There is a reason why they are signed under the radar, they are designed to chip away our democratic rights and freedoms as is witnessed here by the use of the mutual legal assistance treaty. (MLAT)
Since the middle of the last century there has been a move away from the great man theory of history to how ordinary people shape big historical events. As most people do not write books or leave a written narrative of their lives, oral history has come to be seen as a way of filling a massive gap.
With the English ruling class once again firmly in the political saddle they are trying to turn this march of time back, and turn the historical spotlight back onto them and theirs. One only has to watch historical documentaries on TV today to understand this. If those who participate in historic times which challenge the force of the state lose confidence in the security of oral history projects, understandably they will refuse to participate and we and future generations will be the losers.
Sadly this is already happening, according to Richard English, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, he has heard from a number of researchers seeking advice about whether to pursue research on political violence if it includes interviewing those involved in conflict. “I think the fallout is much wider than Northern Ireland,” he says. “There has been a shadow cast over this kind of research.”
What made the PSNI with the full support of the British government go after the Boston College Tapes with such vigour? Only they know for sure, but as most lawyers seem to believe they could not be used as evidence in a criminal trial, it may have been a shot across Sinn Féin’s bows as Gerry Adams does seem to be the main target. Could their purpose have been to pressurise SF to agree not to pursue their demand that members of the British security forces who shot dead 13 civilians on Bloody Sunday and colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of Pat Finucane and others be brought before a court of law. Was it a case of you leave us alone and we will leave you alone and especially your leader Gerry Adams.
There is another hypothesis, it’s of the who will rid me of this troublesome priest variety. It’s possible the British security services are sick and tired of Anthony McIntyre continuingly snapping at the heels of their Irish agents of influence? People have had their lives ruined by the police and security services for far less.
As to the Belfast history project, I will let former IRA man Dixie Elliott have the last word, as he brings some dignity to this whole sorry charade. Read it and you get an idea why history demands ‘ordinary’ IRA volunteers are heard.
“Lets get this straight those who left testimonies on those tapes were Republicans who had risked their lives and freedom for decades, they were not, as some seem to claim, naive nor easily led.
They knew what they were doing and that was to ensure that recent history was recorded in way that future generations could decide what was and was not the truth.
While young men and women carried guns and bombs in the hope of achieving freedom, Adams and McGuinness only carried their coffins to early graves.
They urged that the fight would go ahead while talking about ending it behind the backs of those they encouraged to fight. If they weren’t in the IRA then they were nothing other than demagogues.
History demands that the truth is left behind and that is precisely what the Boston Project was about.”