BC’s Oral History Of ‘The Troubles’ Spurred Arrest Of Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams
By Phillip Martin
The arrest Thursday of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams came as a shock to many. The leader of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army was one of the parties to the Irish Peace agreement of 1998, which ended the guerilla war in Northern Ireland. Adams is now suspected of ordering the 1972 abduction and killing of a widow and mother of ten children. The information leading to his arrest came from a Boston College oral history project that the British Government agained access to with help from the U.S. Justice Department. That once-secret information exposes the role of informants during the decades old conflict.
The arrest of Adams resulted from information from former Irish Republican Army fighters provided in interviews for the Belfast Project at Boston College. Those interviews were to be made public only following the deaths of the respondents, including a now deceased IRA commander, Brendan Hughes. Hughes and his surviving colleagues told Boston College historians about the roles each of them played during “the Troubles,” as the guerilla war was called, and in so doing implicated Gerry Adams.
The very act of informing during that 30-year conflict was the trigger for multiple murders.
“When you’re talking about informants in Ireland, there was always a severe stigma attached to it,” said Lisa McAlfry. “It was something that you just didn’t do.”
McAlfry was a national correspondent for Irish Television and Radio, who has reported on The Troubles and its informants. She says the murder of 38-year-old Jean McConville in the winter of 1972 has long haunted many in Northern Ireland.
“So in 1972, she was a mother of 10 who lived in a really rough part of West Belfast in Northern Ireland,” McAlfry said. “She was allegedly a spy for the British government, supplying information on the activities of the IRA. And because of that, one day she simply was disappeared. Thirty years later her body was discovered and it’s alleged that the IRA was responsible for her killing.”
And McConville — dragged out of her own bathroom and her body dumped on a beach — was one of many who died.
“This happened a lot,” McAlfry said. “She was one of the 19 or so Disappeared — that’s what they’re called, ‘The Disappeared.’ Their bodies, some of them were discovered, some of them weren’t. The case was, if you were an informant, sooner or later you were going to be tracked down. You didn’t have a chance.”
Adams maintains his innocence. The information came to the authorities as a result of IRA members wanting to set the historical record straight in their interviews with Boston College following the peace agreement of 1998. Journalist Ed Moloney, an authority on the IRA and the peace agreement, fought unsuccessfully to keep secret his interviews with former paramilitary members as part of the Boston College oral history project.
“These allegations were made not just in the Boston College archives, but elsewhere in newspaper interviews by former members of the IRA, some of whom are disenchanted with the direction Gerry Adams has taken with their organization,” Moloney said. “It threatens to embroil Gerry Adams in a scandal that can literally destroy his career, but could also do enormous damage to the Northern Ireland peace process, because he is regarded as the architect of the IRA’s departure from violence.”
But McAlfry says the prematurely exposed Boston College interviews with IRA members may have served a greater purpose.
“The interviews were done on the premise that they wouldn’t be released until after the death of the interviewees — the people that would have ben involved in the crimes of the paramilitary organizations, etc,” she said. “Then you’ve got the like of Jean McConville’s daughter who is appealing time and time again for the details of the interviews to be released so that they may find the killers of her mother, executed with one shot to the head.”
And ironically, the former IRA militants who lived by a creed that informing should be punishable by death, have unwittingly become informants on behalf of the British government, which successfully wrested that information from Boston College with relative ease and little resistance, in the view of some civil libertarians.