The closure of the Boston College Troubles archive is historical loss
11 May 2014
The facility was an attempt to prevent the past returning to haunt our future
Bew: “I was motivated by a sense that the Troubles were over and should never be allowed to happen again.”
LAST week Boston College announced the final collapse of its archival project which had been designed to store interviews with loyalists and republicans for the use of future scholars who wanted to deepen their historical understanding of the Troubles. Presumably, Boston has now learnt the bitter lesson of that well-known aphorism, ‘No good deed goes unpunished”
Boston College has contributed more to the Peace Process, in a truly ecumenical way, than any other American university. Its prestige has grown in recent years and a good part of the growing reputation was down to the beautiful new Burns Library, in particular its acquisition of archives of an Irish or Catholic significance. As the Visiting Professor in the Burns Library 1999-2000, it was part of my duty to recommend new archives.
I strongly supported the idea of a Troubles archive in part because I was aware that the material for the study of earlier phases of the Northern Troubles was relatively scant. In the optimistic atmosphere just after the Good Friday Agreement, it seemed a logical step. A proper understanding of the past is a building block for the future. I recall saying that this was for graduate students in the next generation.
As a visiting scholar I did not appoint Ed Moloney, Anthony McIntyre, or indeed Wilson McArthur who covered the Loyalist archives. However, I was an admirer of Moloney’s detailed knowledge of republicanism which was widely respected in Ireland and, for a long time, also in the republican movement itself. He also had the advantage of having produced a work of contemporary history on Ian Paisley (much disliked understandably by Ian Paisley) and the project was also covering loyalists.
I first came to know Anthony McIntyre in the late 1980s. With IRA violence still going on, he opened a dialogue from prison with me on the subject of my recent book and a Thomas Davis lecture given on RTE. McIntyre sent detailed criticism of these works from a Republican perspective which I did not accept but felt required a serious reply. Because McIntyre was incarcerated at the time, the dialogue was carried out through intermediaries, one of whom is now prominent in the Sinn Fein leadership.
Strangely, McIntyre became my own personal peace process with the provisional republican movement, which he left only in 1998. McIntyre got a first class degree at the Open University in prison and then a PhD when he got out. He had also published in academically respectable places. It is not obvious to me that there are many people with that background and experience together with academic credibility. I note too that the American judge, one of the three people who have heard all the tapes, described it as a serious academic project.
On my return to Belfast, I ceased to work for Boston College. I did not know who was interviewed, much less hear any of the tapes. I did not take part in any of the discussions about the legalities and protocols governing the process.
It is clear, however, that both McIntyre and McArthur believed that the Burns Library in Boston College would always be a safe place for these papers. For almost a decade that belief was vindicated and the archive was quietly built up. The recent PSNI interest in the tapes came late in the day. Both Moloney and McIntyre were disturbed at the turn of events and fought a legal battle to prevent premature disclosure. McIntyre said on the BBC programme Spotlight last week that, in hindsight, it was a mistake to publish Brendan Hughes’s tape following his death. At any rate, the police interest in the archive has ended up destroying the project.
I have to say it never occurred to me that Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre were “enemies of the peace process” though they were obviously critics of Gerry Adams. One of the most eloquent denunciations of the Omagh bomb was written by Anthony McIntyre. More importantly, the peace process is not just something done by republicans although, of course, the most important element was the giving up of political violence. To make a Good Friday Agreement there had to be a unionist partner.
The most disturbing aspect of republican rhetoric last week was the failure to acknowledge that unionist partnership has been part of the process. That partnership was only available on the basis of the consent principle. In the mid-Nineties young republicans of my acquaintance all appeared to believe, on the basis of the testimony of Joe Cahill, that the ceasefire had been called because the British had given the 10-year signal for withdrawal.
McIntyre never believed that and it is obviously true today that he was right. But the fact that he was prepared to write and say it openly paradoxically strengthened the ability of unionists to make the necessary compromises embodied in the Agreement.
I notice there is much talk about the alleged imbalance in those chosen to give testimony. It would have been part of the job of any future scholar to interrogate the material critically just as they do today with any other archives. At the same time I was, however, an historical adviser to the Bloody Sunday Tribunal. That tribunal took account of the evidence of those soldiers and police who were critics of their colleagues on the day.
I have not seen anywhere in nationalist Ireland the belief this is unfair because the tribunal did not interview the vast majority of British soldiers who do not seem to have any problems with army conduct on the day.
Above all, I have been struck by the way that those whose critical faculties are not much engaged with the proposition that Gerry Adams was not a member of the IRA now claim to be experts on the methodology of oral history projects.
In the atmosphere of recrimination there are definite losers. The prestige of Boston College will continue to grow but a project which had been designed as one of the jewels in the crown of a great library has gone. Other similar projects to use oral history as a means of dealing with the past in the Troubles are also, to say the least, under a cloud.
At the very beginning in 1999-2000 I was motivated by a sense that the Troubles were over and should never be allowed to happen again and that the more knowledge and raw material was left behind for future generations to study the less chance there would be of another repeat. I accept this might be an overly-romantic view of history.
As Gerry Adams probably knows better than anyone, the law of unintended consequences is one of the most powerful laws in politics. I never expected the same law to work so powerfully arising out of academic discussions in a beautiful library at the beginning of this century.
Lord Bew of Donegore is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast.