The ‘Boston College Tapes’ Document Northern Ireland’s Murderous Past
By Huw Nesbitt
7 July 2014
On the 21st July 1972 the Provisional IRA detonated 19 bombs across Belfast in the space of an hour. Known as Bloody Friday, the attacks claimed the lives of nine people and injured 130 others. At the time, it was one of the most violent acts that had happened during the Troubles. If you were the one that planned it, you’d probably want to keep quiet, right?
Three decades later, the man who claimed to have done so felt differently. Speaking to researchers behind the “Boston College Tapes” who were compiling an oral history of the Troubles, Brendan Hughes, former Officer Commanding of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade admitted to being in charge.
Part of the reason for him doing so was that his interviewers – academics based at Boston University between 2001 and 2006 – had been given cast iron guarantees from their institution that testimonies from their work would not be published until after their subjects – republican and loyalist paramilitaries – were dead and that the police and politicians would never be allowed access to them. The promise didn’t quite work out.
In 2011, the British government tried to get access to 85 tapes, including Hughes’s interview, with the assistance of the US Department of Justice. They were looking for an interview that purportedly implicated Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in the abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, by the IRA. Three years later they were successful. In April Gerry Adams was arrested on the basis of this evidence. He was later released without charge.
I spoke to one of the three men behind these tapes, Anthony McIntyre, himself a former commander in the IRA. Speaking from his home in the Republic of Ireland, he told me more about his background, and why, as a former Provo, he decided to create an archive of people admitting to committing grizzly acts of political violence in the first place.
VICE: Hi Anthony. Stupid question, but why did you join the IRA in the first place?
I joined in 1973 when I turned 16. I’m from South Belfast and I didn’t come from a republican background, but I romanticised the movement nonetheless. Growing up, you’d see people being arrested or shot in the street. If a foreign army did the same in London, what people who lived there do?
Your activity landed you imprisoned in Long Kesh for 18 years, four years of which were on blanket protest, alongside the 1981 hunger strike. What did you do?
I was convicted of shooting a member of the Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1976 for which I was given a life sentence. When it happened I was the leader of the IRA in South Belfast, and I’d been given impetus to shoot this man under the auspices of senior command because our intelligence believed he was an armed member of the UVF.
What was it like in Long Kesh?
It was tough. It was a battle against the prison administration. We were locked in cells 24 hours a day, 365 days a year without reading material except the bible, which was used as toilet and cigarette paper. During that time, the hunger strikes confirmed my hatred for the British, but I’ve since also learned of disputed evidence suggesting Sinn Fein had the opportunity to broker a deal, which I’m inclined to believe.
When were you released from prison?
I was released in 1992 when they were releasing life sentence prisoners. Ten months later I started a PhD in history at Queen’s University in Belfast. I’d already completed a degree via the Open University while still in prison after punitive measures had eased. I also did some freelance journalism and wrote about how the republican project had disintegrated.
In an article you wrote in 2009, you said that Sinn Fein’s subsequent endorsement of the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which affirmed the right of Northern Ireland to self-determination, marked the “capitulation” of republicanism. This declaration arguably led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement,
which you have endorsed. Aren’t these two positions inconsistent?
It was a republican capitulation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the IRA surrendered in 1916 as well, don’t forget. I no longer believe there’s any justification for an armed campaign, but I’m not going to pretend that the Good Friday Agreement was a victory for republicanism. It was a serious defeat. What the British government did was strategically include republicans but exclude republicanism. Today, it seems to me that all Sinn Fein have done is chase office, when what they should have done is stayed out such institutions and pursued their radical position through lobbying and protest – not by becoming the people they previously opposed, and not through armed conflict.
The Boston College project began in 2001, three years after Good Friday. Why did it start?
It just needed to be done. It felt like the armed conflict was over, even though the IRA was yet to announce it, which they did in 2005. It seemed a good time to capture these people’s stories before they died and a dominant “official” history could suppress the multiplicity of narratives that these voices represent.
How did you select interviewees?
Many of the people I interviewed I knew or had previous experience of. Nonetheless, whether they were pro or anti-Sinn Fein, what mattered was that I could trust them not to tell anyone about the project, particularly members of Sinn Fein’s leadership.
Who did you imagine would listen to these tapes?
I hoped that whoever got access to them would use them to create a reconstruction of republicanism so as to examine its motives. Each interview we did was embargoed until after the interviewee had died, and we were given a cast iron guarantee by Boston College that they would not hand over the tapes – a guarantee that turned out to be worth fuck all.
And Gerry Adams got arrested because of that broken guarantee. How do you feel about that?
It’s not a good feeling. It causes me great anguish that people have been arrested, because this was not what the project was about. The project was about gathering historical evidence, not prosecution evidence. I did not want to make a political intervention. Whether other people wanted to use it for that purpose is another matter. I didn’t want to use it to have a go at Gerry Adams.
Surely you must have been aware that there was a risk of this material to be used in this way?
I wasn’t, no, absolutely not. Why would I have done them in the first place if this was the case?
Sinn Fein has claimed these tapes were compiled in order to get people in trouble. What’s your response?
The argument that it was “maliciously compiled” would have to show that there was some intellectual dishonesty, and that we prompted people to say things that weren’t true to maliciously present Gerry Adams as a member of the IRA.
So you didn’t do that?
No. I reject the idea that people were chosen simply because they would have a go at Gerry Adams. I don’t see the historical value of doing that. Perhaps there was a structural tendency to get people who were not sympathetic to Sinn Fein, but I don’t believe that undermines their testimony, because Sinn Fein should not be allowed to determine what the truth is.
The Good Friday Agreement drew a line under crimes committed during the Troubles by treating them as acts of war, but some of the wounds haven’t healed and crimes are unsolved. Do you think this will ever be resolved?
I don’t, no. There’s never going to be a way of appeasing everyone. I don’t see how it can be done. All I think you can do is recover as many narratives as possible so that historians can arrive at judgments. But a more just society has to be based on the future, because ultimately the dead don’t vote.
What do you hope happens in Northern Ireland? Are you still a republican?
To me, republicanism is over, but can I see a future for republicans if they behave in a rational manner and pursue justice and politics. Unfortunately, there are still people who think that political violence is the way forward, but for me it’s an absolute waste.
Okay. Thanks for speaking, Anthony.