Back From Northern Ireland, Columnist Kevin Cullen’s Take On Lingering Troubles
By WGBH News
9 July 2014
When Boston College announced in March that it was returning all records from an ill-fated oral history project, it was hoped that would be the end of it. But not in Northern Ireland, where memories are long and grudges smolder.
That’s what Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen saw firsthand during his recent trip to Belfast, and reported in this Sunday’s Boston Globe.
Emily Rooney (ER) interviews The Boston Globe columnist and co-author of the book, Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, Kevin Cullen (KC) about his recent trip to Belfast where he looked into the Boston College tapes being returned to the oral history project participants.
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ER: So what was the reaction when these documents showed up on doorsteps in Ireland? The Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen is here fresh from his latest trip to Ireland.
First, this is a story with a lot of layers so I just want to go back at little bit to the origin.
A former journalist, Ed Moloney, got together with a former IRA guy, Anthony McIntyre, and he was going to conduct the interviews of former IRA people for Boston College. What was the intent?
KC: The idea was that in the heady days after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 which more or less ended The Troubles as we know them that they would get combatants together and interview them and have them explain why they did what they did and what they thought of what they did. And the idea was to preserve this for posterity.
What changed is that in 2010, Ed Moloney wrote a book in which he signaled that they had interviews, Boston College had interviews of these people and eventually the police said: We’re going to get this stuff.
They specifically wanted to get things on the Jean McConville murder. It was a horrible murder of a woman in 1972, a widowed mother of ten. And she was abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA.
Now that was what the police initially went after. Now they say they want everything.
ER: So when you got there, we knew that these tapes were going to be returned.
They were subpoenaed and Boston College complied, essentially, even though they claim they tried to resist at first. You went over there.
What did you find was the reaction once these tapes started arriving?
KC: I talked to some people who did not want to be quoted on the record.
Some people are getting their tapes back. Some people don’t know what to do. I know one specific case, a guy named Ricky O’Rawe, he actually burned them.
I didn’t put this in the story because it just didn’t fit but I said: Ricky, if I put that in the paper you might be held in contempt of court.
ER: You did put it in.
KC: No, not this part. When I said that to Ricky I said: Are you sure?
I said that could be construed as contempt of court.
He said: I am in contempt of this court. He said: They shouldn’t have had my recollections. They were recorded for posterity not for the police and not for the British government to dissemble.
ER: So you saw this graffiti around Belfast that said: Boston College “Touts”.
What does that mean?
KC: A “tout” is the local idiom for informer.
And it’s probably the most provocative, loaded term in the local idiom. When you call somebody a “tout” there are generally consequences for it.
Throughout The Troubles touts were routinely found on roadsides with their heads in hoods, their hands tied behind their back and they were discarded. And they were put there as a message to other people to keep them from informing. So when you call somebody a tout in Northern Ireland you are, in some cases, putting a target on their back.
And so these fellows feel that they have been targeted. That people are calling them touts because they gave their recollections to BC.
ER: You just mentioned Ricky O’Rawe. He’s was one of the people. And how is he reacting now?
KC: First of all, he feels like he was betrayed. He feels like he went in there and did not expect this stuff to come out until he died. But he’s worried.
He is worried. And the interesting thing about that is what I found is that the BC situation is almost a microcosm of the problem in Northern Ireland in general.
They don’t know how to handle the legacy of The Troubles. And who gets to tell the story is very important.
One thing I did come away from it…everybody has trashed the whole BC project and it was biased because Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre don’t like Gerry Adams – which is true.
But the other thing I found, these IRA guys that gave their accounts, they feel that this is the only way their story gets out because they are not in the mainstream of Irish Republican thought anymore. They’re kind of pushed to the side because they opposed the way the peace came about.
They don’t want to go back to war. They don’t support any of the “dissidents” who are using violence now. But what they said is: What we fought for was not worth for what we settled for.
ER: You also talked to a guy named Tommy Gorman. What was his story?
KC: Tommy is sixty-nine years old. He’s a well-known IRA activist. He spent thirteen years in prison. He escaped from prison twice. He’s sort of what you would call an all-star IRA man in that milieu.
Now he has been totally ostracised by the mainstream Republican movement because he’s very critical of them. He thinks that settling for the compromise that they did, which is basically to recognise the partition of Ireland, and to engage in what he would say is the opposite of what an Irish Republican stood for, which is: you don’t support, you cannot ever tolerate the partition of the country.
And he also basically said: I fought for a socialist republic. This is not a socialist republic.
ER: Alright, so did either of these guys, Ricky O’Rawe or Tommy Gorman, feel like they’re going to be a target?
KC: I literally asked Tommy Gorman. I said: Tommy, are you worried about getting arrested?
He said: No. I’m worried about getting shot.
And not by my erstwhile enemies but by my erstwhile comrades. That’s the sort of temperature that I felt on the ground there. There are people very concerned.
And I’ll tell you I talked to a lot of other guys – they don’t want to be identified because they’re afraid that they would be identified as touts – and like I said, that graffiti was up all over. I was surprised. There were six or seven separate ones that I saw – I probably missed some.
But it’s out there. And when people get called a tout in Northern Ireland that is literally putting a target on somebody’s back.
ER: It’s criminal that this has fallen apart.
But the journalist and the skeptic in me thinks: Somebody’s got to make duplicates of this stuff. The transcripts! Definitely there’s got to be duplicates because McIntyre was doing the transcripts and then sending them encrypted emails to Ed Moloney at BC. So he must have them. Somebody’s got them…
KC: I don’t know. I honestly can’t tell you about that, Emily.
But again, I’ll put it this way: If I was one of the interviewees I’d be very concerned about the possibility of duplicates. Whether the government still has things. Whether Judge Young still has copies of these things…who knows?
KC: It’s very hard to account for where all this stuff is.
Like I said: The sad thing is, I think, the whole project was well-intentioned and I think if it had stayed under seal for thirty-odd years or so it would have been a valuable contribution to history. But right now it’s sort of a blueprint of how not to do projects like this.
ER: I mean did the Irish police really believe the only way to go after this McConville murder, I mean it’s what? Forty years old? Was to open up these tapes because Gerry Adams had been a suspect in the past, it wasn’t like…
KC: …Oh, sure. The other thing I try to point out in the story is the hypocrisy of the police involved.
Because they go after Gerry Adams, who just so happens to be the leader of the largest Nationalist party in Northern Ireland, and they don’t go after anybody else.
I mean if you go through that archive I’d assume you find something that would implicate the police in collusion.
Now at the very moment that the police are demanding Boston College to give up their archive the police in Northern Ireland are refusing to turn over their own records to the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland who wants to investigate some sixty murders in which police and military officials from Britain were involved in extra-judicial killings in which all their informants –
It’s almost like the Whitey Bulger story – they had all of their informants involved in a lot of these cases.
And they were protecting informants. And informants were getting people killed.
So it’s a murky thing. And that’s the whole problem about Northern Ireland. They don’t know how to reconcile their past and they’re fighting over who gets to say it.
ER: But I mean, the larger community…are they still focused on this or have most people kind of moved past? They don’t want to start the war over?
KC: No. I do think if Gerry Adams is charged, I mean he was questioned but he was not charged, if he does face charges and nobody else faces charges as a result of this I think that’s a real political problem.
ER: Alright. Kevin Cullen, as always. (ends)