Boston Public Radio interview with Kevin Cullen
9 July 2014
Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen talked about his recent trip to Belfast and the simmering tensions in that city over an oral history project at Boston College.
Jim Braude (JB) and Margery Eagan (ME) interview Kevin Cullen (KC), The Boston Globe columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner and co-author of the book, Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, about the effects the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s subpoenas for the Boston College tapes have had in Ireland – not only on individuals but on the peace process itself.
JB: It’s a complicated geo-political who-done-it that could have been plucked straight out of John le Carré’s imagination: A political leader celebrated for brokering peace among political foes gets arrested for a murder that happened over forty years ago and the arrest is based on information that was supposed to remain under lock and key.
That’s the real life story of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams but this is just the beginning of a story that is still unfolding and reverberating from the Boston College campus all the way to Belfast.
The Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen picks up where we and most other media have left off. He’s been in Belfast reporting on how the Boston College oral history project betrayed a promise of secrecy and in turn has threatened a very vulnerable process. Kevin good to see you.
KC: Good to see both of you.
ME: Well, thanks so much for coming in, Kevin. As Jim just said the information here was all supposed to be under lock and key. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
So tell people that haven’t followed this story what The Belfast Project is – what the idea was.
KC: It happened Margery in sort of the heady days after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 effectively ended what the Irish in their penchant for understatement called “The Troubles” – the war in Northern Ireland.
And BC was very influential in the peace process. They went out of their way to host people from Northern Ireland – both civil society but also paramilitaries.
I remember when the Loyalists called – the Protestant paramilitaries – called off their armed struggle in 1994 the very first place six of them came to talk about it in America was Boston College. So Boston College has always been invested in the peace process and very much involved in Ireland.
So somebody at BC had the bright idea: Hey, why don’t we start an oral history project?
And what we’ll do is take the oral histories of people that fought the war – the combatants – both on the Republican side, that would have been the Irish Republican Army, and on the Loyalist side in this case, the Ulster Volunteer Force. So in that respect it was sort of a noble and inspired idea.
And I can tell you that knowing people at BC and listening to them explain themselves they never believed for a minute that what they compiled would then be sought by people in law enforcement.
Now I personally think that’s extremely naive knowing the political nature of policing.
Policing in Northern Ireland was always what the issue was.
I mean when the war, as we would call it, really broke out in the late 60’s it was because civil rights demonstrators on the Catholic/Nationalist side were literally beaten off the streets by police.
If the police had done their job it never would have happened.
So policing is still political. It’s very political.
When Ed Moloney, who BC hired to direct the project, wrote a book and more or less told the world: Hey! By the way we have all these interviews with these guys…
And in this case, Brendan Hughes – who is now dead, said that Gerry Adams ordered the abduction, murder and secret burial of a woman named Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten – that was see ya later!
Then the cops – it was only a matter of time before the cops went after them as far as I’m concerned.
JM: Before we get back to the naievté of BC and what they should do, Kevin Cullen, what representations did BC make to the participants in this project about the confidentiality, about the secrecy of the documents, the interviews – all that sort of thing?
KC: If you look at the actual agreements I think BC did not promise more than it could deliver in some respects.
The problem is it got lost in translation over the Atlantic Ocean.
Everybody who spoke to them, and I just was in Belfast and interviewed a number of people who gave oral histories, they were absolutely guaranteed. There were, absolutely.
In their minds, nothing would ever pry this out of the hands of BC until they were dead. And then if you look at the papers, and Boston College has shown them I mean Jack Dunn has waved it for everyone to see.
JB: Spokesperson for BC..
KC: He said that: Look here, it says that BC will protect it as far as American law will allow.
But this is also where we really get into muddy ground here, Jim.
Because the police – and then the British authorities – contacted the Justice Department citing a treaty that the UK and the US signed saying that if we have information for them in criminal matters that we will turn it over to them and vice versa. It’s a two-way street.
But there is a political exception in there.
It makes clear, this treaty says if they are political offences or there could be political ramifications then either government could opt out.
And clearly this was political. There was politics all over this.
When the leader of the largest Nationalist party in Ireland is the target of a criminal investigation – that is political – by any definition.
So I don’t think this thing should have been turned over.
ME: So the reason this all is in the news right now – and I assume part of the reason you went over to Belfast to do this great story you did about the repercussions in Belfast – is because in May the leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, was arrested. Now what was that about?
KC: He was arrested. In the UK and in Ireland in those jurisdictions arrest is not what we think of it.
When you’re arrested in America you are charged. It’s one in the same.
In Ireland and the UK when you’re arrested you’re arrested for questioning.
And he was held for four days of detention. He says he was interviewed thirty-three separate times over a period of ninety-six hours and that they kept coming back – everything that they talked to him about was based on things that was told to BC researchers.
So Gerry Adams came out of there and very publicly rubbished the Boston College project, said that Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre were biased, that the history they compiled was biased because they were opposed to Adams and the way he handled it.
And Adams has some legitimate points frankly on that thing.
But the other thing – and I really did pick this up when I was in Belfast talking to all these old IRA veterans – they were saying: Hey! Wait a minute. When people say this is not a legitimate history it is – it’s our history – and we are not in with the Sinn Féin leadership – no one will tell our story – so it is important that we put down what we say we experienced and what we thought of the whole conflict.
And frankly most of these guys, which I think is the other interesting thing, they’re not saying: Oh, we gave up too easy and we compromised.
These guys are saying: The war was not worth it for what we settled for.
If you’re an Irish Republican you can’t call yourself an Irish Republican and recognise the partition of your country – it’s just mutually exclusive. And so they have legitimate points of views, too.
The thing that I did…and the whole idea…it was Mark Morrow’s idea, the editor…not my idea to go over there…just said see what the feel is on the ground and what I sensed is people in some respects are very afraid.
JB: What’s a “tout”?
KC: A tout is just the local idiom for “informer”.
And it is a very loaded term in that culture and that’s what happened…I think you’ve probably seen the photographs of it…
KC: …that right after Gerry Adams was arrested people started painted on the gable walls – either a whitewash or a black on a white wall – and it said: “Boston College Touts”. Now that’s a very loaded term.
And believe me, it’s directed at Anthony McIntyre. It’s directed at a guy like Tommy Gorman, an IRA veteran who was publicly identified as giving an interview. It’s directed at Ricky O’Rawe.
It’s directed at a number of guys that gave interviews. As they told me they are afraid because when you get called a tout in Ireland you very often end up dead.
JB: You know speaking of Anthony McIntyre we were discussing this whole project with a former board member actually – I don’t know if he’s still on the board (Ed Note: The Board of Trustees for Boston College) – Tommy O’Neill – a couple of months ago on the radio and Anthony McIntyre and his wife, Carrie Twomey, actually called us from Northern Ireland and he did say to us that he feared for his life.
Here’s what else he said: This is Anthony McIntyre describing how BC, in his opinion, failed to protect the archives from the British authorities:
(Audio sound bite from the interview is played)
Anthony McIntyre: What the Boston College staff needed to do was to protect an endangered archive by getting it out of its custody immediately and sending it over to my custody whereby I would insure its protection….So Boston College left an endangered archive on its campus, vulnerable to the second subpoena, and so it did not do what it could have done.
(Audio sound bite ends)
JB: You know speaking of what Anthony McIntyre just said, Kevin Cullen from The Boston Globe: “sending it over to my custody”. They didn’t do it when McIntyre would have liked it to have been done. They did it after the cat was out of the bag.
You open your piece this week with this beautiful story of this guy who gets a FedEx package. Tell that story for us please and what he does with it.
KC: That’s Ricky. Ricky O’Rawe. Ricky was actually one of the “blanketmen” in the IRA; when they were demanding political status they refused to wear prison uniforms – they wrapped themselves in a blanket.
Ricky was also the spokesman for the hunger strikers in 1981 and was very close to Bobby Sands, the first hunger striker who died.
Ricky got his stuff back when BC said we’ll give it back if you want it. He goes: Send it back!
So it went to his lawyer’s office. He picked it up. He didn’t know quite what to do with it and then he said: Am I going to hold it? Am I gonna give it to my kids?
And then when the police announced, under I think under political pressure, they wanted everything – not just stuff related to Jean McConville – they wanted everything in the file – the whole archive – that’s when Ricky said he opened a bottle of fine Bordeaux, he goes: I lit a nice fire and then he goes: it was a nice Bordeaux it was a nice fire, too.
JB: Very, very good!
KC: A funny thing – I didn’t put this in the story – but I said before I said…because he told me the story, I said: You know Ricky if I put that in the paper you could be found in contempt of court. He goes: I am in contempt of that court!
ME: Is Ricky, who had his nice fire – is he assured this is the only copy of these tapes? That’s what I was thinking to myself.
KC: That’s a good question, Margery.
ME: You know, he burned them and hoping they’re done but…
KC: That’s a good question. He was mad, too, because his stuff – he said he knew nothing about the McConville case because he was in Ballymurphy and that was done by the Lower Falls unit – that would be Company D in the Lower Falls for the IRA – so he didn’t know anything about it.
So he didn’t know why his stuff was turned over to the court in the first place. So Judge Young has seen Ricky’s stuff.
ME: We’re talking with The Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen who has written this fantastic piece about the reaction in Belfast to this whole…the arrest of Gerry Adams back in May and the allegations that he was involved in the murder of Jean McConville.
Kevin, tell people about Jean McConville. You didn’t get into this in your story but this is a really horrifying story – what happened to her.
KC: It might be the most – one of the most horrific, I mean there were more than thirty-five hundred people killed in what we call “The Troubles” and hers is one of the most disturbing.
It was 1972.
1972 was actually the bloodiest year of The Troubles – more than five hundred people were killed and we’re talking about a place roughly the size of Connecticut with about 1.5 million people. And she was accused of being an informer. It’s very, very murky.
She was a Protestant. She married a Catholic guy and so she was suspect in that – she would have been seen as a “Prod” or one of “them” – and that was all suspicious.
So anyway she was abducted…she was dragged from her…in front of her kids…
ME: …And the husband was dead already.
KC: …Yeah. He had died the year before.
ME: So she was the only support of these ten children.
KC: That’s it! And they described…I mean I talked to one of her sons who described that they were literally holding on to her leg as the IRA guys were dragging her out of the house. And those kids were scattered – like so many orphans – all over the place and had very tough lives after that.
Now obviously what was unusual about the Jean McConville case is that in…you know, Jim asked about ”touts”…
And touts were, informers were very, very publicly humiliated and executed and left in the side of the road for people to see.
But I think somebody in the IRA decided killing a widowed mother of ten might look a little bad.
So what they decided to do was they shot her and then they buried her on a beach in County Louth on the Irish Republic side of the border because I guess somebody in the IRA decided this would just look too bad if we are blamed for this murder.
And so the IRA actively promoted the myth that she had just run off to England with somebody – that she couldn’t take the stress of having ten kids and no husband. They did not find her body until 2003. And like I said it’s always been one of the most horrific deaths of The Troubles.
That said, the police did absolutely nothing to solve that murder.
They never interviewed anybody. They never opened a file. They never did anything.
It’s only when the Boston College tapes became aware somebody in the police said: Hey! We can go after Adams.
Now I’ve always questioned: What’s the evidentiary value? This stuff was not given with warning. It was not taken under oath. It’s just people telling stories. And there’s no way to verify most of this information – it’s just “he says she says”.
Adams says the people that have been publicly identified as saying he was involved in the murder of Jean McConville, one being Brendan Hughes, “The Dark”, who was a very famous IRA guy and very close to Adams actually during their time in the IRA, and then Dolours Price, who has also died, she claims that she actually when to get to drive Jean McConville to her interrogators who killed her.
So Adams says these are just political enemies, people that fell out with him and they figured the best way they could get back at him is to try and pin a murder on him. So that’s what he says.
JB: We’re talking to Kevin Cullen who has written a wonderful piece in The Globe about what he’s calling “The New Troubles”. You know, staying the the Adams thing for a minute…
ME: …Before we leave that story I just want to tell one quick story because I happened to be over in Dublin when Adams was arrested and you saw the children interviewed constantly on television – Jean McConville’s surviving children.
And one of the things they talked about which shows the level of terror: that some of their neighbours, they claim anyway, where they lived, were involved in abducting their mother but because they were so afraid for their own lives – some of the people were hooded and masked and some of them weren’t – they never told who those neighbours were because they were afraid they’d be killed if they did.
KC: I’ve heard Michael McConville say that.
JB: You know Kevin, for those of us naive enough to think that this was over – a couple of things come to mind.
One, I think you wrote, I think it was you who wrote at the time of the Adams’ arrest, whatever an arrest means – you described a couple of minutes ago – there were questions: If it turns out they legitimately – the police there – legitimately thought this was worth investigating forty years after the fact, why was only one side’s leaders…
JB: I assume that is the talk.
KC: Oh, yeah!
JB: Is why Adams and why not people on the other side of this conflict.
KC: Exactly! Like I said I think that’s why the police launched this “we want the whole thing” – because they were being criticised as being very selective in their prosecution.
JB: But that hasn’t changed…
KC: No, it hasn’t in the sense that the idea – and I put it in my story – while the police want these BC records they are refusing to turn over their own records to the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland who is trying to investigate at least sixty cases of police and military collusion in the murder of what would be mostly Catholics/Nationalists.
One, which really intrigued me, one of those sixty murders the Ombudsman wants is of an RUC man, a police officer, and there’s allegations that his own people set him up to be killed by the IRA.
It’s very explosive stuff but the cops won’t turn that stuff over.
The other thing, Jim, about this whole thing it just shows that we are in a post-conflict society and they don’t know truth and reconciliation.
They don’t know how to get there. They don’t know how to find truth.
The sad part is I think the BC thing was a very idealistic idea to get this out there and then thirty or forty years historians would see this stuff. Unfortunately, people found out about it and it became this political football that will not go away.
JB: Well let me continue my naiveté – beyond the lives of the individuals who feel threatened as touts or whatever it is, you write: “Some worry the personal disputes, and fear of potential prosecutions, that the BC interviews have given rise to could do serious damage to Northern Ireland’s hard-won, much-admired, but still-evolving and ever-fragile peace process.”
So the trickle-down or trickle-up or trickle-sideways implications of this disclosure are huge – well beyond the lives of the individuals.
KC: And the dissent groups there are basically riddled with informers themselves – the police do a fairly good job on them.
But you know what they’ve been trying to do in recruiting kids who know nothing about this stuff – to get fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen year old kids who are just angry – and they don’t like growing up with – they’ve been recruiting them on the grounds that: Hey, nothing has changed. The Brits are still lying to us.
And say Adams is charged with this crime and is brought to trial I can guarantee you there’s going to be real political fallout – there’s going to be problems – there’s going to be more people going to the dissident groups because they’ll be able to say: See! Nothing has changed.
And it also allows the dissidents to go back at Sinn Féin and say: You guys bought this hook, line and sinker from the Brits. Nothing has changed. They go after us. They don’t go after their own people that do things wrong. So there’s an awful lot at stake here.
Now there is another case involved: Ivor Bell, who was an IRA Commander, who actually had a big falling out with Gerry Adams in the mid-80’s and was more or less drummed out of the IRA.
He has been arrested and is still facing trial for his involvement and the allegation in court was he was charged based on evidence that was included in the BC archive.
So this is serious stuff.
JB: You know as the only non-Irishman in the studio at the moment and not a life-long Bostonian like you guys…well, you’re a Fall River kid who became a Bostonian…
KC: …Same thing.
JB: I have to say I’m pretty proud of the role as you described it Boston played in this whole thing but you end your story about saying how tarnished the reputation of Boston…
You quote Anthony McIntyre – you were talking about him saying he was listening to the radio and the song More Than a Feeling by Boston, the group, came up. He said it used to be one of my favourite songs but when it came on the other day I was like: Screw it. I hate it. I don’t like anything that has “Boston” in it.
What is the spillover in terms of Boston’s reputation?
KC: I think first of all BC always had a very good reputation particularly in The North but also in the Republic of Ireland as a “player” – as a force for good – as an honest broker – whatever you want to call it.
And there’s no doubt that that image has been tarnished.
Everywhere I went in Ireland people asked me the same question: Why did BC give up the records? Why didn’t they fight?
JB: What was your answer to them?
KC: My answer is: I don’t know. Because I mean, Jack Dunn and other people at BC have publicly stated they couldn’t be in violation of a court order.
But our great friend, Harvey Silverglate, has made it very clear that why couldn’t Father Leahy or somebody at BC come out on the stairs and say: You will get these things over my dead body and if you want to put me in gaol – put me in gaol.
JB: Speaking of that by the way – let me read Harvey’s quote which I think was quite great, I dunno, a month or two ago – he says – he talks about it – if an academic institution’s going to get involved in this – he says:
“it is better that an academic institution not agree to exert control over them.” (If you’re not going to protect them.) And then his line, his takeaway, is: “that should be left to individuals willing to risk the consequences of adhering to conscience.” – which is pretty heavy.
ME: Like a reporter in a way with a source, right?
KC: Marjery, you and I both know that – Manna from Heaven! Imagine if we got thrown in the can?
ME: No. I can’t. I can’t! (all laugh)
KC: No, seriously! (quips) First of all, you know it’s not that bad down at Nashua Street anymore…
ME: Oh, jeez…speak for yourself!
KC: No, but say I got throw in the can. I’d be a hero. I’d be celebrated. I’d probably get a bonus. (quips) Well no, I probably wouldn’t get a bonus – but then again…(all laugh)
No, seriously people would say – and there’s no doubt I would go to the can – I mean I’ve been brought in – it’s never got to the push to shove – but I’ve had cops coming after my notes before on murders and stuff…
JB: So speculate about why….
KC: …I don’t know. Like I said I think it’s cultural like Harvey says. I think people in academia aren’t willing to go that extra mile whereas I think journalists not only are willing to do it they would welcome it because it would be – you’d stand up for your principles and say: I am not a gatherer of information for a law enforcement agency!
JB: Well how about then Carmen Ortiz – you mentioned this political exemption a couple of minutes ago to this treaty – so the police there contact the United States government saying we want this information. Based on your interpretation of this treaty, Kevin…
KC: They should have said “no”. They could have.
JB: Ortiz could have said – either – what’s his name…
KC: …Holder. It was Holder’s call.
JB: Eric Holder or then in turn, Ortiz, could say we’re not issuing these subpoenas.
Why didn’t they do that?
KC: I can only speculate that after ten years of standing with us in Iraq and Afghanistan we basically – somebody in Washington said: we owe the Brits this.
I do not think they looked at this very closely.
As other people have written and as I’ve have suggested in some columns, we’re actually undermining American diplomacy by doing this.
The Americans spent billions of dollars and untold political capital – poor George Mitchell had to live there for God’s sake for about five years and get this thing done. And frankly it’s been something that – it started with the Clinton Administration but Bush did a good job with it, too. They’ve stayed right with it.
Richard Haass, who is Bush’s person, is still deeply involved and is still trying to help them get past some of the legacy issues.
And yet we, our own government, basically facilitates something like this that can undermine what we just spent a generation accomplishing. It makes no sense to me and I can only speculate that it was the people who made the decision made it on: They’re our allies – they want it – we’ll give it.
One thing I think is also interesting – when John Kerry was Senator John Kerry he thought this was a terrible idea…
ME: …The BC? The Project?
KC: This whole going after the files…
ME: …Oh, going after the files, okay.
He publicly…I actually wrote a column quoting John saying: This is wrong. It undermines American diplomacy.
Then John Kerry becomes Secretary of State – nada!
JB: Has he said nothing?
KC: He hasn’t said anything about it.
ME: Well, you’ve partially already answered my last question but I’ll ask you anyway: Because so many people in Ireland as you well know are worried about the peace being broken and there being a return to what there was – let’s hope not – many years ago but is there any sort of “higher authority” kind of trying to mediate things and intervene so that the peace…?
KC: Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan from Harvard. She’s over there, too. They have been, for the last year, have been trying to help the people in Northern Ireland confront their legacy issues which also involve triumphalist marching which we’re going to see in the next week…
ME: …Triumphalist marching?
KC: The Orangemen. That’s The Orange Order. It’s a fraternal organisation. Protestants.
They want to march through neighbourhoods where they’re not welcome basically.
And that’s an issue – and Nationalists say they have the right to say “no” – Orangemen say they have the right to march what they call the Queen’s Highway.
It’s an issue that won’t go away.
And I can guarantee you…what day is it? In a week they’ll be stories all over the place. You guys will have it on the NPR News of fights and all kinds of crap breaking out in Northern Ireland. It’s an annual ritual of sort of tribalism that hasn’t gone away.
I know Haass is very – I haven’t talked to him personally, but I’ve talked to somebody just last week who works with him – and said he’s utterly frustrated that the Irish can’t seem to get beyond these issues.
Now you have to remember that Northern Ireland is still incredibly segregated – ninety percent of people live in neighbourhoods where everybody is just like them. I mean, it sounds like America now that I come to think of it!
But it’s actually…no…it’s more segregated even than in America and the peace process has done nothing to address that.
When the Good Friday Agreement was signed about five percent of kids in Northern Ireland went to integrated schools – that number has not moved one iota in fifteen years.
JB: Kevin, great to see you. Terrific piece! Thanks for your time.
ME: Okay. Not very optimistic there, Kevin. I hope things work out better.
Kevin Cullen is a columnist from The Boston Globe. His latest book along with Shelley Murphy, and this is a great book – you and Shelley did an awesome job, Kevin Cullen – I loved it! – is Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice. Thanks again for being with us, Kevin. (ends 1:52:20)