News Letter Special on BOSTON TAPES: Professor takes college to task over saga
A historian at Boston College tells BEN LOWRY of his sadness about the disastrous outcome of the college’s project, and his regrets at the way it was handled
In an old building, one that might be described by American realtors as ‘a handsome colonial’, is the academic department at the heart of the Boston Tapes saga.
Connolly House (pictured below) on the sprawling Boston College campus contains the Centre for Irish Programmes and the offices of Professor Tom Hachey, executive director of the centre and one of the brainchilds of the tapes.
The project has rocked the Northern Ireland political process, specifically the contentious question of how to deal with our troubled past. It has raised far-reaching questions about free speech and the boundaries of confidentiality.
Known as the Belfast Project, the tapes were made up of interviews with 26 ex-IRA members (25 conducted by the former republican prisoner Anthony McIntyre, and the last an interview of McIntyre) and 14 loyalists (interviewed by Wilson McArthur), to be held in confidence by the college’s Burns Library until the death of the participants.
And so the project remained under wraps as planned until two of the interviewees died, and things began to unravel.
After those two deaths, of former IRA man Brendan Hughes and the former UVF member David Ervine, the writer overseeing the interviews – Ed Moloney – published Voices from the Grave, which was the first that the outside world knew of the tapes.
Hughes made allegations about the 1972 IRA murder of the Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville (whose body was not found until 2003), including the claim that the now Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams ordered her abduction. This, and an interview by Dolours Price (see timeline), ultimately triggered a PSNI demand for the tapes.
The ensuing transatlantic legal tug-of-war came to be depicted as a conflict between the occasionally competing interests of historians and the forces of law and order. But the historians at Boston College say they were barely involved.
Kevin O’Neill, a professor in the history department, and his colleagues knew nothing about the tapes, which they later concluded was a narrow project run by the Burns librarian Robert O’Neill and Professor Hachey (who did not reply to a request to be interviewed for this article).
Professor O’Neill became aware of the project when he was asked around 2001 by Professor Hachey to give his professional opinion on some interview transcripts.
“That was my only involvement in the programme until 2011,” he tells the News Letter, from his book-lined office in Connolly House. “I didn’t get a response to the memo I wrote.”
The interview content had left him “very concerned”.
“It was clear to me that the interviewer had a political perspective himself and as a historian I was concerned about that.”
Asked if he is referring to Anthony McIntyre, the former IRA prisoner who was critical of Sinn Fein’s concessions in the Good Friday Agreement, Professor O’Neill says: “Yes, but I didn’t know that at the time.”
He was concerned that McIntyre was asking leading questions. He also wanted to know if anyone involved in the interviews had a training in oral history.
“And if not, why not?”
Professor O’Neill’s second chief concern was that it was clear that interviewer and interviewees were “very anti-agreement”.
“I thought we would need another interviewer to interview people in the Adams wing of the republican movement successfully. Then I didn’t know if a loyalist would be involved or not, but I asked that as a question as well, I couldn’t see how this person could interview loyalists successfully.”
He otherwise thought that the interview that he read was “extremely valuable”.
“Most of the focus was on the narrative of how someone becomes part of the republican community, how someone becomes a member of the IRA, the how and the why, the kind of stuff that historians 20 years from now would find really helpful in understanding what happened.”
Professor O’Neill heard nothing more until Moloney’s book came out in 2010.
“I was disturbed by the publication of the book,” he says. “It seemed to me a very strange thing to do, to publish a book that would announce to the whole world that this archive exists.”
Professor O’Neill says that the contract that Boston College signed with Ed Moloney specified that the university would set up an oversight committee to oversee all the project and he was named as a member of this committee. But he was not informed of the committee, and it was never created.
He says that the contract between the College and Moloney included the key proviso that the interviews would be held from public access until the death of the interviewees “to the extent that US law allowed” but this proviso was not in the contracts given to the interviewees.
If it had been, he thinks most people would have said no to being interviewed.
It was, he summarises, “irresponsible [of the College] to give people a contract that you couldn’t deliver on”. He wants them to apologise to the interviewers and interviewees.
He is also upset at the damage that the episode has done to Boston College’s bid to build relationships in Ireland.
They had, he says, tried to make the conflict in Northern Ireland “a bit more complicated than most Irish Americans saw it”. They helped organise and sponsor the first visit of loyalists to the United States, for example.
“I greeted Gusty Spence and David Ervine,” he recalls. An Irish American, from New York originally, Prof O’Neill adds: “You know personally that was quite an amazing moment in my life.”
LOSS OF MATERIAL WAS ‘VERY DISAPPOINTING’
It was only in May of this year that the Boston College historians made clear their unhappiness at the way the project had been handled, something Professor O’Neill says he was uncomfortable about doing because of the irritation it would be likely to cause in the university hierarchy.
“I’m not a martyr by nature, you know, but we felt strongly enough because of the negative impact of what’s happened on so many people,” he said.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like living in Belfast knowing I had given an interview to Boston College and who knows where it is, who might have access to it, whether it is the police service or other people.”
Professor O’Neill says that the first rumour he had heard about the existence of the tapes was when Ed Moloney came to the college one day and mentioned to a historian colleague that he was working on the project. At a later reception at the Burns Library, Moloney was present and said something similar to Professor O’Neill.
“I had no idea what he was talking about. So that’s the kind of environment that the project was born in.”
Professor O’Neill says he feels “sick” for the misery the saga “has caused people in Belfast … the interviewees mostly”.
But he also says the university cut Moloney and McIntyre loose. “I’m not a friend of either one and probably disagree with them on a lot of things but that’s just not the way you behave. They were working for this university.”
The loss of the material was “very disappointing”.
“To see how ordinary members of an extraordinary phenomena of the IRA or loyalist paramilitary groups, how did they come into that activity, what did they think about it … this is exactly the kind of material that historians really need.
“I think the fact that Boston College was able to get the loyalist community to participate is I think sort of amazing, and then to screw it up, this just makes me sick.”