Boston College tapes: Truth-recovery pie in the sky as long as shadow of arrest looms
The agreement about dealing with the past hammered out at Stormont House could be derailed by another Boston College tapes crisis – this time involving a leading loyalist.
30 January 2015
The latest battle for access to the Boston College tapes threatens to open up a much wider debate and discussion on the past. This oral history project recorded republicans, loyalists and, it is believed, a former RUC officer, telling their stories of the conflict years. Those stories were meant to stay untold until after they died.
The book Voices From The Grave, authored by journalist Ed Moloney, brought into the public domain words spoken by former IRA leadership figure Brendan Hughes and loyalist David Ervine. Both died in their 50s.
And it was the Hughes revelations, including what he said about the IRA abduction, “execution” and disappearance of Jean McConville, which were to lead to dramatic developments.
These included the headline arrest of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams last April. Adams was questioned from Wednesday April 30 through to his release on Sunday May 4; that questioning extending to an examination of IRA membership, all of which Adams denied. He described a “malicious, untruthful and sinister campaign” against him.
And, all these months later, there is now a different focus. The latest Boston College news is about trying to access the tapes of loyalist Winston ‘Winkie’ Rea.
He is a former prisoner, leader of the Red Hand Commando, son-in-law of the late Gusty Spence and, in the peace process years, was seen as an important figure in the ceasefire and decommissioning debates. Rea was a close friend of Ervine, a member of the UVF who became a Stormont MLA.
Adams attended Ervine’s funeral in January 2007; a remarkable occasion that had the Sinn Fein president, the UVF leadership, then Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, Secretary of State Peter Hain and former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds under one roof.
This was following the ceasefires and after the Good Friday Agreement and in a climate where the once impossible became possible. And it was in this context that some began to tell their stories of the conflict years.
If the now-published Ervine example is anything to go by, then loyalists have been much less revelatory in their recordings; less accusatory.
The Jean McConville case, demonstrating the worst horrors of conflict, gave a specific focus to the police investigation around the republican tapes and disclosures. But this is not the case with Rea.
Loyalists, including William ‘Plum’ Smith, who was successful in a legal challenge to have his Boston tapes and transcripts returned, see this as nothing more than a fishing exercise.
Three years ago, in an interview with this newspaper, he said his move to have his tapes returned was not out of concern about their content.
“I’m concerned about the principle,” he said. “I have asked for the tapes back, because Boston College cannot guarantee the basis on which the interviews were given.”
This was a reference to the belief that contributions to the archive would remain confidential until after death.
Rea also commented back then. He believed that, if the Smith test case was won, then it would have “a domino effect” for others wishing to have their material returned.
But this has not been so for him. The question is why? Is it the loyalist paramilitary leadership role Rea once held in the so-called “war” years, his leadership of an organisation identified with guns, bullets, bombs and killing?
Smith, also a former Red Hand Commando prisoner and a close friend of Rea, has his own thinking on the latest move.
He believes that, after the Adams arrest, this is “another balancing act” – similar to when a number of loyalists were interned decades ago.
And he also believes that, in the here and now, it “flies in the face of any attempt to create a truth-recovery process”.
Budgets and welfare reform were the main focus of the pre-Christmas Stormont House talks. And, alongside those issues, there was a big effort to achieve a structure that would finally begin to address the many unanswered questions of the past.
After Eames/Bradley and the Haass/O’Sullivan processes, this was the third attempt to achieve this.
And there is now a paper agreement to build upon; an Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR), an Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG), with archive and acknowledgement elements.
But any information-recovery process will depend on co-operation across the conflict board – governments, intelligence agencies, military, police, republicans and loyalists. But what chance of that being achieved or being achievable in the current climate?
Smith answered that question when he talked about these latest investigative moves relating to the Boston project flying in the face of attempts to create a truth-recovery process.
The ICIR intended to deal with this would act privately and through interlocutors reaching out into those different worlds of governments, intelligence, security and the various armed loyalist and republican groups.
It is about questions and answers. But who is going to answer, even if there are guarantees that information given in this process will not have any evidential value?
Rea, Smith, other loyalists and republicans thought, believed, understood, that the Boston College project was protected by confidentiality.
This may have been their understanding, but it hasn’t been the reality.
From the publication of the Hughes transcripts and other revelations, this project has unravelled into a legal mess and battlefield.
Investigations and arrests have followed and, now, there is the news of the Rea case, which has created another bad mood within the loyalist community that this is some type of “balancing act”, or “equaliser”.
And the consequences of this are that it will put people back in their trenches; into places of silence rather than talking.
There may well be many unanswered questions but, in this atmosphere, there won’t be answers. And that has implications for that paper agreement made in Stormont House.
What is the point of an information or truth-recovery process without significant co-operation and disclosure? Information will not flow within a process that still has the potential to lead to arrests, charges and perhaps prison for however short a time.
And we know from the assessments of policing experts that investigations will deliver little in terms of jail time and justice.
But investigations will block the potential to open up and open out some greater sharing of information and explanation and understanding of the conflict years.
What we are watching is not just a case about one man, or one actor within the conflict period, but something that potentially has much wider implications.
And, all of this tells us that the past hasn’t gone away.