Malachi O’Doherty: Why our oral history isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if Boston College case succeeds
Anthony McIntyre’s partial victory against the PSNI is welcome, writes Malachi O’Doherty, but with Stormont in abeyance, a priceless historical resource is at grave risk
November 15 2017
It was probably inevitable that the police, once they learned that former paramilitaries had told their stories to Boston College researchers, would lust after the chance to read their scripts. The interviews, conducted by Dr Anthony McIntyre, an old Provo himself, promised to have priceless material in them.
With his insight into the paramilitary life, having lived it to the full, McIntyre was likely to reach the parts that other academics couldn’t.
When I first heard of the project, I thought it was wonderful. Here were the gunmen and bombers telling their stories – on the condition that they would not be made public until after they died.
Journalists and writers and interested groups, like victims and their families, the security services and plain historians, had a resource that would open up to them to potentially help to right the wrongs of propaganda and lies.
And there wasn’t much else happening to assure us of a legacy of information and attitude that would potentially counter the half-truths and ambiguities of peacemaking.
None of this was going to be good enough for the police, however. They weren’t going to be happy to have to wait for an old gunman to die before they could read his confession.
They would want him in the dock – even if they could only secure a two-year sentence for crimes committed before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
And it wasn’t their job to ask what the rest of us might be losing when they went after the interviews; but what we were losing was massive.
When the first subpoenas against the material emerged, several of those who gave interviews asked for the recordings and transcripts to be returned to them. Those have all probably been destroyed now.
Certainly, some of them have.
And a legacy of the fright that momentarily obliging paramilitaries got is that they clammed up for researchers, or, at least, became more guarded.
They are not going to concede information that might incriminate them.
This is a radical change. In the earlier periods of the peace process, some former paramilitaries had been remarkably frank with writers like Kevin Toolis and Ed Moloney and with the Press.
And, thankfully, research continues beyond the scare that the PSNI created, but always with the thought in mind that the police have a will to make arrests and get convictions, even for offences committed decades ago. And even that they are pushing for results that almost inevitably elude them.
The strongest signal of this intention was the arrest of Gerry Adams in May 2014. Republicans said at the time that this was politically-motivated action by “dark forces” in the PSNI. It was, in fact, no less than a determined attempt to put Adams in jail.
And while those of us who write the history of the Troubles might fulminate about Adams’s blithe refusal to ever concede he was an IRA leader, he knows that, if he did own up to it now, he would be arrested again. The effort to create a record of the past through oral history is now being inhibited by the police.
That would not be such a problem if the other mechanisms available to us for securing information about the past were functioning. But they aren’t.
The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) collated a huge amount of valuable information but distributed it widely to interested families, so there is no central record of its work available to us. And some of the reports that have come into the public domain have proven to be remarkably slight, repeating only what was known, including clips from newspapers and references to books.
In effect, they recycle what oral history we already had, rather than add to it.
The Fresh Start agreement developed plans for an oral history archive but without the Executive sitting to allocate resources to such a scheme, it is currently in abeyance.
There was a plan to create a peace centre at the Maze prison site but that was scrapped by Peter Robinson as First Minister, out of a fear that it would endorse the IRA.
During talks with the parties on the legacy of the past, Richard Haass proposed a museum of the Troubles, an idea I had myself aired previously in articles in this paper and others.
There were no serious takers, although there is a Troubles archive at the Ulster Museum and a record of the art of the Troubles, compiled with the assistance of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
And there have been other fruitful projects, like the BBC’s series of victim stories, which were aired through one year in the late-1990s. Gathering stories of the past is part of the work of all media outlets.
Journalists, however, tend to focus on the story of the day and not to collate their work.
The exception to this was the remarkable Lost Lives archive, a record of all the killings of the Troubles period. But Lost Lives was not oral history; oral history is a record of the stories of individuals. It is memoir.
It is a flawed record in many ways, because people who were at the same location will remember differently what happened there. Sometimes they are demonstrably wrong.
The Boston College project was a brilliant effort to draw on the stories of the paramilitaries.
The police are continuing to seek to advance cases against some of those who told their stories, even though, as evidence, they appear not to be strong.
Dr McIntyre himself has legally challenged the police efforts to access his own story and has now scored a point in the court battle.
The police have been given two weeks to explain why a “defective process”, which brought McIntyre’s recording back to Belfast, should not be grounds for sending it back to Boston.
The case proceeds against Ivor Bell, allegedly one of McIntyre’s interviewees. The defence argues that he suffers from dementia and is not fit to be tried.
The Boston College project was potentially of immense value to historians and to future generations of traumatised families and it has been scuppered by the police, blundering in, to little benefit to themselves, trampling in size nines over the best prospect we have had of an historical corrective.
They are right to be getting on with their work while the politicians fail to develop an alternative. But there are costs beyond security concerns that no one is seriously yet taking into account.