Farcical High Court Decision Backs PSNI Farce

Farcical High Court Decision Backs PSNI Farce
Chris Bray
The Shade of the Cloud of Arrows

I am now convinced that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is an elaborate prank, a kind of brilliantly large-scale Candid Camera — and the courts are totally on on the joke.

Let’s start with some background. Feel free to skip to the heading WOODSHOP FELONY below if you’ve been following the Belfast Project subpoenas closely (you poor bastard) and don’t need to go through the whole farce again.

In 2011, investigating a 1972 murder that they had ignored for thirty-nine years, the Police Service of Northern Ireland went shopping for unearned confessions in a historical archive in the United States. The subpoenas served on Boston College were, the claim went, desperately necessary, investigative tools scratching away the truth behind the most serious of crimes: the kidnapping, murder, and secret burial of a widowed mother of ten children, Jean McConville, killed by the Provisional IRA as a suspected informer in the employ of the British army in Belfast.

Locked away in a university library, the Belfast Project tapes supposedly held the answers; consisting of frank oral history interviews with former members of paramilitary organizations, they would allow the authorities to bring a set of killers to justice. The headlines said so, plainly and uncritically. “Tapes Hold N. Ireland Murder Secrets,” CNN reported. It was all pretty simple: Get the tapes, press the “play” button, make some arrests.

The police got the tapes they sought, but it doesn’t appear that the police got their Northern Ireland murder secrets. More than seven years later, no one has ever been brought to trial over McConville’s murder, or on any other crime supposedly exposed by the tapes. One elderly man, allegedly a former Provisional IRA member of high rank, was charged more than four years ago with crimes related to the killing, but his case has become the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce of the criminal courts — forever subject to status conferences, forever unresolved.

Following another, later subpoena, another set of charges were brought against another elderly man alleged to have once been a ranking member of a Loyalist paramilitary organization. Those charges have also gone Full Kafka, forever wandering the hallways of the courts of Northern Ireland and rattling their chains. One day the sun will implode, our solar system will vanish into a black hole, and the charges brought on the basis of the Belfast Project tapes will finally meet their resolution.


But now the farce of the Belfast Project tapes has become something else altogether, the word for which probably hasn’t been coined, yet. We’ll need a neologism that combines the ideas of raw sewage, things of microscopic importance, and pure farce. (This would be easier if we all spoke German.)

In 2014, circling back to a source that had brought them no form of success in court at all, law enforcement authorities in Northern Ireland asked the U.S. Department of Justice to promulgate a new Belfast Project subpoena. This time, the PSNI was seeking the recorded interviews archived at Boston College in which a Belfast Project researcher, Anthony McIntyre (a former Long Kesh prisoner who has a PhD in history), is said to have discussed his own role in the Provisional IRA.

Federal authorities in Boston got McIntyre’s interview materials, and the DOJ sent them off to Belfast. But McIntyre went to court to stop the police from reading the transcripts or listening to the tapes. This week, the High Court in Belfast issued a decision in McIntyre’s legal challenge, which they heard almost a year ago.

The decision is, God help us all, comic opera. It makes the farcical nature of the whole production abundantly clear, while attempting to manage the discussion within the boundaries of language that declares that this is terribly serious judicial business. I have a draft copy, not yet signed by the court, and the court has posted a summary of the decision here (link opens to PDF file). I’ll stick to discussing the publicly available summary until the whole decision becomes public.

Now, remember that this all began, seven years ago, with a great deal of somber tut-tutting about the seriousness of the Belfast Project subpoenas, and the urgent work of the PSNI as it raced down the trail after some murderers. So take a look at the summary posted by the court, which describes the matters now being investigated by the PSNI with regard to Anthony McIntyre:

On 3 September 2014 the PSNI requested that the Public Prosecution Service (“PPS”) issue an International Letter of Request (“ILOR”) in respect of a criminal investigation it was carrying out into the following matters:


The detection in 1978 in the applicant’s possession of an imitation firearm while in custody in circumstances suggesting that he may be planning an escape from custody. The applicant states that this is a reference to an incomplete wooden gun in two parts which was found in a search cubicle in prison reception. He was questioned at the time of its discovery but not charged with any offence.

Note that this sentence about events in the 1970s begins with “the detection,” at the time, of the thing being discussed. So in 1978, prison officials caught Anthony McIntyre with some pieces of wood, which they suspected, probably for good reason, that he was planning to turn into a fake gun so he could bluff his way out of prison. They questioned him about it but decided not to charge him with a crime. Thirty-six years later, the PSNI decided to conduct an investigation to determine if Anthony McIntyre had possessed some pieces of wood that could be turned into a fake gun for use in an attempt at a prison escape, and they went through the complex and difficult process of obtaining international legal assistance to subpoena interview materials archived in another country.

The reason the PSNI suspected that Anthony McIntyre had once possessed wooden materials that could be used to make a fake gun was that, nearly four decades ago, prison officials in Northern Ireland caught Anthony McIntyre in possession of wooden materials that could be used to make a fake gun.

We suspect this man of Crime X because forty years ago he was caught committing it, so now we need to find out if he committed the crime that we know about because we know he was caught committing it.

Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, ladies and gentlemen.

The PSNI used the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States in an attempt to find out if Anthony McIntyre hid some wood in his socks forty years ago, a thing they already knew he did.

But let’s keep going, and take a look at the other things the PSNI supposedly set out to investigate by digging into McIntyre’s Belfast Project tapes. Like this:

“Membership of an illegal organisation.”

Goodness yes: Let’s use international legal assistance to conduct an investigation to find out if Anthony McIntyre was ever a member of the Provisional IRA, more than forty years after the time he was actually convicted on that charge. McIntyre’s own website, by the way, has a review of his book on Irish republicanism, which describes McIntyre as “a historian, a former member of the IRA and a onetime party activist with extensive contacts in the organisation.” It took me five seconds on Google to come up with that one — but I don’t have the option of asking the Department of Justice to issue subpoenas on my behalf, so I was forced to fall back on other means.

Finally, the PSNI suspects that McIntyre carried out a bombing, with a few problems:

“A bomb attack on a house at Rugby Avenue on 6 February 1976. The PSNI claimed to have received information on that date the applicant was involved in the bomb attack. The applicant, however, maintains that he was in fact the target of the attack and that in any event if the attack was on the date alleged he was in police custody throughout that day.”

More about the Rugby Avenue bomb later, when the full decision is available, but alleging in an international letter of assistance that McIntyre bombed somebody’s house on a day when he was in police custody is an interesting choice.

Analyzing the international letter of assistance — the letter the PSNI asked Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service to prepare in order to ask American law enforcement officials for help — the High Court acknowledges in its decision that the police and prosecutors made a hash of the whole thing. From the summary released by the court, and take a moment to read this carefully:

“There were a number of errors in the ILOR including reference to the incorrect date of birth of the applicant, the incorrect section of legislation in respect of an offence, an assertion that the applicant had been convicted of armed robbery in 1975 and sentenced to a period of imprisonment of three years when in fact there was no evidence to support that assertion and an incorrect date of Judicial conviction for the offence of membership of a proscribed organisation.”

So the police set out to investigate whether Anthony McIntyre once possessed some wood that they suspect he possessed because they know he possessed it, and also set out to learn if a convicted IRA member had ever been in the IRA, and also set out to determine if he blew up somebody’s house on a date when he was locked up in the police station, and when they wrote the letter outlining their investigation, they got most of the supporting facts totally wrong.

These two conclusions come one after the other in the summary of the decision posted on the court website:

• The errors in the ILOR were due to a distinct and surprising lack of care on the part of the PSNI and the PPS;

• The errors in the ILOR were not indicative of bad faith.

Got that? They fucked up everything they touched, which we’re pretty sure proves that they were trying to be careful and do a good job.

More to come.


Adams in DC: Confirmed, and Still Ignored

Adams in DC: Confirmed, and Still Ignored
Chris Bray
Friday, May 30, 2014

A news story on the website of RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster, confirms that Gerry Adams discussed his arrest with American officials during his visit to Washington. While the PSNI pursues new subpoenas, the RTE headline tells the whole story: “Adams arrest discussed at Washington briefing.”

An email to Adams’ office this morning produced a list of officials who met with Adams: In addition to a sizable group of Congressmen — gendered term intended, because he somehow only met with men — Adams met with some moderately well-placed officials at the State Department. The White House took relatively little notice of the meeting, sticking Adams with an official from the Office of the Vice-President. Imagine flying four thousand miles and then finding yourself in a meeting with the vice-president’s staff.

In any event, yes: Gerry Adams was in a foot race with the PSNI, talking to U.S. government officials about his arrest and the foolishness of the police investigation at exactly the moment the police are trying to get new subpoenas of the Boston College archival material that they hope to use against him.

Besides RTE, which news organizations noticed the presence in the capital of a foreign official engaged in a lobbying effort against a criminal investigation that the United States is helping with? Take a look:

adams blackout

When I picture the American news media, I imagine a little ring of saliva around the spot on the desk where they put their heads during nap time.

Adams in Washington DC: Blackout

Chris Bray
29 May 2014

Gerry Adams is in Washington, D.C. today, “briefing senior political figures and the Obama administration on the current difficulties within the peace process.” He is, in other words, lobbying one of the governments that’s supposedly trying to put him in prison. Taking the mutual legal assistance treaty process and the PSNI investigation at face value, Adams is trying to talk a murder investigation off the rails — to use politics against the police. Of course, taking that investigation at face value is…problematic, and the more likely reality is that an Irish politician is employing diplomacy this morning against a nasty piece of British politics.

Still, the drama in the moment is extraordinary: The same month he walked away from four days of police interrogation over a murder, a prominent politician is in the country where the supposed evidence against him was found, publicly announcing his intent to meet with officials in the government that helped to get him arrested. It’s as if a murder suspect in New York City walked out of the interrogation room, smiled, buttoned up the cuffs of his shirt, and sauntered over to City Hall to have coffee with the mayor, patting a detective on the head as he left the precinct.

But then here’s the fucking incredible part: The American news media isn’t covering the visit at all. As I write this on Thursday morning, Adams has been in the country for about 24 hours, and no American news source that I can find has even mentioned his presence. He got to D.C. last night: nothing. Silence. Try your own search terms, but here are the results of a Google News search for “Gerry Adams Washington DC,” narrowed to the last 24 hours:

no gerry

Why is this not news? Adams is here to kill the PSNI’s new request for subpoenas, full stop. He’s here to prevent the complete disclosure of an entire archive full of detailed and extensive interviews about paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The stakes are plainly very high, for both Adams and Northern Ireland as a whole, and Adams will be urging the U.S. government to take a step that will put it sharply at odds with one of its closest allies. It’s a dramatic narrative and an important piece of policy news at the same time, crossing multiple beats: diplomacy, law enforcement, Irish politics, the state of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Reporters, who is Gerry Adams meeting with? Does he have a meeting at the Department of Justice?

How is it that this aggressive piece of high stakes diplomacy is drawing no attention at all?

Chris Bray Commentary: Do institutions learn?

Hand, Hot Stove, Repeat
Chris Bray
Monday, May 26, 2014

Do institutions learn?

In an extraordinary letter to the Boston Globe this weekend, Professor Emeritus Peter Weiler warns of a “crisis of governance” at Boston College. The crisis Weiler identifies relates to the university’s Belfast Project, oral history interviews with former IRA and UVF members that are now subject to federal subpoenas.

“To date,” Weiler writes, “nobody at the university has accepted responsibility for a project that has badly damaged the school’s reputation and harmed its prized relationship to both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Is nobody going to be held accountable? That seems a necessary first step to repairing the flawed administrative structures that allowed this train wreck to happen.”

Those flawed administrative structures are neatly elucidated in a May 5 public letter from several Boston College History Department chairs, past and present (including Peter Weiler). The department chairs reported that, with regard to the Belfast Project, they “had not been informed of the project, nor had they or the department been consulted on the merits of the effort or the appropriate procedures to be followed in carrying out such a fraught and potentially controversial venture.”

So the Belfast Project, conducted from 2001 to 2006, recklessly wandered into dangerous territory because it was sealed off from the institution that housed it, managed within the boundaries of isolated fiefdoms and run without formal oversight or informal professional advice. No one will tell this story better than Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Beth McMurtrie, whose long Jan. 26 report on the Belfast Project carefully documents a long series of institutional failures.

Today, eight years after the conclusion of the Belfast Project, and three years into an international legal and political battle over the project that shows no sign of ending in the foreseeable future, Boston College has had ample time to learn the lessons of its original failures. The project ran into danger because most faculty had no involvement in it and could offer no advice or oversight, and because the few critics who were given a look into the project were ignored when they expressed concerns. So the path to the least-bad potential outcome is a path that runs through the institution and its faculty. The cure for the failure of a project badly run in isolated fiefdoms is to bring it out of its isolated fiefdoms, integrating History Department and Irish Studies faculty into an institutional discussion about responses and solutions. The cure to a problem caused by not talking to faculty is to talk to faculty.

This medicine is not being applied at Boston College. No faculty committee has been established to examine and discuss the present crisis in the Belfast Project, formally or casually. Meetings on the possibility of new subpoenas are taking place in administrative enclaves, with lawyers and managers, behind doors that are closed even to senior faculty. If Boston College has a soul, it’s not being searched. The handful of people managing the crisis continue to do so in rigid isolation, institutionally and intellectually, pushing away their own internal critics. Having damaged the university by not listening to its faculty, they are not listening to their faculty.

This story of isolation and obstinacy is not simply the story of the Belfast Project; the limits of faculty governance at Boston College are well known, and a sore subject there.

William Leahy lives behind a moat, and he has drawn the Belfast Project inside the gates, with the flagrantly unhealthy Jack Dunn guarding all avenues of approach. Three years later, it’s clear that he’s not coming out to hold court with the rest of the institution.

The university’s trustees need to go in and drag him out.


Chris Bray – Cliopatria

Chris Bray is a PhD candidate in the History Department at UCLA, and also a former United States Army soldier and journalist. His particular study of the Boston College case stems from his interest in the protection of research and the right of free inquiry. He blogs regularly for Cliopatria. His posts on the Boston College subpoenas are collected here.

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Moral Decency Requires That I Betray You



Misfeasance, Rounding the Corner Toward Malfeasance

DOJ on Boston College: Academic Freedom a Legally Meaningless “Quasi-Privilege”

Boston College (Cont.): AUSA Todd Braunstein, the Infamous Irish Politician

Boston College (Cont.): Fixing a Broken Frame

Boston College (Cont.): Fishing Harder

Boston College (Cont.): Taking Aim at the DOJ

Boston College (Cont.): Where the Fourth Amendment Goes to Die

Boston College (Cont.): Pushing Holder

Boston College (Cont.): The Inextinguishable Rule of Law

“The Logical (and Unconstitutional) Conclusion of the Government’s Assertions”

Boston College: Time for Resignations

Boston College: Disaster by Design or, The Family Doesn’t Shelter Orphans

Reckless Negligence: Expanding the Case Against Boston College

The Unalloyed Right of Government Officials to Breathtaking Stupidity and Obvious Negligence

And Starring Jack Dunn as Tweedle Dee

Boston College Saga Shows How the State Has Failed

Nom nom nom

Scarce Solutions

A Passive Receptacle

Obvious Lying Tends to be a Bad Public Relations Tactic

Boston College: Someone Learned to Read

Too Bad You’re Missing It

The Heights of Credulity

Imagine a Rope, and Perceive It Around Your Wrists

Proof by Denial

One of These Days, Alice

A Most Unweclome Development