Senator John Kerry Op-Ed

Senator John Kerry Op-Ed

It’s an overused and oft-quoted phrase that those who fail to study the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

But sometimes there are exceptions even to this axiom when people have worked painstakingly to overcome the most painful of history and decided together to leave something in the past in the interests of exploring a better, more peaceful future.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela spoke poignantly of the responsibility he felt to put the past behind him in order to focus on the future of his country.

In Northern Ireland, as well, leaders have done the hard work of trying to leave some of the past buried so as not to distract or destroy an effort to build a different future for all who want peace and opportunity.

History must not be a weapon against those trying to seize the opportunity of today to build a more promising tomorrow.

In an effort to use history as a learning tool, Boston College undertook a comprehensive oral history project called the Belfast Project. Between 2000 and 2006, the college collected thorough and detailed oral histories of Irish Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, chronicling The Troubles from from both sides and from many different perspectives. In an effort to secure such a rich collection of histories, all participants in exchange were promised that their interviews would be confidential until their death or until he or she released the College from this confidentiality agreement.

In the spring of 2011, that confidentiality was threatened and with it, the fragility of efforts among so many to overcome a difficult era. The U.K. Government is is now applying pressure on the United States to turn over certain transcripts contained within the Belfast Project, under the U.S.-U.K. Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT). Boston College has appealed, and since then there have been a flurry of tactics used to obtain this information, including subpoenas, appeals, court motions and objections.

It is my great hope that the academic integrity of these documents is maintained and that these transcripts remain confidential because for some this has become a matter of life and death. At stake are much more than issues of preserving a history project, rather this investigation could endanger a fragile peace process. It is impossible to know exactly what information might be contained within the Project, but it is safe to say that any of the crimes that have been described would have occurred prior to the Good Friday Agreement and would create an extremely dangerous situation if this information were used to upend the process.

I can still remember with vivid detail April 10, 1998 – the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed, under the enormous leadership of President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair, and so many others who wanted the cycles of violence and retribution to end. It meant so many things to so many people – to the citizens of the North, it meant global legitimacy and to many throughout the rest of Ireland it was a hopeful day that the violence just might be coming to an end. Now almost 14 years later, that Agreement, the spirit in which it was reached, and the United States’ role as a friend to the Irish people, must be protected.

I have been in close touch with our Department of Justice, the Department of State, and officials abroad to emphasize the risks of a political exercise that threaten what so many struggled so long to achieve. Treaties like the MLAT between the United States and the United Kingdom are vital, but they were never meant to be used as a method of reaching far back into a difficult history and perhaps eroding a delicate truce that could lead to more lives being lost.

We must not go backwards and this week with another hearing in the courts and the upcoming anniversary of the Good Friday Accords, we should all redouble our efforts to reach a solution that keeps the people of Northern Ireland, the United States and the United Kingdom focused on a future of peace and prosperity. We have turned a corner and we must continue the hard work of writing a new history for a people who have known so much pain.

John Kerry (D) is the senior senator from Massachusetts and the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee