Could Boston interview tapes spell trouble for Adams?
by Peter Geoghegan
Sunday Business Post
14 July 2013
In October 2010, Voices From The Grave appeared on Irish television screens. The RTE documentary gave a unique glimpse into the history of the Troubles as seen through the eyes of two leading protagonists, loyalist David Ervine and his republican counterpart Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes.
But more than two and a half years after it first aired, Voices From The Grave continues to haunt Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.
Hughes, a former IRA commander in Belfast, claimed that Adams ordered the killing of mother-of-ten Jean McConville in 1972, allegedly for being a British spy.
Voices From The Grave, which was also a best-selling book, was based on interviews given by Ervine and Hughes as part of the Belfast Project, a larger oral history project involving numerous loyalist and republican prisoners and conducted by researchers under the auspices of Boston College.
Ervine and Hughes died in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Accusations of Adams’s involvement in the killing of McConville resurfaced last week, as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) confirmed that tapes of interviews with IRA bomber Dolours Price, which were being held by Boston College, had been handed over to them.
Price died last January. Before her death, she claimed that Adams was her IRA officer commanding in the early 1970s, and was responsible for ordering McConville’s disappearance.
Adams has always denied that he was a member of the IRA or that he played any role in the death of McConville, whose body was found in a beach in Co Louth in 2003.
“I have consistently rejected claims that I had any knowledge of, or any part in, the abduction or killing of Jean McConville,” Adams said in the Dáil last week.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny called on Adams to make a statement about McConville’s disappearance. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told the Dáil: “Nobody except Deputy Adams believes he wasn’t in the IRA.”
Ed Moloney, erstwhile director of the Boston College project, said that there had been a “very political element” to the PSNI’s determination to get hold of the interviews with Dolours Price and others, conducted as part of the project.
“The PSNI knew that, at the end of the road, they would end with Adams,” Moloney told The Sunday Business Post. “There is an element there of going down this road knowing it will cause [Gerry Adams] an awful lot of trouble.”
Moloney, who was the Irish Times northern editor during the Troubles and is now based in New York, fears that the US court decision to have the tapes released could lead to issues for Adams and other senior political figures that could undermine the political situation in the North and also inhibit attempts to learn more about exactly what happened during the Troubles.
“The only way we are going to get a truth recovery process is if there is a guarantee that there won’t be prosecutions. Prosecutions just keep the war going,” he said.
The issue of the past has been centre stage in the North in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the Policing Board said that it had no confidence in the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which was set up to re-examine deaths during the Troubles.
The Policing Board said that the HET was investigating deaths involving soldiers with less rigour than cases with no state involvement. Moloney agreed, saying it was “a way of dealing with the past that says that there was only one guilty party – the paramilitaries, not the state. The state is left out of it completely.
“Fear of prosecution will prohibit people entirely from saying what they know and it will keep the war going in another guise, and that is what has been happening in recent years,” he said.
Moloney’s viewpoint has support on the other side of the Atlantic. Last week, the chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, Robert Menendez, raised concerns about the impact of handing over the Price tapes to the PSNI.
In a letter to US secretary of state John Kerry, Menendez said that the release of material could “still have the effect of threatening the precious peace won by the Good Friday Agreement”.
In his letter, Menendez appealed for State Department experts on the North to examine whether the details contained in the interviews could “run counter to our national interests”.
Dealing with the past is expected to be top of the in-tray for Richard Haass, the US’s new peace envoy to the North. Haas, who was George W Bush’s envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2003, will head talks aimed at resolving troubling issues, including flags and parading. He is expected to report his findings by the end of the year.
In the North, opinions are divided on whether the release of the Boston College tapes to the PSNI will have any significant impact on the political situation on the ground.
Mick Fealty, editor of the influential blog site Slugger O’Toole, said that it would be difficult to prevent the PSNI or the HET going after other interviews in the Boston College archive, but that criminal prosecutions as a result of evidence from the tapes were “highly unlikely”.
“I don’t see material evidence coming out of this,” Fealty said. “[Dolours Price] can’t be interrogated; she can’t be brought before a jury.”
Fealty said the Boston College tapes could prove less damaging to Adams than other issues. “Adams has far more challenging stuff coming down the tracks. His brother’s trial [for child sex abuse] is coming up later this year. There is the stuff about mishandling of sex abuse within Sinn Féin.”
Irish News columnist Newton Emerson also believes there is little prospect of a criminal conviction arising from the Boston College interview with Price. “There is absolutely no conceivable possibility of this stuff being used in court,” he said. “The witness can’t be cross-examined. I’d be very surprised if you can even get this heard in court.”
The big concern for Adams would be a civil case being taken against him, said Emerson. “If you were a particularly determined grieving relative, you could decide to make the last ten years of Gerry Adams’s life miserable, even if the civil case had little chance of success.”
“Ultimately, the big issue is the assumption of a de facto amnesty that can never actually be delivered. The dam will break with a civil case,” he said, adding that there were tens of thousands of people in the North who could be motivated to bring a civil case against the republican leader.
Emerson draws parallels with other world leaders who were initially celebrated by sections of the international community, but who spent the final decades of their lives battling civil actions from relatives of victims killed by his regime. “It still all ended up in the courts. It’s very hard not to imagine that happening here,” he said.
A Sinn Féin spokesperson refused to discuss the prospects of civil cases arising from the Boston College tapes.
Emerson is sceptical about claims that the tapes could destabilise the political situation in the North. “Why would misfortune for Adams be a threat to the peace process? It’s very hard to believe the Provos kicking off again because Gerry has a hearing,” he said.
“I just can’t see any actual revelation from the Troubles bringing people out on to the streets in armed fury. It’s just too far away. Half the people in Northern Ireland have no living memory of the Troubles. When you talk about something that happened 40 years ago to a 20-year-old, it’s like talking about something that happened in the 1930s.”
Belfast Project timeline
Funded by Boston College, the Belfast Project was coordinated by Ed Moloney, the Irish journalist now based in New York.
Anthony McIntyre, a former republican prisoner with a PhD in history, and former loyalist prisoner Wilson McArthur conducted interviews with leading figures in the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association.
Crucially, all interviewees were promised that their recordings would not be released until after their deaths; – now these testimonies could provide evidence for criminal proceedings.
The Belfast Project began in 2001 and ended in 2006, but it remained a secret until 2010, when Moloney, with Boston College’s imprimatur, published Voices from the Grave, a book based on interviews given by former IRA officer commanding and hunger striker Brendan Hughes and former Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine.
In May 2011, British authorities issued Boston College with a subpoena, demanding tapes of interviews with both Hughes and Dolours Price, after the latter gave an interview to a Northern Irish newspaper intimating her role in Jean McConville’s disappearance. In August, a second subpoena followed, this time calling for all interviews that contained any information relating to the McConville case.
In December 2011, a Boston federal court judge upheld the first subpoena. Boston College criticised the verdict but surprisingly declined to appeal. Instead the case was taken to the US appeal courts by Moloney and McIntyre.
The researchers also called for Boston College to destroy all tapes of the interviews.
“The archive must now be closed down and the interviews be either returned or shredded since Boston College is no longer a safe nor fit and proper place for them to be kept,” they said in a statement.
Price died in January this year. On April 15, the Supreme Court reduced the amount of material to be handed over from 85 interviews (roughly half of the archive) to segments of 11 interviews.
Last month, the PSNI travelled to Boston to collect tapes and transcripts of interviews given by Dolours Price. However, Jack Dunn, director of public affairs at Boston College, denied claims that the university had handed over the tapes.
“The Dolours Price tapes have not been handed over to the PSNI by Boston College,” Dunn told the website Irish Central.
“If they have been given to the PSNI, they have been supplied by the Department of Justice. It has been inaccurately reported that PSNI detectives came to Boston over the weekend and took tapes from us. That is completely untrue.”
Moloney told The Sunday Business Post that Boston College had “abandoned” Belfast Project interviewees.
“This is a disgraceful episode in American academic history,” he said. “My advice to anyone interested in setting up a controversial research project is to avoid American universities because they will sell you down the river as soon as look at you.”