Belfast Project — Links to the Past Under Attack

LEGAL action over an interview with a former IRA member may threaten our ability to record history, writes Peter Geoghegan.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These words, penned more than a century ago by Spanish-American poet and essayist George Santayana, could have been written about Northern Ireland today. So far, the process of recovering from a troubled past has been conducted on an ad-hoc basis – a Bloody Sunday inquiry here, an Enniskillen bombing investigation there – but it could well grind to a halt altogether in the wake of a court ruling in the United States last weekend.

On Saturday, the first circuit appeal court in Boston ruled that an interview with a former IRA member, conducted by researchers attached to Boston College, must be handed over to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The interview with Dolours Price, who served a prison sentence for her role in the 1973 bombing of the Old Bailey in London, was part of the Belfast Project, an academic project designed to create a unique repository of oral testimony from direct participants in the Northern Irish Troubles.

Funded by Boston College, the Belfast Project was co-ordinated by Ed Moloney, an award-winning Irish journalist now based in New York. Anthony McIntyre, a former Republican prisoner who holds 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 death – now these testimonies could provide evidence for criminal proceedings.

The Belfast Project began in around 2000 but remained a secret until 2010, when Moloney, with Boston College’s imprimatur, published Voices from the Grave, a book based on interviews given by erstwhile IRA officer commanding and hunger striker Brendan Hughes and former Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine. In an interview Hughes, who died in 2008, claimed that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was directly involved in the death of Jean McConville, a West Belfast mother with ten children, accused of being a British Army spy, who was killed by the IRA in 1972.

Last May, British authorities issued Boston College with a subpoena, demanding tapes of interviews with both Hughes and Price, after the latter gave an interview to a Northern Irish newspaper intimating her role in 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, 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 appeal courts by the researchers, Moloney and McIntyre.

Although this appeal was rejected on Saturday, the Price interview – contra some overexcited reports – has not yet been handed over to the PSNI. The researchers have stated their intention to exhaust every legal avenue in the US, a process that could take months and potentially reach the Supreme Court.

Students of jurisprudence are not the only ones watching the Boston College case with interest. The result could have important ramifications both for academic research more generally and the prospects for truth and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Academic research is heavily dependent on trust between the researcher and the researched. When the subject material is killings, armed activity and clandestine paramilitary groups, this trust is all the more important.

The Belfast Project asked interviewees to divulge sensitive information about their activities on the basis that conversations were confidential. If this guarantee turns out to have been erroneously given, future research on the conflict will be compromised, perhaps terminally.

“People who have been involved in violent conflicts will now be more reluctant to speak with historians about their activities and their politics,” Richard English, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews and author of a number of books on the IRA, told one newspaper recently. “In terms of research on the Northern Ireland conflict, this could have a disastrous effect.”

Questions have been raised about the competence of the researchers in the Belfast Project. Certainly, guarantees of full confidentiality were misplaced – and the decision to publish Voices from the Grave before all the interviewees had died was a misjudgment – but the most probing questions should be directed at Boston College. The US institution stood to gain substantially from the possession of what would have been an archive of major international significance. Financial considerations seem to have outweighed due academic diligence on the part of the institution, to disastrous effect. Since then, the college has consistently failed to protect the researchers it employed, or their subjects, many of whom are now said to fear for their safety.

The case could also have direct political consequences in Northern Ireland. Just two weeks after the much-photographed meeting between Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and the Queen, republicans and their Democratic Unionist Party counterparts in the power-sharing assembly at Stormont have clashed over the Boston College tapes.

Democratic Unionist Lord Morrow said that the release of the tapes, which could re-ignite debates over the role of Gerry Adams and other senior Sinn Fein leaders in the Troubles, “must be welcomed by all right-thinking people”.

The Belfast Project case betrays the politicisation of the past in Northern Ireland, a common theme in post-conflict societies heightened here by the absence of any agreed process of truth recovery. The PSNI’s Historical Inquiries Team, established within the PSNI to investigate crimes committed during the Troubles, has largely concentrated its attention on dissident republicans, such as Dolours Price, rather than former combatants now aligned to the peace process. Politically this tendency is understandable, morally less so.

Of course, there is an argument – a powerful, emotionally charged one – that the long-suffering family of Jean McConville deserve to know the truth about what happened and, if possible, to see the perpetrators brought to justice. But the reality is that the PSNI’s predecessors, the RUC, made little or no effort to solve the original crime. Meanwhile, the role of state forces, particularly MI5 and proxy organisations such as the Force Research Unit, in the killing of civilians during the Troubles remains shrouded in secrecy.

The Belfast Project will probably bring a premature end to oral history research into the Troubles; but, if anything, the affair highlights the need for a more exhaustive process for dealing with Northern Ireland’s contested past.

Selective justice based on wrestling information from the laptops of academics is no way to proceed – and not just because the prospect of securing a conviction on the back of testimony from Dolours Price and other interviewees looks decidedly slim.

The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. In the intervening years, there has been no substantive attempt to establish a truth and reconciliation process. Instead there has been a drip-feed of information, often disputed, and the occasional high-profile investigation, such as those into Bloody Sunday and the death of loyalist leader Billy Wright in the Maze prison.

Oral history projects offered a cost-effective, if piecemeal, approach to establishing what exactly happened during the Troubles. The blocking of this avenue raises once more the question of how, if at all, the past can be dealt with.

The political will for a general amnesty for crimes committed during the Troubles – a sine qua non for any truth commission – simply does not exist. Many would prefer that the past stayed buried. But in Northern Ireland, as anywhere else, the past and the present are tightly entwined.

Tomorrow, Twelfth of July parades will take place across the country, commemorating William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. If Northern Ireland is to avoid repeating its more recent past, it must find ways to remember it.