He might have been kept away from his family for four nights, and he might have found the prison food impossible to digest, but Gerry Adams isn’t actually the main victim of the British authorities’ latest raking-over of certain historical events of the Troubles. No, academic freedom is. It is the ability of academic researchers to gather information on testy, controversial issues, on matters of conflict and crime, that has been thrown into jeopardy by the British authorities’ rather zealous reopening of cases from Northern Ireland’s past.
To many observers, the arrest and questioning of Sinn Fein president Adams on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Jean McConville in 1972 is a simple case of the authorities discovering more information about that killing and deciding to act on it. Mrs McConville, a mother of 10, was killed by the IRA on suspicion of being an informer. Her body was not found until 2003. New facts, or rather claims, have come to light, news reports tell us, hence the questioning of Adams. But it’s the question of how these claims came to be public property, how they came to land in the hands of Northern Irish police, that should concern anyone who believes in the right to carry out independent thought and research free from state peering.
‘This could all have a serious, serious impact on academic freedom’, says Anthony McIntyre, the former IRA member turned political researcher and critic of Sinn Fein whose work for Boston College in America led to the arrest of Adams. In 2001, McIntyre, together with the journalist Ed Moloney, started work on The Belfast Project at Boston College. The aim was to create a new ‘oral history’ of the Troubles through carrying out extensive interviews with former members of the IRA – it was a ‘truth recovery process’, McIntyre tells me, before that truth was ‘gone forever’. Keen to get the most candid commentary possible from their interviewees, and conscious that the Troubles are very recent history, with many of the protagonists still alive, McIntyre and Moloney promised their subjects that their interviews would remain under seal until the time of their deaths. Those were ‘the conditions under which the archive would be maintained’, McIntyre says.
But then, in 2010, it was revealed by a newspaper that Dolours Price, a former IRA member imprisoned in the 1970s for detonating a car bomb outside the Old Bailey in London, had said she was the driver in the kidnap and killing of McConville in 1972 and that her IRA Officer Commanding at the time had been Adams. Adams denied this. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) believed Price had important information about the killing of McConville, and that she may have offered up that info in her interviews for The Belfast Project, and so it asked the US authorities to step in.
The US Department of Justice demanded that Boston College turn over its taped interviews. Initially, the college said no, saying ‘our position is that the premature release of the tapes could threaten the safety of the participants, the enterprise of oral history, and the ongoing peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland’. But when a federal judge in Boston subpoenaed the college, insisting it turn over the relevant interviews, it caved – it proved itself a bunch of ‘pushover professors’, says McIntyre, angrily. And so did the police in Northern Ireland gain access to ‘narratives’, as McIntyre calls them, that former IRA members had given in good faith, confidentially, for the purposes of oral history and academic research only, and on the basis that they would not be released in their lifetimes. It is this court-ordered information, these stories illiberally grabbed by the PSNI working with the American state, that led to the arrest and questioning of Adams.