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A chilling threat to historical research

PSNI demands that academics hand over paramilitary testimony are jeopardising the search for truth.

Jason Walsh

Topics Politics

Commissioned by Boston College to document an insiders’ view of three decades of war in Ireland, researchers Ed Moloney, a respected journalist, and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member turned academic, must have known they were stepping into contentious territory. What they were unlikely to have guessed was that by interviewing former republican and loyalist paramilitaries, they would end up in a US courtroom defending the ability of scholars to conduct research.

Boston College’s ‘Belfast Project’ has been subpoenaed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) as potential evidence in the 30-year-old murder case of Jean McConville. A challenge to this subpoena has failed. It may seem contrarian – insane even – but, in this case, public understanding of the truth is best served by it being held in a private university archive.

Moloney and McIntyre were – and remain – willing to reveal the information they went to great lengths to collect and record in the interviews in accordance with the agreement made with those whom they interviewed. The proviso however, is that the researchers agreed that the material would not be published without permission while the interviewees were still alive.

Enter the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which is seeking transcripts of interviews it says may contain information about the IRA murder of McConville in 1972. The HET, founded in 2005 with a remit to investigate unsolved murders from the conflict, demanded transcripts of one interviewee’s testimony, and a US district court ordered they should be handed over. On 6 July 2012, a US appeal court dismissed Moloney and McIntyre’s attempt to have the subpoena overturned.

The PSNI’s actions could have a chilling effect on scholarly historical research. A similar oral-history project, this time concentrating on the role played by the British security forces, has already been shelved. The case also has implications for journalism. While these days there is too much emphasis on whistleblowers rather than active journalistic investigation, it should be obvious that uncovering important stories demands the ability to protect sources.

In fact, the name ‘Historical Enquiries Team’ is a misnomer. Historical enquiries are the business of historians and, perhaps, journalists. The job of the police is to investigate crimes, which is precisely what the HET is doing. In the normal course of events, the investigation of history and pursuit of justice tend to be on the same side, though their motivations may differ. In this case, one has been pitted against the other.

Despite the official narrative of the peace process, the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland remains highly contested. Unsurprisingly so: 3,000 people died over the course of three decades and, though many were protagonists, plenty had never so much as seen a firearm, let alone used one. In addition, many died in particularly murky circumstances and their killers often remained unknown, never mind stood in the dock.

The murder of Jean McConville remains one of the most contentious killings of the conflict. Mrs McConville, a Catholic convert and mother of 10, lived in Divis Flats in the lower Falls, a staunchly republican district of Belfast that was the centre of the early years of the conflict. In 1972, she was abducted. Though long suspected, the IRA only admitted responsibility for her murder in 1999.

The organisation claimed Mrs McConville was a spy, which her family denies. This claim was repeated by the late IRA member Brendan Hughes in Moloney’s 2010 book, Voices From the Grave, including the further detail that Mrs McConville was warned to stop spying before being killed. Moloney’s book was based in part on the Boston College research. In 2006, the then-police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, said she had found no evidence to indicate that Mrs McConville was a spy.

What many have found especially hard to stomach about the McConville case was the idea that she simply vanished. She became the best-known of ‘the disappeared’, a group of people believed secretly killed by the IRA because it was feared that public revulsion at their killings would have turned nationalists and republicans against the organisation. Mrs McConville’s body was eventually recovered in 2003, buried just across the border in the Republic of Ireland.

Into this febrile mix has stepped ex-IRA member, Dolours Price. Then a student teacher, Price participated in the bombing of the Old Bailey court complex in London on 8 March 1973. The explosion injured more than 200 people and is thought to have caused one death due to heart failure. Price, who was married to actor Stephen Rea between 1983 and 2003, is known to be unwell and has been in psychiatric care suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I mention this not to blacken her name, but because of the seriousness of the allegations that follow.

The alleged connection between Price, the murder of Jean McConville and the Boston College tapes – the contents of which are unknown to all but the interviewers and interviewees – surfaced when, in 2010, Price spoke to a newspaper reporter while she was a patient at a psychiatric hospital. The interview was interrupted by family members who arrived and attempted, but failed, to put a stop to it. Any journalist would have jumped at the chance to interview Price given the potential for astonishing revelations, though there are certainly ethical responsibilities that would have to be weighed up.

Having failed to cut the interview short, Price’s family petitioned the newspaper’s editor to edit the piece in a way that wouldn’t exploit Price. He agreed and the story was published in the Irish News on 18 February 2010. Price claimed involvement in the cases known as ‘the disappeared’, and said that the Sinn Féin president and now member of the Irish parliament, Gerry Adams, was her ‘commanding officer’ in the IRA. A second story appeared in an unrelated newspaper as part of an article by a different reporter. This story claimed Price had been interviewed by the Boston College Belfast Project. Moloney is adamant that this publication of Price’s claims is the source of the HET’s interest, not her interview for the Belfast Project.

Adams has long denied membership of the IRA. Few believe him, and he has tied himself up in knots attempting to explain precisely what his, and Sinn Féin’s, relationship is to the IRA. Obviously, the publication of such testimony would put Adams in an uncomfortable position, opening him up to the possibility of civil litigation at the very least.

As this has worked its way through the US courts, another equally dramatic set of court appearances is gearing up on the other side of the Atlantic. Following the 2010 exoneration of the victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre by British troops in Derry in 1972, plans are underway for further investigations. The PSNI has already launched another investigation into events, resulting in Northern Ireland’s first minister, Peter Robinson of the loyalist DUP, calling for an investigation into the role played by his deputy, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, who was a senior IRA member in the city at the time.

As such, the aftermath of the conflict has the potential to be a neverending sequence of cans of worms being opened, despite the best efforts of the peace process to draw a line under the ‘Troubles’. The families of those who died in the conflict, whether killed by paramilitary or state forces, have every right to feel aggrieved and to demand answers, and journalists have every right to pursue the stories.

However, sometimes the revelation of truth demands temporary compromise. In this case, getting honest – if no doubt one-sided – testimony from those centrally involved in the conflict requires confidentiality. In the short term, we will have a better understanding of the historical dynamics. In the long run, as these witnesses die, names will finally be named. The PSNI’s actions destroy that possibility.

There are two forms of authoritarianism at work here. The first is the use of the courts to extract information given confidentially for the purposes of understanding, historically, what happened. The second is more subtle: the moral pressure at work in the ‘let’s-pretend’ world of the peace process, an endless process without a subject that may well have delivered a semblance of peace, but has not settled the issue at hand. Or even done much to lessen tensions between republican and Unionist communities on the ground.

We may never know the whole truth about what happened in Northern Ireland. But it is certain that the HET’s demands over what is a scholarly project won’t make piecing it together any easier.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Ireland. Visit his web site at http://jasonwalsh.ie. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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Topics Politics

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