An interesting showdown, with potentially important ramifications for both journalism and academia, has been slowly unfolding over the course of several months, involving a journalist in the middle, paramilitary soldiers seeking to tell the truth on one side and the PSNI and the families of the so-called ‘disappeared’ on the other.
The controversy circles an academic historical endeavour known as the ‘Belfast Project’, conducted by Boston College, whose aim is to create an oral history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a history which would offer a much more frank and realistic view of the conflict, from both sides of the coin. Paramilitary volunteers from either side were interviewed for the large scale project. None of the Republican interviews, however, were authorised by the IRA. In fact, the only reason they were given by the participants was on the condition that they be released only after their deaths. Understandably this was because the IRA was and is very secretive and controlling, and those interviewed revealed operational secrets, the IRA’s methods and often criticised key decisions and people within the organisation. At present, the interviews are kept under lock and key at the college. However, on July 6th the first circuit court of appeal ruled that the College and Ed Moloney, the journalist in charge of the project, didn’t have the right to promise to withhold the information they were given, and have ordered that information be turned over to the PSNI by next month. This test case has brought out academics and journalists decrying the court’s decision, proclaiming source protection as sacred. The National Union of Journalists in particular, which is a joint British-Irish organization, has condemned the ruling. General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet has argued that the ruling has “significant implications” for academic and journalistic research, while others have criticised the College for not acting like other journalists and protecting their sources to the point of going to prison.
One of the main reasons the PSNI want to get their hands on this treasure trove of information is to help them discover what happened to certain people during the conflict, a collective known as the ‘disappeared.’ This is the name that has been given to sixteen people who vanished during the Troubles at the hands of the IRA, believed to have been abducted and killed, then buried in shallow graves. In 1999, the IRA admitted to killing nine of the victims on that list, and gave up the burial sites, although only three were found at that time. Since then, a further four bodies have been recovered. The most infamous of these cases was that of young mother, Jean McConville, whose body was finally discovered in 2003 by a family out on a walk, a mile from the location the IRA had given for her grave. McConville was born into a Protestant family in East Belfast though converted to Catholicism when she married her husband, Arthur. One of her sons, Robbie, was in Long Kesh for Official IRA related activities although he defected to the INLA in 1974. In December of 1972, she was abducted from her home by 12 members of the IRA, men and women, and killed by a single bullet to the back of the head, her remains buried on a nearby beach. The IRA refused to admit responsibility for many years, and then claimed that McConville had been a British spy, passing information on local republicans to British security forces through a radio transmitter. Her children have consistently rejected this claim, and have repeatedly called on the IRA to clear their mother’s name. An official investigation revealed no evidence to prove the IRA’s claims. Enter Boston College and their Belfast Project. One of those believed to be have been interviewed, Dolours Price, could reveal she was part of the murder as the driver of the car which took McConville to her death, and more importantly, the role of Gerry Adams in all of this. Such allegations concerning Adams are nothing new. In Voices from the Grave, based on two interviews from the Boston project, former IRA operative Brendan Hughes said as much of Adam’s role, claiming that it was Adams who established the IRA unit which killed McConville, and he who gave the order for her secret burial, to avoid the negative publicity surrounding the murder of a women and the orphaning of her children.
But the families of those disappeared by the IRA during the Troubles aren’t the only ones who could be affected by the court’s ruling. Those still living ex-IRA members and their families could be in for trouble should their testimonies reach the light of day. Carol Twomey, wife of Anthony McIntyre (former IRA gunman who conducted the interviews) believes that her husband and other ex-IRA men will risk being killed should the interviews be handed over, and used to secure prosecutions. Retribution, she argues, is a very real fear for men who have been branded by some as ‘touts’ for revealing IRA secrets.
Then of course there’s the impact on Northern Ireland and the peace process to be considered. The country may be at peace but nobody can deny it isn’t somewhat shaky. If Hughes’ allegations are confirmed by a second IRA member’s testimony, given in the knowledge it wouldn’t be revealed until after her death, what does this do for the stability of Northern Ireland and its government, bearing in mind that Gerry Adams always shrugs off accusations of IRA membership, and leadership. It’s hard to predict the reaction from the Republican camp. A Northern Irish government which is dependent on its members possible past criminal lives being ignored isn’t exactly a solid foundation in the first place. But it has worked thus far. And an appeal is already in the works. Several prominent politicians in America, including the former presidential candidate John Kerry have lobbied for the interviews to remain sealed. It just might stick and it could be years before the Boston tapes see the light of day, and all those involved are dead and buried, and a new generation will have to deal with the mistakes of their forbearers.
So, to reveal or not to reveal? Do we make an attempt to forget our past in the interest of the future or do we strive to excise all of its demons. It’s a tricky one. How do you decide which is more important – the need for truth and closure on the part of Jean McConville’s family, and any others who might have something new to learn about the disappearance of their loved ones or the fact that to reveal the identities of any former IRA members who participated in the Boston project is to pass a very possible death sentence on them. Some might argue that death is what they deserve for the activities they and their Loyalist counterparts were involved in during the Troubles but to essentially have them killed makes us no better than what they are and were. The truth shall set you free, it has been said. But in this case, perhaps it might just do more harm than good. Should Gerry Adams be finally proven to be an utter liar, should he be proven to have been in the IRA command when he said he wasn’t, such a thing wouldn’t be a terrible event by any stretch of the imagination. But if Boston College can be forced into giving up these precious oral histories of such an important and tragic part of our history, where does it stop? So many hidden histories, so many stories are dependent on the assurance that can be provided by the interviewer that the identity of their source will be protected at all costs. So who in their right mind would ever again trust a journalist or in particular an academic into telling their story?
No, let sleeping dogs lie, as they say. Wait until those involved are dead and gone. With any luck, Gerry Adams and co will still be alive when that time comes. If not, then we can see the contents of that historical treasure trove for ourselves, and history can be the judge of it all.