How an Oral History Project Got the Head of Sinn Fein Arrested

The Justice Department subpoena arrived in May of 2011. Ten years had passed since the Boston College Belfast Project began collecting interviews from members of loyalist and republican militias during the dark period of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and the move caught the leaders of the investigative program completely off guard. Staffers with the project had ...

Photo by PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images

The Justice Department subpoena arrived in May of 2011. Ten years had passed since the Boston College Belfast Project began collecting interviews from members of loyalist and republican militias during the dark period of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and the move caught the leaders of the investigative program completely off guard. Staffers with the project had conducted interviews with dozens of people involved in the conflict, but none of the information was supposed to be publicly released until after their deaths. There was no plan in place for a wide, public release, to say nothing of opening the archive to police for use in ongoing investigation.

The sealed request from Washington, made on behalf of the British government, demanded the interviews of former IRA members Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes in connection with the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who had disappeared after being accused of working as an informant for the British. In 2003, her body was finally found buried on a beach, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Hughes had died in 2008, and Price, who died in 2013, had already copped to her role in the killing during a public interview. The target of the Northern Ireland police’s investigation, the Belfast Project researchers surmised, was the leader of Ireland’s Sinn Fein party, Gerry Adams. Observers of the conflict have long speculated that Adams may have ordered McConville’s murder, a charge he vehemently denies

On Wednesday, Adams voluntarily submitted himself to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in Antrim for questioning. On Friday afternoon, his third day in police custody under the Terrorism Act, the police requested a judge’s order to hold him longer. Adams’ detention comes roughly a month after the arrest of the 77-year-old former IRA commander Ivor Bell in connection to McConville’s murder — reportedly also based on evidence secured from the Belfast Project.

"I believe that the killing of Jean McConville and the secret burial of her body was wrong and a grievous injustice to her and her family," Adams said before entering the police station. "While I have never disassociated myself from the I.R.A. and I never will, I am innocent of any part in the abduction, killing or burial of Mrs. McConville."

The fact that Adams has been arrested at all has stirred up long-simmering resentments. Critics accuse Northern Ireland’s Police of playing politics with old crimes and selectively prosecuting cases, such as the McConville murder, while ignoring others also responsible for violence, among them, the British soldiers responsible for the Bloody Sunday massacre that occurred the same year of McConville’s death.

Ironically, ending this fixation on reprisal partly motivated the Belfast Project, whose material has stoked old resentments. "Many people want to tell their stories — not necessarily about political violence. But about why the conflict was fought," said Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA man turned historian who conducted all of the interviews with the former IRA members on behalf of Boston College. "People know that the conflict was not fought so McGuiness could meet the queen, " referring to former IRA commander and current Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuiness, who made history by meeting Queen Elizabeth in 2012.

If they’d known that their work would be used in prosecutions and recriminations,  McIntyre and Ed Moloney, the Irish journalist who acted as the Belfast Project’s founding director, say they never would launched it in the first place. But when they began, they believed that collecting the stories of the men and women who had been intimately involved in the Troubles was essential to truly understanding the history and details of the conflict. They would work to persuade participants in the violence to share their stories by promising that the interviews would go with them to the grave and only then be released. In the meantime, the project was to be kept secret and the recordings of the interviews themselves were to be stored, under lock and key, in Boston College’s Burns Library. By the time the project concluded in 2006, members of the project had conducted interviews with 20 former members of loyalist militias and 26 individuals affiliated with the IRA, securing facts and details that would otherwise have been lost to history as those involved died off.

In subpoenaing the interviews, the Justice Department acted at the request of the Police Service of Northern Ireland under a mutual legal assistance treaty with Britain. Trickles of information — in the media and elsewhere — claimed that the Hughes and Price interviews held at Boston College contained information about the planning and execution of McConville’s disappearance, and the Northern Irish police wanted to find out for sure. Moloney campaigned against their release, but in the end Boston College relented and provided the Hughes tapes — he was already dead — but refused to hand over Price’s. A second subpoena eventually released another round of tapes, which included a portion of the Price interviews.

"The Obama administration and Eric Holder have put in jeopardy something that stands as a monument to American diplomacy," Moloney said. If Adams were charged with McConville’s murder, he claimed, "the damage to the peace process would be incalculable."

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that finally ended the conflict in Northern Ireland was one of the crowning achievements of American-brokered diplomacy. Both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush played an integral role in negotiating and supporting the agreements that ended the decades-long struggle between Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant unionists who wanted to remain part of Britain. The U.S. government should have considered this danger, Moloney said, before "allowing a foreign government to raid the libraries of one of its most prestigious institutions."

McIntrye also believes that the peace has grown shakier in recent years, and that dragging Adams into a trial could further threaten the future of the agreement. "It’s less stable" than it has been, he says. "There are bricks coming out of the wall all the time."

McIntyre, who still lives in Ireland, and Moloney, who lives in New York, have also argued that the release of the tapes under court order could make those involved in the project targets for violent IRA reprisals. "The IRA is a very controlling organization," Moloney told NPR in 2012. "It has very strict rules about disclosure of information. Its members are not permitted to talk to anyone about IRA business."

Boston College declined to comment on Adams’s arrest and whether the Belfast Project might have played a role in it. "We are not privy to the actions of British law enforcement and have had no involvement in the matter since the U.S. Court issued the order to remand portions of the archived interviews last year," said Jack Dunn, a spokesman for the school. "As a result, it would be inappropriate to comment on this issue." The Department of Justice also declined to comment on t
he reasoning behind the decision to issue the subpoenas.

Some have criticized Moloney’s perspective as naïve, arguing that he didn’t understand that he was promising his interview subjects protections that he could not guarantee. When the government demanded access to the archives, Boston College fought it in court, but ultimately complied on two occasions, doling out pieces of the archive.

"Oral historians don’t have a shield law," said Mary Marshall Clark, the director of Columbia University’s Center for Oral History Research. One of the failures of the Belfast Project, she claims, is that the dangers were not clearly spelled out to those involved, and were not fully understood by those in charge of it. "You have to be clear about the dangers involved, including subpoenas."

It’s unclear whether the use of Belfast Project material will have a chilling effect on similar projects, in part because it was such a unique situation. "The BC case is something of an anomaly," said Clifford M. Kuhn, executive director of the Oral History Association. "It involved an international case, an international treaty, and it involved a murder."

Moloney may have invited police scrutiny by publicizing the existence of the archive and the project. "I don’t see it as an oral history project," Clark says. "It’s a journalistic project." Authorities chose to obtain the interviews in part because Moloney referenced them in his most recent book on the Troubles, Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland, which includes parts of Brendan Hughes’s interviews. "If the interviews had not been publicized, would the authorities have come after them? Probably not," Kuhn said.

Still, Jean McConville’s disappearance was a particularly ugly episode in a grizzly conflict, and it looms large in Ireland’s collective memory of the Troubles. After being accused of working as a low-level informant for the British, IRA members dragged her screaming out of her home in west Belfast and in front of her children. The assailants, her children claim, did little to hide their identities, but fear of retribution prevented them from taking that information to the police. McConville’s eldest daughter said on Thursday that she would be willing to give information to the police. Her son has said that his fear for the lives of his children has prevented him from giving information.

"This woman was taken away and executed, Jean McConville. There was only one man who gave the order for her to be executed. That man is now the head of Sinn Fein," Hughes said, referring to Adams, in a taped interview with McIntyre that has recently been made public. "I did not give the order to execute that woman. He did."

Adams maintains his innocence. Though Adams’s arrest has caused a stir, it is nothing in comparison to the outrage that would be sparked by a formal murder charge. Sinn Fein has criticized the timing of his arrest as an effort to damage the party ahead of May elections. Adams’ arrest could lose cause the party to lose votes in the south.

But others question whether Adams is as significant a figure as he once was. "Adams is already quite old and getting on, people have talked about the possibility of him handing on to another generation," said Adrian Guelke, a professor at Queens College in Belfast who has written on the Troubles.

The unfortunate irony seems to be that the lesson of the Belfast Project’s tapes, instead of the lofty ambitions of Moloney and McIntyre, has been one that ruled Northern Ireland through the darkest days of the Troubles: Unless you want trouble, keep your mouth shut. Or, Guelke says, "If you want to keep a secret, you don’t tell people that you have a secret to keep."

Thomas Stackpole is an Assistant Editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tom_stackpole

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