Belfast Project (Boston College tapes): “an invitation to people to engage in deep moral reflection on the consequences of war and political violence”
The topic of the Belfast Project – an oral history of republican and loyalist paramilitaries that is archived in the Burns Library at Boston College – is one that Slugger O’Toole posters have been tracking for some time.
Taking a step back from the latest developments to look at the project as a whole, and exploring beyond the normal 2-3 minute media soundbite, I spoke to Anthony McIntyre (who conducted many of the republican interviews) about the original purpose of the project, the subpoena requesting access to Brendan Hughes’ and Dolours Price’s contribution (later extended to include “any and all interviews containing information about the abduction and death of Mrs Jean McConville”) and the resulting appeals in the US and UK courts.
[We were] starting out on a journey of bringing voices in to the overall historical narrative. I have a view of history – given that I’ve done some historical training and have an interest in it – I have a view of history that one history becomes dominant to the extent that it manages to suppress or marginalise another. Therefore I think it is very important to have as many voices in [a] historical narrative. It adds more colour, complexity, the shading to the tapestry that is history.
Over the course of decades we have been moving history away from the kings and queens, the generals and prime ministers, the politicians and judges. We’ve been getting the history of the subjects rather than their ruler, the prisoners rather than their jailers, the voter rather than the voted. I’ve always thought that it was very important to get voices out that are different from what the norm is.
Twenty six republicans were interviewed covering “all manner of republicanism”. Anthony McIntyre says he “interviewed people primarily for their knowledge of republicanism and not for their gripes or their animosity”. With a “criterion of confidentiality” to protect the project so interviewees wouldn’t blurt out about their participation, he says it was “difficult to get as many Sinn Féin people as I would have liked to have got”. However, whenever the archive comes out “people will be pleasantly surprised at the range of views enlisted”. (In contrast the UVF gave approval for their members’ involvement in the project.)
Ed Moloney’s book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland was published after the death of republican Brendan Hughes and loyalist David Ervine. I asked Anthony McIntyre whether this was intended to be the pattern following other contributors deaths. [04:07]
Brendan Hughes had insisted while he was alive that he wanted his interviews published then. Now that would have seriously jeopardised the project, I thought. So we had to persuade him to hold his wish and we promised him that at some point we would do our utmost to get his story out there … And then Boston College in the interests of balance – and also to promote their own image of being a mediator/bridge-builder in what they liked to refer to as the two sides in the northern conflict – it was their idea to publish the David Ervine narrative as well.
So if there wasn’t to be a succession of books, how did Anthony McIntyre imagine the oral history archive would be used and released? [07:16]
It’s safe enough to say now that some of the people who have been interviewed for the project are dead … Simply because a person dies does not mean – nor never meant – that their material was going to be published in book form. Ed [Moloney] was involved, independent of myself, in negotiations with Boston College – shortly before the subpoena was issued – for the conditions whereby people would have access to the interviews upon the death of people. He was determined to ensure that it would be for a bona fide research exercise that people could not simply walk in and say well let’s have a look at it.
There were discussions about whether the archive should be digitised, published online in transcript form, but “no hard and fast rules” had been agreed. [08:30]
But there’s no point in gathering an oral history if at some point it is not made available to the public. This is the whole point of doing it … It was a truth recovery process and we were trying to bring as much truth and honesty to the republican end of the war narrative as was possible. There was no point bringing out this truth if people weren’t going to hear it at some point.
The stability of the Belfast Project changed in March 2011 whenever the British Government (on behalf of the PSNI) requested help from the US Department of Justice to access the archive. Anthony McIntyre explained his view of the timeline and the argument in Ed Moloney’s affidavits suggesting that catalyst for this action was a report by Allison Morris in the Irish News based on an interview with Dolours Price, followed three days later by a more detailed report by Ciaran Barnes in the Sunday Life. [10:52]
Anthony McIntyre described his disappointment with Boston College’s initial legal reaction to the subpoena and the subsequent action and appeals lodged by himself and Ed Moloney. They have applied to have the case heard in the Supreme Court and “one of the justices put a stay on any handover of the archive until the Supreme Court make a decision on hearing the case”. And recently …
… Boston College has appealed to the First Circuit Court to drop the case given that Dolours Price has unfortunately died. They said that the whole issue is now moot and that there should be no further action.
Anthony McIltyre speculated about who wants the information and for what purpose. [18:59]
The PSNI are certainly pushing for this with a vigour and it seems to go the whole way up. It may have bypassed the NIO at the start and then was handled by the Home Office. But certainly between the PSNI and the Home Office – and I imagine the NIO by this stage – are all on board and determined to get this material.
Are they risking so much good will, are they risking annoying the academic establishment just for the sake of having a read of what is there when it will come out eventually? Or do they want it for prosecutions.
I believe they want it for prosecutions and I believe that they also want it for the purposes of – some of the elements anyway want it – for the purposes of embarrassing [Gerry] Adams who does seem to be under pressure these days in relation to many questions that take us back to the past …
You can never really move away from the conflict while people who were central to the past remain central to the present. And I think this sort of thing is always going to dog us. For that reason I think maybe had Mr Adams and company not been around the determination to get these archives would not have been as great as it is.
At various points in the interview, Anthony McIntyre points out that he does not control the archive: the completed interviews rest under the control of Boston College.
Destroying the archive would not be as drastic as “the PSNI getting their hands on it [early] and turning it into evidence”. [20:26]
The task of researcher is to protect those who participated in the research from any harmful effects. That’s your first objective. That’s the ethical imperative. After that the interviews don’t really matter in comparison to the welfare of the interviewees.
I asked Anthony McIntyre whether he wished the project had been undertaken with a different college or carried out under different rules? [23:13]
I have stated on record before I regret that I got involved in it simply because of the harmful effects it could have on other people. The project is eminently defensible. It was simply done with the wrong university. Both ourselves and the loyalists relied on the word of the university that had a law school, that was prestigious and was well regarded in Ireland, that had set up its stall in terms of having helped the peace process. We relied on that university with its array of lawyers, the wealth to have done the homework for us. Turned out that it hadn’t and we have had to pay a terrible price for that. So in that sense, I regret getting involved with Boston College. Yes, very much so. It was on American soil and we would have never done it had somebody had said put it in Queen’s. We wouldn’t have felt that it was safe. Boston College led us to believe it was absolutely safe in an American university. Unfortunately we fell for it and unfortunately for our research participants, we believed Boston College and we’re now paying the price.
A few hours before the interview, Senator John Kerry was approved by the US Senate as the next Secretary of State. He has subsequently been sworn in as America’s top foreign policy official.
An alumus of Boston College, John Kerry wrote in January 2012 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to “to work with the British authorities to reconsider the path they have chosen and revoke their request” in light of “the impact that it may have on the continued success of the Northern Ireland peace process” as well as “implications for the confidentiality of other research projects of this nature”.
Now that John Kerry is sitting behind the Secretary of State desk, does his previous intervention offer the researchers hope? [24:37]
He will be reminded about it. Then we move into realpolitik. Then we will really see what happens, just how strong the British desire is at the top to get this. If John Kerry allows this to be handed over then we know that the opposition he faced to his motion to quash was very, very strong and he didn’t feel that as a diplomat he could resist it.
I do have a view that one of the motives – I can’t stand over this obviously, because we never know these things – but one of the motives is that the British want something strong to bargain with while Sinn Féin and others continue to shout about the past in this one-eyed game of truth and recrimination that they sometimes call truth and reconciliation.
Truth here is we want to tell the truth about you but we don’t want to hear your truth about us. And I think that with Sinn Féin demanding the likes of prosecutions of the soldiers in Bloody Sunday and saying that any soldiers convicted will not be afforded the two year maximum jail term, I think the British state are going to make it very clear that they too have a card to play here and that if the past isn’t addressed in a proper way puts it to rest then there’s trouble for all. And we’re caught in the middle. That’s my view and how sustainable it is? I’m certainly open to persuasion on it.
If the subpoena is blocked and the interviews are released to academics and ultimately the public, in ten or twenty years time what does Anthony McIntyre think the public will have learnt from the archive? [28:05]
Without revealing anything in the interviews, I do not think that people will come away with the view that war is something that should be glorified or conflict is something that should be glorified.
People talk at times about this archive as if it is some sort of true detective novel and they’re all waiting to get it so they can look from one page to the next [to see] the gory details.
This project was probably at its root an invitation to people to engage in deep moral reflection on the consequences of war and political violence. That’s probably the most important point about it. How people who saw conflict, were involved in conflict, who experienced conflict, how those people came to see it. How they actually seen it at the time and how they’ve come to see it later in life.
I think there are great lessons to be learnt from that. It is always important to ask people to ethically reflect on the actions that they have been involved in. It always serves as a means to help protect future generations from going down the same path. We very much have to understand why people who would normally run about a life like yourself or your next door neighbour end up coming involved in serious political violence.
Topic: Government, Politics, Society and Culture
Region: Global, Ireland, Northern Ireland, UK
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