Boston College and the ongoing battle over a disturbing past…

As the legal process continues the disturbance of the past continues apace… Liam Clarke has an interesting piece from yesterday’s Sunday Times up on Nuzhound today. In it points out that there is a fascinating clash between history and the law. In particular hightlights the current case in which the PSNI has a US Federal subpoena out to try and get material information on given by Dolours Price:

Price has told me she will not make a statement or speak to the police. She has been in a fragile psychological state since she was caught returning to Ireland after a bombing mission to Britain and her subsequent hunger strike. Her co-conspirators included her sister Marion and Gerry Kelly, now a senior Sinn Féin figure.

Price has been involved in alcohol and substance abuse, and has received psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress. She is tortured by her past. In conversation, she veers between pride in her IRA involvement and the feeling that she was trapped into the republican movement by her family background and was not cut out for it psychologically.

Her parents were IRA veterans but her most disturbing early memory was of her aunt Bridie Dolan, who died in 1975. She had been blinded, facially disfigured and lost both hands in 1938 when several grenades she was attempting to move from an IRA arms dump blew up. As a child, Price had the task of holding cigarettes for Dolan, and was upset by her instinctive distaste for her aunt’s injuries. She says this impelled her to show loyalty by getting involved in the IRA.

Her mistake was to give a long interview, parts of which appeared in the Irish News and Sunday Life, in which she said she had deposited tapes at the Boston archive, and then recounted some of their contents. Police say they are duty-bound to pursue such evidence in a murder case, but there must be grave doubt about its evidential value. Price is a disturbed woman, with a history of psychological disorder, and is unwilling to co-operate.

What she has to say may eventually be of interest to historians, who will compare it with other evidence. But can it really be of assistance in a criminal case, where a charge must be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

There’s two other relevant pieces worth noting here. One by Chris Bray at George Mason’s History New Network site, which suggests that the subpoena is motivated by politics rather than the solving of an historical crime… Here’s the core of his take:

…a murder that wasn’t investigated for nearly forty years, and for which the police have said they probably can’t bring successful criminal charges, is now suddenly being investigated, but the records being sought are not principally about the men and women who committed the act itself, and the records in any case could almost certainly not be used in court as evidence. What’s the use of these records? They’re oral history tapes and notes: they would give the British government the voice of IRA members identifying Gerry Adams as their commander — that is, as an IRA member, a thing he has always (and not very plausibly) denied having been.

Indeed. It is also worth noting that Danny Morrison has published (with extended commentary) the text of a letter he sent Boston College last year, before the publication of the book containing the Ervine and Hughes’ extracts… To which there’s an interesting response from Anthony McIntyre

Whatever the intent behind the PSNI request, there has been an ongoing battle over how the recovery of the past is engaged over. Unsurprisingly passions are aroused, not least by the necessarily partial way in which the judicial and quasi judicial processes have been engaged.

In passing it is worth noting Gerry Adams’ recent observation that

…since the IRA had left the stage and there could be no engagement with it. However, we were advised that former volunteers might be prepared to engage with the Smithwick Tribunal on a voluntary basis.

The Sinn Féin leadership spent some time putting in place a process which would facilitate this. When this was achieved Sinn Féin stepped back and the process moved forward.

Whatever that ‘process’ may or may not be, we have only Adams’ word there even is one. But one upshot of a successful move here is a freezing effect on any further attempts by academics to get former combatants to talk openly about their experience of the conflict.

Yet, as we’ve seen with the recent controversy (not to mention media interest) over the 1984 killing of Mary Travers the aftermath of troubles hasn’t gone away you know.

And, whatever people thought of the shortcomings Eames Bradley report it was at least a first pass on this intractably difficult subject. As the Spanish have discovered, a pact of forgetting has some useful pragmatic advantages in that it allows people to make deals that move politics, but it does little to heal the deep hurts that hold whole communities ransom to a traumatic past.

And not just the victims, but those who continue a very lonely struggle to live with what they did to other human beings in the midst of what were some pretty abnormal times.

But the trouble confronting anyone who is looking for some form of ‘closure’ on the past, from whichever quarter they come, is that as Gary Mitchell noted some four years ago, there is a “real truth” and an “agreed truth”, and when the “agreed truth becomes accepted, the real truth becomes a lie”.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty