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Sunday 15 January 2012

Nobody emerges with credit from Boston College fiasco

The attempt to create an oral history of the Troubles has led to a legal tug of war, writes Ruth Dudley-Edwards

THERE is a huge row going on at the moment in which the main dramatis personae include -- in no particular order -- Boston College (a highly successful Jesuit-run university which funded the Belfast Project -- tapes of interviews with retired paramilitaries); Ed Moloney (who covered the Troubles for southern media and wisely moved to New York before he published A Secret History of the IRA); Seamus McKendry (whose mother-in-law, Jean McConville, was murdered and disappeared by the Provos); and Gerry Adams, named by bitter ex-Provos the late Brendan 'Darky' Hughes and Dolours Price as having ordered the murder of McConville.

The issue is whether Boston should cough up to the US Department of Justice the interviews requested by the PSNI'S Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

Here are a few of the analyses floating around:

1) The Boston College authorities were contracted never to release the interviews until the subjects had died, but have cravenly given in at the first sign of trouble. They've been flayed inter alia by journalist Chris Bray for "laziness, cowardice, incompetence, indifference to duty, poverty of thought and callousness". They've wrecked the project and dealt a terrible blow to historians. They have put the life of Anthony McIntyre, the chief researcher, at risk.

2) Boston College is innocent. Its deal with Moloney, as project director, promised confidentiality "to the extent that American law allows". It is a successful, ambitious university with a marvellous Irish archive and a deep commitment to Irish Studies. Why should it engage in fruitless and ruinously expensive litigation against its own government?

3) Boston and Moloney are both at fault. The agreement should have been to keep all the material under wraps for 30 years.

4) Ed Moloney -- in Niall O'Dowd's words -- initiated a "get Gerry Adams" project and roped in a gullible Boston College. He sealed the project's fate when in 2010, after Brendan Hughes's death, he published his interview in Voices From The Grave -- the police had to pay attention.

5) It's all a vindictive plot by Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the PSNI and probably the Irish Government, to destroy Adams and damage Sinn Fein because they're a threat.

6) The material is useless anyway. The interviewees will be seeking to whitewash themselves and settle old scores, so why the fuss?

7) In the interests of preserving the peace process, the British government must tell the PSNI to drop their inquiries.

8) If there is any justice, the investigation must go ahead.

9) Axe the HET and set up a truth and reconciliation process -- independent, international and paid for by the British.

I first inclined to position 1, until I realised that I was thinking like the greedy historian I am and that institutions and individuals have rights too. Having read a large hillock of articles about this, I am clear about just a few points: Boston College would have been wiser to keep the material unseen for 30 years; despite his understandable antipathy to Adams, Moloney should have resisted the temptation to publish the Hughes material; Owen Paterson -- who in his time has praised both the Boston Project and the HET -- is wringing his hands; the HET is legally charged with investigating all unsolved Troubles-related murders and had no option but to pursue the McConville case when there was, allegedly, new material available; the ambiguities, agreed mendacities and the general amorality of the way in which the governments ran the peace process stored up trouble for the future; even the much-praised South African Truth Commission found out little of the truth and anyone who thinks republican and loyalist paramilitaries will do anything other than blame the Brits is off their heads.

As for the fate of Jean McConville? The evidence of a dead man is no threat to Adams. Dolours Price, who gave similar evidence, is a sad woman whose story -- along with that of her sister Marian -- is an awful reminder of how perpetrators suffered too. Coming from a family of fanatical republicans, the sisters were, respectively, 21 and 19 when they helped Gerry Kelly bomb the Old Bailey.

After years of imprisonment, hunger strikes and force feeding, they were released on humanitarian grounds after seven years. Later, they would both bitterly oppose what they saw as a Sinn Fein sell-out in the Good Friday Agreement and Dolours has been voluble about what she sees as Adams's betrayal. In the unlikely event of her agreeing to help the despised PSNI and give evidence in court, the defence lawyers would be licking their lips.

Dolours suffers from depression: Marian, who is prominent in the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, the Real IRA's political wing, is in solitary confinement in Maghaberry Prison. They were once clever, attractive girls whose misplaced idealism ruined their lives. No wonder they hate Gerry Adams.

A reader comments:

Sir -- In this country the notion, trope, concept, or what you will, of national treasure, is too often degraded to the level of cliche, with the most unlikely, even objectionable, characters being so designated.

I must confess that whenever I am fortunate enough to acquire a copy of the Sunday Independent, I am moved to read first any inclusion by Ruth Dudley Edwards. I wasn't disappointed on Sunday last. Her article on the oral history of the (so called) Troubles was nothing short of a model of expository elegance. For this alone I suggest that if anybody deserves the epithet national treasure in an Irish context, the name Ruth Dudley Edwards merits a high place on the list. But then the Bible tells us that prophets are never recognised in their own countries, and one might say least of all in Ireland.

William Barrett,
Surrey, UK

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards