CORK, Ireland — There have been tentative suggestions in Ireland recently that relations with the UK are at an all-time high. Despite the efforts of dissident groups, the people of Northern Ireland have worn a remarkably durable united front in their vocal support for peace. But sometimes it’s tricky to walk away from the past—even when you’re 3,000 miles away from it.
Boston College is on the ropes this week after the US attorney general (at the behest of the P.S.N.I Serious Crime Branch) issued a subpoena for confidential archived interviews with former IRA and loyalist members. The interviews had been conducted 10 years ago as part of an oral history project on the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The interviews contain more than 50 personal accounts from individuals who had been involved on both sides of The Troubles. The project was directed by author and former Irish Times and Sunday Tribune journalist, Ed Moloney. Mr. Moloney has since published a book (and subsequent film documentary) entitled Voices from the Grave which is based on interviews with ex-IRA member Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes who died in 2008, and former UVF prisoner and politician David Ervine, who died in 2007.
Former IRA member Anthony McIntyre interviewed Hughes and other IRA dissidents, including Dolours Price, who was convicted and imprisoned for her role in the bombing of The Old Bailey criminal court in London in 1973. Meanwhile, loyalist Wilson McArthur interviewed the unionist participants.
In particular, the PSNI are interested in alleged comments made my Hughes and Price in the interviews which suggest that prominent Irish politician and Sinn Féin party leader Gerry Adams oversaw an IRA unit that was responsible for kidnappings and disappearances in the 1970s, most notably that of Jean McConville. Hughes and Price were both close allies of Adams until an ideological falling-out some years ago. The allegations could have enormous implications for Belfast-born Adams who recently resigned his seat in Westminster in order to run for election in the Dáil in the Republic’s recent general election. Although Mr. Adams has continually denied being a member of the IRA, his involvement in the organisation has long been presupposed by the media and general public.
There are other implications however. The revelations thought to be contained in the interviews were disclosed on the condition that the material would not be released in the lifetime of the participants. Indeed, in a promotional clip of Ed Moloney’s Voices From the Grave documentary, you can hear this pledge of secrecy in a conversation between McIntyre and Hughes:
“Do you have a problem with committing all this to secret tapes to be used only after you have died?”
“I don’t have a problem with that. If I did have a problem with that I wouldn’t be sitting here talking into the microphone. And I think a lot of the stuff I’m saying here, I’m saying it in trust, because I have a trust in you. And I have never, ever, ever, admitted to being a member of the IRA. Never. I’ve just done it here.”
There are clear questions as to how this subpoena might threaten the safety of all those who contributed to the oral history project. While Hughes and others have since passed away, there are many still who are alive and whose wellbeing might now be at risk.
In addition to this problem, the case could potentially undermine the entire academic field of oral history. Speaking to The New York Times, Mary Marshall Clark, director of Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office, described the situation as “our worst-case scenario.”
Blast spoke with Dr. Rob Perks, the director of Oral Histories at the British Library about the case and the stance it holds on this turn of events.
“The British Library will, wherever possible, seek not to disclose restricted confidential oral history interviews,” he said. The comment demonstrates the reluctance of those involved in oral history undertakings to betray the privacy the field needs to function, but his words came with a caveat.
“Such obligations of confidentiality may be overridden by certain legal requirements. Disclosure of confidential material to meet a legal requirement may be mandatory, and beyond the Library’s reasonable control.”
Should the subpoena be successful, project director Ed Moloney has not ruled out the radical move of destroying the tapes as a protective measure, although he stressed that it would be an option of last resort.