A note from the author on March 17, 2013, St. Patrick’s Day:
This piece was written for a class in the Fall of 2012. Things have changed slightly since then. Dolours Price has tragically passed on and Boston College moved to vacate the issues pending due to her no longer being alive. The political folks have (bizarrely but not unexpected, I suppose) opposed their motion and the case is still pending. Things are still very difficult in this case and while some people understand the importance of this history, politicos and powerful locals seem to want to play librarian. It’s a very sad state of affairs. I highly suggest that you follow their twitter account ( @bcsubpoenanews) or their blog (http://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/) to keep up to date.
One of the most fascinating and significant things about the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland is that it advertises the concept of memory and looks at history as not simply a collection of culture and events, but a lifestyle. Belfast’s walled roads, blockaded pubs and mural-bathed buildings serve as a continual reminder of a past that has only just recently changed course and is only scarcely managing to hold on to their footing. To do Northern Ireland and history, herself, justice, it would be next to impossible to go into the entire story from the very beginning and cover all the important parts. To the inhabitants of Belfast, every story from the Great Hunger in the 1800s and the Easter Uprising in 1916 to Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in 1981 is an important part.
Bobby Sands died after 66 days of hunger striking, at age 27. He is commemorated here. He was a political activist, poet, and was the leader of the 1981 Hunger Strike, where 9 other Irish republican prisoners besides himself died, attempting to fight for Special Category Status (essentially POW-type privileges).
It’s a complex timeline full of conflict, sadness and revolution, beginning all the way back in the 12th century. For a situation of this magnitude with this duration, the idea that the peace agreements were only recently endorsed in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, with the IRA Decommissioning weapons in 2005 is heartbreaking. In any case, this violence that has only just been halted was begun quite a long time ago, and once started, it never let up. As Landon Hancock writes,
“Like most cultural differences, the roots of the Protestant-Catholic enmity in Northern Ireland are buried in the distant past, with fresh incidents only serving to reopen old wounds and solidify negative stereotypes…The Catholics still feel as if they have an alien culture living amongst them. This feeling has been enhanced through the separation of the two communities and the continued enforcement of the Special Powers Act of 1922. This act, designed to combat IRA resistance to Partition, was left in force until well after the beginning of the Troubles, thus perpetuating a climate of mistrust that has yet to be dispelled.” (Hancock 1996)
It might be reasonable to simply say that the primary issues dealt with land issues and became associated with religious politics, and that the British governmental body, mostly of the Protestant persuasion, decided that their stance was the complete and total control of Ireland, both Northern and Southern. This is how it was legislated, colonized and designed, early on. It’s far more complex than this, involves many more disputes and a great deal more intimate details, but this is the main gist.
Additionally, the population was divided into two different sectors: Protestant and Catholic. While the entire country was made up of both religious groups, the most significant division had taken place when the Protestants colonized Ulster (a collection of counties we now know as Northern Ireland) in the 17th century, and caused endless amounts of fury and mayhem since it was the last location in the entirety of Ireland that had not had some mass settlement by the British Protestant population. Eventually, the residential make-up of the area was left as a bifurcated religious and cultural zone dominated by political unrest. This did not bode well for the future.
Helen McKendry watched her family get taken from her as a young woman
These past events have led to what most people refer to now as “the Troubles,” a term for the modern slate of events that has built Belfast and created Northern Ireland’s image and identity in the last 50 years. A campaign of bombings, murders, kidnappings and terror that involving the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Irish police force), the IRA (Irish Republican Army, the Catholic militant organization) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force, the militant Protestant group) left innumerable people dead or injured, whether or not they had any organizational affiliation. Senior citizens, children, women and teenagers were all affected by the Troubles and hit just as hard by revenge-centered activities of a group like the UVF as they were by the revolution-minded IRA.
One such person who has suffered greatly as a result of the Troubles has been Helen McKendry, daughter of Jean McConville, a woman who was “disappeared” (a nicer term for taken away and killed) during the height of the Troubles, circa 1972. Only 15 at the time, Helen watched her mother get kidnapped by strangers and never returned. Helen has spent her whole life unsure of why it happened and most of it not even knowing where her parent’s body had ended up- Jean wasn’t found until August 2003, when her remains were located on a beach in County Louth. Then something occurred that has made Helen and her family feel that they might get a chance to see justice served. They discovered that the Belfast Project existed and that the participants quite possibly had direct information about Jean McConville’s death: many of those involved in the Project are former IRA members.
The Belfast Project
The Belfast Project was designed by Anthony McIntyre (a former member of the IRA), Professor (now Lord) Paul Bew (of Queen’s College) and Ed Maloney, (journalist and writer). It was never designed for exploitation, financial gain or anyone’s individual career benefit. At the heart of the Belfast Project was an oral history mission borne out of the truth recovery principles as stated in the Good Friday agreements and a very real desire to extend peace and conflict resolution experiences to locales outside of Northern Ireland. As McIntyre stated in a presentation to the Oral History Network of Ireland conference, the entire goal of the Project was
to ultimately enhance public understanding. This was to be achieved through collating and sealing for a time within academia the perspective of those who were combatants or people who had insights that would add to societal knowledge of the conflict… it was envisaged that the material would be of benefit not merely to historians but also to people involved in conflict resolution and policy making right across the board. If the causes of politically violent conflict can be better understood and anticipated in advance then it stands to reason that the potential for averting such conflict increases. (McIntyre 2012)
Anthony McIntyre of the Belfast Project
The Belfast Project, however, stood out in one very significant way: the participants in the oral histories were not whom you would expect. They were indeed deeply connected to the Troubles, but unlike the rest of the extensive work being done in regards to truth recovery shortly after the Good Friday Agreement went into effect, the Belfast Project is not centered on the victims. The focus of this archive is on those who were responsible and/or involved in the incidents that created this population of victims.
As part of the North Ireland Peace Process in the late 1990s, the Good Friday Agreement assisted in bringing about various acts and legal directives when it came to human rights issues and placed a certain level of attention on victims and political prisoners. According to the Ardoyne Commemoration Project, “in the political aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, the ‘victims agenda’ came to the fore.” (Ardoyne Commemoration Project 2002) At this juncture, if the outside world thought things were complicated before, they were about to get even more intricate. In order to have a go at resolving a conflict that was hundreds of years old, decommissioning weapons was not going to be the only solution. There simply had to be a better method by which the governmental bodies on both the UK and Northern Irish sides could succeed. Their ultimate decision was to legislate primarily for future engagements and simply move forward from what had already occurred. While some steps were taken to immediately change certain situations of those effected by the Troubles, not all were widely palatable (the accelerated amnesty and early release of political prisoners became a matter of some contention).
The Good Friday Agreement seemed to be attempting to make use of the axiom, “forgive and forget” in a location that is extremely focused on cultural memory. The notion of forgiving is not easy when you have a tradition of not forgetting. While Ryan Gawn writes that this approach is “not abnormal in negotiations in transitional societies” he also shrewdly notices that this same approach that lacks in the study of past abuse “recognizes the distinct nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland where more deaths were committed by paramilitaries, who are unlikely to have information on the murders documented as well as other state-committed murders. This has meant that there has been a failure to engage systematically with the past in Northern Ireland…this lack of action in addressing the past has meant that the issue has become politicized, and now victims’ issues are often fraught with division.” (Gawn 2008)
Almost in response to this, it seems, a cluster of booklets and studies began to be produced on truth recovery and victims on both sides of the sectarian conflict. This literature centered not only on bringing people together, but also on ideas of memory and remembering that authoritarian figures had been just as active in causing the deaths and injuries of friends and family, as had paramilitary groups. Truth recovery became a key issue- in 1999, the Healing Through Remembering Project was created. Their goal was to undertake a consultation process on how Northern Ireland, and those affected both in and out of Northern Ireland could remember and deal with the past, and in doing so, move towards healing. The purpose of the consultation was to produce a document outlining a range of options for dealing with the past and truth recovery, to be submitted to the British and Irish Governments and Office of First and Deputy First Minister, and to the public. (Healing Through Remembering 2002)
Their outline included memorials, memory days, establishments of archives, the forming of groups around shared pasts, and oral history collecting. However, it was all intended for public use due to the nature of the materials. These truth recovery items, while intended to reach across the “Belfast Borders” and break barriers, maintained open access and relied upon a relationship with the average citizen: they advertised in newspapers and other public forums for participation.
From there, digital archives such as The CAIN (Conflict Archive on the INternet) were begun at the University of Ulster in order to house these materials online and it became a solid public source for people to access a variety of links, bibliographies and other academic work about “Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland,” and it gets updated regularly. (University of Ulster 1996) But there was still something missing. While there was still a sense of moving forward with the peace process, and people could share and learn about the history and work with each other, the history of the Troubles was missing a very important component: the voices of the main actors. Enter the Belfast Project.
Anthony McIntyre spent 18 years in jail as a former Provisional IRA Member. Upon his release, he attended Queens University, Belfast and received his PhD, afterwards becoming a journalist and writer. Shortly after this, he was approached by a professor at Queens College about a project that they were working on that had to do with truth recovery as well- but via the other end of the telescope. This was a very dangerous and tricky road to tread. While anyone can put an advertisement in a newspaper or educational institutional about an oral history project centering on citizenry that has been effected by the Troubles, outreach to former IRA members or folks from the UDA/UFF (Ulster Defense Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters) is far more complex- much like the Mob, if you’re an IRA member, and you “rat,” your life (or your family’s) could be in danger, even now, during a ceasefire/peacetime. While the conflict has been “resolved” for the most part, the history and culture of Northern Ireland has some uncomfortable aspects. This is one of them.
In 2001, just three years after the Good Friday Agreement, The Belfast Project was created with McIntyre as the head researcher and historian and journalist Ed Moloney as Director. The archive was carefully housed in the Burns Library at Boston College in Massachusetts, a University with a well-known and respected Irish Studies program. The fit seemed ideal. They focused solely on getting the oral histories of former IRA and UDA/UFF paramilitary figures; an everything was going to plan. Their goal was to collect the oral histories of this population because they had not had a voice yet and while this population might be quite a bit less popular in the public eye and far more controversial, their historical importance was incalculable. The men and women in these groups would be able to put words and explanations to something that had no explanation and possible assist in other cultures conflict resolution just through discussing their own lives.
However, in order to get these individuals to become part of the project, they had to secure their trust. According to Laura Millar, “Citizens will only offer their trust if they feel it will be respected and safeguarded. An effective society expects those who can exercise their authority to be accountable for their actions; an honorable society then protects those without authority, such as children or the mentally ill, against the danger of abuse.” (Millar 2006)
While these former IRA revolutionaries and UFF soldiers may not have been children, they were in a vulnerable position: if anyone were to know that their stories were being told, it would have been bad news for their families and themselves. Not only had they sworn oaths to their organizations, but it is quite likely that what was to be revealed on the tapes was not only naked and honest oral history, but vivid stories of car bombings, murder and stories that might implicate other people.
In order to gain that trust, the men and women of the Belfast Project signed a donor agreement (standard archival procedure). Within the agreement was a promise that the entirety of each interview would stay completely confidential until the death of the donor or until they gave personal approval for release of contents. This was the contract that the archivists and donors entered into upon starting this project. As Robert O’Neill, director of the Burns Library, stated in regards to the tapes, “Given the sensitive nature of the information revealed by the interviewers, it was important from the start to assure the participants in the oral history project that every effort would be made to keep their participation confidential, and that no transcripts or tapes would be released before the deaths of the interviewees unless they gave formal permission to do so.” (O’Neill 2011)
The Boston College Archive took good care of the Belfast Project for a decent amount of time, and the men worked with their subjects. The oral histories grew and things were going as planned. Until two things happened: two of their interviewees, Brendan Hughes and David Ervine, died, and one of the women they had interviewed, Dolours Price decided to speak out about the Belfast Project and her story outside of the context of the protected archival arrangement. Upon the deaths of his subjects (Hughes was a former IRA member and Ervine was in the UVF), Ed Moloney took the interview tapes, transcribed them, and published a book, entitled Voices From the Grave. This was in no way illegal, unwarranted or going against what the agreement had stated. Hughes had explicitly said in his interviews. But the things that he had revealed in the interviews and thus in the book began to stir up trouble. Dolours Price decision to go public didn’t help matters any.
Voices From the Grave was published in 2010. It was the first public “outing” of the Belfast Project and the first access that anyone other than those involved had to the stories being told. The biggest tragedy of this piece of literature was that, while it was the first in what was intended to be a series of volumes documenting a “greater understanding of the dynamics behind conflict from the point of view of those who participated in conflict” (McIntyre, Prime Time looks at the controversy over the Boston College interviews 2012), the publication of this led to what seems to be the demise of the Project. What were revealed in the pages of the book were terrifying stories of IRA and UVF-related murders and destruction. People were killed, ordered to be killed, bombings were planned, carried out, and Brendan Hughes and David Ervine discussed it all.
Beyond detailing organizational structures and the events themselves, the biggest “reveal” in the book was the involvement of current Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams. While Adams had been a political figure his whole life through, involving himself in various organizations over the years, upon the release of these interviews, Adams has denied having any affiliation with the IRA at all or having ever been a member. While Adams has never refuted the idea that he had a relationship with Hughes, his complete repudiation of IRA ties and involvement seem remarkable to Hughes himself as he stated with absolute insistence that “I never carried out a major operation without the okay or order from Gerry. For him to sit in his plush office in Stormont or wherever and deny it, I mean it’s like Hitler denying there was ever a Holocaust.” (Moloney 2010) The implication of Adams in the abundance of violent acts that Hughes discusses, including the murder and “disappearance” of Jean McConville, alarmed Adams to the point of his direct rejection of the book and its contents, intimating that Hughes was likely unwell at the time of the interviews. But, as Lindy McDowell writes, this seems highly unlikely. She says, “[I]t is not a great defense… Not least because those who have heard tapes of Hughes’ testimony (which we’ll all hear in time, via an upcoming television documentary) say he spoke robustly and lucidly. Ed Moloney points out: “When he did these interviews, he (Hughes) was perfectly fit, mentally and physically, and put in quite an impressive performance.” (McDowall 2010)
Aside from the Gerry Adams issue, the disclosure of the information about the McConville case caused Helen McKendry neé McConville to seek out more information about the murder of her mother. Now that the Belfast Project had come into the public eye and direct connections had been made to personal lives (the McConville family) and the political sphere (Gerry Adams), this archive and its contents were about to see their own “troubles” begin. Not only did Helen McKendry express her intentions to seek legal redress as a result of the new information, but shortly after this, a former IRA member, Dolours Price, gave an interview to Allison Morris of the Irish News, disclosing her own involvement in the McConville murder and other Disappeared cases, mentioning also that she had “made taped confessions of her role in the abductions to academics at Boston University.” (Barnes 2010) While Price’s decision to discuss her IRA activities in a public forum made her more at risk for personal attack by McConville or others, it in no way contradicted her agreement with the Boston College Archive. Price’s testimonials were still protected under the donor agreement that she had signed. Her choice to work with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR) and discuss her past was a personal one, and, while possibly catalyzed by the publication of Voices From the Grave, was also heavily tied into Price’s own post-traumatic stress disorder and other fragile health conditions that caused her (presumably) to start seeking some kind of personal closure on past events as well. Dolours Price, much like Brendan Hughes, also was not keen on the fact that Gerry Adams was seen as a squeaky clean politician, since he had been the man giving her direct orders as well, according to her statements. However, no matter what her impetus, her own words, as given to the Belfast Project, were under protection.
The Belfast Project Under Attack
Between Price’s actions and Moloney’s book, this issue and archive was no longer going to be let to go about its business. Not only was Helen McKendry passionately determined to get to the bottom of her mother’s disappearance, but other political bodies has started to have an acute interest in seeing what was in these tapes. The British government got in touch with the US District Court of Massachusetts and subpoenaed all materials having to do with Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, to which the Boston College Archive said, “absolutely not” and quashed the subpoena. In the motion to quash the subpoena, many significant points are discussed, primarily in regards to confidentiality and trust. The subject of protecting the participants in the Project is raised, due to issues in and around the IRA code of silence, in addition to the belief that disturbing the archive and its contents may in fact disturb the very structure of the too-vulnerable peace accords. Boston College noted that the government of the United Kingdom has indicated by its actions a policy not to pursue events that occurred before the GFA peace accords, in order to put the past behind and achieve and maintain reconciliation in Northern Ireland…This effective amnesty, though controversial, was widely understood to mean that the British government was going to close this chapter of history, and not seek to pursue criminal investigations into events that occurred during the course of the Troubles…the belief that prosecutorial action had ended was a significant factor in the willingness of those interviewed as part of the Belfast Project to talk candidly about the conflict. (Swope 2011)
Although this stopped the subpoena temporarily, the ball had started rolling and it was just gaining momentum: in August, 2011 another subpoena was filed that requested any and all of the tapes that held information pertaining to the McConville murder.
It was after the second subpoena that Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre got personally involved alongside the Trustees of Boston College, who had been handling the legal affairs up until this point. They wished to be able to participate as plaintiffs and have a voice in the goings-on, so that they might be able to speak on behalf of their own work and argue on behalf of the archive and its much-needed confidentiality. Unfortunately, in December of 2011, a court ruled both against Moloney and McIntyre’s motion to intervene and the motions filed to quash the subpoenas. Then it got worse: the educational facility that had been providing the Belfast Project with safety and housing them in a secure space, Boston College, decided to acquiesce to any and all court requests. Not only that, but they did so (at least partially) out of negligence. While Professor Thomas Hachey, executive director of the university’s Center for Irish Programs had flatly stated in the beginning that Boston College “is firmly and unconditionally committed to respecting the letter and intent of what is a contractual agreement never to release any of the material to anyone unless given permission in writing (notarized) beforehand by the participant, or until the demise of a participant” (Bray 2011), Boston College readily handed over all 176 transcripts of the 24 IRA participants in the Belfast Project. While McIntyre and Moloney were appealing decisions, Boston College moved forward with the legal requests, allowing the once-confidential confessions to be accessed by local American legal bodies. The next stage of this process would very likely be the patriation of these records to those individuals within the British government who are looking to use these records and the information that is contained within them.
As documented by Chris Bray, Boston College not only had a responsibility to the sanctity of the archive and its promises to the oral history participants, but it left the lead researcher and director of the Belfast Project in a terrible position as well, seeing as it did not support them or assist them in fighting this larger battle. Bray summarizes the situation,
“BC got a set of subpoenas, for material in its possession, on August 4. Ordered on December 16 to turn over the materials relevant to the subpoena, BC tried on December 20 to make a first effort to find out what materials in its collection were germane to the August 4 subpoena, with a hearing scheduled on the matter before a federal judge the very next day. August 4 to December 20: 139 days, including December 20…Not having figured out what material in its possession was germane to the second set of subpoenas, BC lost the ability to hand over only those portions of the IRA interviews.” (Bray 2011)
Moloney and McIntyre were able to win a motion for a stay pending the appeal to the first circuit and they also were able to gain the support of high profile individuals like John Kerry and the ACLU, but things are not looking bright. While Boston College did file an appeal on the more general request of the second subpoena, the First Circuit upheld the original judgment from the lower court, but Moloney and McIntyre immediately looked into trying to appeal this. McIntyre also filed for a judicial review in Belfast but was denied on that. But the case is not going to stay there. Both Belfast Project men have decided to take it all the way to the Supreme Court, and they have, seemingly, made some progress there.
According to the Boston Globe, “Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer ruled…that the order from the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston should be stayed, the researchers said, while the researchers prepare a writ of certiorari, seeking a Supreme Court hearing of their case.” (Finucane 2012) That was just about 2 months ago. The most recent news on the case documents a petition for a writ of certiorari that was submitted to the Supreme Court as of November 16th, 2012. At the stage that the case is at now, Boston College has let a ground-breaking oral history project down and left its donor-participants adrift at sea, but the academic historians and archivists that created the project are going to try their best to make sure that the documents do not have their confidentiality broken any more than they already have been.
Transitioning these files to the UK would likely be the worst thing for the project, endangering not only the personal well-being of many of the people in the Project and the peace status of Northern Ireland, but it would severely compromise the area of oral history in general. If the Belfast Project is not able to protect their participants to whom they promised absolute confidentiality until death or personal release of the tapes, what does this mean for any other project that deals almost entirely with controversial people and subject matter? Not every oral history is rainbows and family trees. Many times it deals in the ugliness of human existence. But if we cannot record this with confidence and assure our subjects that their vital participation will be handled and archived according to the contract that they have signed, then we become useless. Our words are empty and our promises are futile.
Yes, But What Does This All Mean?
The Boston College Archive situation is not an easy one. No one wants Helen McKendry to go the rest of her life not knowing what happened to her mother; it is unfair and painful. But there is a larger picture and the Belfast Project and the decisions that are made within it set precedents- for oral history projects, for university-run and protected archives, and, most importantly, for the status and validity of confidentiality agreements within any kind of oral history or archival collection.
Anthony McIntyre is very firm on this issue. While some may feel that it is his past as an IRA member and his concern for his own personal well-being that has gotten entangled in the process of the Boston College Archive situation, he has said on repeated occasions that not only would he go to jail to protect the confidentiality of the participants, but that it’s not solely about the participants, but about larger questions and if we wish to see these matters attended to with any seriousness, we must treat them with dignity and not do as the university did, which was simply kowtow to legal requests because it’s easier and looks nicer on the front. Sometimes it’s more difficult to stand up for difficult issues and people, but if the people who have made commitments to protect them will not do so, whether or not they agree with their actions, then history itself will become one-sided and we will lose the ability to garner the kinds of oral histories that Moloney and McIntyre were collecting. Trust, once lost, can rarely be regained.
John Lowman and Ted Palys discuss the Boston College Archive case in terms of legal ethics and how the University failed the Belfast Project. As they put it, not only did Boston College exemplify the Law of the Land approach (academic institutions and researchers obeying all legal orders including court orders to break research confidentiality), they have also “provided an example that will be cited for years to come on how not to protect research participants to the extent American law allows. Instead, it has allowed its Law of the Land doctrine to devolve into a form of caveat emptor…As is so often the case with advocates of Law of the Land limitations to research confidentiality, Boston College’s perspective reflects the attitude that law is merely constraining, something to be reacted to rather than something that is enabling, dynamic, and that academics can influence.” (Palys 2012) If this is the case, how are we, as archivists, historians or cultural workers of any kind supposed to trust the institutions that wish to house the elements that they so dearly wish to have? If they cannot provide us with the guarantee that what we will be providing them with protection, then why should we be giving them anything? Boston College was certainly happy to have the Belfast Project associated with their academic institution when they knew that Moloney was going to be publishing Voices From the Grave. Professor Thomas Hachey, of Boston College, the same man who swore up and down that nothing would leave the archive or be given over to legal bodies due to the donor agreements that had been made, wrote the preface to Voices, and oversaw the editing of the volume as well. There is an inconsistency when it comes to academic institutions and what they are willing to do with and for controversial archives and projects such as the Belfast Project.
Image from a very recent September, 2012 uprising in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Clearly, things are not settled in that area of the world. Is killing this archive REALLY a good idea?
Spokesperson for Boston College, Jack Dunn, has blamed Ed Moloney himself for the entire case, saying that Moloney is at fault because he broke his obligation when he published Voices From the Grave (entirely inaccurate, seeing as the layout of the agreements allowed the histories to be released upon the expiration of said donors). But the men of the Belfast Project are simply concerned with the future of the project as it stands and what it says for the future of oral histories and Northern Ireland itself. Since the main party who has been pushing for the opening of these histories has been the McConville family, Moloney and McIntyre have been sensitive to their case but point out that if they win the day, Northern Ireland and the rest of the families like the McConvilles, on both sides of the sectarian violence fence- IRA or UVF- are the real losers.
As McIntyre says, “If the McConville family were to succeed in this, I think of the vast number of people who will never have truth about what happened to their loved ones. Because the only reason that this has come to the fore about Mrs. McConville is because people were prepared to talk in conditions which would not lead to prosecutions.” (McIntyre, CNN’s World’s Untold Stories: Secrets of the Belfast Project 2012) It is a case of the good of the one versus the good of the many. As Ed Moloney has pointed out in interviews, the Belfast Project is not the only location in which the information regarding the McConville case is located. Dolours Price gave full interviews and information to several publications that seemed to mirror the information that was given to the Boston College Archive. Additionally, the HET (Historical Enquiry Team), established in Northern Ireland in 2005 specifically to look into all of the murders committed during the Troubles, is there for that purpose.
Image from recent September, 2012 uprising in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Clearly, things are not settled in that area of the world. Is killing this archive REALLY a good idea?
So why pick on a collection of oral histories that were collected in good faith and not to be utilized for legal means? It stood out in the public eye, but there were other accessible sources that were never pursued- the newspaper interviews, while also under a certain amount of journalism protection, would be more available for the McConvilles to pursue their case and inquiry. There had to be something else. While the McConville family may be the seeming figurehead for tape retrieval, there is a significant possibility that there are political motivations for the British government to want these archival elements. Due to the aforementioned information regarding Gerry Adams already disclosed on the tapes there is the distinct possibility that other tapes contain more information and in larger and more extensive quantities. It seems there very well might be a political drive to this whole case, especially considering that the only individuals whose tapes were requested were those who were former IRA-members. None of the UVF participants’ oral histories were asked for.
At the end of the day, Anthony McIntyre’s stance on the kind of research that the Belfast Project entailed is very clear: if you do not feel that you are capable of entering into the kind of undertaking that involves an “Ethics First” approach (one that may require you to put your own self into the equation in order to protect the work you have done and the individuals you have been working with, i.e. imprisonment or something similar), perhaps you should not engage in that kind of research. However, that does not mean that this kind of research should not be done. In fact, he says, it is essential and when it becomes shut down as in the case of the Boston College Archives it has a big effect on other similar projects, causing others to disengage from possibly controversial or provocative subjects/subject matter due to the chance that they may have to undergo similar legal confrontation and/or not be able to finish their work. To quote McIntyre,
In my own view, no area should be out of bounds to a researcher. In a pluralist society information should be pursued by journalists, researchers and law enforcement alike. But there is no compelling reason for law enforcement to invade bona fide research and attempt to turn it into evidence for the purposes of prosecution…If researchers yield in this crucially important arena it can only lead to a situation whereby certain areas of knowledge will be foreclosed to the researcher and in the fields of criminology, conflict studies, history and political science, there will be tendency towards a law enforcement view of some matters. We know from experience just how skewed that would be. We can also envisage how it would be used to protect law enforcement from some forms of external scrutiny and investigation. (McIntyre, The Belfast Project and the Boston College Subpoena Case 2012)
Oral histories and historians do their best to be as sensitive to everyone’s needs as possible. But it boils down to one thing: when we catalog the stories of history from those who have lived it, we do not have the right to make judgments nor do we have the option to put our personal feelings or emotions in the work we do. What we do when we collect elements is serve as preservationists and organizers so that future researchers may access the “goods” and realized their value. Alongside this, we have a responsibility to the items that we have chosen to work with. They can be filmic elements, audio files, or people’s confidential histories. Whatever the items, the donor agreements and the contracts that have been made should be honored, especially if there are serious legal or cultural repercussions to breaking said agreements. Endangering heritage materials of any kind puts our future at risk and our ability to form new alliances with each other and learn from our past. The Belfast Project was initiated so that we could take the words of the people who were in the IRA and UVF and “pay it forward” in a sense, and use bad for good. If these works are still being used for personal or political gain, we are dogs chasing our own tails and we will never learn from history.
If we start to realize that the larger picture has a greater meaning and pain, as largely felt as it is, may never be resolved simply by knowing who is responsible for a single death, then we may have a way to advance, and the McConville family might see that each story is intertwined to one another and by breaking the seal on one, it breaks the seal on all of them, killing the Project in its totality.
Ardoyne Commemoration Project. “Introduction.” In ARDOYNE: THE UNTOLD TRUTH, by Ardoyne Commemoration Project, 543. Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications, 2002.
Barnes, Ciaran. “Gerry Adams and the Disappeared.” Sunday Life, February 21, 2010.
Bray, Chris. “Boston College Subpoena News.” http://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/. December 28, 2011. http://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/boston-college-time-for-resignations/ (accessed November 30, 2012).
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