Begun in 2000, the Belfast Project was an oral history project that aimed to document combatants’ stories in the clashes between the Irish Republican Army and the Irish Loyalist Army in the 1970s through the 1990s. But the charged nature of what interviewees told the project has brought immense pressure on the project's organizers to release records of the interviews, which they'd promised to keep secret. Brooke talks with Anthony McIntyre who recorded many of the interviews for the project.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It seems that oral histories are generally ignored, unless they make history. The Belfast Project is an archive of taped recollections of members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Irish Loyalist Army, who warred against each other from the seventies into the nineties.
CORRESPONDENT: The bomb blew apart the Horse and Groom Pub in Guildford, killing five people and injuring fifty more. An hour later, another pub 200 yards up the road was also bombed. Then a month later, at Woolwich in South London, another soldier’s pub was bombed and two people were killed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were promised that their stories would stay secret until after their deaths. That promise was broken this month, aggravating a wound that has never healed, despite 15 years of peace. Some 3500 people were killed in Ireland's so-called “time of Troubles.”
[SOUND OF GUNFIRE]
The Belfast Project intended to preserve the IRA stories inside the Boston College Library, but when reports emerged about the substance of two of the interviews, the British government used the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the US and the UK to obtain them, and much more. In particular, the British authorities wanted access to interviews that touched on the unsolved murder of Jean McConville.
CORRESPONDENT: Jean McConville’s abduction, torture, murder and secret burial by the IRA nearly 40 years ago leaves many unanswered questions. The mother of ten’s body was dumped on a County Louth beach and, despite extensive searches, was only found in 2003 by a passing walker.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Beth McMurtrie, whose magisterial piece about the Belfast Project ran recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, called McConville's case, “a uniquely tragic atrocity.” The widowed mother of ten was dragged from her house in front of her ten kids in 1972 and murdered as a suspected informer.
Among the interviews archived in the Belfast Project were some that implicate Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein party, often called the IRAs political wing. Anthony McIntyre, whose credentials include a PhD in political science, began recording the oral histories in the spring of 2001, for nearly six years, collecting 26 interviews with IRA members, people who had every reason to trust him.
ANTHONY McINTYRE: I served a life sentence for IRA activity, including the killing of a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and I have an involvement with the hunger strikes back in 1981 and 1980 and on the “blanket protest” along with Bobby Sands. And I had first went to prison when I was 16; I was released when I was 18. I returned to prison when I was 18 and was released when I was 35. And I was known to these people to be trustworthy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What promises did you make to them?
ANTHONY McINTYRE: That these interviews would not be released until their death or with their consent prior to that, and that neither the Provisional IRA nor the British state would be allowed to access those interviews.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of your interviewees, Brendan Hughes, died and a book came out by your collaborator on the project, journalist Ed Moloney. In the book, Brendon Hughes figured prominently. He told you that Gerry Adams was involved in the murder of Jean McConville, something that Adams has denied. Here’s a little bit of Brendan Hughes’ tape.
BRENDAN HUGHES: And I never carried out a major operation without the okay or the order from Gerry. And for him to sit in this plush office in Westminster Stormont or whatever and, and deny it, I mean, it’s like Hitler denyin’ that there was ever a Holocaust.
ANTHONY McINTYRE: Well, during the course of the interview, Brendan revealed a lot of his life in the IRA. Gerry Adams was his operational commander in Belfast and that Gerry Adams had ordered the killing of Jean McConville, had ordered the London bombings and had ordered a, a lot of IRA activity. Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams were, were very close comrades in the IRA back in the day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Boston College, having been confronted with this order to turn over the entire archive, calls it a victory that it doesn’t have to turn the whole thing over, only 11 documents.
ANTHONY McINTYRE: What Boston College secured was a minimizing of the defeat. That is what we secured. The state seemed to have a view that we were dealing with pushover professors and we would get anything we wanted from them, and they weren’t far wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pushover professors?
ANTHONY McINTYRE: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they weren’t very far wrong, you were saying?
ANTHONY McINTYRE: No, they weren’t very far wrong. There should never have been a discussion about whether we do this or we don’t. They should have been straight out of the traps and said, we will fight this head on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ANTHONY McINTYRE: Rather, Boston College was transmitting messages to the Justice Department and law enforcement that we are willing to fold, if you give us the right opportunity. But, unfortunately, for Boston College, myself, my wife and Ed Moloney to say to the stand and fight, and because we fought Boston College then, we’re embarrassed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, let’s, let’s consider the arguments on both sides of this issue. The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said, in a special on CNN, that no one is above the law.
PATRICK MAYHEW: We’ve been quite clear as a government there can be no concept of an amnesty, so we have to support the police in bringing those who committed crimes to justice.
ANTHONY McINTYRE: That’s fine. What he actually means that nobody would say law enforcement is above the law, because the British authorities have withheld vital information from the, the relatives of the murdered human rights lawyer, Pat Finucane, murdered by agents of the British state. The British state have withheld vital documents from the, the victims and families of the people killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in May, 1974 –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I hear what you’re saying, that they’re, they’re having a double standard.
ANTHONY McINTYRE: Well, absolutely. But, I mean, people in Boston and in America should know British double standards from the War of Independence.
So I don’t think you should be too surprised about British double standards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, then the argument for the lawyer for the McConville family says that the wounds of the Troubles can never heal, while injustice, like the murder of Mrs. McConville, is allowed to fester.
ANTHONY McINTYRE: I have a great deal of sympathy for the, the lawyer’s sentiment and I have enormous sympathy for the family of Jean McConville and the family of any person killed. But it is not the task of a researcher to become a gatherer of evidence for law enforcement, even for clergymen. Now, one can argue that researchers produce knowledge and clergymen produce nonsense.
Yet, clergymen are allowed to maintain confidentiality, and researchers aren’t? It seems to me to be a bizarre situation. There are certain obstacles that have to stand in the way of the state for the betterment of society. And I think that academics and journalists need to be protected from this sort of encroachment and incursion. If the only view of society that we have, the only view of the past is that of law enforcement, we will learn very little from it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how can it really affect policy and improve somebody's life, if you don't get to look into it until 30 years hence and the people who committed the wrongdoing, on both sides of the struggle, are never brought to account?
ANTHONY McINTYRE: Well, I mean, we have a situation in the north where the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that the criminal justice system had to be turned on its head in order to bring about the Good Friday Agreement. Basically, politics in the north of Ireland did trump justice, and it’s also trumped truth. Truth in the north of Ireland is used for recrimination, not for reconciliation. They want to use it to yesterday’s issues to fake the political battles of today.
This information wasn't gathered by ourselves as researchers to hand over to relatives, because people are simply going to clam up. All the knowledge that could have been brought to the families, at some point, under a variety of processes, about truth recovering the past has now been sabotaged by this issue. I mean, it is very sad that the McConvilles cannot get the truth. I think that the McConville family are behaving nobly and honorably. It’s just that I represent a different constituency of knowledge, and ne’er the twain shall meet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ed Moloney, your colleague in the Belfast Project, has said that the release of the tapes could endanger your life. Do you really think that's a realistic concern?
ANTHONY McINTYRE: I am going to see people coming for me, even when they’re not coming for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [LAUGHS]
ANTHONY McINTYRE: Because I am in the eye of the storm and I’m sensitive, former colleagues can be very vitriolic and bitter, some of them with great audacity and chutzpah!
Many of us have, for a long time, suspected there’ve been informers, and I am calling the participants of the Boston College Project informers. That’s a load of old hooey. But we must be very cautious. But if you’re asking me, do I live under the bed, fearful that I’m going to be attacked eminently, no, I don’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anthony McIntyre is an independent scholar.