How a noble exercise became a political act

Sat, Mar 31, 2012, 01:00

A federal appeals judge will decide next week whether to overrule a court decision to approve the release of IRA statements made to a Jesuit university in the city

IT HAS BEEN A YEAR since the subpoena from the US attorney’s office arrived on the august campus of Boston College, an annus horribilis for the Jesuit university founded by Irish immigrants a century and a half ago.

Boston College has spent considerable time and resources building a reputation for being not just an academic observer but also an active facilitator of the Northern Ireland peace process. It has hosted, at its own expense, scores of politicians, civil servants, journalists and others from Northern Ireland and the Republic over the years. Its Dublin office, overlooking St Stephen’s Green, frequently welcomed visitors from the North. And among US universities its Irish studies programme was considered the most plugged-in and influential.

It was in that spirit, and with the belief that the Belfast Agreement of 1998 had ushered in a new era of reconciliation and reflection, that Boston College embarked on an ambitious effort to collect the oral histories of paramilitaries on both sides of the divide. Those former paramilitaries recorded their stories with the understanding that they wouldn’t be made public until after they died.

But that subpoena, delivered by US prosecutors acting on behalf of British authorities, has put everything at risk, including Boston College’s well-earned reputation for being a force for good in the peace process. What began as an academic exercise with noble intentions has degenerated into the sort of fingerpointing and recrimination that dogged the North for so long.

US prosecutors want any and all information contained in the oral histories about the 1972 disappearance and murder of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow whose 10 children were scattered after the IRA accused her of informing. At least two of the 26 former IRA members interviewed for the project accused the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams of giving the order to kill McConville, a charge Adams categorically denies. A judge has ruled that seven other interviews contain information germane to a PSNI investigation into McConville’s murder and should be turned over.

On Wednesday, a federal appeals court in Boston will hear arguments from the researchers Boston College hired to gather the oral histories.

It is, according to lawyers, the last, best chance to preserve the confidentiality that the former paramilitaries who told their stories believed they had. But it is a legal effort separate and apart from Boston College.

When the US government first demanded access to just two of the oral histories, the university and its researchers, the journalist and author Ed Moloney and the former IRA prisoner turned academic and writer Anthony McIntyre, were unified in their opposition to what they called a cynical government fishing expedition. The idea that an American university was being used as an intelligence or evidence gathering arm of a foreign government was widely considered outrageous.

But there were cracks in that unified front from the beginning. Boston College officials were keen to address the matter quietly, and were miffed when Moloney, the longtime Belfast-based journalist now living in New York, helped the New York Times break the news about the subpoena.

There was an even more fundamental disagreement. Moloney and McIntyre saw the demand for the records as a crass political act, one meant to embarrass if not prosecute Adams after his election to the Dáil. They believed the legal fight against it should be just as political, especially given the role the US played in brokering the Belfast Agreement. Boston College’s lawyers took a different tack, and when they agreed to let a federal judge review some of the records in private, the break between the two sides was irreparable. Moloney and McIntyre accused Boston College of folding without a fight, of abandoning them and those they interviewed without using its considerable resources to stand up to the US justice department and, by extension, the British government.

College officials say they had no choice, given that the initial demand was for the accounts of Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price. Hughes had died in 2008, and so with him did the pledge of confidentiality.

Price, meanwhile, had given an interview to the Irish News in Belfast, saying she had made her allegations against Adams known to Boston College, in effect outing herself.

Even before the college agreed to let US district judge William Young examine the archive in private to determine what should be turned over to authorities, Moloney and McIntyre had concluded the college’s interests were not theirs and mounted their own defence, stressing the danger they said McIntyre and his family, those interviewed and the peace process itself would face if the oral histories were made public.

Slowly but surely, Moloney and McIntyre have attracted a stable of prominent supporters. Earlier this year, McIntyre’s wife, Carrie, an American citizen, spent time in Washington DC, New York and Boston, pleading with politicians and Irish-American groups for backing. The lobbying paid off, nowhere more prominently than with Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee. Kerry has asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to block the subpoena on the grounds that turning over the records to UK authorities undermines US foreign policy.

Last week, the New York senator Charles Schumer joined the chorus, saying the records grab contravenes “the spirit of the Good Friday Accords . . . Many have taken enormous risks in the name of moving Northern Ireland away from war and towards peace, and requests like this can have the effect of undermining that effort,” Schumer said in a letter to Clinton and the US attorney general, Eric Holder.

Kerry and Schumer say the treaty between the US and UK that authorities have cited in demanding information relevant to a criminal investigation “is not intended to reopen issues addressed in the Belfast Agreement, or to impede any further efforts to resolve conflicts in Northern Ireland”.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has also filed a brief in support of Moloney and McIntyre. Harvey Silverglate, a well-known civil-liberties lawyer who first raised the prospect of the civil liberties union getting involved, is critical of the college. “Boston College’s haphazard and half-hearted defence of the fundamental importance of academic freedom has embarrassed the institution, threatens to harm academics everywhere and, not so incidentally, endangers the lives of people brave enough to reveal, for posterity, important historical truths.”

Silverglate suggests the problem in crafting a unified front is philosophical. He says no one at the college was willing to risk legal sanction, including jail, to defy government intrusion.

Journalists, he said, consider doing such things a badge of honour.

Moloney, in fact, stared down police in Northern Ireland when threatened with jail if he didn’t turn over his notes about a murder more than a decade ago. He refused, and the police eventually backed down.

Jack Dunn, a Boston College spokesman, declined to respond to Silverglate’s charges. He said the college had handed over the material of Hughes and Price because it had no legal recourse but that it was still fighting an order to turn over seven other IRA interviews.

It is unclear whether all this new-found support for Moloney and McIntyre will convince the appeals court to overrule the decision by a district judge to approve the release of the records to the British government.

But it’s their only shot.