For dozens of IRA and loyalist activists death was to be the final guarantee that their firsthand stories of killings, murder plots and political intrigue would never lead them through prison gates again.
Men and women who killed, or who were prepared to be killed, for the republican and loyalist cause in the Troubles handed over their testimonies to an American college on the understanding that the material would be published only after their deaths.
But historians who studied the Irish conflict and the journalists who reported on it say the US appeal court’s decision that the Boston College archive can be handed over to British police will make it impossible to establish a “truth and reconciliation” process in Northern Ireland.
The battle in the US courts has triggered a moral tension between the demands of victims’ families, who want the archives open to enable prosecutions for past Troubles’ crimes, and those in academia and the media who say the only way to get the combatants in the conflict to speak truthfully is to guarantee they cannot be prosecuted while alive.
The St Andrews-based historian Richard English, author of Armed Struggle, which covers the history of the IRA, said: “People who have been involved in violent conflicts will now be more reluctant to speak with historians about their activities and their politics. In terms of research on the Northern Ireland conflict, this could have a disastrous effect.
“Oral history has played a crucial part in unveiling what happened in the past and this kind of research will now be much harder to carry out. The key thing when interviewing ex-combatants or ex-paramilitaries is that they trust the interviewer and trust the process of research, and so tell you what they actually think and what they actually did. After this episode, that trust will be a rarer commodity.”
English added that the ability of the PSNI to seize the archive using the US courts might also prevent the creation of a truth and reconciliation process, employing historians to create a full picture of what went on during the Troubles.
“One option about dealing with the past in Northern Ireland has been the idea of teams of historians putting together the complex reality of what happened in fatal incidents, and using this process rather than public inquiries. Such an idea looks much more difficult after the Boston College development,” he said.
Boston College’s Belfast project took place over more than five years from 2001 and involved academics, historians and journalists conducting interviews with former republicans and loyalists. Interviewees were promised that their accounts would remain confidential until after their deaths.
One of the researchers, the former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre, has argued in the US courts that the breach of that promise has put him and his fellow researchers’ lives at risk. Loyalist prisoners groups back in Belfast have even called on Boston College to destroy the material rather than risk it being used in evidence against former paramilitaries.
“I have to be concerned,” McIntyre told the Guardian, “Anything that is going to be procured for purpose of state evidence gathering changes the game significantly.”
McIntyre and the project director, award-winning journalist Ed Moloney have refused to disclose any of the detail contained in the confidential archive, including anything Dolours Price said to the researchers. If Boston College hands over the material on Price it could put McIntyre’s life at risk, they say.
McIntyre, whose American wife, Carrie Twomey, has been in the US this year lobbying against the “extradition” of the Price archive, said: “It is the problem of law-enforcement agencies being used to address the past when much of the problems of the past were caused by law enforcement agencies.
“There was no law enforcement solution to the conflict. Now we have law enforcement trying to hide behind the law and victims so that it may selectively and tendentiously mine the past. By using academic research to do it, they are forcing academic study off the field of play leaving our understanding of the past in the hands of law enforcement. That’s hardly a satisfactory outcome.”
The Guardian has also learned that the Boston College-Belfast Project furore has torpedoed a proposed parallel project that would have allowed police special branch officers from both sides of the Irish border, and in Britain alongside MI5 and army intelligence officers, to testify about their roles in Ulster’s “secret war”. It is understood a major university in London was seeking funds for the project, which researchers had hoped would, among other things, eventually reveal the true depth and scale of security force infiltration of paramilitary groups during the conflict.
Colin Breen, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) detective who was the target of at least one IRA murder attempt during the Troubles, said this potential parallel security force historic archive is in effect “dead in the water, at least for the foreseeable future”.
Breen, the Ulster Unionist party’s spokesman on Troubles’ legacy issues, said the end of a guarantee that material will not be released until an interviewee’s death would deter retired police officers from the old RUC or the Garda Síochána from talking to researchers.
“I cannot see former colleagues of mine in the RUC or the Garda who were by nature cynical and suspicious coming forward now to talk openly about what they did to counter the terrorist threat after this Boston College debacle,” he said. “They realise that the guarantee of confidentiality unto death is no longer legally safe. They (as ex RUC officers) could face potential prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if the PSNI win in America.
“Knowing these people as I do, they are not going to give full and frank accounts on the record about the war against terrorism. As for the terrorists themselves, I wouldn’t blame them if they wanted the Boston material destroyed. Giving any more interviews to that project would be the equivalent now of someone walking into a police station in Northern Ireland and saying to the police: ‘Here’s all the things I did during the Troubles.’ On the side of the security forces who fought the way there is no doubt about it — people would run for the hills if researchers went calling on them.”