Snap Producer Nancy Lopez (NL) reports on the Belfast Project, the oral history archive on the conflict in Northern Ireland compiled by Boston College. In her report Lopez focuses on the Lead Researcher for the Irish Republican portion of the archive, Anthony McIntyre (AM), and a contributor to the archive, 'Interviewee C', who was former IRA Brigade Commander Brendan Hughes (BH). Thanks to TPQ transcriber.
The Belfast Project
Host: Now then we're going to kick off today's episode in Belfast with a story about holding on. Snap producer Nancy Lopez has the story on Snap Judgment.
AM: I am Dr. Anthony McIntyre, senior leading researcher with the John J. Burns Library, Boston College. The following interview pertains to the Belfast Project and is conducted with 'Interviewee C'. The interview is Interview 01.
Do you have a problem with committing all this to secret tape for the purposes of Boston College to be used only after you die?
BH: I don't have a problem with that. If I did have a problem with that I wouldn't be sitting here talking into your microphone.
AM: Very good.
BH: I think a lot of the stuff that I'm saying here I'm saying it in trust. I mean I have never, ever, ever admitted to being in the IRA. Never. I've just done it here. And I think that's just an indication of how much trust I placed in you.
NL: This recording took place in 2001 in an apartment in West Belfast. It's morning. A Sony tape recorder is sitting on the edge of a table and the two men you hear are alone. The first voice belongs to Anthony McIntyre.
AM: Do you regret that you had joined - you don't seem to regret having fought. Is that a fair enough comment to make?
BH: It's a fair enough comment.
NL: Anthony used to be a gunman for the Irish Republican Army. He gathered intelligence, he took over buildings, he kidnapped and he even killed. He ended up in prison for almost eighteen years. But now here he was almost a decade later an academic interviewing a former comrade. A man willing to tell Anthony all of his secrets about his time as a Brigade Commander for the IRA.
BH: There's no one else in this whole world I would talk the way I'm talking here now.
AM: Well, my willingness to carry out the work is also an indication of the trust that I have in the people at Boston College. They will not let me down and I will not let you down – I think that goes without saying.
NL: Anthony was documenting the testimonies of former IRA members for Boston College to be part of an oral history archive. After this initial sit-down with 'Interviewee C' Anthony placed the tape recorder in his bag and headed straight home.
AM: I would cling to this bag. I was always worried about even a dog attacking me or jumping and stealing my bag – you know - all the mad things that come into your head about the need to protect your stuff.
NL: Once home, Anthony transcribed the interview, sent the transcript through encrypted email to the Belfast Project making sure to omit the participant's name and then mailed off the tape to Boston College.
AM: I made sure that I had nothing in my home or anything on me that could ever fall into the wrong hands.
NL: The Belfast Project was being carried out under total secrecy. These testimonies and the participants' identities were to remain confidential until after they died. Anthony had told Boston College that's the only way he'd go through with it. Although the IRA had officially dropped its weapons and a peace process was well underway in Northern Ireland the reality on the ground was different.
AM: Any scrutiny or investigation of the Provisional IRA's activities in any way was fraught with danger.
NL: After Anthony wrote an article criticising the IRA for gunning down a man in broad daylight two men from the IRA showed up at his front door.
AM: The IRA's Adjutant General visited my home and sought to intimidate both myself and my wife who was heavily pregnant. He placed his head against mine and we had a head-to-head confrontation in the middle of the kitchen and he said: 'So you're going to investigate the IRA' because I had commented on an IRA killing.
NL: To be clear, the IRA had no idea about the Belfast Project and Anthony wanted to keep it that way. He interviewed people in private, in their homes in one hour sessions over the course of several weeks and months.
AM: It could be hard to get people to open up and then I discovered in some cases that it could become harder to get them to close down. I sat with grown men who had been through the rigours of the H Blocks protest, who had watched their colleagues die, who had been on hunger strikes themselves - I sat with them and they cried.
NL: Towards the end of each interview...
AM: ...I always asked people to reflect on the morality of killing and what purpose would killing serve?
NL: Over and over again the people he interviewed alluded to one name: Jean McConville.
AM: Jean McConville was one of the most notorious war crimes that happened and that the IRA were responsible for.
NL: Back in the 1970's Jean McConville was an Irish mother of ten. She'd been killed and her body 'disappeared' by the IRA but no one had been named.
AM: It was such a terrible killing that people had to be very, very cautious when they were discussing it.
NL: Then one day Anthony was interviewing an old friend, a former IRA Volunteer named Dolours Price. She was now the Godmother to Anthony's son.
AM: Dolours Price told me that she wanted to talk about the Jean McConville killing and I had said to her as a researcher, I would love, I would love to get this story but I have to warn you as a friend – are you sure you want to go through with this? You'll pass off into eternity and your children may have to bear the mark of Cain for the story that you're about to reveal. And she went away and she came back to me and then she decided she would not discuss Jean McConville.
NL: But Jean McConville's name kept re-surfacing. Like when Anthony went back to talk to 'Interviewee C', the former IRA Brigade Commander.
BH: There's a woman that went missing. This woman was taken away and executed by the IRA.
AM: Jean McConville.
BH: Jean McConville. She was an informer. She had a transmitter in her house. The British supplied the transmitter into her flat.
NL: The British were surveilling the movements of the IRA all along the Falls Road in West Belfast, an IRA stronghold.
BH: She was getting paid by the British to pass on information. We retrieved the transmitter, arrested her, took her away, interrogated her and she told what she was doing. We actually knew what she was doing because we had the transmitter. And because she was a woman we let her go – we let her go with a warning. A few weeks later another transmitter was put into her house and she was still cooperating with the British. A special squad was brought into the operation then and she was arrested again and taken away.
AM: Arrested by the IRA?
BH: By the IRA.
AM: A second time?
BH: Yeah. I knew she was being executed. I knew that. I didn't know she was going to be buried, or 'disappeared, as they call them now. What's the sense of killing her and burying her if no one knows what she was killed for? I mean that's pure revenge. If you kill someone and bury them – what's the point? What's the point of it? There's only one man that gave the order for that woman to be executed - that fucking man is now the head of Sinn Féin.
NL: Now there's no doubt who this man is signaling. The head of Sinn Féin, the IRA's political party, is a man by the name of Gerry Adams. A man who's denied ever even being a member of the Irish Republican Army.
NL: This set of interviews remained secret. That was part of the Belfast Project's
BH: And he went to this family's house and promised them an investigation into the woman's disappearance. That man is the man who gave the fucking order for that woman to be executed. Now tell me the morality in that.
AM: As I remember I had said to him: But you agreed with him. You said 'yes'.
BH: She deserved to be executed, I believe, because she was an informer and she put other people's lives at risk.
AM: Even with all her kids? And the way the family was left? In hindsight do you still
feel as strongly about executing her?
BH: Not really, no. Not now. Not now. No. Looking back on it now, what happened to her, to the woman, was wrong.
NL: This set of interviews remained secret. That was part of the Belfast Project's
commitment to confidentiality until the death of 'Interviewee C' or as we would come to learn, Brendan Hughes.
AM: Brendan Hughes was a senior member of the IRA. He was a very courageous figure. He had led the 1980 hunger strike. He had headed up the IRA Security Department for The North, the Northern Command and I had met him when I was sixteen in prison and I was a close friend of his – we developed a close friendship.
NL: And Brendan Hughes was one of the few people involved in the Belfast Project who'd been anxious to get his story out.
BH: The reason why I do these type of interviews that I'm doing now is that there is a personal record. I don't want to be held up and statues built or portraits done of me as the great revolutionary soldier from the Falls Road. I prefer to have some sort of legacy left behind where people can say: He made a difference for us.
AM: On that, can I thank you for your participation? It's been a most valuable insight. I have found it very interesting. Boston College will find it very enlightening. Thank you very much.
BH: I just hope that it's of some value to the future students who's going to be studying this and I think it's important to remember that there was no lies being told here. This is truth - hard as it may seem but it is true and important.
AM: So when Brendan died I felt that there was a commitment that we had to honour.
NL: In 2010, two years after his death, a book called Voices From the Grave was published. It featured large excerpts of Brendan's unapologetic testimony to the Belfast Project. It immediately made national headlines.
News Audio: Ten of the most damning accusations made by Brendan Hughes about Gerry Adams firstly would be the one regarding the 'disappearance' of Jean McConville.
News Audio: And of course for Sinn Féin this just isn't a story about their leader, as they see it, being humiliated. This matters also for them because all of this sits very uncomfortably with the party's increasing grand political ambitions.
News Audio: Jean McConville's son spent Thursday telling journalists that he was pleased history had not forgotten Gerry Adams.
AM: I arrived home from work one evening and my wife was very concerned and said to me: Ed Moloney needs to talk to you urgently.
NL: Ed Moloney is a reporter and he managed the Belfast Project.
AM: I phoned him up and he told me that a subpoena had been issued.
NL: He said that British authorities, through the US Department of Justice, were demanding that Boston College hand over the interviews of Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes. They wanted to use them to investigate the murder of Jean McConville.
AM: So I mean I was sort of perplexed – shocked and I said: How can a subpoena be issued? This is insane – this can't happen. How could it have been issued?
NL: Anthony was certain they had all the safeguards in place, that Boston College will protect the living people in the Belfast Project the way journalists protect their sources and not hand over the confidential tapes.
AM: I began to tell as many people as possible right away that they put in a request for Brendan's and they put in a request for Dolours' – it wasn't a nice exercise. I mean it was unpleasant to have to tell somebody this, you know. Some people just had the attitude: Ah! Let them go to hell - couldn't care about them. But other people had genuine fears and they...
NL: ...Of what?
AM: Would their case be handed over? Would they be hauled out of their family life? Would they be hauled off to prison? Would their whole world be turned upside down?
NL: Boston College went to court to fight the subpoena but as the battle went on Anthony got desperate and he made a proposition to Boston College: That they give him all the interview tapes.
AM: It wouldn't matter what sentences they threw, what jail threats – it wasn't going to matter. I was prepared to defy the court. I was prepared to go to prison. I was not compromising anything to do with the project. And Boston College told me to stop panicking.
NL: Boston College was slapped with a second subpoena. British authorities were now demanding all the tapes from the Belfast Project that mentioned Jean McConville. Ultimately, Boston College gave in and handed over the tapes of seven interviewees. The repercussions went straight to the top.
News Audio: There is also breaking news tonight from Northern Ireland: Politician Gerry Adams has been arrested in connection with a 1972 murder committed by the Irish Republican Army.
News Audio: The arrest of Gerry Adams seems to be based on a series of recorded interviews given by former IRA members to researchers from Boston College collecting an oral history of the Northern Irish conflict.
NL: Gerry Adams was not charged with the murder. After four days he was released. But the confidential trust of the Belfast Project was now broken.
AM: Up and down the Falls Road they were accusing us of being informers. They were calling us 'rats', 'Boston College touts'. I felt terrible in that I was unable to protect my sources and I felt guilty that I had exposed people to this risk in that people who had placed their faith in me were now being let down because we had got it wrong. We had got it wrong.
It was worse than being prison. It was worse than anything else that ever happened to me. I mean even in prison when we were naked and getting beaten and hosed down we could always do something. They could come round and beat us and they might beat us for months and then the IRA would shoot one of them and we would say: Well, you know what you got that for, don't you? Do you want to beat us again this week?
NL: And Anthony, he hasn't been immune to any of it. Not only was he an interviewer for the Belfast Project he was an interviewee. His testimony of his time as an IRA gunman is sitting in that archive. And British authorities have now requested that Boston College hand over the tapes of Anthony McIntyre. Just like he believed in the IRA struggle but ultimately had to walk away from the organisation. Anthony still believes in the Belfast Project.
AM: This is the sort of history that has to be gathered if people are to be better informed - if we're to have a better understanding of our past. It's a valuable mechanism in truth recovery. But, you may not no longer blame me for not wanting to be known as 'Dr.' Anthony McIntyre. I refuse. I relinquish it. I'm ashamed to be a doctor – it's a badge of shame. I see a doctorate as something that should be worn like a bell round your neck to warn the unsuspecting - Beware! Academic approaching.
Host : Big love to Anthony McIntyre for sharing his story. We also want to give thanks to Ed Moloney for sharing archival tape of the Brendan Hughes interviews from the documentary, Voices From the Grave. We'll have a link to that and much more on our website: snapjudgment.org (ends)