Peace Process Could Unravel Over Tapes Fight

Ed Moloney with a piece that first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 4th August 2012 with his thoughts on the corrosive impactt on peace posed by the British State attempts to seize the Boston College oral history archive.

For reasons that are easy to understand, a lot of people have problems when the word ‘war’ is used to describe the 40-year conflict that was the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And that is in spite of the fact that, for a lot of people, especially victims and those who took part, it often felt and looked like a war.

There was, however, one major difference between what we all went through and a conventional war and that is the way it ended.

Traditional wars usually conclude with one side winning and the other surrendering. Victorious troops parade through their enemy’s cities, the population at home celebrates and the enemy leadership pays the penalty for losing, sometimes the ultimate one, while many of their supporters end up in jail.

The ‘war’ in Northern Ireland didn’t end that way at all. In fact, the best word to describe what happened is probably ‘a draw’. The IRA didn’t achieve its goal of a united Ireland, but did get into government, while the British and unionists failed to inflict a military defeat on the IRA in the conventional sense; for example, combatants were let out of jail, not imprisoned, while the IRA’s leaders were invested with a new respectability and political power.

People may quibble about what ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ in such circumstances really mean, but it is undeniable that our ‘war’ did not end in the way such things normally do.

That puts a focus on another important difference with conventional wars; the arrangement which ended our conflict was agreed to in negotiations between the major forces involved in the conflict.

It is no exaggeration to say that, without it, our ‘war’ may never have ended, but that agreement carried the obligation that the deal would and should be honoured.

There was no doubt, however, that our ‘war’ did end and the evidence was unmistakable, because what had happened during the ‘war’ stopped.

The IRA fought its ‘war’ against the British government by killing, or trying to kill, soldiers and policemen and by planting bombs The British responded by killing IRA people when it could, but mostly by putting IRA members into jail, using the police, Army and intelligence agencies along with the courts to do so.

That may be a simplistic and incomplete description of what happened, but essentially that was how our ‘war’ was fought – the IRA mostly killed people while the British mainly imprisoned people – and we all knew that the conflict had ended when such activities on both sides ceased.

Not an easy course for either side, but the necessary price of peace. In spite of reservations about true IRA intentions, for example over the extent of arms decommissioning, or the continued existence of an army council, there is little doubt that it has kept to its side of the ‘peace’ by ending its warlike activities.

But can the same now be said of the British side of this equation? Recently, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), in conjunction with the PSNI’s criminal investigations branch, has delved into the past to frame criminal charges against people who were active as combatants when the ‘war’ that has now ended was still raging.

The subpoenas served against the Belfast Project archive at Boston College, which I was involved in establishing, is a potential example of that type of activity, but it is not, by any means, the only one.

How and why the political blessing was given for this to happen is a question that so far seems not to have been even asked much less answered, but prima facie it looks very much as if someone on the British side, at some level, has decided to resume the ‘war’ that was supposed to have ended, by agreement, in a draw, by trying to put people who fought against them in that ‘war’ into prison.

It might be a different matter if this course was being pursued with vigorous impartiality, but it is not. There is no possibility, for example, of MI5 and Force Research Unit (FRU) agents, or members of the old RUC Special Branch, facing charges for the murder of Pat Finucane – to highlight just one case – while the research of academics like Dr Patricia Lundy of the University of Ulster has underlined the many imperfections that flow from the police investigating a past which the police themselves helped to create. Absent the necessary even-handedness, the HET/PSNI approach will inevitably have bad consequences.

You cannot unilaterally renew a war that ended in a draw, by agreement and with considerable compromise, without there being negative repercussions. A move like this amounts to a de facto abrogation of the peace deal by one side.

It would be foolish to attempt to predict when, or what form, such a backlash might take, but our knowledge of Irish history tells us that there will be harmful ramifications at some point.

The HET/PSNI strategy towards the past is a thoughtless and self-defeating one, but it raises the urgent need for an alternative, agreed way of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles; the need to honestly chronicle what happened in a way that brings solace to victims, while not imperiling the peace that came with the end of the ‘war’.

Unlike our conflict, the American Civil War was a conventional war, but it shared one important feature: two sections of a divided society fought a bitter, bloody struggle.

When that war ended in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederate army at Appomattox, the victorious Union forces debated whether to put their enemy’s leaders, General Robert E Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, on trial for treason.

The final decision was against and the two men were released to live out the rest of their lives in safety. It was an enlightened decision that helped to heal the wounds of war.

Wisdom like that would not go amiss right now in Northern Ireland.


  1. A much more pleasant take / angle on the ending of the struggle Mackers than the usual…your civilised approach is quietly alarming..are you giving the Beared One a towel to throw in the ring while at the same time attempting to save the Project?

  2. Niall,

    perhaps had you read it you would see that I didn't write it.

  3. Humblest apologies - I meant Ed and should have known better by the tone of the article...too mild to be from your acidic tongue but nevertheless, it reads as if Ed is alluding to a potential get out of jail free card for Adams and his politically embarrassing involvement in the disappeared whilst at the same time hoping it will save the Project.....

  4. South Africa has just witnessed a another Sharpville only this time the culprits had black faces. Total power totally corrupts. The black masses continue to pay the price for protecting white privilige and money. A crying shame.