Against the Dying of the Light

The inferences to be drawn from Beth McMurtrie's lengthy article Secrets From Belfast in the Chronicle for Higher Education show little sign of fading into the distance where they can be conveniently forgotten about by those least enamoured to being reminded. Her substantial investigation has stirred a hornet’s nest which on top of leaving Boston College fuming like a bear with a sore head has helped illuminate a gulf between aspects of investigative journalism in the US and its non-investigative opposite in Ireland. Flying in the face of the type of evidence uncovered by Beth McMurtrie, a lecturer in journalism in Dublin’s Griffith College with a penchant for using a range of monikers has kept himself busy finding that the researchers were to blame - all on their own. Some years earlier the same lecturer found that the same researchers were at fault for believing that the British had penetrated the IRA through the agent Stakeknife. He also concluded that the British spy Freddie Scappaticci was not in fact a British spy.

Such cosy, cover up British perfidy journalism which characterised much reporting from Dublin for decades, contributed hugely to the dissemination of disinformation that blighted public understanding of the Northern conflict and arguably prolonged it. To borrow a Tariq Ali comment in today’s Guardian, it is a journalism ‘where the lies of its apologists are first worn as defensive masks but finally grow into their faces.’ Rather than being allowed to investigate, cover up journalism should itself be investigated for its abdication of journalistic responsibility. Giving the failings of so many in the Dublin moulded Irish media such an endeavour might require an international tribunal of journalists.

The Chronicle for Higher Education article has put to bed any residual confusion over what guarantees of confidentiality were promised and by whom. Both researchers and research participants were never in any doubt, being privy to details that others outside the project understandably were not. Other people however, with a vested interest in tainting the project sought to muddy the waters. While their reputation as unreliable witnesses preceded them, essentially limiting any effect they might have had, it is nevertheless gratifying for the researchers to see our own account validated and effectively established as a matter of record.

When the oral history archive known as the Belfast Project was in its formative stage Boston College took the step of issuing donor consent forms offering research participants ironclad guarantees of confidentiality without ever having ascertained, despite being urged by the project director to do so, if it was in fact permissible.

After Ed Moloney had advised the College librarian, Bob O’Neill, to run any proposed donor consent form by legal counsel, the librarian informed him ‘I am working on the wording of the contract to be signed by the interview[ee], and I’ll run this by Tom [Hachey] and university counsel.’

Yet, as Beth McMurtrie asserts, ‘Mr. O’Neill never did check with a lawyer about the wording.’ It was a failure he never disclosed to the researchers. It was a built-in design flaw from which the project was never to recover.

The sequence of events here is seriously damaging to the College narrative. In drawing up contracts the College first stated that the interviews would be held in conditions to the extent allowed by American law. It then issued donor consent forms which, if consistent with its first statement, outlined what was permissible by that law. If the guarantee given by BC was not permissible by US law then it was incumbent on the college to state this not only to the researchers but also the interviewees in surgically precise language in the consent form. It failed to, and later in a bid to erase its own fingerprints from the scene of the crime, opted to place blame on the researchers.

Since the onset of the subpoenas, having observed the malicious manner in which BC sought so shaft both its researchers and research participants, through lies, obvious lies, explosive lies, I am pushed to the conclusion that the College’s failure to insert what the exceptions to American law actually were, was not the result of oversight or inattention to detail. Rather it was a deliberate attempt to bamboozle participants for the very purpose of obtaining material for the college’s John J Burns Library. As project director Ed Moloney pointed out had BC been honest from the outset:

that project would have been dead ... There’s no way myself, Anthony McIntyre, or any of the participants would have had anything to do with it because it would have been a red flag, and we would have immediately have said, ‘What the hell does that mean?’

Rather than lose a valuable addition to the College library, university staff devised a sleight of hand to gain material. It was obtained fraudulently. And the frauds that obtained it sought to abandon the crime scene, place the blame on myself for their unsolicited handing over almost 200 confidential interviews to the federal courts, blame Ed Moloney for everything and anything, label those it abandoned criminals, and ride off into the sunset, royalties in their own pockets.

Thinking the researchers would go gently into the night in the face of their corporate power they didn’t reckon on the people they had sought to shaft opting to, in the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, rage, rage against the dying of the light.




    Surely not a hierarchy of victims where the British want to access some files but bar others?

  2. Anthony

    Firstly and most importantly I believe the work yourself and Ed have conducted in the 'Belfast Project' has immeasurable value.

    Given that things have ended up the way they have must be truly distressing, I can only imagine how frustrating and stressful the whole sorry process of litigation has been for yourself, Ed, and your families.

    I have made efforts to get a better understanding of how events unfolded between Boston College and you and ED by following and reading many of the links you've posted in relevant threads. Your address to OHNI in Ennis is a fine and comprehensive account; covering the practical, legal and ethical considerations of the work undertaken.

    All that said, and for me it's important to say all that, I'm still left with a big question. And a big question that I have some degree of reticence in asking; Did none of ye; you, Ed or even Paul Bew, nor none of your associates never think to seek independent legal advice before commencing the interviews?

    I have read and do understand that Ed sought reassurance from Boston College and essentially was lied to according to accounts. None the less the big learning from this for me is not to make assumptions and check things for oneself.

    I'm not coming down heavily on you guys I may not have acted any differently given all the players and circumstances but as I read what I've read and if I got it accurately (and I may not have) it is the important learning for all researchers going forward and 'the elephant in the room' that doesn't appear to have been called out.

  3. HJ,

    people would be well within their rights to come down hard on us for not having taken independent legal counsel. I come down very hard on myself over it.

    Taking the word of BC was clearly insufficient as we have found to our cost.

  4. Curious and CL question if I may?

    And "people would be well within their rights to come down hard on us for not having taken independent legal counsel. I come down very hard on myself over it.

    Taking the word of BC was clearly insufficient as we have found to our cost."

    And now that you know all that, what would you like to have happen?

  5. HJ,

    ideally, for the project to have gone ahead but with two conditions in place: that it's security be firewalled from institutions like BC; error free ways devised to safeguard all involved.

    Without those in place I think it would be very hard to proceed.

  6. Another if I may?

    And "with two conditions in place: that it's security be firewalled from institutions like BC; error free ways devised to safeguard all involved"

    So, can it's security be firewalled from institutions like BC?

    And, can error free ways be devised to safeguard all involved?

  7. HJ,

    the first is achievable. Simply avoid depositing material in such places.

    The second is more problematic but is potentially doable. But in the world of surveillance being what it is ...

    There is a range of complications which can only be tackled by an agreed strategy devised between researcher and research participant. Much of that would involve a serious risk assessment analysis. Can risk be completely ruled out? Not in every case.

  8. And, when risk can't be completely ruled out, not in every case; what happens to having error free ways devised to safeguard all those involved?


  9. Has anyone ever thought about copying the special branch/Mi5 idea and breaking in to Burns library and buring the project files (similar to the Stevens inquiry)...

    Has to be doable. I think it would be wrong to do it.

  10. I like you Frankie think it'd be wrong.

    Of course though there are those out there who pay more heed to the 11th and 12th commandments!