The Arrest of the Truth.

Guest writer Catherine McCartney looks at the Boston College oral history archive from a victim's perspective.

In 2010 I attended the launch of the book Voices from the Grave by Ed Moloney. It was anticipated that this would be the first in a series of books which would be published on the deaths of republican and loyalist interviewees who had participated in the Boston project. The first book chronicled the testimony of Brendan Hughes and David Irvine. The guests were made up of an eclectic mix of academics, ex paramilitaries, journalists, politicians, victims, and others interested in the subject.

Discussion naturally, swirled around the concept behind the book and there was a general consensus that the Boston project was a valuable archive. From what I can recall there was no discussion or speculation that there may be a possibility that the information could or would be used in criminal prosecutions. The project did raise questions regarding the moral and ethical soundness of a project which could be seen by some, as providing perpetrators (some of heinous crimes) with a platform to sanitise their crimes without accounting for them. I myself questioned the motives of the interviewees and their supposed desire to contribute to the narrative of the past. Surely if they were motivated by a genuine desire to contribute to a truth narrative they should have been equally motivated to contribute to justice. I also knew that such reasoning fails to account for the reality that it is not in man’s nature to offer himself up for public shame and punishment. But he does possess the need to atone for misdeeds through the medium of explanation and justification. This need offers an opportunity to victims and wider society to gain information otherwise lost. This coupled with the fact that the likelihood of prosecutions is virtually non-existent swayed me and others towards the merits of the Boston project and giving a voice to perpetrators. In the absence of any mechanism for truth finding and the untenable proposition of drawing a line under the past, the Boston project attempted to gather and preserve information that would (hopefully) at some point in our history fill in important gaps.

I was as surprised as anyone therefore to hear that the police were pursuing the tapes and when the outworking of the first tapes seized resulted in charges against Ivor Bell, the arrest of various low level foot soldiers and of Gerry Adams, I again returned to the moral and ethical questions of the project. I did feel an element of unease with the space created for perpetrators to tell their stories for posterity, unhindered and untested. A luxury denied those murdered.

For many victims the deeds, which these paramilitaries were relieving their consciences or unburdening their souls, were the murder of their loved ones. Their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, wives and husbands, killed and injured by these interviewees. For them these tapes possibly contain the truth, or at least an element of the truth, about how and why their loved ones died. They could contain the critical information which could lead to convictions. Why would victims not want the police to pursue this? Why should victims consider posterity? Why should they concede justice for the greater good? What gives them the right to deny their loved ones justice?

Victims have an intense sense of moral duty to pursue every avenue available to them and the tapes offer a little hope in a landscape of cover ups, political expediency and secret dirty deals. If it were me, I know I’d push for the tapes. Equally in the event that justice was not a possibility I would welcome a project such as the Boston interviews. Such are the dilemmas facing victims.

There is an equally valid view which I also have sympathy with and that is, the official narrative of the past will (if it ever materialises) hide more than it exposes. I find it difficult to accept that the tapes contain any information which will lead to the conviction of any of the perpetrators for heinous crimes such as that of Jean McConville. As has been pointed out by eminent lawyers and prosecutors the possibility of criminal convictions for past offences is miniscule, even if the will to prosecute existed the evidence does not. It was either never gathered, has been destroyed or has been buried so deep it would impossible to dig it up without a stink.

Of course there may be a trickle of convictions instilling and sustaining the hope of victims that criminal prosecutions are obtainable but in the broader context the adequacy of these in dealing with the past will be negligible. In the absence of a mechanism to deal with the past the Boston project sought to record the testimonies of those whom possessed and possess, valuable information which forms an essential part of the tapestry of that past. The seizure by the PSNI of the tapes and the decision to pursue the entire archive has rendered this information lost to victims and society at large, possibly for good. The British State has no intentions of acknowledging let alone accounting for its part in the conflict. On the contrary it is guarding its secrets as the recent legal action taken by the Police Ombudsman against the Chief Constable of the PSNI demonstrates. This renders the loss of the Boston interviews to the State vault even more regrettable.

Another consequence of the PSNI’s pursuit of the tapes is the Provo backlash directed at the participants on the project. Anthony McIntyre, an interviewer and ex paramilitary, has been subjected to particular vilification by those who attempt to revise history and cleanse their hands from the blood spilled. His refusal to endorse the Sinn Fein strategy and propagandise on its behalf is behind the allegations of ‘tout’ thrown at him by Danny Morrison and the minions sent out to paint the message of the Messiah on the walls of West Belfast.

Anthony’s reason for participating in the Boston tapes came from a deep sense of Irish republican conviction that the narrative of the ‘war’ could not be left to be told by those, whom in his view, had brought about the death of Irish Republicanism. The tapes were never intended as an aid to prosecutions. If Anthony McIntyre had of thought for a nano second that there was the slightest possibility that the tapes could fall into the hands of the police he wouldn’t have went near it. On the contrary he would have advised strongly against such a project. This is not because Anthony does not support victims call for justice and truth, he does. In common with those concerned with the question of ‘dealing with the past’ he asks what form justice should take and how truth, and whose truth, is gathered. Questions of ‘justice’ versus ‘vengeance’ and the failure of the state to hold its perpetrators to account are all questions which enter the discussion on the issue. The important point is that Anthony’s contribution stems from a desire to ensure that the narrative of the conflict is not based solely on the official version.

Anthony McIntyre is not an apologist for past actions or a revisionist but wants to hold the light up to the truth, regardless of how ugly. He has stuck with his principles despite the cost to himself and his family. The concept of the Boston project was a principled one and taking all the arguments into consideration I do believe ultimately the seizure of the tapes will contribute little to justice but much to the denial of truth.

On that point I would also suggest that those who will benefit most from the seizure of the tapes will be Sinn Fein. As guardians of the truth Sinn Fein have nothing to fear from their allies in the peace process, the British State. The arrest of Gerry Adams was a red herring; the real arrest was of the truth.


  1. Catherine,
    Your whole synopsis seems to be founded on the belief that the actions of Republicans were criminal in nature and therefor as with all criminal acts, they must account or atone, for justice must be seen to be done.....or in this case retribution. Only the victor will determine when a death in war becomes a murder. Only they can determine that. And this is I believe, is where the issue becomes muddled. The British have won and thus they and their agents will set the moral crossbar for everyone else. They have successfully instilled in the minds of the public, both Irish and British, that they are blameless, that it was an internal conflict between neighbours and that one of those neighbours behaved in an appalling manner....The Boston project was not about defining what was criminal or what was not – it was an historical information gathering project, nothing more nothing less. The fact that the British and yourself perceive that the tapes hold vital information for future criminal prosecutions underlines the success of this psychological weapon employed by Britain. The loss of the tapes to the British security forces is a loss to Irish history but not a loss to the criminal courts of Britain.
    Oh, regarding the tapes, as a person once said to me, why build one when you have the money to build two! There’s always a backup, always.

  2. Niall, is it the Republican position that no law applied/applies in the six counties during the period of British rule? That's what you seem to suggest, that the statutes and laws against murder, theft, rape, driving on the right etc had no legitimacy because, by the republican perspective, the state which imposed those laws had no legitimacy. If the killing of Jean McConville was not a crime - because only the ultimate victor can define it as such - then what justice can her family appeal to? By your logic they would have the right to kill anyone they suspected of being involved in the killing, because that wouldn't be a crime either, but they would have no legitimate resort to state law.