A Conflict Which was Cataclysmic

Gillian Findlay (GF) interviews author and journalist Ed Moloney (EM) via telephone about the Boston College tapes and why Northern Ireland's past keeps catching up with it.

CBC Radio
The Current
Friday 13 June 2014

GF: Ed Moloney is an Irish journalist who spent many years covering The Troubles. He's also unwillingly involved in the release of some of the information that led to Gerry Adams' arrest. Ed Moloney now lives in upstate New York and that's where he joins us from. Hello!

EM: Good Morning, Gillian.

GF: What was the significance of Mr. Adams' arrest last month? What was the reaction?

EM: I think Mr. Adams had been hoping for a very different outcome.

He was arrested on the foot of an offer that came from himself about a month before to voluntarily present himself to the police in Northern Ireland for questioning. And my own view and my own theory about this was I think he saw this as an opportunity to get this monkey off his back. The monkey being the continuing series of allegations linking him to the order to “disappear” Jean McConville.

GF: Tell me a bit more about that. What exactly is he being accused of?

EM: Well, he was at the time, although he denies as you know as you mentioned in your introduction there, he denies all association with the IRA in terms of being a member.  That's an assertion which flies in the face of all that we know about Gerry Adams and all that I would know about him and I had many, many dealings with him over the years as a journalist in Belfast that he was first of all a member of the IRA and secondly he was one of the most senior members of the IRA.

He was commander of the IRA in Belfast at that particular point in time. And this woman Jean McConville who was a widow, a Protestant who'd converted to Catholicism, had ten young children, was accused by the IRA of being an informer.

GF: So is the evidence there that the IRA was indeed behind her death or is that just widely assumed to be the case?

EM: Oh, absolutely. No that's without doubt.  The IRA itself confirmed in a statement that they issued way back in I think in 1999 that they had killed Jean McConville and “disappeared” her. That's beyond any dispute. What is a matter of dispute is that who gave the order to actually “disappear” her. And Gerry Adams, as the commander of the IRA and on whose desk the buck stops has been accused both by Brendan Hughes and by others as being the man who actually gave the order to “disappear” her. And that's the controversy. And that's why he was brought in to the police for questioning.

GF: And they did that in part at least based on testimony that you had a hand in bringing to light.

EM: That's right. We had, myself and Boston College, had put together this project back in 2000, which was based on the idea that the conflict in Northern Ireland was coming to an end. It had been a very lengthy conflict – it lasted for thirty years or so at that stage. People who had been involved in it as activists were beginning to die off; they were getting much older. And if someone didn't start collecting their stories pretty soon they'd be lost forever. These interviews were all done on the basis that none of the material would be allowed to be made public or even become the property of Boston College until the people died.

GF: Before we talk Boston College and what happened why was it so important to you that these stories be collected and preserved?

EM: Because they'd be lost. This was the most violent conflict possibly in Ireland's history. The death toll, albeit small in terms of Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland is a small place, would be equivalent to, in the United States, would be equivalent to six hundred thousand people being killed.  And then you add on to that the many, many more thousands who were injured, many more who were affected directly or indirectly, who forced out of their homes, who saw things that traumatised them and so on and so forth.

You're talking about a conflict which was cataclysmic in terms of its scale, given the size of the society and its effect on people. As you know history is often written either by the winners or by the leaders. We rarely get the view of the activists. And often you get a more candid and truthful picture for these people than you do from leaders and winners who've all got axes to grind - stories to tell. For example, Gerry Adams' story would be that he was never in the IRA. I mean, what historian could possibly take that seriously?

GF: And as you say the basis was that none of this material was to be made public before peoples' death. How important was that promise of anonymity?

EM: It was very, very important. I don't think it would have been possible to do this except on that basis. And one of the reasons we chose America to do this was because of the constitutional protections, the first amendment and what have you that are supposed to protect you from that type of intrusion. And we were given, unfortunately, misleading advice by Boston College in that respect. So we are where we are and we have to try and fight as best we can against more of this material being sent over. 

GF: Now it was Brendan Hughes' interview I gather that has led to the situation that we are now in. How did that become public?

EM: Well, when Brendan Hughes gave his interviews in 2001 in subsequent years he expressed an interest both in writing his own story and wanted to use all his interview material as the basis of a book.  Our advice to him was that if he did that he would be in very difficult trouble with the IRA and that he oughtn't to do that. 

And my understanding is that in the conversations with the interviewer a guarantee was given that once he died that his interview would be made public and that was done with again, with Boston College's approval...

GF: ...Made public to whom?

EM: Made public in the form of a book. And so a book was put together which I wrote called Voices From the Grave which essentially wrote the story of Brendan Hughes' life in the IRA.

GF: And then the Police Service of Northern Ireland – presumedly...

EM: You're not quite right about the Brendan Hughes' book triggering this. What happened was that another one of our interviewees called Dolours Price gave an interview to a newspaper in Ireland saying that she had been involved in the “disappearance” of Jean McConville, that she had been given orders by Gerry Adams to do this, etc etc. And that interview, or the product of that interview, also made mention that she had given an interview to Boston College. And because of that interview they then served a subpoena on Boston College and the subpoena is in pursuit of Dolours Price's interviews to start off with.

GF: Why did the Police Service of Northern Ireland decide to go after this? I mean I'm sure there are many allegations relating to those years that they have not chosen to go after. Why this one?

EM: Some of the allegations that they've chosen not to go after in fact concern their own crimes and misdemeanours. I mean, just very, very recently the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland announced that he was suing the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland over his refusal to hand over documentation which linked members of his force, including members of its intelligence wing, the Special Branch, in over sixty murders. 

And what we're talking about is, for example, is the police having foreknowledge of a murder because they had an agent in the ranks of the organisation that was going to carry out the murder, not doing anything to stop the murder in order to preserve the agent...in other words condoning murder.

GF: With those kinds of skeletons why do you think they decided to make an issue?

EM: There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that although the police will tell you: well, we have a duty, a responsibility to pursue all crimes and all leads, etc... No policeman opening a file on the Jean McConville case could be unaware of the fact that at the end of the day the road that they were set upon would lead ultimately to Gerry Adams' door.  And Gerry Adams, as the architect of the peace process, was responsible for all sorts of changes in Northern Ireland not least of them in the police service.

And one of the sub-sections of the police service that was dismantled as a result of the peace process was this intelligence gathering wing, the Special Branch, which was regarded as the sharp edge of the ax which cut away at the IRA.  So there are elements within the police that have never forgiven the architects of the peace process for doing this. 

It's impossible to look at this whole situation and not come to the thought that in the minds of those who are behind all of this there's an element of getting and seeking revenge against the people like Gerry Adams and others who were involved in the peace process.

GF: The Northern Ireland police ultimately got the US Justice Department to go along with this. Given what the US government has invested in the peace process why do you think they agreed?

EM: I just can't understand it for one moment. Except that there was a failure to do due diligence on the part of the Department of Justice in this whole thing which is really quite alarming. a) from the point of view of the wider picture the fact that this investigation was going to harm a peace process which the United States had been largely responsible for helping to bring into being.

I mean, without Bill Clinton and George W. Bush you wouldn't have had an IRA cease fire and you wouldn't have a power-sharing government. I mean, it's as simple as that.
And yet here they were embarking down the road willy-nilly that was likely to endanger all of that. And this was a peace process which was held up by the United States and by others as sort of an example to the rest of the world that you can actually end conflicts by sitting down and negotiating and compromising and talking...all the sort of things that we're told we should do, that the world should do, to stop these conflicts.

GF: I know you're angry with Boston College for doing what they did but in the end they would argue that they were ordered by a US court to give up some of the testimony on those tapes. What option did they have?

EM: Let me put it this way: there's a very venerable champion of civil liberties in Massachusetts by the name of Harvey Silverglate. And I asked him about Boston College and he's been there in that area for a long time and he knows all the characters and the history of the place. He told me the story of the former head of Boston College's Law School, a Jesuit priest called Bob Drinan. He said well if this had happened when Bob Drinan was in charge at Boston College he said what he would have done he said he would have gathered all the interviews up from the library and he would have taken them over to his office and he would have put them in the safe and he would have locked the safe. He then would have challenged the federal government to come and get the interviews. He would then have marshaled all the resources that were at Boston College's disposal: their political resources, their financial resources, their alumni, all their connections throughout the world, the Jesuit order etc etc and they would have fought.

And they would also have mobilised the rest of American academia to fight this. To fight for confidentiality. To fight for the rights of research projects. Because what this Boston College subpoena episode is doing to research in America is to persuade people that this is not the place to do this type of delicate, sensitive research because you're going to get sold down the river by the people who gave you the guarantees.

GF: What kind of damage do you think the release of this testimony has done to the peace process?

EM: It is hampering. I mean, your introduction was spot on. The peace process in Northern Ireland has jumped and overcome many hurdles and obstacles: IRA decommissioning, for example, persuading the IRA to get rid of its guns, persuading the IRA to accept the police service, persuading Unionists, hardliners from parties such as Ian Paisley's party, to sit down in the same government at the same cabinet table as people who were commanders of the IRA who had killed some of their people.

All these obstacles were overcome one-by-one but there was always one big challenge that was never really met head-on: and that was how to deal with the past. The past is forever there in Northern Ireland because of the scale of the conflict. It affected everyone. So the past is very much part of people's lives. And until this generation and possibly the generation after that dies people are still going to be asking questions: Who did it? Why did they do it? What happened? etc, etc. And until these questions are capable of being resolved in a way that is agreed it's going to be there as an obstacle to put the past behind them and move on to the future.

GF: Mr Moloney, why is it so difficult for Northern Ireland when other countries, and and South Africa is the example that is always raised, you know, they have the truth and reconciliation model, they've made great progress in this area. Why has that been so difficult?

EM: I think because in South Africa it's very clear who won. I mean, the black population, in a sense, won in that wide apartheid, political apartheid ended. Now you could argue about economic apartheid, etc, but just leaving that aside for the moment, it was pretty clear that the blacks had won. In Northern Ireland everyone pretends that they won but they suspect that the other side actually won and that's part of the difficulty.

And so the arguing about the past becomes a way of continuing the conflict if you'd like and that's very much what it's about. I'm afraid so far the efforts that have been made to try to resolve this have all failed primarily because they're based on the premise that you get the local parties to sit down and talk and come to some sort of an agreement.  Well, if you're hoping for that to happen that will never happen. Because each side sees incidents that happened in the past as a stick with which to beat the other side and the other guy.

What it needs is someone to come in like the British government, the Irish government and maybe even the American government and say: this is what's going to happen guys. This is what you're going to do. They have to impose something. And until that happens...and the political will is not there and it's not there primarily because even amongst the government side there are unwilling parties. The British do not, for example, want to see the past explored. They've got as many dirty secrets as the IRA has. So it's an enormously difficult problem to resolve and it doesn't look as if it's going to be resolved any time soon.

GF: If there's not the political will to do that what is the danger that you see?

EM: Well, already you're seeing squabbles and fights within the power-sharing executive.

I read a report the other day where one of the few meetings that they've had this year ended up in a shouting match over what happened to Jean McConville. I don't want to be alarmist but you know even the future of the power-sharing government is at stake in this sense: if there can't be agreement on this type of issue then there is a very real risk.  

And I don't want to exaggerate the risk either because you can get carried away by the emotion of it all but there is a most definite risk that the thing could start to un-stitch.
And if let's say they pursue the Boston tapes and they put someone like Gerry Adams on trial well the message that that sends out to the broader Nationalist and Republican community is: well, you know ( ... unclear ... )  for you for dealing with the British because you can't trust the British. This would be the argument used within the Republican movement, inside the IRA, which incidentally still exists.

GF: The court only ordered the release of some of those Boston College tapes. What else is in that archive?

EM: Well, I'm not at liberty to say. There are interviews with Republicans and there are interviews with Loyalists and that's as much as I'm going to say about what's in there.

GF: Do you worry that there might be more released and the impact that that might have?

EM: Well, the police in Northern Ireland have said they're now going to go for the entire archive. That's a recipe for disaster quite honestly and where it's coming from just defeats me. I haven't talked to a soul who is involved in politics or law or what have you who on hearing this did not say: Have the police lost their heads?  Because the implications could be quite horrendous.

GF: Mr. Moloney thank you so much for joining us today. It was a fascinating discussion.

EM: My pleasure.


  1. BC exercise in idealism reopened old wounds

    'O’Rawe was trying to figure out what to do with the returned materials when the police in Northern Ireland made the decision for him. On May 22, after the police announced they were seeking the entire Boston College archive, 60-year-old Ricky O’Rawe walked into his study, the walls lined with sepia-tinged photos of old comrades who died in the three decades of war that the Irish, with their propensity for understatement, call The Troubles.

    He lit a fire and opened a bottle of Bordeaux. Then he threw his legacy, his story, his willingness to kill and be killed, onto the fire and watched it burn.

    “It was a fine Bordeaux,” Ricky O’Rawe said. “It was a fine fire.”

    I can't blame him for burning his story.. But it's sad reading it.

    And all this talk about touts. People wise up. They (Belfast project participants) haven't done a Scap or a Donaldson or other.

    They simply documented their version of events. I'm convinced had it have been a Toby Harden or an Eammon Mallie who documented the Belfast Project, no one would be calling for their heads.

  2. Personally the bottom line about the Belfast project and all the 'noise' surrounding boils down to this. Former Provisonals & Loyalist's decided to document their lives with in their 'camps' and didn't seek approval. Gerald Bradley is case in point. He told his life with the Provisionals and got publically hounded for it. Richard O'Rawes books on the hunger strikes same as. I'm not interested in 'Hope & History' or 'Before the dawn' etc.. I don't want a watered down lilly white version of why things happened. That wont tell me anything and I'll understand even less. It's similar in a way to the article about banning certain books in prison you've (AM) have highlighted, For example if 'Google' doesn't give me the results I'm looking for, I'll use 'Free-net' or other to seek out the information I'm looking for. I don't like being told what to do or not, what I can or can't read. I can make my own mind up. I don't need another 'big brother' I already have one ...JMO.....