Let's start with some background. Feel free to skip to the heading Woodshop Felony below if you've been following the Belfast Project subpoenas closely (you poor bastard) and don't need to go through the whole farce again.
In 2011, investigating a 1972 murder that they had ignored for thirty-nine years, the Police Service of Northern Ireland went shopping for unearned confessions in a historical archive in the United States. The subpoenas served on Boston College were, the claim went, desperately necessary, investigative tools scratching away the truth behind the most serious of crimes: the kidnapping, murder, and secret burial of a widowed mother of ten children, Jean McConville, killed by the Provisional IRA as a suspected informer in the employ of the British army in Belfast.
Locked away in a university library, the Belfast Project tapes supposedly held the answers; consisting of frank oral history interviews with former members of paramilitary organizations, they would allow the authorities to bring a set of killers to justice. The headlines said so, plainly and uncritically. "Tapes Hold N. Ireland Murder Secrets," CNN reported. It was all pretty simple: Get the tapes, press the "play" button, make some arrests.
The police got the tapes they sought, but it doesn't appear that the police got their Northern Ireland murder secrets. More than seven years later, no one has ever been brought to trial over McConville's murder, or on any other crime supposedly exposed by the tapes. One elderly man, allegedly a former Provisional IRA member of high rank, was charged more than four years ago with crimes related to the killing, but his case has become the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce of the criminal courts -- forever subject to status conferences, forever unresolved.
Following another, later subpoena, another set of charges were brought against another elderly man alleged to have once been a ranking member of a Loyalist paramilitary organization. Those charges have also gone Full Kafka, forever wandering the hallways of the courts of Northern Ireland and rattling their chains. One day the sun will implode, our solar system will vanish into a black hole, and the charges brought on the basis of the Belfast Project tapes will finally meet their resolution.
But now the farce of the Belfast Project tapes has become something else altogether, the word for which probably hasn't been coined, yet. We'll need a neologism that combines the ideas of raw sewage, things of microscopic importance, and pure farce. (This would be easier if we all spoke German.)
In 2014, circling back to a source that had brought them no form of success in court at all, law enforcement authorities in Northern Ireland asked the U.S. Department of Justice to promulgate a new Belfast Project subpoena. This time, the PSNI was seeking the recorded interviews archived at Boston College in which a Belfast Project researcher, Anthony McIntyre (a former Long Kesh prisoner who has a PhD in history), is said to have discussed his own role in the Provisional IRA.
Federal authorities in Boston got McIntyre's interview materials, and the DOJ sent them off to Belfast. But McIntyre went to court to stop the police from reading the transcripts or listening to the tapes. This week, the High Court in Belfast issued a decision in McIntyre's legal challenge, which they heard almost a year ago.
The decision is, God help us all, comic opera. It makes the farcical nature of the whole production abundantly clear, while attempting to manage the discussion within the boundaries of language that declares that this is terribly serious judicial business. I have a draft copy, not yet signed by the court, and the court has posted a summary of the decision here (link opens to PDF file). I'll stick to discussing the publicly available summary until the whole decision becomes public.
Now, remember that this all began, seven years ago, with a great deal of somber tut-tutting about the seriousness of the Belfast Project subpoenas, and the urgent work of the PSNI as it raced down the trail after some murderers. So take a look at the summary posted by the court, which describes the matters now being investigated by the PSNI with regard to Anthony McIntyre:
On 3 September 2014 the PSNI requested that the Public Prosecution Service (“PPS”) issue an International Letter of Request (“ILOR”) in respect of a criminal investigation it was carrying out into the following matters:
The detection in 1978 in the applicant's possession of an imitation firearm while in custody in circumstances suggesting that he may be planning an escape from custody. The applicant states that this is a reference to an incomplete wooden gun in two parts which was found in a search cubicle in prison reception. He was questioned at the time of its discovery but not charged with any offence. Note that this sentence about events in the 1970s begins with "the detection," at the time, of the thing being discussed. So in 1978, prison officials caught Anthony McIntyre with some pieces of wood, which they suspected, probably for good reason, that he was planning to turn into a fake gun so he could bluff his way out of prison. They questioned him about it but decided not to charge him with a crime. Thirty-six years later, the PSNI decided to conduct an investigation to determine if Anthony McIntyre had possessed some pieces of wood that could be turned into a fake gun for use in an attempt at a prison escape, and they went through the complex and difficult process of obtaining international legal assistance to subpoena interview materials archived in another country.
The reason the PSNI suspected that Anthony McIntyre had once possessed wooden materials that could be used to make a fake gun was that, nearly four decades ago, prison officials in Northern Ireland caught Anthony McIntyre in possession of wooden materials that could be used to make a fake gun.
We suspect this man of Crime X because forty years ago he was caught committing it, so now we need to find out if he committed the crime that we know about because we know he was caught committing it.
Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, ladies and gentlemen.
The PSNI used the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States in an attempt to find out if Anthony McIntyre hid some wood in his socks forty years ago, a thing they already knew he did.
But let's keep going, and take a look at the other things the PSNI supposedly set out to investigate by digging into McIntyre's Belfast Project tapes. Like this:
"Membership of an illegal organisation."
Goodness yes: Let's use international legal assistance to conduct an investigation to find out if Anthony McIntyre was ever a member of the Provisional IRA, more than forty years after the time he was actually convicted on that charge. McIntyre's own website, by the way, has a review of his book on Irish republicanism, which describes McIntyre as "a historian, a former member of the IRA and a onetime party activist with extensive contacts in the organisation." It took me five seconds on Google to come up with that one -- but I don't have the option of asking the Department of Justice to issue subpoenas on my behalf, so I was forced to fall back on other means.
Finally, the PSNI suspects that McIntyre carried out a bombing, with a few problems:
"A bomb attack on a house at Rugby Avenue on 6 February 1976. The PSNI claimed to have received information on that date the applicant was involved in the bomb attack. The applicant, however, maintains that he was in fact the target of the attack and that in any event if the attack was on the date alleged he was in police custody throughout that day."
More about the Rugby Avenue bomb later, when the full decision is available, but alleging in an international letter of assistance that McIntyre bombed somebody's house on a day when he was in police custody is an interesting choice.
Analyzing the international letter of assistance -- the letter the PSNI asked Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service to prepare in order to ask American law enforcement officials for help -- the High Court acknowledges in its decision that the police and prosecutors made a hash of the whole thing. From the summary released by the court, and take a moment to read this carefully:
"There were a number of errors in the ILOR including reference to the incorrect date of birth of the applicant, the incorrect section of legislation in respect of an offence, an assertion that the applicant had been convicted of armed robbery in 1975 and sentenced to a period of imprisonment of three years when in fact there was no evidence to support that assertion and an incorrect date of Judicial conviction for the offence of membership of a proscribed organisation."
So the police set out to investigate whether Anthony McIntyre once possessed some wood that they suspect he possessed because they know he possessed it, and also set out to learn if a convicted IRA member had ever been in the IRA, and also set out to determine if he blew up somebody's house on a date when he was locked up in the police station, and when they wrote the letter outlining their investigation, they got most of the supporting facts totally wrong.
These two conclusions come one after the other in the summary of the decision posted on the court website:
- The errors in the ILOR were due to a distinct and surprising lack of care on the part of the PSNI and the PPS;
- The errors in the ILOR were not indicative of bad faith. Got that? They fucked up everything they touched, which we're pretty sure proves that they were trying to be careful and do a good job.
More to come.
Chris Bray Blogs @ The Shade Of The Cloud Of Arrows. He describes himself as an itinerant historian, former infantry soldier, and the author of Court-Martial: How Military Justice has Shaped America, from the Revolution to 9/11 and Beyond
- forthcoming from W.W. Norton.