In a recent decision, a court in Northern Ireland ruled that evidence from an oral history project could not be considered in a 1972 murder case, clearing 82-year-old Ivor Bell of soliciting the killing of Jean McConville. Evidence from the Belfast Project, an oral history of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, indicated Bell and other members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) kidnapped and murdered McConville because they incorrectly believed she had provided information to the British Army about IRA activity in Belfast. This evidence played an important role in Bell’s indictment and trial in the McConville case.
The body of the widowed mother of 10 was not uncovered until three decades later, and her surviving children continue to wait for justice. Bell will not face punishment for his alleged role in this crime, however.
This ordeal strained the relationship between legal justice and historical truth. While legal decisions and records inform history, historians also draw on other types of records — including oral histories — to bring forward the voices of the weak or underrepresented. The courts evaluate evidence differently, weighing only information and testimony that conforms to strict legal standards that are designed to protect the rights of accused people, not to allow the consideration of all available sources. Integrity in the historical process, however, requires the consideration of every piece of evidence.
Bell was implicated in McConville’s murder after the publication of Ed Moloney’s “Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland” in 2010. Moloney’s work drew on the Belfast Project, an oral history project that aimed to collect first hand accounts from people who had participated in paramilitary activity on both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland. “The Troubles” refers to the period from 1969 to 1998, during which the IRA used violence in an attempt to force the British government off the island of Ireland. At the same time, loyalist paramilitaries deployed their own acts of terrorism in defense of Northern Ireland’s union with Britain, and atrocities were also committed by the British security forces. During that period, more than 3,500 people died.
Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member who went on to earn a PhD in history from Queen’s University in Belfast, took the lead in conducting the interviews beginning in 2001. They promised interviewees that their recorded statements, which are kept in the Boston College archives in Massachusetts, would remain confidential until their death.
However, as part of the ongoing inquiry into the murder of McConville, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) sought cooperation from the U.S. Department of Justice to obtain the recorded interviews of a number of former IRA members. Their pursuit of these accounts opened the doors for the PSNI to also demand access to other records of Belfast Project interviewees who were still living, launching a legal battle that played out in U.S. court. McIntyre and Moloney claimed their interviewees had confidentiality and therefore oral history records could not be used as evidence. But the American courts decided such promises of confidentiality were legally dubious and could not be upheld.
So, in 2014, armed with evidence from the oral history tapes, prosecutors charged Bell, a longtime member of the IRA, with abetting the murder of McConville. “Interviewee Z,” who is widely believed to be Bell, claimed that in late 1972, he, Gerry Adams and a third IRA member decided McConville should be killed for being an informant.
The inclusion of Adams in this account made the case even more controversial. Adams was the president of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican political party, and is remembered by his supporters as the hero of the peace process that led to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement of 1998, bringing the violence of the Troubles to a close. But he was allegedly also a leading member of the IRA’s governing Army Council. Adams has denied this accusation and any role in the death of McConville or other cases, emphasizing his role as a statesman of Irish politics, rather than his alleged actions as an IRA terrorist.
The legal debates about the oral history project came to an abrupt close on Oct. 17, when Bell was cleared of charges and Irish Justice John O’Hara ruled the statements recorded on the tapes were not admissible as evidence. But O’Hara also questioned the motivations and scholarly value of the oral history project, raising concern about the reliability of Z’s statements because the “person interviewing him [McIntyre] had a clear bias” and was “out to get” Adams and others.
By adopting the view that the Belfast Project was illegitimate, the judge implicitly endorsed the now dominant, but empirically dubious, narrative of the Troubles that Adams was the chief architect of the peace process. Indeed, this interpretation blatantly ignores the central roles played by John Hume and David Trimble, who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the Good Friday Agreement.
By casting doubt on the truthfulness of Z’s interview, and thus of all of the interviews in the Belfast Project, the judge dismissed dissenting voices and perspectives, writing them out of the official narrative. By discrediting the project, the judge affirmed one perspective on the collective memory of this era.
Though in court, lawyers, judges and juries assess the guilt of alleged offenders according to well-honed rules of evidence and interpretations of the law, assessing historical truth is more complex.
Scholars are trained to read and interpret primary sources, including eyewitness recollections recorded in interviews, not according to evidentiary rules but in the broader context of sources and information that are available. Dissenting voices, even those who harbor animosity toward some of the people about whom they speak, must be heard so the truth of their stories can be weighed and evaluated against other evidence.
But O’Hara’s decision dismissing the viability of the Belfast Project will make oral histories of this pivotal 30-year period in Northern Ireland harder to procure, and this is a tragic loss for scholars and for the cause of truth itself.
Yet his decision does spotlight areas in which scholars must do better in the future: providing clarity and transparency about the ethical and legal implications of their work, and what promises they can and cannot make to people whose stories they collect in oral history projects. However, scholars also can and must write and speak more broadly about how historical interpretation works, so citizens are better equipped to understand that the dominant interpretation of history is not the only one, nor is it necessarily the correct one.
⏭ Donald M. Beaudette is an assistant professor of political science at Oxford College of Emory University. He is currently writing a book on punishment attacks and policing during Northern Ireland’s Troubles
⏭ Laura Weinstein is an independent scholar and analyst of Irish politics. She is currently researching a book on racism and far-right nationalism in Ireland.