Justice Department does the dirty work

September 29, 2011

Sandy Boyer, co-host of Radio Free Eireann on WBAI in New York City, reports on a move by the U.S. Justice Department to compel Boston College to turn over interviews with Northern Ireland combatants to the British government.

A JUSTICE Department lawsuit against Boston College could derail the Northern Ireland peace process while it threatens to silence the voices of people who have fought against the establishment.

London's Private Eye magazine says the case "has the potential to damage the power-sharing government of Northern Ireland and the continuing peace process itself. It could even end up with Gerry Adams [the head of Sinn Fein and an architect of the peace process] in the dock charged with one of the most notorious murders/killings of the Troubles."

The Justice Department has subpoenaed recordings from a groundbreaking oral history of the Northern Ireland conflict so that they can be turned over to the British government. Known as "The Boston Project," it was sponsored by Boston College where the recordings are held.

Forty to sixty former members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force were interviewed about their role in the conflict. This was only possible because everyone was guaranteed that nothing they said would be made public until after they died.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams

As the historian Terry Golway wrote in The Irish Echo, the interviewees participated "with the understanding that Boston College would not release their comments until they were dead. That condition was a simple matter of self-defense: participants feared that their candor could lead to violent retribution."

The British are seeking all recordings about Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who the IRA killed because they believed she was an informer. She was buried in secret, and the IRA long denied they were responsible for her death.

At least two people who were interviewed for the Boston Project, Brendan Hughes and Delours Price, have said that Gerry Adams ordered her killing and the secret burial. Adams denies it, but this would be more credible if he didn't also deny that he was ever a member of the IRA, something virtually no one believes. Any serious investigation of the case could very easily lead to Gerry Adams being charged with her murder.

BUT THE stakes in this case go well beyond the future of Gerry Adams. The lives of the interviewers and the people who told Boston College their stories could be in danger. It will also make it virtually impossible for journalists and historians to protect their sources. This will mean that the public will only hear the stories governments allow them to hear.

Anthony McIntire, who interviewed the former IRA members, has already been threatened with death. The Northern Ireland Sunday World has quoted "republican sources" as saying, "He will be out walking by himself some night on his own, and he will be either stabbed to death or run over by a car to make it look like an accident."

McIntire has stated in a sworn affidavit:

The level of risk to both myself and those I interviewed was, in my view, substantial. In the Belfast project, it was necessary, in order to produce raw material of serious historical value, to violate the IRA's code of secrecy. This was not a venture that I as a researcher, nor the interviewees I spoke with for my research, could approach without the strongest sense of gravitas.

He recently told WBAI's Radio Free Eireann that his sources would be at risk if the tapes are turned over to the British government. "People who gave interviews are being called touts or informers. That can put them in danger...The IRA has taken lives in the past and then denied it."

Brian Rowan from the Belfast Telegraph has described why journalists, especially in Northern Ireland, need to be able to protect their sources: "If people want to read, listen to and watch the news, then they need to understand what gathering that news entails. That it involves going into dangerous situations. It means protecting sources in order to gather the best information to inform those who are reading, listening and watching."

Ed Moloney, who directed the Boston project, told Radio Free Eireann that this case goes beyond Northern Ireland:

This has huge implications for historians and journalists in America. It is going to make it far more difficult to get the stories of the actual people who participate in conflicts. If you are interviewing a Black activist from Brooklyn or the Bronx, you are going to be looking over your shoulder because the New York Police Department can come after it to put him in jail.

Now there is an even more alarming threat to civil liberties. The latest Justice Department legal brief contends that not even the courts can review the attorney general's decision in this case. It argues: "The determinations of the Attorney General challenged in this case are textually committed entirely to his discretion."

It claims the courts have absolutely no role: "To recognize a right to judicial review of such determinations would entangle the courts in national policy decisions."

If the courts accept this, it will mean that anytime a foreign government wants information, the attorney general, at his or her sole discretion, can force it to be handed over. It will become a political decision based entirely on U.S. foreign policy.

Imagine for a moment that during the Reagan years, the apartheid regime wanted a reporter's notes on an interview with a leader of the ANC's military wing. Since the U.S. saw South Africa as an ally against communism, the Attorney General would almost undoubtedly have ordered that they be turned over.

A court case that first appeared to be about the Northern Ireland peace process has become a threat to our right to learn the truth about the conflicts that can shape our lives.

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