A decision to stifle history

August 7, 2012

Sandy Boyer, the co-host of Radio Free Eireann on WBAI in New York City, spells out the implications of a federal court decision regarding the Belfast Project.

A THREE-judge panel has ruled that interviews from the Belfast Project, a unique oral history of the Northern Ireland conflict housed at Boston College, can be turned over to the British government. This decision could make it difficult if not impossible for journalists and historians to document contemporary conflicts.

The Belfast Project interviewed between 40 and 60 former members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and one its adversaries, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, about their role in the conflict in Northern Ireland. The interviewees spoke candidly--describing their experiences, including their role in paramilitary organizations--on the condition that nothing they said would be revealed until after their deaths.

The British government subpoenaed all interviews that might relate to the death of Jean McConville, a Protestant mother of 10 killed by the IRA because they believed she was an informer. She was buried in secret, and the IRA has long denied that it was responsible for her death.

Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin
Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin

At least two people interviewed for the Belfast Project, Brendan Hughes and Delours Price, have said that Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein and an architect of the Northern Ireland peace process, ordered McConville's killing and secret burial. If these interviews were made public, it would be extremely damaging to Adams and potentially to the peace process itself.

So far, the Obama administration and the courts have taken at face value British government claims that they need the interviews to investigate the Jean McConville case. But if White House officials had done even a little bit of homework, they would have discovered that the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is investigating the case, had no need for the interviews.

Brendan Hughes' account of Jean McConville's killing and secret burial was published in Ed Moloney's book Voices from the Grave. The book even became an Irish television documentary where anyone could listen to Brendan Hughes describing when and where she was killed and why her body was "disappeared."

Delours Price gave a taped interview with a Belfast newspaper on her alleged role in the case. She was in court in Northern Ireland in May 2010, three months after the interview was published. The PSNI apparently had no interest in questioning her.

WHEN THEY learned that the interviews had been subpoenaed, Ed Moloney, director of the Belfast Project, and Anthony McIntyre, the lead researcher, went to court to stop the order. They first went to a federal district court in Boston, which ruled against them. Even now, though three judges of the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have upheld that decision, the case is far from over, even in strictly legal terms.

Moloney and McIntyre are planning to appeal for a special "en banc" hearing involving all five judges of the First Circuit. If that fails, they are willing to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. McIntyre can even bring a case in Northern Ireland, which could go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg.

But the case has always been at least as much about politics as the letter of the law. One of the First Circuit judges, Juan Torruella, wrote that the Obama administration has the right to refuse to turn over the interviews. He stated the U.S. attorney general can block the subpoena if there is a political offence at stake.

As Torruella wrote, "Ignoring the underlying and pervasive political nature of the 'Troubles,' as the Irish-British controversy has come to be known in Northern Ireland, is simply ignoring 100 years of a well-documented history of political turmoil." This means that because the Belfast Project is rooted in that conflict, the attorney general can refuse to turn over the interviews.

Ed Moloney told Radio Free Eireann, a program on the New York City Pacifica station WBAI, that "the judge has given [Attorney General] Holder and Hillary Clinton the legal cover to take this sort of action. And obviously we hope that this will happen, but whether that happens or not to a large extent depends on the pressure that Irish America can exert on these politicians in what is, after all, an election year."

Within days of the court's decision, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Brehon Law Society and the Irish American Unity Coalition (IAUC) had all cited Torruella's decision in urging Holder to withhold the interviews. National IAUC President Thomas J. Burke Jr. stated, "This case has politics written all over it. A true sign of our 'special relationship' with England would be to help them get their priorities straight by denying this request."

But the case is also about the future of serious oral history in conflict situations. Moloney told Radio Free Eireann that this "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."

Oral history is vital to everyone who is working for social change, whether in the Black liberation movement, Occupy Wall Street or the labor movement. It is the way we learn from our own past--both our successes and our failures.

Conventional academic history too often concentrates on government documents or the memoirs of "the good and the great." Even demographic and statistical studies of the working class don't give us a lot of insight into the way forward.

If this decision is upheld, everyone will know that if you're trying to share your experiences with future activists, you're likely to be sharing them with the police, the FBI and the CIA as well. When you look at what's happening to Bradley Manning and what could happen to Julian Assange, you'll probably decide that you just can't afford to be very candid.

The government and the powers that be won't mind that one bit. The only losers will be the people with the temerity to actually try to win a better world.

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