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Boston College’s “Belfast Project” aimed to compile first hand accounts of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, collecting the oral histories of 46 former combatants with the promise of confidentiality. But after British prosecutors compelled the college to hand over contents from the archive, and detained a prominent political leader for crimes allegedly committed in the 1970s, many observers are worried the tapes could destabilize the country’s peace agreement. We explore the debate in Belfast and within American academic institutions.
- Kevin Cullen Metro Columnist, The Boston Globe; co-author, “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice”
- Zachary Schrag Associate Professor, Department of History and Art History, George Mason University; Author, "Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009" (Johns Hopkins)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we talk with journalist Louisa Lim about her new book, "The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Square Revisited." But first, three decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles that pitted the Nationalist Catholic Irish Republican Army or IRA against Protestant loyalists under the banner of the Ulster Volunteer Force or UVF, came to a tenuous end in 1998.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the tensions and traumas of the time have remained close to the surface in Belfast, a fact driven home earlier this year when Gerry Adams, a long-time leader of Sinn Fein, the nationalist political party, closely linked the IRA, was arrested by police and questioned about the 1972 murder of a mother of 10. A move fueled by police in Northern Ireland, getting hold of information from an oral history project out of Boston College. An idea with altruistic goals but plagued with problems.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to bring us up to speed on the fallout and to help us understand the implications is Zachary Schrag. He's a professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason College. His books include, "Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences," and "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." Zachary Schrag, thank you for joining us.
MR. ZACHARY SCHRAGDelighted to be here.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone, from Boston, Mass., is Kevin Cullen. He's a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and a Metro Columnist for The Boston Globe. He's also co-author of "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice." Kevin Cullen, thank you for joining us.
MR. KEVIN CULLENThanks Kojo.
NNAMDIKevin, Boston, which as you note, has long been seen as a moderate, so-to-speak, base of Irish-America. It may seem a natural home for a project, chronicling the troubles. What were the aims of this Boston College Project and who was behind it?
CULLENWell, first of all, it -- the genesis of it was, sort of, in the heady days, right after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, ended the troubles as we knew them. And the idea was to create an oral archive to go and talk to the combatants, the people that fought and were willing to kill and were willing to die for what they believed in, at the time.
CULLENAnd so it was conceived that they would, you know, hire people on the ground, in Northern Ireland, who could get to these former combatants, interview them, record what they say and place it in an archive here at the Burns Library at Boston College, which is the biggest repository in the United States for Irish related issues. And the idea would be, it eventually, historians, journalists, people interested in this would read it after all -- everybody that was involved in it had long since past. And that we might learn about the motivations, conflict and how conflict is resolved.
CULLENUnfortunately, there was a book published by the project director, Ed Moloney in 2010, which kind of signaled the fact that they had these interviews, they're very specifically, the book was based on the interviews given by David Irvine, who was a leading loyalist, paramilitary, before he became a politician and Brendan Hughes who was known as the Dark. And he was a senior IRA man, very close to Gerry Adams at one time but then had a falling out with him over the direction of the peace process.
CULLENAnd in that book, Brendan Hughes implicated Gerry Adams in the murder and the abduction-murder and secret burial of Jean McConville. Eventually, the police and the -- I think, the timing of all this is very questionable. The police decided they wanted that evidence, they thought that that could help them solving the murder of Jean McConville, 40 years after it happened. And that -- thus began the, sort of, tug-of-war, pitting the issues of academic freedom, criminal investigation and, frankly, the political prosecution of cases of the past.
CULLENA lot of what this comes down to is, the Boston College Project, I think, was well intentioned. It hoped that it could somehow contribute to the understanding of conflict and hopefully, you know, promote resolution of conflict and maybe even the prevention of conflict. Instead it has become a political football and you have the case, I think, very disturbing case, of an American academic institution being used as a proxy investigative arm of a foreign government.
NNAMDIBut one technicality here, if you will, and that is, Gerry Adams, it is my understanding, was in favor of the project but he was not in favor of the individuals to whom it was entrusted because he felt that they would bring a bias view to their presentation.
CULLENThat's true, he believes, as do many people in the Republican leadership, that Ed Moloney, the journalist, who was the project director and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner, who did the research, who did the actual interviews of these people, they believed that they are bias, that they are opposed, that they have been on the record as being hostile to Adams and the rest of the leadership of the Republican movement. As Adams sees it, there's no way that these guys would not ask leading questions. They would not -- they would shape the research to get to a -- get to a point where they want it to be.
CULLENThe one thing I found interesting, when I was in Belfast, last week, in talking to some of the people that gave their interviews, yeah, they openly acknowledge that they don’t agree with Adams and the direction he took the Republican movement. But they said, that's irrelevant to their history. The way they view it, if BC did not record their history, they would never -- know one would know what they think because they fall outside the mainstream of Republican thought, these days.
CULLENSo they are, sort of -- they're not dissidents in the sense they endorse the dissident groups that are carrying on violence now, but they're certainly dissidents in the sense that they don't agree with what the Republican leadership settled for. And they feel as though it's very important that their side of the conflict is recorded for history.
NNAMDIWell, it was recorded for history but as Zachary Schrag, in most coverage, we've heard this collection at BT -- BC, referred to as an oral history project. But that description may be it glosses over a very important fact, and that is, that the people conducting these interviews that were mentioned earlier, were not oral historians. Why is that important?
SCHRAGRight. So this was a project designed to document history but it was not a project run, for example, by the Boston College History Department. And, in fact, the history department at Boston College has been rather public in its dismay that it was not brought in. The interviewers at Moloney is journalist, the other interviewers, I believe, both have doctorates in political science, clearly these are related fields. But it does not necessarily flow that they were aware of the training in methods of oral history that go back several decades, since the historians started picking up tape recorders.
SCHRAGAnd this is not to say that historians have a lot of experience with subpoenas. We do have presidents where political scientists and sociologists have their interviewed subpoenaed and had people been more aware of this, then maybe they would've taken more precautions. But I do think it would've been possibly helpful to have more historians involved in the process, talking it over. As it is, neither the interviewers nor the Boston College librarians were able, between them, to work out all the implications of their plans.
NNAMDIAmong oral historians, you just implied by saying what the Boston College History Departments responses, but among oral historians, this case has been closely watched. And you say, that some people are trying to distance themselves from the BC project, why?
SCHRAGWell, in an interview with the chronicle of higher education, Mary Marshall Clark of Columbia University, who's certainly one of the leading oral history experts, repeatedly said this was not an oral history project. And, I think, what she meant by that was that there are, again, methods developed over the decades to try to avoid this kind of situation where promises are made and not kept. For a long time, oral historians have tried to offer narrators the option of sealing parts of their interviews, so that if there's something that they think should be part of the historical record but are not quite ready to go public with, right then, it can be sealed for a matter of decades.
SCHRAGNow, again, we've not had a lot of experience in the profession with actually subpoenas coming in and so even if a bunch of expert archivists and historians had gotten together on this, it's not entirely clear to me that they would've been able to come up with workable safeguards to allow this project to go forward.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for it, you can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you make of this BC project and the unintended consequences that it has had, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Kevin Cullen, in the last decade, Belfast has changed dramatically in some ways and stayed much the same in others. What did you find in both respects on your recent visit?
CULLENWell, I mean, I've been going there for almost 30 years. So I kind of knew it in the bad old days and certainly from a cosmetic point of view, Belfast is shiny and new. I was so struck by the Fitzwilliam Hotel, which is just shear plate-glass window. And that would've been sheer folly to have that thing up in the '70s and '80s.
NNAMDIWhen bombs are going off everywhere.
CULLENYeah. It just was -- I mean, I actually -- some of the richest people I met in Ireland, over the years in the North of Ireland, were glaziers because they're very busy during that stuff. But it -- the, sort of, underlying problems in that society, particularly, one of segregation, has not changed much in the year since the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, the, sort of, ironically named Peace Lines, they put walls up to separate working class republican nationalist areas from working class loyalist areas.
CULLENThey've actually increased in numbers since the Peace Agreement. They're many -- I think, there are probably three or four dozen of them that have gone up in the intervening years. You know, it -- when the Peace Agreement was signed in 1998, about five percent of kids in Northern Ireland went to integrated schools. That number has not changed one iota in the intervening years. So there's sort of a -- here in America, you know, in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, our Supreme Court made it very clear that separate but equal was not acceptable in the United States, under our Constitution.
CULLENBut in fact, that is exactly how the society functions in Northern Ireland now. It is separate but equal. You know, there's equal funding given to Catholic schools and state schools, which for all intensive purposes are Protestant schools. And the other thing that I really picked up on the ground, in there, is you know, when people talk about, you know, the North of Ireland, is this sort of, textbook case of how attractable conflicts can be resolved. That's true as far as getting to say yes, in 1998.
CULLENBut they really struggled since then to figure out how to deal with the legacy issues, to deal with the past. And I think the BC dilemma or conundrum, whatever you want to call it, debacle, fits into -- with this micro -- it's a microcosm of the society not being able to confront, unlike, say, in South Africa where they had a very formalized truth and reconciliation process. They don't have one in Northern Ireland and it shows. So you've had Peace Mail investigation, say, it's a bloody Sunday and to different individual killings and controversy's.
CULLENAnd then you have the BC thing with, sort of, this attempt at, well let's put it out there and maybe historians will make sense of it down the road. And obviously that went to pot. But I think, it also, the reason it happened is that the Irish have not been able to figure out who gets to decide what their legacy is and who tells that story. And really, the stuff that I picked up on the ground, this was -- this was really, even though it is a problem in the loyalist community, it's much -- a much bigger problem in the Republican community because there are Republicans fighting over who gets to tell the story.
CULLENAnd it's obviously Sinn Fein is the mainstream, the political power. And then you have these people that have fallen away from that group and who actually resent that group. And so, that's why the arms struggle of Irish Republicanism has been replaced by a legacy struggle.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on Boston Colleges oral history project and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But you can still call us at 800-433-8850. What kind of rigor and standards do you think should be applied to oral history projects, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the Boston College oral history project and the troubles in Northern Ireland. We're talking with Kevin Cullen. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a metro columnist for the Boston Globe. He's co-author of "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice." He joins us by phone. Joining us in studio is Zachary Schrag. He's a professor in the department of history and art history at George Mason University whose books include "Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences," and "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro."
NNAMDIKevin, Gerry Adams' address in May may have made international headlines but with conflicts raging around the world, it has since faded for many but not all. What kind of ripple effect is it having in Belfast?
CULLENWell, I think people are curious to see if in fact this is just, you know, a political show to drag him in before the elections. Frankly if it was an attempt by police to embarrass him, it had the opposite effect. Sinn Fein's vote was surprisingly much better than expected, both in local and European elections, both north and south. So there is always that sort of tendency when the British authorities -- or in this case, you know, the Police Service of Northern Ireland -- when they are seen to do something that is seen as unfair, that will help Sinn Fein, not hurt it.
CULLENThat said, I think people are sitting back and saying, are they going to charge him? And if in fact they do charge him, I think there could be a serious effect on the peace process if only it will allow the people that are trying to kind of radicalize a new generation to take up arms. They would -- their hand would be strengthened. They would be able to go to young people in Northern Ireland and say, hey look at this the Sinners did everything the Brits asked them to do and look what the Brits are still doing to them. And they're not -- there's a real level of hypocrisy that I've heard people talk about.
CULLENYou know, the police agency that is demanding access to the entire oral history archive at Boston College refuse to submit their own records to the police ombudsman's office which is trying to conduct an independent review of at least 60 cases in which police offices and British military officials were accused of extrajudicial killings during the troubles.
CULLENSo, you know, you talk to people on the ground there, both in Republican and Loyalist camps, they say, oh yeah, the cops want to come after us but they won't go after themselves. And so there's a lot of frustration at that level.
NNAMDIDo have to mention the presence of the British, which is what Brendan in Vienna, Va. would like to remind us of. Brendan, your turn.
BRENDANKojo, thank you. You have a fascinating program today. I'm a George Mason University history graduate and Irish American, so a great show today. Yes, wanted to comment on the fact that in the introduction you mentioned a conflict between the Loyalist paramilitaries and the IRA. Just want to add that a man combatant would be the British Army in Northern Ireland who the IRA would certainly argue that they were in conflict with as part of a national liberation struggle to unite Ireland.
BRENDANAnd also wanted to comment on the -- since you mentioned the Loyalist paramilitaries on the collusion between the British government, the British Army and the Loyalist paramilitary. And I'll take my comments off the air.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Kevin, the violence may have subsided but you note that language remains loaded in Northern Ireland. And sharing even an intensely personal story from the time can be dangerous. Explain to us what a tout is and what can happen to someone labeled as one.
CULLENA tout is the local slang for an informer. And it is probably the most provocative loaded term anywhere in the North of Ireland. And throughout the troubles, you know, touts would turn up with hoods over their heads, their hands tied behind their back and at least one bullet in their head. And it was obviously the most ignominious end for anybody in those circumstances.
CULLENAnd Irish history is replete with, you know, the whole -- the specter of the informer hangs over so much of Irish rebellion down through the centuries. And so after Gerry Adams was arrested in May, graffiti appears all over parts of Belfast. And it said, Boston College touts, the implication being anybody who took part in the Boston College project was touting because they were talking about IRA operations.
CULLENNow I spoke specifically with two people who had been identified publically as having given interviews to BC. One is Ricky O'Rawe who was actually the spokesman for the hunger strikers in 1981. He was one of the blanket men who refused to wear prison uniforms when he was doing his time for IRA activity. Other fellow I talked to is Tommy Gorman, another IRA veteran I think spent about 13 years in prison for IRA activity, Escaped from prison twice.
CULLENThey saw that as a direct threat on their lives. They believe that there are people, the erstwhile comrades who would consider themselves justified in killing them because the touted. That's the way it's being seen. And again, in the story I told -- and this is -- I didn't even know about the story and, I mean, I had -- I'm in Northern Ireland pretty regularly, but I somehow missed this one.
CULLENA few years ago a guy named Jerry Bradley who was a member of the IRA in North Belfast, he wrote his own book and he did not vet it. He did not send the manuscript for vetting with the Republican leadership. And after his book came out -- and Jerry -- in an interview he gave he said, you know, I didn't name anybody. This was my story and I didn't submit it for -- I'm not going to have my story censored. And very shortly after the book came out, it appeared on the walls in the (word?) which is the neighborhood where Jerry lived. And he was accused of being a tout. And he eventually left his neighborhood and was despairing and he killed himself.
CULLENSo there are real implications for this word and it's thrown around kind of willy-nilly in circumstances like this. There are people pointing fingers at each other and publically accusing each other of being touts. And again, that is a word that carries enormous consequence in the North of Ireland.
NNAMDIZachary Schrag, these tapes contain narrators implicating other in acts of violence, which raises all kinds of murky questions about slander, about liable. What recourse, if any, do those who took part in the project likely have?
SCHRAGWell, unfortunately there's not good law right now. So Boston College has sent back the interviews to those it can. And Mr. Cullen's article describes one set of interviews being burned by the person who gave it. In the long term we do have federal protections for some kinds of research, if you're doing health research, for example, with sex workers or drug users who you know they commit crimes but you're trying to do public health research, you can get protections from subpoena for that.
SCHRAGIf you want to research criminals and are willing to burn the tapes afterwards, you can get shield law protections from the Department of Justice for that. But what we don't have in U.S. federal law are broader protections where people doing this kind of research could really guarantee that the materials would not be released under subpoena. And until we have that we can't get the kind of reconciliation that Mr. Cullen talked about.
NNAMDIAs a journalist on a live broadcast, I ask a guest a question, you answer it. That answer's out there for everyone to hear, maybe read at a later date, whether it's tomorrow, five, ten years from now. But oral history works on a very different set of assumptions and procedures with a very different end in mind. The saying goes that journalists write the first draft of history, so what needs to happen to create a final or more definitive draft?
SCHRAGWell, ideally in an oral history project you go to a narrator, go back and forth multiple times, you do a recorded interview, you transcribe it, the narrator reads it, maybe adds some things, takes out some things. And what you're trying to do is to get a polished finished narrative that the narrator thinks really represents his or her experiences in position. And that will last as an archive. It's almost like writing a memoir only without limiting it to the relatively few people who have the time and money and resources to actually publish a memoir.
SCHRAGThe problem, again, is that if there are going to be people coming into that process, either through subpoena, Freedom of Information Act requests, which is a problem for those of us who work at public universities, then that bond between interviewer and narrator is broken. And the narrator can't be as candid as he or she would like. And you have to limit things to what's on the record.
SCHRAGFortunately for most oral history projects that's fine. Most oral history projects are not about unsolved murders but it's still unfortunate that we have this kind of project hanging over us and perhaps deterring future research.
NNAMDIKevin Cullen, the nature of truth and memory issues of ownership of a story, who gets to write the history, all central to this current conflict. As a journalist who's covered both international conflicts and written about the havoc wreaked by Whitey Bulger in Boston, what do you make of the chilling effect that remains in this case and so many decades after the fact?
CULLENWell, all I can tell you is the people that I interviewed who gave interviews said they would never in a million years have agreed to do it if they thought their stuff could come up before they died. They really -- now, you know, we can go back and forth of whether BC was clear enough on this, whether the project director and the interviewers were clear enough on it to the people. But there's no doubt in my mind talking to these people that they thought it was not going to come out until they were dead.
CULLENAnd so will it have a chilling effect? I would think it would have to. I would think any time you approach somebody and asked them to detail what is essentially the violation of laws or committing crimes, even if they would justify it as, you know, an act of war, an act of, you know, natural self determination, they would be -- I would think they would be very cautious. They would point to this case. UI think it's, you know, unmistakably true that this is a test case, that this has set a precedent. And I would say it set a very, very bad precedent. I think it's bad for oral history. I think it's bad for conflict resolution.
CULLENBecause I remember, you know, there are guys on the Loyalist side I talked to, they really thought they were doing a public service. They thought they were helping people down the road. If people could see why they did what they did and also explain why they stopped when they stopped that lessons -- valuable lessons about conflict and conflict resolution would be imparted. And now they feel that was all for naught. And as Plum Smith, one of the leading Loyalists puts it, he says, I don't think anybody would ever sit down and give a candid account in a case like this again.
NNAMDIWell, Kevin, Northern Ireland's peace process did not end with a Good Friday agreement or the 2006 amendment to it. Gerry Adams as part of a Sinn Fein delegation sat down with Prime Minister David Cameron last week. Where, in your -- looking in your crystal ball, do you see the continued process going next?
CULLENWell, first of all, I don't think it's likely that we would go back to armed conflict. I mean, there are dissident groups on the ground, at least on the Republican side, who believe that they have the right to engage in armed struggle. That said, I think those days are really gone.
CULLENThe other part of this is obviously that you can always reignite issues in Ireland with -- if people are seen to be treated unfairly. And that's why potential prosecutions that arise from this, I think, could have a dramatically detrimental effect on the peace process. But I think the other thing is, this issue of the past and dealing with it, I think it's something that this society hasn't really taken formal steps to handle with. The piecemeal nature of truth recollection or truth recovery I think has actually had a negative effect.
CULLENAnd unfortunately, you know, there is no Mandela in Northern Ireland. There is no archbishop Tutu. There is no person that you could point to as sort of being the arbiter of how we're going to handle this. I mean, Richard Haass from the United States government is actually over there, and Megan O'Sullivan from Harvard. And they've been trying to help the Irish deal with their legacy issues. How do they deal with the past? How do Unionists celebrate their traditions without offending Nationalists and vice versa?
CULLENSo I think this is something that's going to go on. We're in a post-conflict situation in Northern Ireland. And I think it's that old truism. Sometimes it's harder to keep the peace than to make the peace. And there are a lot of, a lot of struggles that this society has in front of it. And hopefully they will get through it.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Kevin Cullen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a metro columnist for the Boston Globe, co-author of "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice." Kevin, thank you for joining us.
CULLENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIZachary Schrag is a professor in the department of history and art history at George Mason University. His books include "Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences," and "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." Zachary Schrag, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be joined by Louisa Lim talking about her book "The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Square (sic) Revisited." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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