MICHAEL CLIFFORD: ’Boston tape’ claims should give us pause

THESE tapes just keep on coming. First, there were the ‘Lowry tapes’, then the ‘Anglo tapes’, and now the ‘Boston tapes’ are hitting the headlines.

Whatever about the alleged crimes and misdemeanours ‘exposed’ in the ‘Lowry and Anglo tapes’, the Boston recordings mine a much deeper seam.

Some people believe that the tapes contain information that may help to solve the murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who was killed by the IRA in 1972.

The emergence of these tapes, at this time, throws up serious questions.

Can such recordings assist in finding out who was responsible for one of the most barbaric killings of the Troubles?

Or, is it all a sham, being used more for political purposes than for a criminal investigation?

The tapes were made a number of years ago, when Boston College began compiling an oral history of the Troubles. Under the title ‘Belfast Project’, the college accessed interviews with a number of people who had been engaged in violence on both sides of the divide.

Highly regarded journalist, Ed Maloney, conducted the interviews, in conjunction with researcher, Anthony McIntrye, who had served time for his role in violent republican activities.

All of the participants gave the interviews on the strict basis that they wouldn’t be used until after their deaths.

Thus, they felt free to speak, in the knowledge that there would be no repercussions.

An oral project of this kind is greatly valued through the long eye of history. It can fill gaps, flesh out narratives of what happened, in particular violent incidents, and gather details of how public events were manipulated or handled within paramilitary organisations.

It also provides an insight into the minds and actions of those who felt compelled to cross a threshold into the dark place where killing other human beings was regarded as acceptable.

The value of these recordings is heightened by the failure to establish a ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission in the North.

At least two of the interviewees, David Irvine, once of the UVF, and Brendan Hughes, formerly a senior IRA operative, have since died. A TV programme based on their interviews was broadcast a few years ago.

Another interviewee who has died is Dolours Price. She died last January, after bouts of mental ill-health, which may have been connected with her time in prison in the 1970s, when she and her sister, Marian, were convicted for bombings in London.

Price was disillusioned with Sinn Féin’s role in the peace process. She and her sister were particularly critical of Gerry Adams.

Marian Price, who had been free on licence, was returned to prison in 2011 over dissident activity. She was released again last May.

Meanwhile, Dolours Price let it be known that her interview for Boston College contained details of how she had been involved in the death of Jean McConville, a killing she said was sanctioned by Adams, whom, she said, was the officer commanding the IRA in Belfast in 1972.

The killing-disappearance of McConville is one of the more barbaric actions of the IRA.

McConville was a mother of 10 young children, and suspected of passing low-grade information to the authorities. She was allegedly taken from her home, driven to Co Louth, murdered, and buried in a secret grave. Her body was not found until 2003.

On discovery of her body, the PSNI launched a murder investigation.

That led to officers requesting the Price interviews, and other recordings.

A major legal tussle ensued, which went all the way to the US Supreme Court. The court decided that the PSNI should have access to the interviews, and, last week, two officers travelled to the US to take possession of the tapes.

But to what end?

In the first instance, it is not at all clear that any allegations are made about Adams, or anybody else, in relation to the killing of McConville.

Dolours Price suffered from mental-health issues, which would render anything she said on the tape as suspect. Her state of mind, for a number of years prior to her death, was reportedly such that she would never have been well enough to give evidence in a trial, if it ever came to that.

Now that she is dead, it’s difficult to see how anything she may have said on tape could have any value.

The recordings would require the interviewers, Maloney and McIntyre, to give evidence of authenticity in a criminal trial and both have intimated they would do nothing of the sort.

So what’s going on? Is the PSNI on a fishing expedition? Is the exercise merely an opportunity to stick it to Adams and Sinn Féin?

One repercussion is that the compilation of oral histories has been dealt a major blow. Interviewing people for such projects, on an understanding that what is said remains secret until after the subject’s death, is a valuable element of recording history. Any potential subject, who may have been willing to partake in such an exercise, will surely be dissuaded by the ‘Boston tapes’ saga.

In the US, senator Robert Menendez, who chairs the senate foreign-relations committee, has written to secretary of state, John Kerry, expressing concern that the release of the tapes could “still have the effect of threatening the precious peace won by the Good Friday Agreement”. Irish-American journalist and publisher, Niall O’Dowd, has expressed similar fears.

O’Dowd wrote in his Irish Voice newspaper, this week, that “the British securocrats’ agenda is to seek to dismantle the peace process by undermining support in the nationalist community by such actions.”

You don’t have to go along with that conspiracy theory, but there is definitely a case for concern.

Meanwhile, in the Republic, the body politic sees the issue not as one of concern, but opportunity.

Last Tuesday, at leader’s questions in the Dail, Michael Martin mentioned Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s recent visit to Boston, and Martin also discussed the tapes.

Martin urged Adams to make a statement on the murder of McConville. Then, Kenny got in on the act, challenging Adams to state, on the Dáil record, that he was not associated with the crime. Once more, Adams denied any involvement.

Instead of examining any issues around the release of the tapes, the two party leaders saw the subject as great fodder for a routine cut at Adams about his past.

While we all get tired of Adams’ hollow denials about IRA involvement, using a serious issue like this as nothing more than a stick with which to beat the Sinn Féin man speaks volumes about the priorities of the two party leaders. As long as it brings discomfort to Adams, then it’s a good thing, seems to be the attitude of Kenny and Martin.

At that rate, we’ll be waiting a long time before an Irish government gets around to making proper inquiries as to what exactly is going on with the ‘Boston tapes’, and whether it merits any concern for the peace process.


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