Remember the idea that the Good Friday Agreement would end the Troubles and bring peace in the North? It’s a tenuous peace at best, and certainly not as tranquil as most Americans believe. There are still shootings, bombs, and more every day in the region. We don’t hear about it in America most of the time because the Good Friday agreement was the jewel of the Clinton administration but it happens more than anyone would hope. In the last week or so, there were at least four pipe bombs planted under cars resulting in mass evacuations and one explosion. There were also at least two “paramilitary-style” shootings, two large protests, a vandalized memorial, another bomb scare in Derry, and an article on the people who are already amassing tires and pallets for their bonfires in July. A Catholic church was spray painted with Sectarian graffiti that supports the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and in other areas you can see an ever increasing number of tags supporting the IRA. The Union Jack will fly on some government buildings for the first time in nearly a decade. Martin McGuinness has been warned of a serious assassination plot against him where he’d be killed with a rocket – not a gun or a bomb, but a rocket. How peaceful does this sound to you?
It’s a bit of a challenge for Americans to get information about any of these stories. Technology makes that easier than it used to be, but you have to be interested enough to really search. Most Americans get their only glimpse of the North of Ireland from new U2 videos and we hear next to nothing about the violence. But conflict is seeping out into the daily lives of the people again and it is getting worse. Many are impatient and feel like the political machine churns too slowly – after all it’s been 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement was solidified. In that time, many feel like the changes that have been made were not an improvement and neither side of the societal divide feels protected. It’s a no win situation.
The peacemakers are conflicted themselves. Many are former fighters in the war between the Irish and the British. It is a battle that spans centuries and is full of strife and confusion and many of the people who negotiated this fragile peace were once leaders in that violent struggle. Politicians on both sides are haunted by their alleged paramilitary pasts and the ongoing investigations into them. Gerry Adams was detained last year when recordings emerged that named him as one of the people responsible for the death of Jean McConville, a mother of ten who was killed by the (P)IRA over forty years ago. He was released but is still hounded with rumors of involvement. It’s obvious that he was and always will be the target of that ongoing investigation. Now, on the other side of the aisle is Winston Rea, who is also feeling the heat of the interrogation lights and is fighting to keep the details of his Loyalist paramilitary past from emerging.
This is all due to one thing. The Belfast Project was a fascinating experiment in recording the oral history of the Troubles. I am still more than a little obsessed with it. Paramilitaries on both sides of the conflict gave candid accounts of their past under the promise that nothing would be released until they either consented or all parties involved were dead. It existed under the radar for about five years until one of the project leads, Ed Moloney, published a book called ‘Voices From the Grave‘ featuring the histories given by David Ervine and Brendan Hughes. Suddenly, the project was out of the bag and the tapes were a public issue – sought after by journalists, researchers, police departments, and governments. The project found itself in the middle of a logistical nightmare on the wrong end of a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty and multiple subpoenas. The promises of safety given to the interviewees were not the guarantee they thought they were. Boston College’s involvement was intentionally murky from the beginning and the school claims that they told Moloney that the contracts given would not stand up to a subpoena. This is an allegation that he denies and one that he and other interviewers certainly didn’t pass on to their subjects.
Unfortunately, Boston College was right. The first subpoena was a shock they were unprepared for. At the time, many politicians in both America and Ireland were against handing over the recordings. They couldn’t stop the release of some of the tapes, although they did succeed in scaling back the number that were turned over to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (the PSNI). Many people were worried that it would set a precedent and that the authorities would widen their scope – using the tapes to find crimes, instead of already having an investigation in place. Even more were concerned about privacy laws and what would happen to those who spoke, since admitting membership in many of these groups is punishable by death at the hands of your cohorts and arrest at the hands of the authorities. Local experts, historians, and lawyers warned that it would undermine the Peace Accord to allow further seizures of the recordings.
Given the rising violence in the North, attacking those who are trying to hold it together is a bad decision but the PSNI are doing just that when they go after leaders like Gerry Adams and Winston Rea. Worse still, the detectives are trying to find a way to get all of the tapes and if the current proceedings are any indication, they eventually will. All of the predictions and worries could then come true. Those who led their constituents away from the gun would be in jeopardy and those who spoke to researchers would be dead.
Winston Rea is one of 20 Loyalist paramilitaries who recorded sessions for the oral history project. There were 27 Republicans involved in it as well. So far, the PSNI has arrested or questioned many Republicans about crimes that were revealed in the tapes, but precious few on the Loyalist side have been investigated at all. It has been seen as another example of a long legacy of selective prosecution. Many people think that they are pursuing Winston Rea just to keep up an appearance of neutrality and fairness, after coming under fire for being one-sided. Whatever their reasons may be, it appears that “Winkie” will be the next victim of the well intentioned but terribly executed Belfast Project. So far he has been able to prohibit the PSNI from listening to the tapes, but they are no longer being kept on American soil and if he loses the next round, they will come for him.
I don’t know what it’s like to be surrounded by paramilitary groups and touched by their violence every day but I do know that using these tapes to prosecute them—whether they’ve left that life behind or not—is wrong. These histories were supposed to be used to educate people and to highlight the effects of war on those who fought during the Troubles; they were never supposed to be legal confessions or road maps for the police. It may have been Voices from the Grave that boosted the project into the spotlight, but as soon as it was there, everyone involved had a duty to protect those who had given their stories in good faith and under false pretenses. In fact, despite my love of history and my desire to hear or read more from those interviews, I would light the match on a bonfire of those recordings myself, without any hesitation in order to protect all the participants.
The relative peace that exists in the North is precarious. At the very least, the information contained on those tapes will lead to a few reprisal killings and possibly the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement, especially if authorities continue to go after those who created it. At worst, it will be the spark that ushers in a new era of Troubles and hundreds of new victims and collateral damage. It seems to me that no recordings are worth that possibility and it’s a shame that the PSNI and Boston College do not agree.
Even if it’s an exercise in futility, I urge you to write to Boston College and let them know that people are still paying attention to how they handle the project. While you’re writing letters that will likely never get read, send one off to Secretary of State John Kerry as well, since he was one of the original senators against the release of the tapes. Reminding him of that now that he could potentially stop their removal would be great.
For more information on the Belfast Project and updates on the status of the tapes, please go to this wonderful blog here