Living Voices

Voices from the Grave is the topic of the day, or rather another result of its existence is. The bestselling book made headlines when it was published and not just because it was a gripping, page turner. It made headlines because almost as soon as it was published, it sparked off terrible controversy, a multitude of investigations, and court battles that continue to this day. In fact, now there’s a whole new chapter.

If you somehow have never heard of Voices From the Grave, a brief overview is in order. The book was born out of an oral history experiment at Boston college shortly after the Good Friday agreement went into effect. Researchers met with former and current paramilitaries at Boston College to record their tales. They were able to convince fighters on both sides of the Irish divide to candidly talk to them over a series of years, with the promise that none of the tapes would ever see the light of day until each of the storytellers were dead. Over forty people believed them and spilled their guts about the time they had spent in various paramilitary groups throughout the North of Ireland, and they did it on tape. The project  was a sort of confessional for these fighters and they thought that they would be protected.

The academic experiment went on quietly for years and likely would have continued except that Voices From the Grave was released after the deaths of  David Ervine and Brendan Hughes. The book chronicled both men and the actions they had taken on behalf of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, respectively. It used their own words to tell their tales and it was a gripping blockbuster. Soon after its successful launch, the participants realized the serious consequences of being involved in the project. The two men featured in the book were dead, but many of the incidents they recalled were still under investigation. Many of the former friends or comrades they named are still alive. The book’s success blew the lid off the entire Belfast Project and the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the British government used the United States court system to mount a legal campaign for access to the tapes held at Boston College. The university has been dealing with lawyers and subpoenas ever since the first book was published. (In theory, Voices was supposed to be the first in a series).

The latest subpoena for the recordings came only last week. This time around, the US government has ordered Boston College to turn Anthony McIntyre’s tapes over to the PSNI. McIntyre worked closely with Boston College and Ed Molony on this project and was instrumental in making it happen. He reached out to Republican friends and former comrades for the Oral History project and many of them ended up giving statements after being reassured by researchers (and now a friend) that they’d be kept safe until each of the men died. McIntyre conducted many of the interviews himself and he gave a personal account to other researchers about his time in the (P)IRA. The court’s demand is ambiguous, claiming that the PSNI is entitled to McIntyre’s statements, notes, and anything related to the project. Such broad phrasing makes it is easy to imagine that they’re going after all of the Republicans who participated in the Belfast Project in one shot, since they’re demanding the notes of the guy who collected most of their stories. Obviously, Anthony McIntyre is refusing to cooperate but ultimately the university owns and houses the project and it is up to them whether to cooperate or not. Their track record is not great.

It will be interesting to see if Boston College fights just a little harder for McIntyre than it did for the others that they eventually released. McIntyre lives and works in New York and has close ties to the college. He is one of the first names listed in the introduction to ‘Voices’ and in it the college “profoundly thanks” him for helping to make the project happen. One would hope that the college protects all participants equally, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a more vigorous argument made against this latest request.

Anyone who read ‘Voices From the Grave’ should have known by two chapters into the book that while the men speaking were dead, the statute of limitations on some of what they were talking about was not. There was no way the promises made by the college or their researchers to those being interviewed could ever withstand the Patriot Act (or a legal request from an allied country that was sure to use said Act to get what they wanted) and it would only be a matter of time before the U.K. came calling for the research. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Boston College failed to protect its own researchers and reputation, and they’ve failed to protect the participants in the Belfast Project too. The university should have immediately set fire to the whole vault when the first subpoena came down the pipe and they were told that they’d have to comply. Instead, recordings have been released and used against those who gave them and I doubt this time will end any differently, even if the College puts up more of a fight. I’ll admit I’m a little curious as to why the PSNI have been specifically pursuing McIntyre’s tapes for so long but I’d rather never know the answer, if that meant that the government(s) didn’t get to know either. Sadly that’s not the case and I’m sure we’ll all get a big reveal as soon as the authorities get the tapes and start bringing charges. After all, if there’s one thing this idealistic project has proven over and over, it’s that it isn’t the voices from the grave that anyone ever has to worry about. It’s the recorded and secret words of the living.

(For more in-depth analysis of the Belfast Project, Boston College, and the pending legal proceedings  please check out this blog).

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