Why our oral his­tory isn’t worth the pa­per it’s writ­ten on if Bos­ton Col­lege case suc­ceeds

An­thony McIntyre’s par­tial vic­tory against the PSNI is wel­come, writes Malachi O’Do­herty, but with Stor­mont in abeyance, a price­less historical re­source is at grave risk

Belfast Telegraph - - COMMENT -

It was prob­a­bly in­evitable that the po­lice, once they learned that for­mer paramil­i­taries had told their sto­ries to Bos­ton Col­lege re­searchers, would lust af­ter the chance to read their scripts. The in­ter­views, con­ducted by Dr An­thony McIntyre, an old Provo him­self, promised to have price­less ma­te­rial in them.

With his in­sight into the para­mil­i­tary life, hav­ing lived it to the full, McIntyre was likely to reach the parts that other aca­demics couldn’t.

When I first heard of the project, I thought it was won­der­ful. Here were the gun­men and bombers telling their sto­ries — on the con­di­tion that they would not be made pub­lic un­til af­ter they died.

Jour­nal­ists and writ­ers and in­ter­ested groups, like vic­tims and their fam­i­lies, the se­cu­rity ser­vices and plain his­to­ri­ans, had a re­source that would open up to them to po­ten­tially help to right the wrongs of pro­pa­ganda and lies.

And there wasn’t much else hap­pen­ing to as­sure us of a legacy of in­for­ma­tion and at­ti­tude that would po­ten­tially counter the half-truths and am­bi­gu­i­ties of peace­mak­ing.

None of this was go­ing to be good enough for the po­lice, how­ever. They weren’t go­ing to be happy to have to wait for an old gun­man to die be­fore they could read his confession.

They would want him in the dock — even if they could only se­cure a two-year sen­tence for crimes com­mit­ted be­fore the Good Fri­day Agree­ment in 1998.

And it wasn’t their job to ask what the rest of us might be los­ing when they went af­ter the in­ter­views; but what we were los­ing was mas­sive.

When the first sub­poe­nas against the ma­te­rial emerged, sev­eral of those who gave in­ter­views asked for the record­ings and tran­scripts to be re­turned to them. Those have all prob­a­bly been de­stroyed now. Cer­tainly, some of them have.

And a legacy of the fright that mo­men­tar­ily oblig­ing paramil­i­taries got is that they clammed up for re­searchers, or, at least, be­came more guarded.

They are not go­ing to con­cede in­for­ma­tion that might in­crim­i­nate them.

This is a rad­i­cal change. In the ear­lier pe­ri­ods of the peace process, some for­mer paramil­i­taries had been re­mark­ably frank with writ­ers like Kevin Too­lis and Ed Moloney and with the Press.

And, thank­fully, re­search con­tin­ues be­yond the scare that the PSNI cre­ated, but al­ways with the thought in mind that the po­lice have a will to make ar­rests and get con­vic­tions, even for of­fences com­mit­ted decades ago. And even that they are push­ing for re­sults that al­most in­evitably elude them.

The strong­est sig­nal of this in­ten­tion was the ar­rest of Gerry Adams in May 2014. Repub­li­cans said at the time that this was po­lit­i­cally-moti-de­vel­oped

❝ The po­lice weren’t happy to wait for an old gun­man to die be­fore they could read his confession

Project was po­ten­tially of im­mense value to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of trau­ma­tised fam­i­lies

vated ac­tion by “dark forces” in the PSNI. It was, in fact, no less than a de­ter­mined at­tempt to put Adams in jail.

And while those of us who write the his­tory of the Trou­bles might ful­mi­nate about Adams’s blithe re­fusal to ever con­cede he was an IRA leader, he knows that, if he did own up to it now, he would be ar­rested again. The ef­fort to cre­ate a record of the past through oral his­tory is now be­ing in­hib­ited by the po­lice.

That would not be such a prob­lem if the other mech­a­nisms avail­able to us for se­cur­ing in­for­ma­tion about the past were func­tion­ing. But they aren’t.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) col­lated a huge amount of valu­able in­for­ma­tion but dis­trib­uted it widely to in­ter­ested fam­i­lies, so there is no cen­tral record of its work avail­able to us. And some of the re­ports that have come into the pub­lic do­main have proven to be re­mark­ably slight, re­peat­ing only what was known, in­clud­ing clips from news­pa­pers and ref­er­ences to books.

In ef­fect, they re­cy­cle what oral his­tory we al­ready had, rather than add to it.

The Fresh Start agree­ment plans for an oral his­tory ar­chive but with­out the Ex­ec­u­tive sit­ting to al­lo­cate re­sources to such a scheme, it is cur­rently in abeyance.

There was a plan to cre­ate a peace cen­tre at the Maze prison site but that was scrapped by Peter Robin­son as First Min­is­ter, out of a fear that it would en­dorse the IRA.

Dur­ing talks with the par­ties on the legacy of the past, Richard Haass pro­posed a mu­seum of the Trou­bles, an idea I had my­self aired pre­vi­ously in ar­ti­cles in this pa­per and oth­ers.

There were no se­ri­ous tak­ers, al­though there is a Trou­bles ar­chive at the Ul­ster Mu­seum and a record of the art of the Trou­bles, com­piled with the as­sis­tance of the Arts Coun­cil of North­ern Ire­land.

And there have been other fruit­ful projects, like the BBC’s se­ries of vic­tim sto­ries, which were aired through one year in the late-1990s. Gath­er­ing sto­ries of the past is part of the work of all me­dia out­lets.

Jour­nal­ists, how­ever, tend to fo­cus on the story of the day and not to col­late their work.

The ex­cep­tion to this was the re­mark­able Lost Lives ar­chive, a record of all the killings of the Trou­bles pe­riod. But Lost Lives was not oral his­tory; oral his­tory is a record of the sto­ries of in­di­vid­u­als. It is mem­oir.

It is a flawed record in many ways, be­cause peo­ple who were at the same lo­ca­tion will re­mem­ber dif­fer­ently what hap­pened

there. Some­times they are demon­stra­bly wrong.

The Bos­ton Col­lege project was a brilliant ef­fort to draw on the sto­ries of the paramil­i­taries.

The po­lice are con­tin­u­ing to seek to ad­vance cases against some of those who told their sto­ries, even though, as ev­i­dence, they ap­pear not to be strong.

Dr McIntyre him­self has legally chal­lenged the po­lice ef­forts to ac­cess his own story and has now scored a point in the court bat­tle.

The po­lice have been given two weeks to ex­plain why a “de­fec­tive process”, which brought McIntyre’s record­ing back to Belfast, should not be grounds for send­ing it back to Bos­ton.

The case pro­ceeds against Ivor Bell, al­legedly one of McIntyre’s in­ter­vie­wees. The de­fence ar­gues that he suf­fers from de­men­tia and is not fit to be tried.

The Bos­ton Col­lege project was po­ten­tially of im­mense value to his­to­ri­ans and to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of trau­ma­tised fam­i­lies and it has been scup­pered by the po­lice, blun­der­ing in, to lit­tle ben­e­fit to them­selves, tram­pling in size nines over the best prospect we have had of an historical cor­rec­tive.

They are right to be get­ting on with their work while the politi­cians fail to de­velop an al­ter­na­tive. But there are costs be­yond se­cu­rity con­cerns that no one is se­ri­ously yet tak­ing into ac­count.

Bos­ton Col­lege where in­ter­views were recorded and (be­low) An­thony McIntyre

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