This Wednesday in a Boston courthouse a crucial legal battle will be played out. It is a consequence of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) contempt for academic research and the protection of confidential sources. While the “troubles” in the North of Ireland may be over for most people, the PSNI is one state agency determined to poke at the hornets’ nest that is the region’s politically violent past. In doing so it displays wanton indifference to the caution urged by amongst others Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, a former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and current head of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, who warned that investigating the past “would blow apart the degree of consensus we have achieved.”
At the heart of the upcoming courtroom drama is an oral history project commissioned by Boston College between 2001 and 2006. Its aim was to enhance awareness of the long running violent political conflict in Ireland. It sought narratives from republican and loyalist activists who could offer unrivalled insight. It promised that all the material archived would be securely deposited in Boston College where it would remain inaccessible in all circumstances unless prior approval was given by the donor or the storyteller died.
The extent to which the PSNI is successful in its attempt to seize academic research will prove ruinous to public understanding of the Northern Irish conflict. It will drain the pool of knowledge that society may draw upon in order to keep itself better informed. The judicial outcome in a Boston courtroom will determine the ability of non-state actors, principally, academics, journalists and historians to collate information crucial to a more rounded public understanding. In the words of a prominent civil liberties lawyer in the US the move “could forever chill groundbreaking and important research.”
As it turned out Boston College, despite being equipped with a law school, was not on firm legal ground in issuing such promises of confidentiality, although nothing it drew up in its donor contract suggested that. Worse still, when it came to the crunch, the college — in an act of institutional deference to authority — was found to be afflicted by a fortitude deficit. In order not to offend the US Justice Department, it moved to abandon its own project, along with the researchers it commissioned and the research participants to whom it had promised the “ultimate power” of discretion over the use of their donations.
In May last year the PSNI applied through the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty to US authorities to subpoena part of the archive ostensibly as part of an investigation into the 1972 killing and disappearing of Belfast woman, Jean McConville. A killing that the Northern Irish police force in all its guises failed to investigate in almost four decades. Historian Chris Bray, writing in the Irish Times, stated that “quite literally, not so much as a local patrolman ever bothered to type up a pro-forma report on McConville’s disappearance; the filing cabinet was nearly empty.” As a result the suspicion is being aired in many places that the real motivation behind the subpoenas is one meant to embarrass or prosecute Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams who, according to the Irish Times, has been accused by some of the Boston College research participants “of giving the order to kill McConville, a charge Adams categorically denies.”
In this precarious business it has not gone unnoticed that the Police Service of Northern Ireland, under its old name the RUC, was heavily involved in a dirty war often waged in the shadows. Its Special Branch was involved in a range of activities including killings. The Northern Irish police has a long history of torture, abuse and collusion with loyalist death squads. Like the British state it served, it was a key player in the conflict. Very few police members have been brought to book. It is unlikely that they ever will. There is a professed willingness on the part of the PSNI to pursue all leads … except those leading back to the British state.
This flags up one of the murky issues at play in the case. It is the problem of law enforcement agencies being used to prise open a past when much of the problems of the past were caused by law enforcement agencies. Because no law enforcement solution to the conflict was considered possible, a political one was devised that in many senses by-passed law enforcement or relegated in significance its contribution to a solution. The jails previously packed by law enforcement measures were emptied of conflict prisoners as the North marched into the future and away from its past. Now we have law enforcement trying advance its own agenda under the camouflage of “rule of law”, feigning a concern for victims so that it may selectively and tendentiously mine the past.
The PSNI action in seeking access to the Boston College oral history archive, so that it might plunder it for material useful to prosecutions, has serious consequences for the production of knowledge. It is now likely that a diminution in information will flow to journalists or academics for fear that the State might insist on access to what is collated for purposes of criminal investigation. The action throws a chill of censorship over the societal acquisition of vital knowledge. By seeking to colonise academic research for its own narrow objectives, law enforcement is forcing academic study off the field of play leaving our comprehension of the past in the hands of law enforcement which has at all times sought to airbrush its own invidious role out of the historical record. Hardly a satisfactory outcome.
This assault on academic freedom will have a deleterious impact on public understanding and will stymie public debate. As Harvey Silverglate and Daniel R. Schwartz argued in Forbes Magazine “academics play an important role in society for the enlightenment of current and future generations; they are not mere detectives bedecked in tweed and working for governments…”
Anthony McIntyre was one of the Boston College researchers who along with colleague Ed Moloney is currently fighting to have the subpoenas quashed. McIntyre is a former Republican prisoner