Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Boston College's dirty deal a slap in face to victims

Jean McConville (left) who was murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972
Jean McConville (left) who was murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972

Whatever I see, or hear, in the life of men which ought not to have been spoken of abroad, I will not divulge, as reckoning that all such should be kept secret." (The Hippocratic Oath).

As the dust settles over the arrest of Gerry Adams, the secrets of republican and loyalist terrorism contained in the Boston tapes raise disturbing questions for victims of the Troubles.

While the Sinn Fein president totally denies any involvement in the murder of Jean McConville and has been released without charge, we are left to ponder what else might be hidden in Boston, or already in PSNI hands in the tapes which the American authorities obtained under court order.

Who were the republican and loyalist ex-paramilitaries who gave explicit interviews about their violent lives and times, revealing the guilty secrets about their past, but only on the assurance that neither the police nor the relatives of victims would learn what was said on the tapes.

Respected academic figures lent their approval to this dubious exercise. Each interviewee was taped at length and a transcript made of the recording. The interviews were shrouded in secrecy, as was the delivery of the tapes to Boston.

The interviewees thought they could sit comfortably in front a microphone in the knowledge that they were safe from prosecution for their past terrorist involvement. They were assured by written contract that, no matter how they incriminated themselves, in events such as the taking of Jean McConville's life, their account would be safe in the vaults of Boston College until after their deaths, or even, in one case, for 30 years beyond that moment.

The Boston Project was unusual academic research. It involved collating and concealing facts which could be directly relevant to finding those responsible for serious crimes, including murder.

Even as victims' relatives here were demanding truth and justice, even as police officers were continuing to investigate terrorist acts, some of those involved were being invited to tell their stories with the assurance that what they were saying would be totally protected.

The compilation of the tapes raises ethical and moral concerns in a community where so many people have not given up hope of uncovering the truth of what happened to their loved ones and where so much police resource is still required to investigate thousands of unsolved crimes.

Can anyone imagine a university here agreeing to an arrangement whereby al-Qaida terrorists responsible directly, or indirectly, for atrocities in the United States, or elsewhere in the world, could have their confessional interviews locked away for posterity beyond the reach of investigating foreign authorities?

Unsurprisingly, Boston College have got themselves into an embarrassing legal mess. They overlooked a treaty, now 20 years old, which exists between the UK and the USA and encouraged the PSNI to apply successfully for access to the tapes.

The need to protect confidential sources in academic research is widely recognised in much the same way as it is for investigative journalism. However, difficulties arise where researchers or reporters come across illegal activity and gain knowledge that could be of value in criminal proceedings.

One course of action in the media's case is to refuse to divulge confidential sources of information unless ordered legally to do so. In certain high profile cases, journalists have risked, or faced, imprisonment for contempt rather than reveal their sources.

However, there is something deeply unsavoury for law-abiding citizens to learn that others who spent much of their lives engaged in terrorism and who have escaped punishment have found a safe refuge for their stories in an American college.

The harrowing account of how Jean McConville was taken from her family belongs to the excesses of Nazism. It is a reminder of the brutal reality of terrorism in Northern Ireland.

No doubt many – if not all – of those who gave interviews for Boston College are nervous. It is quite evident that they do not want the material to see the light of day while they are alive and continue to harbour secrets which could lead to their prosecution.

It is reported that Boston College is considering returning the tapes to those who participated in the interviews. That is cold comfort for the relatives of terrorist victims and the general public of Northern Ireland.

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