Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Boston saga proves law trumps academic works

The PSNI's seizure of the Dolours Price interview tapes represents the triumph of international treaties over pork barrel politics, writes Jim Dee

When PSNI officers flew to Boston to take possession of Boston College's long-sought Dolours Price interviews, they not only laid down a key marker regarding unsolved Troubles killings; they also highlighted how much Washington's cherished peace process role has changed.

On the face of it, Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland as a whole remains very much on Washington's radar. Barack Obama's recent visit – making him the third sitting US president in a row to drop in on the province – underscored that.

And Washington's bureaucracy – of a size and scope that is, arguably, unparalleled on the planet – has the staff and the capacity to juggle many balls at once, including any Irish peace process hiccups that may occur.

Past presidential appointments of special envoys, like George Mitchell, Jim Lyons, Richard Haass, Mitchel Reiss and Declan Kelly, proved that Washington is willing to throw its weight behind the peace process when needed.

And maintaining the attentions of members of Congress, such as Richard Neal of Massachusetts or New York's Joe Crowley, still matters when Stormont ministers drop by the US capital seeking a hand in attracting inward investment.

Turn on National Public Radio's flagship nightly business programme, Marketplace, and you'll regularly hear a plug for Northern Ireland as a prime place to invest.

But the announcement in April that the Supreme Court had turned down a request to hear an appeal by Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre against the surrendering of the Price interviews underscored another – perhaps more important – reality.

The Supreme Court, like the US Justice Department and the State Department, are first and foremost legal animals.

And, in their eyes, clearly the obligations of the US-UK Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (US-UK MLAT), the vehicle the PSNI used to pursue the Price tapes, trumped any considerations, however noble and worthwhile, regarding academic freedom and the value of oral histories. As for Boston College's Belfast Project oral history scheme, the PSNI has now succeeded in prying it open and its secrets may be sought again, now that a precedent has been set.

It is true that the June appeals court ruling in Boston College's own attempt to block broader access to the archive did reduce the number of interviews to be surrendered.

The court ordered only McConville-related material must be handed over. The US-UK MLAT has proven a formidable tool, indeed. There is no indication that the PSNI will request further material from the Boston College archive relating to specifics unsolved cases.

But the Price interviews saga has very clearly been a victory for the PSNI. And it wouldn't take much of an imagination stretch to envision future subpoenas being served to the college as part of PSNI probes into other unsolved killings.

Meanwhile, hopes that Secretary of State John Kerry might ride to the rescue have all but faded.

While a Massachusetts senator, he wrote to his State Department predecessor, Hillary Clinton, urging her to use here powers of persuasion to get Britain to drop its quest for the Price interviews.

But now that he's at State's helm, Kerry – a Boston College alumnus, like most US secretaries of state – has found that he has a pretty full slate of pressing crises that make issues like the Boston College tape saga pale in comparison.

The fallout from the Edward Snowden scandal, escalating violence in Egypt and Syria and Kerry's own efforts to revive Middle East peace talks will, no doubt, keep him amply occupied in the weeks and months ahead.

However, all is not lost. Politics is the art of navigating flux and motion. And with speculation rife that Ireland-smitten Hillary Clinton may mount another run for the White House in 2016, Northern Ireland's star at the highest level of US politics may yet again rise.

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