The cost of free speech can still be a high price
The death of former IRA bomber Dolours Price has sparked a war of words in cyberspace. Walter Ellis reports
Do some people own the truth and others not? How much do you have to know about someone before you can arrive at a reasonable judgment?
Last week, Ed Moloney, author of the magisterial Secret History of the IRA, and one of our greater chroniclers of the Troubles, issued a joint statement on his blog, The Broken Elbow, with his academic colleague Anthony McIntyre.
The statement followed the death of the former Provisional IRA activist Dolours Price, whose claims about Gerry Adams's career as an armed struggler have been a long-time source of embarrassment to the TD for Louth.
Price was one of those, including famed IRA gunman Brendan Hughes and one-time UVF bomber David Ervine, who gave interviews to the Boston College Oral History Archive. The deal was, and remains, that the interviews could only be made public once the subjects died.
Alas for the research team, the PSNI, with the approval of the Home Office, demanded that Boston College should hand over the interviews to assist them in their investigations into various unsolved murders.
Moloney and McIntyre's refusal to comply initiated a legal stand-off that could go all the way to the US Supreme Court.
The Moloney/McIntyre statement began by expressing the researchers' "great sadness at the death of Dolours Price, who was both a friend and a valued participant in the Belfast Project".
"Our greatest fear," it went on, "was always for the health and well-being of Dolours. Now that she is no longer with us, perhaps those who initiated this legal case can take some time to reflect upon the consequences of their action."
I found this jarring. Perhaps I was a little harsh.
In a comment on Ed's Broken Elbow blog, I wrote: "I would like, respectfully, to enter a word of dissent, having nothing to do with the Belfast Project, or your campaign to withhold material from the PSNI.
"Dolours Price was an active terrorist for a number of years. She bombed the Old Bailey; she drove Jean McConville to her place of execution; she almost certainly took part in other IRA operations.
"She opposed the Good Friday Agreement, which brought a fractious peace to the north, and, logically, she must have had sympathy with the Continuity, or Real, IRA.
"However pleasant she might have appeared when relaxed and in company, she was a committed urban guerrilla, who regarded murder as the principle means of advancing her political agenda. She had great courage, but also a cold heart."
A train of events then unfolded.
Ruth Dudley Edwards, a Dublin Catholic, but trusted friend of England, lifted my comment and translated it to her blog for the Daily Telegraph. This had nothing to do with me, but Ed now saw red.
"Unlike yourself and, I suspect, Ruth Dudley Edwards, who I see is singing from the same hymn book as yourself, I at least knew Dolours Price and had many conversations with her. I would be surprised if you ever did.
"We discussed many issues and one was the question of republican dissidents and on this question I can say with complete confidence that you, and Ms Dudley Edwards, are utterly wrong. Far from sympathising with their methods or aims, Dolours was firmly of the view that groups like the Real and Continuity IRAs had no future, that their violence was both wrong and pointless and that they should end their activities."
Ed's diatribe, centring on the contempt he felt at my "level of ignorance" (compared, presumably, to his privileged level of knowledge) went on for more than 500 words.
I took issue (325 words, if you must know), suggesting that Ms Price had not so much repented as retired, and wondered if Ed had succumbed to a new strain of Stockholm Syndrome, in which captives end up empathising with their captors.
He wasn't having any of that.
Another 843 words of bile followed, in which the "fallacy" of my argument was dissected and my standard of journalism impugned.
I made "sweeping judgments"; I knew "next to nothing"; I was prejudiced and hadn't bothered to talk to people or gather facts – all this, bear in mind, in order to append a brief comment to a blog.
"You make these judgments based on total ignorance of, and no contact with, those you condemn. I was going to say that borders on McCarthyism, Walter, but it doesn't border on it, it is McCarthyism."
Much ado about nothing, you might think. Two silly sods falling out needlessly in public, while rioters crowd the streets of Belfast in much more ado about even less.
But it got me thinking.
Do none of us have the right to an opinion unless we have researched it fully?
On that basis, democracy itself would be a sham, for which of us honestly reads the party manifestos and turns up at public meetings, or talks to friends and colleagues of those standing for election?
Looked at another way, it could be argued that the most reliable historian of the Third Reich was Albert Speer, an intimate of the Fuhrer, who spoke at length to everyone who was anyone in the Nazi Party, yet claimed to be detached from its ideology.
The only thing is, I'm pretty sure Ed wouldn't agree.
And he'd be right.
He's no Albert Speer. And I'm no Joe McCarthy.