Malachi O'Doherty: Police must be allowed to follow the evidence ... but our understanding of Troubles will be poorer due to scuppering of Boston College project
Anthony McIntyre has contributed as much as any historian to the reappraisal of the IRA's 'armed struggle'. Only republican apologists can profit from his legal travails, writes Malachi O'Doherty
First, I should declare an interest. Anthony McIntyre is a friend of mine in a way that, say, Gerry Adams isn't, though I have been scoffed at by McIntyre and hugged by Adams. McIntyre has helped a lot of journalists and is generally well-liked by them, I think. He appears to be frank and candid.
I knew him when he was living in fear of the Provisionals because he had said openly that he blamed them for the murder of Real IRA member Joseph O'Connor in Ballymurphy. He has declared an interest himself in mourning O'Connor: "Joe would have been my brother-in-law had he lived. The damage his killers left in their retreat is manifest in my home to this day." McIntyre's house was picketed at that time and he eventually had to move out.
He had got a PhD from Queen's University and was clearly liked and respected by the lecturers who had supervised him. In a quaint irony, he had been admitted to the PhD ahead of the top student graduating in politics that year. That was Joanne Murphy, now a lecturer in marketing at Queen's. McIntyre had done his degree while a lifer in the Maze Prison.
When the idea of him doing a project for Boston College came up, he asked me for advice on how to record interviews. I gave him a little Minidisc recorder that I had been using for interviews for radio reports. So, when I hear newsreaders talk of the "Boston College tapes", I am amused that they really suppose that there are reels or cassettes in storage somewhere, when they have long given up on using analogue gear themselves.
McIntyre has made a massive contribution to political debate here. Before the Boston College project he edited a website, The Blanket, which reached a million hits. That is where we first heard critical voices from within the Provisional movement, including some who would significantly change the historical record, like Richard O'Rawe, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price.
He also formed relationships with former loyalist prisoners and worked with them on a magazine called The Other View, and he ran a magazine of his own called Fourthwrite. A collection of his articles has been published as The Death Of Irish Republicanism. He continues to write and foster political bloggers through his website The Pensive Quill.
Politically, he is a socialist republican. He started his IRA career inside the Officials, where he was a scout for Joe McCann, and moved to the Provisionals, where the more militant energy was. He was a sniper and an OC.
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None of this says that he was a good person. He reached a conclusion which I firmly rejected; that murder could advance our politics. And he did his time - 18 years. What makes him a good person is that he has the integrity and the clarity to reappraise that past and to conclude that the IRA campaign was pointless.
He doesn't want to be part of the Sinn Fein project of commemorating the past and pretending that current outcomes were achieved through bombing and murder. He isn't a hypocrite. He is, essentially, a journalist and an editor who has been working since his release from prison to build an enormous body of writing reappraising the 'armed struggle' and the peace process.
Even without the Boston Project, now scuppered by the police, he will leave behind a body of writing that no serious historian of Irish republicanism will be able to ignore.
So, why is he a target of the police? The police say they follow the evidence where it leads. McIntyre and his partner in the Boston College project, the journalist Ed Moloney, were not secretive about their work. They were interviewing several former paramilitaries to enrich the historical record with an archive of oral evidence. The beauty of this would be that, in years to come, after the witnesses had died, another generation would get the fuller story. It was a brilliant idea, but it didn't survive because when the police realised that this evidence was stored away, they decided they had little option but to go after it. And Boston College, which McIntyre and Moloney had trusted would protect the recordings and transcripts, did as the courts bade them.
The PSNI has material on the murder of Jean McConville and other crimes, and is pursuing cases against Ivor Bell and Winston Rea using the Boston material. Others who gave interviews have moved to protect themselves by retrieving their interviews and destroying them. I don't expect the police to waive opportunities - especially such easy opportunities - out of consideration for posterity and the integrity of academic research. But it does look bad. You didn't have to be Columbo to think of asking Boston College for research materials they were open about having.
By a gentle irony, as Chief Constable George Hamilton reminded us only a week ago, huge evidential opportunities have already been waived through the protected decommissioning of weapons and the decision not to gather forensic materials from the bodies of the Disappeared.
The principle is out there, that if the sum of knowledge and the peace can be helped, then investigations can be compromised to help that. McIntyre's mistake was to be ahead of the game.
Of course, I would see this all very differently if I was among the bereaved. The victims are not calling for information, but for justice. And if justice can be delivered to them through the arrest of Anthony McIntyre, then they should have that. But information is the most that any but a very few will get - if they even get that.
That's all that the Historical Enquiries Team offered. It is what is proposed in the Stormont House Agreement and its own proposed Oral History Archive, which hasn't even got started work yet.
The police say that they follow where the evidence leads and that there is very little evidence out there. So, they are picking at the easiest, most accessible threads.
It's what they are doing with Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey after their investigation into the Loughinisland massacre.
In that whole disgusting shambles, with all its intimations of collusion and cover-up, the one detectable crime they think they might get a result on is the alleged theft of a document from the Ombudsman's office: a leak. That's like busting a man for jaywalking as he chases a thief across the road.
It would be nice to think that history would judge whether wrecking the Boston College project was worth it for putting an ex-lifer back in jail for two years.
But it won't, for that evidence is now gone, too.