Let us praise Boston College

Contrary to some of the criticism directed their way recently, Boston College and its Center for Irish Programs deserve great praise for the courage and good will they have created with multifaceted programs in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Notre Dame, Harvard, Boston University, and many other universities have active Irish programs, but none with the breadth and influence of Boston College.
Professor Tom Hachey, executive director of the center, says, “We have managed and conducted 110 different programs on behalf of Ireland North and South.” Hachey manages several Irish departments at BC, including the Boston College office building at 42 Saint Stephen’s Green in the heart of Dublin.
One of the programs, an oral history project, has become controversial involving lawsuits and a foreign government, but that does not invalidate or diminish the contribution all the programs have made to both Ireland and to peace in Northern Ireland. That is a point critics never seem to mention.
Oral histories are a staple of historical research. The Columbia University Center for Oral History Archives, one of the largest collections of recorded histories in the world, is currently working on an oral history concerning the 9/11 tragedy.
The idea at Boston College was to document the personal testimony of the people of Northern Ireland from both sides who were involved in the “Troubles,” meaning that researchers 50 or 100 years hence could listen to the voices of on-site participants and have a better idea of exactly what occurred. It was a classic historian’s project.
Boston College now has some 165,000 graduates throughout the world. There are 14,400 students on campus today being taught and cared for by a community of 133 Jesuit priests, and a faculty of more than 761 full-time professors. It is one of the most selective and highly desirable universities in the United States.
The problem’s roots are in Northern Ireland. Its genesis took place some five hundred years with the difficulties between the Catholic Church in Rome, Catholic Ireland, and an “I’ll marry anyone I want as often as I want” British king. More immediately things came to a head in the 1960s when Catholics, suffering the hatred and bigotry of the British establishment in Northern Ireland, decided to protest their second class citizenship by demanding equal housing, the right to jobs, and basic human respect.
After decades of extraordinary violence during which some 3,000 died, a peace treaty called the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, but extremely bitter and poisonous attitudes remained in place for some. It was in this atmosphere that the Boston College oral history project was born. It was a courageous move requiring the independence and objectivity of those involved who were not in the college’s ranks. According to some at BC, two of the outside participants were, in the end, not at all objective.
There were 26 individuals whose testimony was tape-recorded, and many of them are, or were, enemies of Sinn Fein, the cease-fire and the Good Friday Agreement. Brendan Hughes and Dolores Price, recognized opponents of the peace process, were among them. Both are deceased but were bitter enemies of Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams when they were alive. The planned oral history, it seems, was tainted from the beginning.
Boston College has not been as naive as some media have made it out to be. The university’s lawyers required the project’s author, the journalist Ed Moloney, and the interview-tapes reporter, IRA veteran Anthony McIntyre, to sign confidentiality agreements. All participants were told the interviews would remain private until they died, but police investigators in Northern Ireland subsequently persuaded the United States government not to allow confidentiality. Ultimately, under a US federal judge’s order, BC released a number of interviews to the police in Northern Ireland wherein IRA veterans talked about the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a 38-year-old Belfast mother of 10 whom the IRA suspected of being a police informer.
Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness, and other leaders of the Sinn Fein Nationalist political party were among the most influential in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. They still are. However, even today Sinn Fein is the object of hate and derision by those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. This includes many of the older officers in the British police force, which is now called the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
Collectively, most of the Protestant/ Unionist community, including the police, continue their bitter animosity towards the Catholic/Nationalist community and fear that a United Ireland is around the corner. And they think they have found an opening in the Boston College tapes situation.
The PSNI has selected a tragic murder from 42 years ago during the middle of the worst of the violence when Gerry Adams was 23 years old, and through the tapes they are trying to connect Gerry Adams to the terrible crime. This is selective enforcement at its worst. “We will get him somehow.” Hundreds of other, more recent crimes still go unpunished.
Someone or some group of men and women within the British government gave approval to sue the United States under an obscure treaty for the sharing of data thought related to terrorism that they could apply to a 42-year-old murder. Boston College was then forced to give 11 of the 26 tapes it had in its files and give them to the British police as ammunition they might use to harass and arrest Adams. They arrested Adams after he volunteered to go to the police station for questioning and held him for questioning for four days before releasing him with the words “the file will be sent to the prosecutor’s office for evaluation.”
This had nothing to do with Boston College; it was a matter of old hatreds and “we will never give up” attitudes. Meanwhile the British government establishment must have been delighted to see Prime Minister David Cameron’s Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers endorse the police action.
Nationalist Belfast was shocked. Leaders of Sinn Fein spoke at rallies and various meetings urging caution and patience. Supporters in the United States received calls urging restraint. Some politicians, like Congressman Richard Neal of Massachusetts, spoke out but generally people remained quiet. Had Adams been charged him with a crime, everyone would have been in a very different situation today.
From this distance it is hard to guess what the police are up to. They apparently didn’t find enough evidence in the first 11 tapes given to them by Federal Judge William G. Young to charge anyone. He listened to all 26 tapes and ruled that these 11 were the only relevant ones to the specific murder. He also said from the bench that he heard nothing of a serious nature. Something else may be going on. Is this just another fishing expedition? Do they have a back door witness who claims there is more on the tapes or is this just more harassment of Boston College?
The matter of what will happen to the rest of the tapes has yet to be adjudicated. Stand by for more moves by all sides.
As a side note, suggestions were widespread that the Adams arrest was an attempt to damage Sinn Fein during the campaigning for the May 22-23 elections in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. At this writing there is no evidence of that. To the contrary Sinn Fein appears to be doing very well with both electorates. On May 24, the Belfast Telegraph reported that the result of the current election giving Sinn Fein over 24 percent of the overall vote makes the party the largest in Northern Ireland. Change is moving fast in Northern Ireland.