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Jun 20, 2011


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It's not exactly a murder investigation, and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts hasn't done her job if she doesn't know that. Download this Word document from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, and keep it open, because here goes a long story:

The federal subpoena for confidential oral history materials held at Boston College supposedly comes as part of a police effort to solve an IRA murder in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, with the U.S. Department of Justice acting here on behalf of the British government. As I've shown in previous posts, this explanation makes people stand aside and drop their objections: the police are trying to catch a killer, and isn't that more important than academic freedom?

But it's not at all clear that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is trying to solve a murder, or that they've ever especially wanted to solve the murder in question. It's more likely that the investigation behind the Boston College subpoena is at least partially motivated by current Irish politics, and the available evidence strongly suggests that the principal target is a distinctly political choice.

In December of 1972, a widowed mother of ten children was kidnapped and murdered in Belfast. Look at pg. 5 of the ombudsman's report: four men and four women, supported by another twenty or so who waited outside, entered Jean McConville's home, masked and armed, and took her away. Her children never saw her again. Three weeks later, "a young man called at her home and gave her family her purse and three rings." That was a message that she was dead. The Provisional Irish Republican Army believed that McConville was an informant working for the British army; as the ombudsman's report suggests, the IRA had previously beaten her and warned her to stop. The question of whether or not she really was an informant has been hotly debated. She was cleared of that accusation by the police ombudsman, but this just means that the British government cleared a suspected informant to the British government. McConville's body was found in 2003; she had been shot in the back of the head. (See pg. 11 of the ombudsman's report.)

This is the murder that the PSNI is now supposedly trying to solve. But it would require an extraordinary leap of faith to believe that McConville's murderers can be brought to justice, or that the police intend to do so. First, as the ombudsman's report makes perfectly clear, no one has ever bothered to investigate this murder in the four decades since it took place. See pg. 3 for the finding that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the predecessor to the PSNI, never investigated McConville's abduction; then look at pg. 7, starting at the heading, "The Police Response." The "first investigation" of this 1972 event took place in 1995, and left behind a "very limited file." For nearly forty years, no one cared or tried. The ombudsman's report refers time and again to the difficulty of constructing a narrative out of an event that left almost no paper trail. But suddenly, this case must urgently be solved, academic freedom be damned. This chronology should trigger some suspicion, surely.

Then, take a look at this 2006 statement from Northern Ireland's chief constable, made in response to the ombudsman's report: "Any case of that age, it is highly unlikely that a successful prosecution could be mounted." That doesn't mean it's impossible; an Alabama prosecutor successfully brought charges in 2010 for a 1965 killing. But the difficulty won't be surmounted by an oral history interview that was not given under oath or to police, that relays decades-old information, and that will surely be challenged as being at least partially inaccurate. One interview from the project -- from an interviewee who died, ending the promise of confidentiality for his interview -- has been used in a book; here is a person described in portions of that interview saying, rightly or wrongly, that it's full of inaccuracies. (See the seventh and eighth paragraph.) I doubt very much that a judge would allow this interview to be used as evidence, although I welcome the opinion of lawyers who know the rules of evidence in British courts. At best, the interview gives police, who have said they would have great difficulty bringing charges in this decades-old murder, a pile of unverified secondhand claims about the actions of IRA members who will still never talk about any of it to detectives.

So here's a thirty-nine year-old murder that was never investigated, and that police in Northern Ireland have said they probably can never investigate successfully. But, I'm repeating myself, suddenly the police urgently need access to a set of unsworn hearsay, because they by god have a murder to solve.

Now it gets really interesting. The interview at Boston College that the British government wants, and that the college wants to protect, is an interview with Dolours Price, a former IRA member who was brutally force-fed during a long hunger strike in prison. Last year, Price talked to a newspaper reporter about her involvement in the IRA, and about the murder of Jean McConville. Price has not identified the men and women who showed up at McConville's home in 1972 and took her away; she has not spoken about the murderers. The thing she has talked about has generated enormous attention, and take a moment to look at this example of the kind of stories that have resulted. The thing that Dolours Price said -- the thing that matters, the thing that everyone wants to prove -- is that Gerry Adams approved McConville's murder. Look at this more recent story about the other interview, the one that Boston College has already given to the DOJ (because of the death of the interviewee): "In the testimony, Mr Hughes, a former Belfast IRA commander, accuses Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, of sanctioning the secret burial of the mother-of-10 in 1972."

There's just one thing missing from all of these stories: any mention at all of the murderers, or of the very possibility of identifying the murderers. They are all about the claim that Gerry Adams said yes.

So extend the story a bit: a murder that wasn't investigated for nearly forty years, and for which the police have said they probably can't bring successful criminal charges, is now suddenly being investigated, but the records being sought are not principally about the men and women who committed the act itself, and the records in any case could almost certainly not be used in court as evidence. What's the use of these records? They're oral history tapes and notes: they would give the British government the voice of IRA members identifying Gerry Adams as their commander -- that is, as an IRA member, a thing he has always (and not very plausibly) denied having been.

The timing is surely interesting. Adams led Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland for decades, and was repeatedly elected to the British House of Commons as an abstentionist politician who refused to take his seat. Sinn Fein also tried to develop roots as a political party in the Republic of Ireland, but did poorly; the 2007 parliamentary elections were a disaster for them. More recently, though, as the Irish government committed to an insane political program that drains Irish taxpayers to feed global banks, the taste for Irish nationalism has grown; the 2011 elections were much more successful for Sinn Fein. Among the politicians elected to seats in the Dail Eireann was Gerry Adams himself, who resigned from his seat in the House of Commons (that he had never taken) in order to run for office in the Republic of Ireland.

In the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein's agenda is aggressive and plainly spoken, though they lack the power to implement it. Third item on their list of priorities: "Burn the bondholders in Anglo and wind it up." As a member of the Irish parliament, Adams has also been calling on the government of the Republic to prepare plans for Irish unification.

No one really pretends that Jean McConville's murder can be "solved" -- that is, that her killers can be identified, prosecuted, and convicted. No one appears to be trying to do that, and the police in Northern Ireland have acknowledged very plainly they they never did bother to try in the first place. And the oral history interviews of IRA members stored at Boston College are almost surely useless in court. The value of those interviews is that they can do substantial political damage to the most prominent Irish nationalist politician, whose party is gaining momentum.

If Gerry Adams was a member of the IRA -- and it would not be surprising to see proof that he was -- then the fact merits disclosure. If he ordered or approved the murder of Jean McConville, then he deserves to be brought to justice. It is unlikely that he ever could be, except in the newspapers. In any event, if Adams was an IRA member, and especially if he ordered McConville's murder, then the police should investigate it and prove it themselves. Academics are not police adjuncts.

Now: if the British government is trying to breach a promise of confidentiality made by academic researchers, opening a door to academia for government investigators, is this worth it? If Boston College loses, and the tape they give up is used to shame Gerry Adams rather than to prosecute murderers, then academic freedom will suffer substantial damage for the pathetic cause of a political maneuver. 

See the first page of the motion from Boston College to quash this subpoena: the judge's order for the subpoena, and all of the records given to the court by the Department of Justice in support of the subpoena, have been sealed. Given that the subpoena is for an interview that speaks to a decades-old murder that police in Northern Ireland have admitted that they never bothered to investigate, that's a shameful choice. Under the circumstances, the DOJ should be -- must be -- obligated to explain: why this, why now.

I doubt the explanation would be impressive.

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