It was sheer coincidence that on Thursday, at the very moment the body of Dolours Price was being prepared for a post-mortem examination in Dublin, John Kerry was sitting in a grand room in Washington, being examined for his potential fitness as US secretary of state.
Price, in her youth a committed Irish Republican Army volunteer, was found dead in her bed in a Dublin suburb Thursday. If diplomatic reason prevails within a government that may soon have Kerry as its top diplomat, the ill-conceived attempt to hijack a confidential oral history project from the archives at Boston College will have died, too.
Kerry believes the BC files should remain out of the reach of both the US and British governments. The death of Price presents those governments with a face-saving way to walk away.
Price was one of 26 former IRA members who gave interviews to the BC project with the understanding that what they said would not be released to historians until after they died. But besides speaking privately to BC researchers, Price gave interviews to news organizations, alleging that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams had been her IRA commanding officer and in 1972 had ordered her to deliver Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of 10, to a team of IRA executioners. McConville, accused by the IRA of being an informer, was secretly murdered and buried, her body not found until 2003.
Not long after Adams was elected to the Irish Parliament in 2011, and in response to Price’s newspaper interviews, British authorities contacted their American counterparts in the Justice Department on behalf of police in Northern Ireland. The Justice Department demanded that BC turn over taped interviews of Price and the late Brendan Hughes, another IRA operative who implicated Adams.
The promise of confidentiality died with Hughes and the government got his tapes; Price’s remain subject to a stay imposed by the Supreme Court, which is reviewing the request by the BC project’s researchers, Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, that the tapes not be turned over.
Moloney contends that the sudden death of the 62-year-old Price removes any argument that the tapes are needed to build a case for the murder of McConville. The imagined potential star witness is dead, so there can be no prosecution.
“If this was a simple question of law and order, then this should end today,” Moloney said. “Dolours Price was the principal target of the subpoenas. If the government continues with this, then one can only conclude that this is about political objectives.”
The principal objective being the shaming of Adams, who some in law enforcement in Northern Ireland will never forgive for his IRA past, despite his role in getting the IRA to end its violence.
Last year, Kerry boldly injected himself into the debate, trying to pull the plug on a debacle that he believes poses a threat to a peace process underwritten by the American government, to the integrity of academic research, and to the safety of the BC researchers.
“I would urge you to work with the British authorities to reconsider the path they have chosen and revoke their request,” Kerry wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the woman he is poised to replace. She never wrote back.
Kerry wants this to go away. Some senior British officials want this to go away. Price’s death provides a convenient excuse to make it go away.
If police in Northern Ireland do not withdraw their demand for the tapes, they will prove what I believed all along: that this is a politically motivated attempt by a foreign law enforcement agency to use an American university as a proxy for intelligence gathering, not to find justice but to embarrass someone they hate.
If the Justice Department won’t drop the case, it may force the incoming secretary of state into a diplomatic dispute with America’s biggest ally that nobody wants.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.