I never thought I’d type these words: A former IRA commander has been charged with one of the most horrific murders during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, based on information gathered by Boston College as part of an oral history project.
Ivor Bell is awaiting trial in Belfast on charges he aided and abetted the murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 who in 1972 was abducted, shot, and secretly buried by the IRA after she was accused of being an informer.
Bell’s lawyer said Bell was innocent, but acknowledged that Bell was the man referred to as Mr. Z in a series of tape-
recorded interviews made by a researcher hired by BC to compile recollections of republicans and loyalists who fought in Northern Ireland.
That researcher, former Irish Republican Army volunteer and prisoner Anthony McIntyre, told me from Ireland that he expects police to knock on his door any day. If they do, they’ll be wasting their time. “I wouldn’t even tell them hello,” he said.
Neither will Bell, 77, who was a senior IRA commander before his star dimmed considerably after overseeing a 1984 gunrunning mission out of Boston that was compromised by an IRA turncoat in Ireland. A Quincy man, John McIntyre, who was part of the crew of the Gloucester trawler Valhalla, was murdered by South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger after he was blamed for giving up the mission.
Bell fell out of favor with the IRA after the Irish Navy seized a ton of weapons, supplied by Boston criminals and worth more than $1 million, while arresting a group of IRA men. Bell’s lawyer, Peter Corrigan, said Bell left the IRA the following year.
Bell was among a group of IRA veterans who opposed the compromise accepted by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in 1998, effectively ending the Troubles.
Now, police would love Bell to implicate his former comrade turned foe, Adams, who has repeatedly denied involvement in McConville’s murder. Adams says BC naively allowed McIntyre, who openly opposed his leadership, to interview former IRA members who were inclined to implicate him for political reasons.
McConville’s children believe that Adams was behind their mother’s murder and insist he face justice. But this debacle has never been about justice. It’s about politics, specifically about sticking it to Adams and his party. Jean McConville’s children deserve to know who murdered their mother, a crime against humanity that split them up as kids into a series of foster homes. But the prosecution is so biased and politically motivated as to undermine all credibility.
The police in Northern Ireland have shown no interest in the other half of the oral history project: interviews with loyalists, who presumably could shed light on state-sanctioned murders they carried out with the covert assistance of the police and British military.
Ed Moloney, the journalist who oversaw the Belfast Project paid for and archived by Boston College, called Bell’s arrest “a cheap publicity stunt” by police and prosecutors who know that the oral histories, given to an academic by people who were neither under oath nor given legal warnings about self-incrimination, will not stand up as evidence in court.
As critical as he is of the authorities in Northern Ireland, Moloney said it wouldn’t have gotten this far if the US Department of Justice had rebuffed British authorities who asked their American counterparts to gain custody of the BC tapes, or if BC officials were willing to risk fines and even imprisonment to defy the government.
BC spokesman Jack Dunn said BC could not defy a court order to give up some of the tapes.
What a mess. An American university has been unwittingly and unwillingly used by a foreign government, with the acquiescence of the US government, to build a criminal case.
Oral history and academic freedom are dead and gone. They’re in the grave with Jean McConville.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.