Last month, I listened as former President Bill Clinton delivered the inaugural lecture for the Hume-O’Neill Chair in Peace Studies at the University of Ulster Magee Campus in Derry, Northern Ireland. Clinton’s address conveyed a simple, yet powerful, message: Northern Ireland has made enormous strides in the peace and reconciliation process, but the job is still not finished.
These words not only resonated throughout Northern Ireland, they have taken on considerable meaning for the United States — and specifically for the City of Boston.
Boston College is immersed in a complex legal battle with the British government over the Belfast Tapes, an academic oral history project that has been tragically compromised as a result of Northern Irish political infighting and a misguided hunt for criminal justice.
Boston College commenced the Belfast Tapes project in 2001, appointing former IRA volunteer and prisoner Anthony McIntyre as the interviewer and Ed Moloney, a journalist with deep ties to both sides of the conflict, as the supervisor. With the Belfast Tapes, Boston College sought to intertwine modern academia and the college’s Irish roots to document the Troubles and the peace process of Northern Ireland.
In February of 2010, former IRA paramilitary Dolours Price gave interviews with Irish media in which she revealed that she had participated in the Belfast Project, and told them that she and current Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams were involved in the 1972 abduction and murder of Belfast mother of 10, Jean McConville. This admission quickly sparked a series of subpoenas issued to Boston College by the US Department of Justice on behalf of the United Kingdom in May and August of 2011, requesting the tapes and transcripts for use in criminal investigations.
Undoubtedly, the murder of Jean McConville was an especially gruesome war crime and her family deserves justice. However, the investigation smacks of political motivation. Of the scores of murders committed during the Troubles, the British government is seeking only to investigate that of Jean McConville in what can be construed as an attempt to implicate Gerry Adams and jeopardize his current position within the Irish parliament.
For decades, the Northern Ireland conflict has existed as a polarizing issue for many US politicians as well as officials at the White House and the Department of State. The United States Department of State has historically acted in favor of the British government, long considered our staunchest ally, and complies with their requests time and again.
On this issue, our relations with Britain have not always been smooth. My father, former Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neill, worked tirelessly with fellow Irish-American politicians to denounce the violence in Northern Ireland and to craft a peace accord for warring factions. He convinced Presidents Carter and Reagan to press the British government on the conflict and questioned their peacekeeping efforts, an act that challenged the stance of the Department of State.
The Belfast Tapes have exposed truths about the Troubles that reawaken feelings of betrayal and bitterness among former members of the IRA. These truths should be used as a form of catharsis and as a vehicle toward peace and reconciliation for Northern Ireland. Instead, the United States and Great Britain are allowing these truths to be used in ways that appear, frankly, both selective and political.
In the Boston College case, our “special relationship’’ with Britain is raising serious and troubling questions: Are we abridging academic freedom in ways that will prevent participants in major international issues from stepping forward with their stories? Is the British demand for documents, and its search for alleged wrongdoing, driven as much by the politics of Ireland today as it is by the search for justice for past crimes? And why, when both sides in the Troubles were guilty of so much wrongdoing, is the British prosecution seemingly intent on only pursuing crimes allegedly committed by only one side?
In Clinton’s recent address, he reminded Northern Ireland and the international community that the process to securing peace is not solely comprised of various static agreements and moments, but instead is an ever-evolving conversation that each generation must continue to have and adapt throughout history. All this turmoil now is a very clear example that that evolving conversation is continuing, and how we conduct it matters.
We should not be helping to fan the flames of animosity rooted in the past of Northern Ireland. Instead, we must uphold the values and constitutional rights upon which our country stands.
Thomas P. O’Neill III served on the Boston College Board of Trustees from 1992 to 2010 and currently acts as a trustee associate.