Why a 1972 Northern Ireland Murder Matters So Much to Historians

Beaudette and Weinstein continue:

Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member who went on to earn a PhD in history from Queen’s University in Belfast, took the lead in conducting the interviews beginning in 2001. They promised interviewees that their recorded statements, which are kept in the Boston College archives in Massachusetts, would remain confidential until their death.

However, as part of the ongoing inquiry into the murder of McConville, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) sought cooperation from the U.S. Department of Justice to obtain the recorded interviews of a number of former IRA members. Their pursuit of these accounts opened the doors for the PSNI to also demand access to other records of Belfast Project interviewees who were still living, launching a legal battle that played out in U.S. court. McIntyre and Moloney claimed their interviewees had confidentiality and therefore oral history records could not be used as evidence. But the American courts decided such promises of confidentiality were legally dubious and could not be upheld.

They add:

The legal debates about the oral history project came to an abrupt close on Oct. 17, when Bell was cleared of charges and Irish Justice John O’Hara ruled the statements recorded on the tapes were not admissible as evidence. But O’Hara also questioned the motivations and scholarly value of the oral history project, raising concern about the reliability of Z’s statements because the “person interviewing him [McIntyre] had a clear bias” and was “out to get” Adams and others [Interviewee Z is widely believed to be Bell himself. In his interview, Z claimed that in late 1972, he, Gerry Adams, and a third IRA member decided McConville should be killed for being an informant. Adams, who was the president of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican political party, has denied Z’s claims].

By adopting the view that the Belfast Project was illegitimate, the judge implicitly endorsed the now dominant, but empirically dubious, narrative of the Troubles that Adams was the chief architect of the peace process. Indeed, this interpretation blatantly ignores the central roles played by John Hume and David Trimble, who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the Good Friday Agreement.

By casting doubt on the truthfulness of Z’s interview, and thus of all of the interviews in the Belfast Project, the judge dismissed dissenting voices and perspectives, writing them out of the official narrative. By discrediting the project, the judge affirmed one perspective on the collective memory of this era.

“Though in court, lawyers, judges and juries assess the guilt of alleged offenders according to well-honed rules of evidence and interpretations of the law, assessing historical truth is more complex,” Beaudette and Weinstein write. The argue that scholars “can and must write and speak more broadly about how historical interpretation works, so citizens are better equipped to understand that the dominant interpretation of history is not the only one, nor is it necessarily the correct one.”