Dead men, they say, tell no tales. But if they’re part of the Boston College oral history project, they do. The project, you’ll remember, was the series of interviews organized by Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre with a selection of former combatants in our Troubles. The promise was that these would be recorded and kept under lock and key until after the interviewee had died. Now, however, a federal US judge has ordered Boston College to let him have access to those recordings . Having heard them, he’ll decide if the US government will turn the interviews over to the British authorities in connection with the killing of Jean McConville. Boston College has said they’ll pass the tapes over tomorrow.
There are a number of problems with this whole affair, starting with the description of it as “oral history”. The implication behind such a description is that the people speaking are telling the truth, which they may or may not be. Besides that, any historical account if it’s to be taken seriously has to include as much evidence, oral or otherwise, as is available. This includes particularly testimony or evidence that runs counter to the historian’s own loyalties. That hasn’t happened here.
Another and more pressing problem is that the people who contributed to the project did so on the clear undertaking that their words would remain confidential until after their death. The US federal judge’s ruling and Boston College’s acceptance of it show that undertaking to have been either naïve or a sham. The US authorities claim they’re looking for information about Jean McConville’s death; when and if they listen to the tapes, they’ll surely find statements about other people and maybe other killings. This, of course, may be the whole idea – a fishing expedition. But is this what we mean when we talk about “dealing with the past”? Those who contributed to the Boston College project, as far as I know, were to a greater or lesser extent critical of Sinn Féin and its present leadership. It’s an odd idea of research, let alone justice, that allows the voices on one side of the argument only to be included.
In fact there’s a touch of pantomime about the whole thing: heroes and villains, secrets and surprises. Any minute now, Miriam O’Callaghan is going to jump from behind a curtain and ask everyone mentioned in the tapes if they go to confession.