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This mural along the Falls Road of Belfast portrays Sinn Fein firebrand Gerry Adams as a contemporary statesman. The police are more interested in his past. (PAUL HACKETT/Reuters)
This mural along the Falls Road of Belfast portrays Sinn Fein firebrand Gerry Adams as a contemporary statesman. The police are more interested in his past. (PAUL HACKETT/Reuters)

The real threat to peace in Northern Ireland Add to ...

Fast-forward eight years, and not only does the future look less promising but it is the past that dominates. An almost daily squabble about who did what to whom, why, what happened and – most crucially – who should be brought to book and how, permeates both media coverage and the political discourse.

When constructing this most complex of peace deals, much thought and more energy were expended on how to remove the most obvious obstacles, like IRA guns or agreement on the policing of Northern Ireland, and almost none on how to resolve the unanswered questions of the past and, more important, how to bring solace to victims and the relatives of those killed.

That failure is now exacting a possibly destructive cost on the peace process. And in the wings are armed groups opposed to the accords, hoping for the worst.

It is in this context that the arrest of Mr. Adams, Sinn Fein’s longtime leader, has hit the headlines, complicating an already difficult problem.

Dealing with the past was prominent in my mind back in 2000 and 2001 when I was approached by a Belfast academic on behalf of Boston College with a proposal. The college library had a gap in its collection; there was almost nothing dealing with the conflict on its shelves. Did I have any ideas? College funding could be available.

For some time it was clear to me that the war in Ireland was coming to an end and someone had to think about making sure it was chronicled properly. When conflicts draw to a close, the accounts of what happened and why are invariably written by the winners and leaders who always have axes to grind and reputations to preserve or reshape.

Seldom do the activists at the bottom, those involved in the bloody cutting edge, get to tell their stories. The Irish government in Dublin had collected stories from IRA activists involved in the 1916-1921 War of Independence; the project had started in the late 1930s with publication postponed in case the stories had an inflammatory effect in the north. Only with the peace did these accounts start to emerge.

It was doubly necessary to do the same in Northern Ireland because of the length of the conflict, over 30 years. Those who had been 20 at the start were now middle-aged; those in their thirties and forties were approaching death. If it wasn’t started soon, it might be too late.

Boston College agreed. I also stressed the need for legal safety. The archive might not be immune to an American subpoena, but why would any U.S. law-and-order agency be interested in events in Ireland? It was the British we had to worry about.

The college agreed on one principle: Nothing would be allowed into the archive if it was at risk. Contracts we drew up giving the interviewees “ultimate” control over their tapes and transcripts until their death had been, we were assured by the college, vetted and approved by its lawyers. After the deaths of those interviewed, the material became the property of Boston College, to do with as it wished.

Sadly, we had been misled. College lawyers now admit they never examined the contracts, and the librarian who gave us the assurance has departed his post. The damage was done, though.

The U.S. and Britain have a treaty that allows the exchange of alleged criminal evidence, and it was invoked to obtain interviews conducted for the project. This was a disaster but also ironic; we had been happy working with a U.S. college because America was considered neutral by both sides. None of our interviewees or researchers would have trusted a British or Irish university to keep things secret.

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