Saturday, October 08, 2011

‘A Chilling Effect on Oral History in This Country’: Q&A With ‘Belfast Project’ Director Ed Moloney

We conducted this interview for our Newsletter readers but because of the importance of the issues represented to the practice of oral history in this country, we have chosen to share this interview here in its entirety. To sign up for exclusive content through our newsletters, sign up here.

Britain-born journalist Ed Moloney, who covered The Troubles from his posting in Belfast from 1977 to 2001, headed Boston College’s Belfast Project from its inception till its close in 2005.’s Mark Connor put some questions to Moloney last week via Skype, about the subpoenas that the British government filed in May and August demanding access to confidential interviews that the oral-history project gathered from two IRA members. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts delivered the subpoenas on behalf of unidentified British authorities, according to news accounts. In 2002, Moloney authored “A Secret History of the IRA,” and has authored a biography of Loyalist demagogue Rev. Ian Paisley. In 2010, Moloney’s book “Voices from the Grave” was published, which features interviews, compiled as part of the Belfast Project, with two central figures in the Troubles, both now-deceased - IRA member Brendan Hughes and Ulster Volunteer Force member-turned-politician David Ervine. Moloney, now based in New York City, shared with his concern about the threat the subpoenas pose to all oral-history projects. (For more of Moloney’s views on the subpoenas, visit his blog at Mr. Moloney, what led you in the direction of becoming a journalist and specifically into this area of journalism?

Ed Moloney: I became a journalist partly because I hated teaching and wanted to get out of it, partly because I enjoyed both researching and writing and was just plain nosy and partly because of a fascination with the politics of Northern Ireland. I was a student at QUB (Queens University Belfast) when the civil rights struggle began, observed it up close, and, I suppose, got addicted.

At this stage, this is not an issue that affects journalists, although it may at a later stage. … It is an issue that affects academic freedom and the ability of oral historians to collect life accounts from all sorts of people. If we lose this case, it will have a chilling effect on oral history in America, and that is important. What oral history does is tell the story of people who are not powerful, but ordinary participants in society. If they are discouraged from telling their stories, it means that history and the explanation of society is even more in the control of the powerful than it already is. The sort of examples I am thinking of is, say, people who were involved in the Black Panther movement, which was very close ideologically to the IRA. If there is a risk that the FBI will come looking for their interviews in order to press criminal charges, then they will not speak to oral historians, and their stories will be lost forever. Instead, we will have to rely on the Al Sharptons of America to tell a story of which they were never a part.

WG: My understanding is that there were 60 subjects interviewed in this project. First, is that the specific number or were there more, and second, what prompted the (Belfast) Project, what was the express purpose behind it?

Ed Moloney: I have never given any figure as to the number of interviewees and never would. It was the Good Friday Agreement - or rather the end of the conflict that it signaled - that was the spur for the project. A similar project had been conducted in the South [the lower 26 counties, eventually named The Republic of Ireland] after the Anglo-Irish War, and I thought it was important to tell a similar story, that of those on both sides who had fought in the war. But the Anglo-Irish War was very short compared to the Troubles in the North. In the South, they could wait 20 years or so for passions to quiet before starting the project. Our conflict had already lasted for 30 years, those involved were getting old, especially people who had been there at the start. So there was an urgency to get it going before key people died. Essentially, it was done to ensure that the unique viewpoint of those in the trenches was told when the history of the troubles was written.

WG: How did you convince so many combatants—and specifically Irish Republican and British Loyalist—to open up to you about their involvement? Did you conduct all of these interviews or most of them yourself? Were you seen as a neutral party or generally trusted and/or suspected by your subjects as more Nationalist or Unionist in your identity when you interacted?

Ed Moloney: I did none of the interviews at all. The project would not have been possible had I tried to do that. The researchers, one for IRA (members) and one for UVF, were chosen a) because of their academic qualifications, a Ph.D. in one case, an Honours degree in the other and b) because of their own association with the groups being interviewed. It was obvious that people who had been in the IRA or UVF would not open up to journalists or other academics, but would be prepared to do so to people from their own background who they could trust. So I played no part in the interviews, and although I suggested names, it was up to the researchers to choose interviewees and persuade them to talk. Although I read the interviews and made comments and suggestions, I did not know, nor want to know who was being interviewed, although obviously I could guess at some. That way, security and trust was strengthened.

WG: As a veteran journalist, can you first describe your personal stake in these subpoenas and, secondly, elaborate on what it means for all journalists and the public at large? Are you aware of previous court rulings related to your case, and do you have an expectation of how your situation will finally be resolved?

Ed Moloney: I don’t know how our case will be resolved, but obviously we hope to win. We have a great lawyer working for us, Eamonn Dornan, who has put together a very clever argument based upon the U.S. Senate's promise and commitment they got from the British that no person involved in anything prior to the GFA (Good Friday Agreement) could be sought for extradition in the U.S. If they can't be extradited, then neither should their interviews be extradited. When we started this project, it was pre-9/11. Then we had the attacks, and the story thereafter in the U.S. has been one of unhampered state surveillance and unprecedented powers by people like the FBI to snoop and spy, and we, unfortunately, have been caught up in that. But for 9/11, Bush, Obama, and Osama Bin Laden, I don't think this would be happening because the authorities wouldn't dare.

WG: I understand that both Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price told you during interviews that Gerry Adams ordered the killing of Jean McConville. I also understand that the British government’s interest in getting a hold of the interviews includes finding evidence of who killed her. There are other implications from an intelligence point of view, including discovery of what information about British agents has been documented, in which the British government must surely also be interested. So from a journalist’s point of view and from the point of view of a citizen in a democracy, how fair do you feel the national security argument is in this or related cases, especially given that a treaty to end the conflict was signed in 1998?

(Below right: Sinn Fein rally to support four IRA hunger strikers in a British prison, including Dolours Price, in Navan, County Meath, February 6, 1974. Photo by Gerry Regan.)

Ed Moloney: Your understanding is not correct. Brendan Hughes certainly did name Adams as the person who ordered the killing of Jean McConville, but there is no evidence that in her interviews with BC (Boston College) that Dolours Price did the same. It is important to understand how this all happened and the background. Dolours Price is an IRA veteran, but she has also been psychologically scarred by her experiences in the IRA. She suffers from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome) … and suffers from substance abuse. Her condition has deteriorated in recent years, a long time after she gave her interviews to BC. In February 2010, Dolours was in a psychiatric hospital in Dublin and while there she contacted the Irish News in Belfast and said she had things to tell the paper. That weekend, she was given leave to go home, but she was technically still under psychiatric care from the hospital. The Irish News' journalist Allison Morris arrived at her home and tape-recorded the interview. Dolours told a story about her involvement in the disappearance of several people in 1972, including Jean McConville. Toward the end of the interview, one of her sons arrived home and realized what was happening. He told Morris that his mother was a psychiatric patient, was taking drugs and was not in a fit state to give anyone an interview, that whatever she said was totally unreliable. He demanded that the interview end and that the tape not be used. Morris refused. He then phoned his aunt, who repeated the demand and was again refused. She then phoned the editor of the Irish News, and, after much discussion, he said that he would use the interview but agreed to keep "the juicy bits" out to minimize the damage to Dolours Price, which he did. We believe that what happened next was that Allison Morris betrayed Dolours Price and reneged on the agreement with her family and passed the tape on to a friend, Ciaran Barnes, who worked in the Sunday Life, a tabloid Belfast newspaper. He wrote up the story with "the juicy bits" very much in, and, in order to disguise the fact that he had got the information from Allison Morris' tape, wrote the piece in such a way that it appeared that he had gained access to Dolours Price’s taped interviews at Boston College, which needless to say was impossible. It is on the basis of this deception that the subpoenas were served on Boston College, that the information in Barnes' article came from BC when it didn't. The information, in fact, came from the Irish News tape, which was passed on, in contravention of an agreement with Dolours Price's family, to Barnes. Whether the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) have ever tried to obtain the Irish News tape is a mystery, which no one seems able to solve. But there is no doubt that the subpoenas served on BC are based on a lie, that the admissions Dolours Price allegedly made and which were reported in the Sunday Life came from Boston College. They did not. …

This is what the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney (Carmen M. Ortiz) had to say in her subpoena to justify the demand for Dolours Price’s interviews: "Ms. Price's interviews by Boston College were the subject of news reports published in Northern Ireland in 2010, in which Ms. Price admitted her involvement in the murder and 'disappearances' of at least four persons whom the IRA targeted: Jean McConville, Joe Lynskey, Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee. See Exhibits 1 and 2. Moreover according to one news report, the reporter was permitted to listen to portions of Ms. Price's Boston College interviews.”

That last sentence is a lie. He (Barnes) was not and never would be permitted access to Boston College's interviews. Boston College is the victim of journalistic ethics in Belfast that are on a par with Rupert Murdoch's hacking operations, and you can quote me.

WG: What can readers of The Wild Geese do to lend support for you in your struggle to protect your sources in the case? Is there a central location on the web or elsewhere for information and also to contact or advocate?

Ed Moloney: I would ask your readers to write to their congressmen/senators along the following lines:

Write Your Representative:

Tell them you are calling on them to use their good office to put an end to the legal fiasco surrounding the subpoena of oral history tapes of the IRA from Boston College by the PSNI. (Refer them to the Boston College Subpoena News on Facebook for complete details and updates).

Mention that you can't understand why the U.S. government is taking drastic legal action against a U.S. college on behalf of a foreign government? Tell them you don't see any reason why the U.S. has to be party to this investigation. There is nothing positive to be gained by these actions and it will only serve to jeopardize the lives of all those involved in the project.

Make sure you point out that the PSNI are only interested in republican oral histories and that they have not demanded the same access to oral histories given by loyalists. Explain that you feel the focus on IRA interviews seems to support the notion that the inquiry is “politically motivated.”

Let them know that such credible Irish organizations in the USA, namely the AOH, the Irish American Unity Conference and the Brehon Law Society have joined the campaign to help put an end to this politically motivated fishing expedition. Tell your representative that you are concerned that there exists the potential to destabilize the Good Friday Agreement if the PSNI continues to take legal action against Boston College.

Make sure you sign off by letting them know you would appreciate the courtesy of a reply from them as to how they can be of assistance in this matter.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: You can find Irish News Editor Noel Doran's response to Moloney's criticisms of the newspaper in Hell's Kitchen. Neither reporters Ciaran Barnes nor Allison Morris could be reached for comment on Moloney’s assertions about their actions with Morris’ interview with Dolours Price. We e-mailed Sunday Life Editor Martin Breen the following Oct. 4: “We’ve interviewed Ed Moloney about developments with the British government’s subpoenas issued to Boston College, demanding access to two interviews from its oral history project. Moloney says that one of your reporters, Ciaran Barnes, received audio of an interview conducted by Allison Morris of the Irish News with Dolours Price, and used it as the basis of some reports you published, without revealing the source of the quotations. Moloney says that Morris violated an agreement with an Irish News editor, made with Price’s family, to not cause to have published “the juiciest bits,” which, according to Moloney, subsequently appeared in Barnes’ reporting. We’d like a response from the newspaper, ideally one from Barnes himself, about these assertions. Can you assist?” The following day, Breen e-mailed the following in reply: “Sunday Life did not name its sources in the article and has no intention of naming them now.” Moloney told that his information about Price’s condition the day Morris interviewed Price and the details of the Irish News’ attempt to meet the concerns of Price’s family came from directly from Price’s family.]


Kilsally said...

Sorry but the request for info from boston college is actually from the police service of northern ireland investigating a murder case, justice and law and order and courts and prisons in northern ireland are all devolved to the northern irish assembly and nothing to do with the british government. David Cited of the cross community Alliance Party is Justice Minister by cross community vote supported by Sinn Fein and the DUP, terming everything as british prisons, british government etc is highly misleading, the only part the british government had is that it will be UK-USA treasures that are involved in obtaining the info for the police in northern ireland since NI is party if the UK

Gerry Regan said...

I understand the point you are trying to make, Kilsally, but is there any reference in the subpoena to the source of this request. that is, PSNI. I don't know. Just asking. It seems a request from the British government to the U.S. government to pursue.

Anonymous said...

In the government's filing describing the procedural history of the subpoena:

"The application was prompted by a formal request from the UK for legal assistance in a criminal investigation pending in that country, made pursuant to the US-UK MLAT.
- That application remains under seal as it contains confidential law enforcement information submitted by the UK to the United States, and the UK has requested that it be kept under seal."

"On March 31, 2011, the Court granted that application and entered an order appointing Mr. Braunstein, and any successor so designated by the United States Attorney, to, among other things, issue subpoenas consistent with the request from the UK.
- That order remains under seal, and the government has yet to disclose it to any person."

"The subpoenas issued by the Commissioner are being filed separately under seal."

Maid. said...

Ed is putting down journalistic ethics in Belfast as on a par with Murdoch because:

a) he wants the police to stay away from information regarding an unsolved murder..


b) because someone else wrote the 'juicy bits' before he did?

And as this dispute rumbles on does anybody ever think what if it was their mother?

Anonymous said...

kateyo is a well known pesterer who endlessly trolls blogs and websites in ireland - have pity on her rather than anger and just ignore her

Anonymous said...

Kudos to the Wilde Geese on a job well done in conducting this interview and bringing this important issue to the attention of its readers.

As an American citizen,it is disturbing to me to see our government trample all over the
4th amendment trying to placate the PSNI, a foreign government agency, who had to change their name from the RUC to the PSNI due to their shady past and accusations of collusion with loyalist paramilitary organizations. It should also be noted that the treatment of Ms. Dolores Price was absolutely deplorable. Again,thank you for this excellent piece and keeping us informed. Well done.

Gerry Regan said...

Helen, thank you for taking the time to write. Ger

Anonymous said...

28 hmpeteI agree with you Ms. McClafferty. However, had Mr. Moloney and Mr. McIntyre not been so venomously opposed to SF, particularly Gerry Adams, none of this would be unfolding today. I place the ultimate blame on them for not consulting an attorney regarding the 'extent of the American law'. A. McIntyre is married to an American, he has dealt with issues surrounding the right to enter America. He is not ignorant to the fact that the US is not Adams nor IRA friendly. All in all, they should have used their research abilities to explore what the 'extent' entailed; they did not! They were standing at the threshold, preparing to sign an agreement involving extremely delicate information yet they failed to protect the victims in this project; the interviewees.

Anyone involved in lobbying against the US/UK Treaty could have very easily told them that the possibility exists for something of this magnitude to happen. And it did.

In conclusion there is no excuse for ignorance of the law. They let many people down and the only ones that will be appeased is the British government. The shame befalls upon the Project coordinators and the US government!