Guest Post: Boston College, Northern Ireland, and a Big Legal-Historical Clusterf*ck

Editor’s Note: in today’s guest post, we will be taking a detour across the Irish Sea as Dr. Laura Weinstein discusses a thorny legal issue that led to the arrest of Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams.

At the end of April, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) arrested Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams in order to question him about his alleged role in the 1972 disappearance (read: murder) of Jean McConville.  McConville was a widowed mother of ten children, and analysts widely considered this crime to be one of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s more obscene offenses.  The IRA incorrectly believed that the woman had been an informer for the British, an excuse the paramilitary used to justify the abduction and killing.  The arrest of Gerry Adams caused uproar in Northern Ireland, with cries that it was politically motivated.  Perhaps it was, but the arrest also stems from a fascinating legal controversy surrounding interviews with paramilitary members conducted at Boston College.  So, what is going on?

In 2001, Boston College, one of the few American universities with an active program in Irish studies, began an oral history project to chronicle the Troubles.  Under the direction of journalist Ed Moloney, Dr. Anthony McIntyre (himself a former IRA prisoner) and Wilson McArthur conducted interviews with members of both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries.  The idea was that these interviews would be extraordinarily candid, thereby shedding light on events that have been closely guarded secrets.  The men and women who participated in the interviews spoke frankly because they were promised that the tapes would not be made public until after they had died.

Moloney, in fact, published a book containing interviews with the loyalist David Ervine and the well-known IRA man Brendan Hughes, both of whom died before publication.  In the book titled Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland, Hughes revealed that he had organized Bloody Friday (21 July 1972), a day in which the IRA detonated nearly twenty car bombs in Belfast in under an hour.[1]  Hughes also spoke bluntly about Gerry Adams, naming him as a key IRA strategist.  Before this book was published, anyone with even a casual interest in Northern Ireland was well aware that Gerry Adams was a major figure in the IRA; many people have identified him as being a longtime member of the IRA’s ruling Army Council.  Adams himself has denied this allegation.  In his interview, Hughes stated unequivocally that Gerry Adams led an IRA squad that was in charge of “disappearing” people—that is, secretly kidnapping, murdering, and burying them.  Jean McConville was one of the “disappeared.”

Following the publication of Ed Moloney’s book, the PSNI determined that there could be a great deal of important, incriminating information in the Boston College interviews.  As a result, in 2011 the PSNI began a legal battle to gain access to the tapes.  In In re Application for Appointment of a Commissioner, the United States government acted on behalf of the British government in issuing a subpoena to Boston College for the tapes from the Belfast Project.  The British government and US government have a mutual legal assistance treaty[2] that set this whole process in motion.  Boston College attempted to quash the subpoena, claiming that the interviewees were promised that the tapes would be confidential until they died, and, moreover, if the information in the tapes were to be made public, the interviewees’ lives would be in grave danger.

The US government countered by telling Boston College essentially that it should not have made a promise that it could not keep.

After a great deal of legal maneuvering, including an attempt by Moloney and McIntyre to obtain a writ of mandamus, Boston College was forced to turn over tapes to the PSNI.[3]  At first, the PSNI sought only certain tapes (notably interviews with Dolours Price, who died in 2013), but after those were obtained, they decided that they would seek further tapes—any and all tapes that included information related to the abduction and murder of Jean McConville.  In order to prevent fallout from giving more of these tapes to the British government, Boston College opted to return the interviews to the interviewees, who would presumably destroy them in order to protect themselves.

So if Adams is likely guilty of involvement in the murder of Jean McConville, and certainly guilty of having been a top-ranking member of the IRA, why did I say that his arrest was politically motivated?  First, it was timed to occur in the midst of an election campaign, and thus had the potential to derail Sinn Féin in the elections (it did not succeed).  Second, if you take a look at the rhetoric surrounding the quest for the Boston College tapes, much of it openly admits to a desire to bring down Gerry Adams.[4]  Third, and perhaps most importantly, the tapes cannot be used in court to convict Adams or anyone else.  Why is that?

The interviews in the Boston College archive were not labeled with the names of the interviewees, a precaution taken to protect their identity.  As a result, the voices on the tapes are not identified, and so they are for legal purposes fairly useless, no matter what the people said.  British law provides that the tapes are excluded by the hearsay rule unless one of the parties to the interview testifies in court that he was one of the voices on the tape and confirms the identity of the other(s).  Dr. Anthony McIntyre, who conducted the interviews with the former IRA members, will absolutely not do this.  As a result, any incriminatory details garnered from these interviews will never be heard as evidence by a jury, and so a guilty verdict would be out of the question—and therefore, an indictment is highly unlikely as well.

The consequences of the destruction of these tapes for historians of Ireland are great indeed.  These interviews unquestionably contained answers to some historical mysteries about murders, bombings, secret negotiations, and paramilitary politicking.  Because the British government felt compelled to “investigate” some cold cases as cover for a political attack on Sinn Féin, history has become the biggest loser.  Many of these unanswered questions will remain unanswered.  Because no indictments or convictions were likely to arise out of the tapes anyway, I strongly believe that the British government should have desisted from its quest to obtain them and thereby allow history to have its answers.

Gerry Adams was released from jail without having been charged with the McConville murder.  His release does not, however, mean that Adams is innocent.  Whether or not he was personally involved in this specific crime, though, Adams should come clean about his past activities in the IRA, as has his compatriot Martin McGuinness, who serves as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.  Adams is fond of comparing himself to Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist who later led South Africa with profound erudition and humanity.  Mandela also came clean about his past.  Gerry Adams should do the same and, if we are being blunt, he should probably also resign as president of Sinn Féin.  He has held that position since 1983, which constitutes an absurdly long tenure by any stretch of the imagination.  His continued presence at the helm of Sinn Féin prevents younger party members from rising in the ranks.  Only when Sinn Féin cuts off its paramilitary head will it be able to come out of the shadows of its past as the “political wing of the IRA” and truly act as a political party representing the interests of all of Ireland.

Laura Weinstein holds a Ph.D. in British and Irish history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include Irish crime, sexual violence, and criminal law. Her work has appeared in Eire/Ireland and several magazines.


[1] Brendan Hughes acknowledged his responsibility in the bombings that killed nine people, saying that he was “the person on the ground.”  He went on to say that it was an   “organizational decision” and named Gerry Adams as the man who planned it. See Ed Moloney, Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland  (New York: Public Affairs, 2010),  105-106.

[2]  Department of State, “Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty Between the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” 6 January 1994, available online at

[3] A writ of mandamus is an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering that official to fulfill his/her duties or to correct an abuse of power.  In this case, Moloney and McIntyre sought a writ of mandamus against Attorney General Eric Holder for injunctive relief against the requirement that Boston College turn over the interview tapes.  The application for the writ of mandamus argued in part that Holder did not take into account provisions related to extradition of persons for criminal offenses committed before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, nor did he consult with his counterpart in the United Kingdom, both required by items in the mutual legal assistance treaty.

[4] “Belfast Project: Boston Prosecutors as Irish Politicians,” Letters Blogatory, May 6, 2013,

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