This week, more than sixteen months after the Boston College subpoenas were served by the US Department of Justice and the PSNI, Irish Voice publisher Niall O’Dowd finally made a call that most others in Irish-America had made many months before – asking Hillary Clinton to intervene to stop the BC interviews ending up in Belfast.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am glad he has at last done the right thing even if it is so late in the game it may not actually make much difference. But the man does have a direct line to Foggy Bottom and/or Chappaqua – or so he claims – so here’s hoping he makes use of it.
Nonetheless, I do think it is worth asking why he did not do this long before last week and what it was that happened to change his mind? After all look at the groups and individuals in the U.S. who long ago put their names to this call: the AOH, the IAUC, the INC, the Brehon Law Society, a host of Senators and Congressmen, ranging from John Kerry to Frank Pallone and so many ordinary Irish-Americans it would be hard to count them. But not a peep from Mr O’Dowd.
It is not as if there were no good reasons to join the chorus to Hillary. Let’s have a look at just some of them:
♦This one may not rate very high on Niall’s list, but if the interviews get handed over and people end up in the dock, the life of interviewer Dr Anthony McIntyre and the safety of his wife and two small children will certainly be at risk if revenge is sought. Mr O’Dowd knows enough about the psyche of Irish Republicanism to know that this is a very real possibility;
♦The PSNI action may cripple oral history in America, Ireland and Britain for the foreseeable future;
♦The PSNI action is a real slap in the face to all those, not least in the United States, who worked to end the violence in Northern Ireland. By digging into pre-1998 events in an effort to get prosecutions, the PSNI is effectively resuming its war against the IRA, thereby shattering and betraying the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement;
♦The PSNI action reeks of double standards. Contrast this action with the complete lack of interest in pursuing the RUC Special Branch officers, British Army intelligence officers and MI5 agents who were complicit in the UDA killing of Pat Finucane; or the Special Branch officers who gave UVF leader Mark Haddock free license to murder and pillage in North Belfast for so long, or the British Army agents who allowed and encouraged informer Freddie Scappaticci to kill innocents so as to protect valuable IRA informers. And that’s just the tip of an iceberg of cover-up’s of British state criminality that neither the PSNI nor their Historical Enquiries Team show the slightest interest in pursuing;
♦The PSNI action is eloquent testimony to the continuing influence within Northern Ireland policing of the old RUC and especially the old RUC Special Branch who have seized on this case and, hiding behind the skirts of the unfortunate Jean McConville, have set out to wreak revenge against those they hold responsible for changing their world. The formation of the PSNI was supposed to herald a whole new era in policing in that troubled region. It wasn’t supposed to be the same old, same old…..;
♦The PSNI/DoJ action is of enormous constitutional importance to citizens of the United States. Niall O’Dowd writes that efforts to bring the case to the Supreme Court “will almost certainly fail” because the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) which empowers these subpoenas gives the government the power to hand over material to foreign governments. (Incidentally he somehow has got it into his head that Boston College is part of the move to the Supreme Court when of course they have nothing to do with it) But he has got this wrong. What is nefarious about the MLAT is that it actually bestows on foreign governments more powers over American citizens in relation to subpoenas than could ever be exercised by federal agencies such as the FBI. As an intrusion into American constitutional rights, as a subject worthy of consideration by the Supreme Court it is up there with the best. This does not guarantee that it will get there but it is in with a shout.
♦And finally, as a newspaper publisher, Niall O’Dowd should be concerned about the vast intrusion into and erosion of First Amendment rights that will follow if this PSNI/DoJ action proves to be successful. One presumes that Niall O’Dowd values freedom of the press – he ought to – and if that assumption is well-based then he should have been one of the very first, not the last, to urge action by Hillary.
From the very start of this affair we have warned of two things: one, that the PSNI move against the BC interviews could seriously damage the peace process in Northern Ireland; the second is that the real and main target of this operation is Gerry Adams. The two are linked of course.
Either because he didn’t believe this or was so overcome by his hostility towards myself, Niall O’Dowd paid no heed to the warnings. Until last week that is, when Dolours Price went on the rampage in the columns of The Sunday Telegraph and the airwaves of CBS news. At that point he then seems to have realised that our warnings were real, that if the PSNI was successful then Gerry Adams could very well face a charge of conspiracy to murder and that in the backwash, the power-sharing Executive in Belfast would likely collapse with possibly dire consequences for the peace itself.
He and Gerry Adams are friends, or at least it sometimes looks that way, and it might be one friend’s concern for another that motivated this week’s Irish Voice editorial. But Niall O’Dowd has also created a small industry out of his own contribution to the Good Friday Agreement, often placing himself at the forefront of the Irish-Americans who acted as midwives to the peace process. Should the power sharing deal collapse then his place in history will disappear with it. Sometimes self-interest can be a great motivator.
Not for the first time, Niall O’Dowd cast aspersions on myself in the course of his editorial, suggesting that “deep hostility” to Sinn Fein on my part motivated the Belfast Project at Boston College which concentrated on interviewing “dissidents”.
Well the best answer I can give to this charge is to say that I am exactly the same journalist that I was in the late 1980’s when our paths first crossed. A brief history of the relationship between myself and Niall O’Dowd will help to fill out this explanation and account for the poison in our relationship.
Niall O’Dowd founded the Irish Voice in 1987. Not long afterwards it was suggested to him that he might hire myself as his Belfast correspondent. This he refused to do, on the grounds that I was regarded as being far too close to the IRA. It is easy to forget these things but in those days Niall O’Dowd would rather have been dead than be seen in the company of Gerry Adams and as for his sympathy for the North, well he always was very keen to get adverts from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
I presume he had been fed this line by his mates in the Department of Foreign Affairs then battling desperately to shore up the SDLP in its life or death electoral struggle with Sinn Fein. As the recent Northern Editor of The Irish Times, I had angered the DFA with my coverage of that battle, predicting correctly, for instance, that Sinn Fein would win seats at the SDLP’s expense in working class Nationalist areas due to their advantages in age, class, enthusiasm and drive. But sometimes truth-telling can get you into a heap of trouble. And it is sometimes remarkable how these phases in your career can be airbrushed out by people.
I heard about all this in Belfast but paid no heed to it. Until a year or so later when we took our annual vacation in New York, picked up a copy of The Irish Voice and lo and behold, staring out at me from the front page with the byline ‘From Ed Moloney in Belfast’, was a piece I had written the week before for the Sunday Tribune then my employer. I made enquiries and discovered that this had been going on for some time. In fact every week for months, O’Dowd had lifted my articles in the Tribune and published them in the Irish Voice. I was never told about this, my permission was never sought and, needless to say, I was never paid.
Part of me was flattered by this, a part outraged. A year or so before I was poison but since then the quality of my coverage had clearly turned him round. That felt good. On the other hand he didn’t have the gumption to admit he had made a mistake and put our relationship on a proper footing. And then there was the cheapness, the willingness to steal my journalism – it was worth using in his paper, it added to his product but he didn’t want to pay for it. So, I have to say I was tempted to take legal action against him, so angry was I. But that could cost the paper money and jobs could be lost. So we made a deal. He would be able to use my pieces but he would pay me.
And so it went on until the peace process began to pick up speed. I approached that story in the same way I had all others, which was to dig as far as possible below the surface to discover what was really happening. And what a story it was! When an organisation like the IRA makes such a radical U-turn then it is rarely done in a straightforward way. Lies are told, tricks are played, extraordinary things happen and people get disappointed and disillusioned. But for a journalist like me it is all your dreams come true – great stories as far as the eye can see, a host of sources all with reason to talk. Sheer bliss! But the important point was that I had approached all my journalism, from Kincora, to Paisley, to the SDLP, to Billy Stobie – and more recently the Belfast Project at Boston College – in exactly the same spirit.
Alas Niall O’Dowd didn’t see it that way at all. Sometimes a journalist can dig too deep and the rows began, angry calls from New York about this or that article – presumably preceded by angry calls to him from Suffolk Road in West Belfast. Finally the break came. And the given reason? Well, I wasn’t writing original pieces for the Voice, just sending them articles that also appeared in the Sunday Tribune. That just wasn’t good enough complained Niall O’Dowd as he put the phone down.
And that was the end of my relationship with Niall O’Dowd and the beginning of what promises to be a lifelong enmity. Now, dear reader, you understand.