Thanks to the level of disinformation, confusion and outright lying, I think the time is overdue to address the issue of Paul Bew’s involvement in the Boston College Belfast Project. These events happened fourteen years or more ago and within that memory constraint and limitation this is how I remember it.
I am the person who had the idea for the Belfast Project and it was conceived long before Boston College or Paul Bew came on the scene. Bew was its Boston midwife in a sense but he was not there on the night of impregnation.
By the time of the Good Friday Agreement, I had already started work on ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ and research for this book along with my reporting for the Sunday Tribune had convinced me that the Troubles were ending, the IRA’s war was over. I was also convinced from what I knew that this ending would be more comprehensive and final than any other in the IRA’s history, that the IRA would eventually agree to destroy its weapons and the leadership would go on a journey lit up by the ideological bridges burned behind them.
With the Troubles ending it was clear that unless an effort was made, the life stories of those who had been active in the IRA and other republican groups would be lost. That was point number one. There was a simple need to collect activists’ stories before they were gone. And I didn’t see much chance of anyone else taking on this task.
Point number two was that if the IRA’s war was typical of most, the writing of its history would be left to those, mostly leaders, who had every reason to ensure their version of the truth dominated, even if that truth was contaminated by falsehoods and invention. There was a need to ensure that a more complete and credible story of the IRA was collected and preserved.
Since Gerry Adams’s arrest by the PSNI there has been an outburst of criticism of the Belfast Project on the grounds that the project did not include interviews with the pro-Adams’ camp. This was the definition of bias in the eyes of critics.
First of all those who make this criticism do so in complete ignorance of who was and was not interviewed, nor do they know what was said in these interviews.
Second, if by this criticism people mean we should have included interviewees whose stories would begin from the base that Gerry Adams was never in the IRA and Martin McGuinness left the IRA in 1974, then I am proud to say that we did exclude such people. To have included such an absurd, fallacious and egregiously dishonest version of history would have rendered the archive a farce. Interviews which proceeded from such a claim would be utterly useless to any serious scholar. And if by proclaiming this I earn the title ‘Sinn Fein critic’, then I proudly wear it.
The sad truth is that as long as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness persist in their fictional life histories it will not be possible to collect anything remotely resembling a credible oral history, or any other history of the IRA, if those collecting the history rely on sources who repeat such nonsense.
These were two men, the former in particular, who were instrumental and often crucial in determining almost every twist and turn that the IRA took over the past four decades and to build the foundations of an oral history archive on the nonsense that they were never there, and could not have done all these things, is to transform the telling of history into vaudeville. The truth cannot ever come by that route.
To have taken such an approach to the story of the IRA would be rather like constructing an oral history archive based on the events of Bloody Sunday and interviewing only soldiers who never fired a shot on the day, thereby validating the notion that the British Army was entirely innocent of murder. Who could possibly stand over such a project? Yet we are criticised for not doing the same with the IRA!
But back to the story.
I was aware of the work done by the Bureau of Military History (BMI) in Dublin and began thinking about the possibility of repeating that work north of the Border. I had known Anthony McIntyre for several years by that point, knew he was writing his PhD thesis on the IRA in the 1970’s and was well aware that his analysis of the Provsionals’ political development was both sceptical and critical.
And as far as I was concerned that was a good reason to approach and ask him if he would be interested in developing the idea of a BMI initiative north of the Border.
Let me explain why. I saw in Mackers a lot of myself, a searcher for truth even at the cost of being derided as biased or partisan. I knew him to be the consummate scholar; for sure he had his own views about the Provos and some of these were scathing but I also knew from the work of his that I had read that when it came to research he suppressed his views in the quest for truth. He did not shape the facts to suit his views.
The same attitude, I like to think, had informed nearly all of my journalism and while it had done my career trajectory nothing but harm, I had managed to get the story right or more right than a lot of my rivals most of the time.
An oral history project on the IRA in circumstances where the well had already been poisoned by Sinn Fein’s dissembling needed the involvement of someone with those qualities if it was going to be meaningful and credible.
Let me give you an example of what I mean from the place where I now live, the United States. A few months ago the Obama White House rolled out its new Affordable Care Act websites and it was a disaster. Most of them either didn’t work or were maddeningly slow; it was clear that someone in the Obama machine had screwed up.
The bulk of journalists did what they always do, trot off to the White House to ask Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney what had happened and then dutifully report it alongside criticism leveled by Obama’s congressional opponents. That was the safe thing to do and doubtless most of their news editors were happy with their coverage because no-one had been scooped or shown up by a rival. Only a few – some would call them troublemakers, I would call them proper journalists – went off in search of that internet expert in the Department of Health whose warnings about impending disaster had been laughed off or ignored.
In terms of covering the IRA story during the peace process I like to think I was the one who went off in search of that expert rather than Jay Carney; and I saw in Mackers someone who would take the same approach to the task of collecting historical interviews for this project (although in practice it was often a case of accepting whoever was willing to be interviewed!).
So, I make no apologies for hiring him. I hired him precisely because he is stubborn, iconoclastic, seditious, discerning, critical and incisive. And I hired him because I also knew he would be an objective scholar. I am proud of his work and so, until recently, was Boston College. And his work got the ultimate endorsement from an American judge: “A bona fide academic exercise of considerable intellectual merit”.
Again, back to the story.
I then spent a few months exploring the feasibility of the idea in Ireland and quickly discovered or realised that there were two insuperable obstacles. The first was that most libraries or colleges would run away screaming, their hair on fire at the very mention of an archive on the IRA. You might as well have suggested creating one on child rapists.
The truth is that back in those days the IRA was truly toxic for Irish academe, something they should remember now when some of their leading lights direct criticism at us. They would never have taken on such a project; cowardice runs very deep in that community. Where are their oral histories of the IRA? Why were we the only people with this idea?
The second is that no former or existing IRA member with half a brain would agree to get involved if the archive was housed at an Irish or British library or college. That was simply because of a lack of trust, created in part because there had been instances of such places alerting the police to sensitive material on their shelves. More cowardice on the part of academe.
The idea was dead, and I let it go.
And then Paul Bew showed up. He was spending a year as a visiting scholar at Boston College, a year after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, from September 1999 to September 2000. While at the college he had been approached by the librarian Bob O’Neill who admitted that he was beginning to realise that he didn’t have much of a collection of anything to do with the Troubles or the North. He was anxious to correct that. The Linenhall library had a collection of political ephemera for instance; would it be possible to replicate that? And he asked Bew if he would ask around and if there was anyone with a viable idea then they should approach Boston College. Funding might be available for the right idea.
And that simply, is how it started. Paul approached me, I explained the idea, contact was made with O’Neill and the rest is history. Apart from endorsing his PhD student, Anthony McIntyre as the lead researcher, and later suggesting names of former students for the UVF part, that was the sum of Paul Bew’s involvement in the genesis of the Belfast Project.
Boston College’s involvement allowed me to think bigger. I proposed that we expand to include the UVF which we did. And there were plans, funds permitting, to include an archive on the RUC and even British Army. Much later on we suggested that a victims’ archive be created as well.
As for the Tom Hachey preface to Voices From The Grave, my memory of the reference to Paul Bew reading interviews is of thinking that Hachey meant to say that he was involved in the same limited mission as Kevin O’Neill, i.e. reading one or two very early interviews to judge Mackers’ interviewing technique (whereas in fact Hachey’s affidavit to the first court hearing in Boston makes it clear that Bew was not involved in this at all).
Since Paul Larkin’s fantasy went into circulation I have talked to both Kevin O’Neill and Paul Bew about this early sampling exercise. Kevin believes Paul was never involved in that exercise while Paul outright denies it and Hachey told the court in Boston the same. I am inclined to believe them and even if they are mistaken we are talking about two interviews out of over 200.
The truth, disappointing though it may be to the conspiracists, is that Paul Bew’s involvement in the Belfast Project while helpful and important at the start, was in reality minimal and limited. Paul Bew has his own political views for sure but he is a respected political scientist and historian well capable of building a firewall around his involvement in this project, limited as it was. And such is the respect in which he is held in academic circles that his advice and input would always be welcome.
This criticism of Bew from the Larkins and the Danny Morrisons is itself immensely revealing. Do they assume that someone with defined political views imposes those views on their other activities because this is how they themselves behave? Is this why Larkin no longer works at the BBC?
There is a fatal flaw in the Larkin conspiracy, aside from the fact that it is the product of a fevered and obsessive mind. Implied in his analysis is the idea that Paul Bew directly or indirectly let the police authorities know about the archive. He implies that but as far as I know hasn’t had the courage to say it publicly. But riddle me this? The Belfast Project closed down in 2006 so if Bew had told them all about it, why did the PSNI wait five years to move against the archive? Why not straight away in 2006?
That’s the problem with conspiracies. There’s always one loose thread dangling down. Pull it hard enough and the rest unravels.