UPDATE – It appears that Thomas P O’Neill III did have a political career but not a very distinguished one. Between 1977 and 1983 he was Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts, a largely symbolic office. He attempted to run as Governor (the office with real power) after that but failed even to make the ballot.
On April 29th, 2014, the day before Gerry Adams was arrested by the PSNI and held for questioning for a week about the murder and ‘disappearance’ of Jean McConville, Thomas P O’Neill III published an Op-Ed in The Boston Globe asking critical and pertinent questions about British motives for invading the Belfast Project oral history archives at Boston College.
In the course of that commentary he wrote this sentence:
…..why, when both sides in the Troubles were guilty of so much wrongdoing, is the British prosecution seemingly intent on only pursuing crimes allegedly committed by only one side?
And he went on:
…..the investigation smacks of political motivation. Of the scores of murders committed during the Troubles, the British government is seeking only to investigate that of Jean McConville in what can be construed as an attempt to implicate Gerry Adams and jeopardize his current position within the Irish parliament…..Is the British demand for documents, and its search for alleged wrongdoing, driven as much by the politics of Ireland today as it is by the search for justice for past crimes?
So just who is Thomas P O’Neill III? You may, dear reader, not know who he is but there is a very good chance you’ll remember or have heard of his father, ‘Tip’ O’Neill. He was Speaker of the US House of Representatives between 1977 and 1987 – effectively the Reagan years – and in his day was one of America’s most powerful politicians.
In Irish political folklore ‘Tip’ O’Neill is widely credited for persuading Reagan to lean on Margaret Thatcher and cajole, pressurise and generally oblige the British prime minister to sign the 1985 Anglo-Irish accord – the Hillsborough Agreement as it is better known – with Garret Fitzgerald’s government, something which she was later said to have regretted.
His son, Thomas P O’Neill III did not follow his father into politics – he runs a public relations firm and was once a Trustee at Boston College – but he is a significant and respected figure in Boston and in the wider Irish-American political community. You could say he is a member of the Irish-American aristocracy.
I must confess to having mixed feelings about his Op-Ed. There is much about it to be liked. He praises the Belfast project for its candour and relevance and correctly identifies the exposing of Dolours Price as a BC interviewee – done by Ciaran Barnes in The Sunday Life c/o Allison Morris in The Irish News – as the spark for the British/PSNI subpoenas.
But his criticism of the one-sided nature of the PSNI action – aimed only at the IRA figures allegedly involved in the McConville disappearance – filled me with concern, as did the depiction of the conflict as being between ‘two sides’, as if the British did not have a dog in the fight.
It was a criticism I had heard frequently from Irish-America, where there is a tendency to paint issues in Ireland in simple, clashing sectarian colours and it led to a conclusion that further endangered the archive – and that I could not accept.
What O’Neill was saying was this: ‘…the British are only going for Adams and ignoring the Loyalists’. This was a common refrain in Irish-America from the outset and the answer to their concern was disarmingly simple: ‘If the PSNI would only go for Loyalists and something other than the McConville affair then we’d be okay with this thing.’
A day after the O’Neill Op-Ed appeared in The Boston Globe, Gerry Adams was arrested and, as horrified supporters of the new dispensation on both sides of the Atlantic watched helplessly, the Good Friday Agreement teetered at the edge of a long drop.
In the days following Adams’ release, the PSNI announced a radical change of direction. With Thomas P O’Neill’s criticism ringing in their ears the force let it be known that its detectives would now try to obtain all the interviews lodged at Boston College.
And then they moved against Winston ‘Winkie’ Rea, the first Loyalist targeted in this saga. This, it should be noted, was some four years after Dolours Price was targeted by a PSNI subpoena.
Now the PSNI are aiming at the lead IRA researcher, Anthony McIntyre. This is a man who has never hid or lied about his paramilitary past (he describes himself on his own blog as ‘a former IRA Volunteer’, for goodness sake! Will this now be cited as supporting evidence if prosecutors bring a membership charge against him?). His often biting criticism of the Provos rests not at all on their abandonment of violence but rather their political dishonesty and all the wasted, blighted lives they had fostered.
I cannot remember a great deal about his interviews with BC (except I know they do not at all warrant a British seal of secrecy!) but one thing did lodge in my memory, and that was the several times that he passionately abhorred and rejected the use of violence for political ends. He didn’t have to do that but he wanted future historians to hear his words.
So what message is the PSNI sending by pursuing Anthony McIntyre? Is it this: ‘Even if you reject violence and argue against those who insist on its use, like the dissidents, as McIntyre has, that doesn’t matter, we’re still coming for you’? Is this the PSNI’s contribution to the new Northern Ireland? And for what purpose?
Another troubling question demands a more immediate answer: ‘Did the PSNI pursue ‘Winkie’ Rea and then Anthony McIntyre not for conventional policing reasons, not because some long standing investigation demanded it, but for political convenience, viz. in order to mollify powerful & influential Irish-Americans concerned that the force was unduly targeting Gerry Adams and harming the Good Friday Agreement?’
The Troubles in Northern Ireland had many parents. Among them was a belief that the old RUC danced to political tunes. The PSNI was supposed to be different and better. But is it?
Here is the full text of Thomas P O’Neill III’s Op-Ed in The Boston Globe:
Last month, I listened as former President Bill Clinton delivered the inaugural lecture for the Hume-O’Neill Chair in Peace Studies at the University of Ulster Magee Campus in Derry, Northern Ireland. Clinton’s address conveyed a simple, yet powerful, message: Northern Ireland has made enormous strides in the peace and reconciliation process, but the job is still not finished.
These words not only resonated throughout Northern Ireland, they have taken on considerable meaning for the United States — and specifically for the City of Boston.
Boston College is immersed in a complex legal battle with the British government over the Belfast Tapes, an academic oral history project that has been tragically compromised as a result of Northern Irish political infighting and a misguided hunt for criminal justice.
Boston College commenced the Belfast Tapes project in 2001, appointing former IRA volunteer and prisoner Anthony McIntyre as the interviewer and Ed Moloney, a journalist with deep ties to both sides of the conflict, as the supervisor. With the Belfast Tapes, Boston College sought to intertwine modern academia and the college’s Irish roots to document the Troubles and the peace process of Northern Ireland.
In February of 2010, former IRA paramilitary Dolours Price gave interviews with Irish media in which she revealed that she had participated in the Belfast Project, and told them that she and current Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams were involved in the 1972 abduction and murder of Belfast mother of 10, Jean McConville. This admission quickly sparked a series of subpoenas issued to Boston College by the US Department of Justice on behalf of the United Kingdom in May and August of 2011, requesting the tapes and transcripts for use in criminal investigations.
Undoubtedly, the murder of Jean McConville was an especially gruesome war crime and her family deserves justice. However, the investigation smacks of political motivation. Of the scores of murders committed during the Troubles, the British government is seeking only to investigate that of Jean McConville in what can be construed as an attempt to implicate Gerry Adams and jeopardize his current position within the Irish parliament.
For decades, the Northern Ireland conflict has existed as a polarizing issue for many US politicians as well as officials at the White House and the Department of State. The United States Department of State has historically acted in favor of the British government, long considered our staunchest ally, and complies with their requests time and again.
On this issue, our relations with Britain have not always been smooth. My father, former Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neill, worked tirelessly with fellow Irish-American politicians to denounce the violence in Northern Ireland and to craft a peace accord for warring factions. He convinced Presidents Carter and Reagan to press the British government on the conflict and questioned their peacekeeping efforts, an act that challenged the stance of the Department of State.
The Belfast Tapes have exposed truths about the Troubles that reawaken feelings of betrayal and bitterness among former members of the IRA. These truths should be used as a form of catharsis and as a vehicle toward peace and reconciliation for Northern Ireland. Instead, the United States and Great Britain are allowing these truths to be used in ways that appear, frankly, both selective and political.
In the Boston College case, our “special relationship’’ with Britain is raising serious and troubling questions: Are we abridging academic freedom in ways that will prevent participants in major international issues from stepping forward with their stories? Is the British demand for documents, and its search for alleged wrongdoing, driven as much by the politics of Ireland today as it is by the search for justice for past crimes? And why, when both sides in the Troubles were guilty of so much wrongdoing, is the British prosecution seemingly intent on only pursuing crimes allegedly committed by only one side?
In Clinton’s recent address, he reminded Northern Ireland and the international community that the process to securing peace is not solely comprised of various static agreements and moments, but instead is an ever-evolving conversation that each generation must continue to have and adapt throughout history. All this turmoil now is a very clear example that that evolving conversation is continuing, and how we conduct it matters.
We should not be helping to fan the flames of animosity rooted in the past of Northern Ireland. Instead, we must uphold the values and constitutional rights upon which our country stands.
Thomas P. O’Neill III served on the Boston College Board of Trustees from 1992 to 2010 and currently acts as a trustee associate.