The Ivor Bell Hearing – The Most Political Trial Of The Troubles?

This is the first of several articles I plan to devote to the Ivor Bell trial and its aftermath in the coming days.

This article revolves around one question, from which others proliferate: why was Ivor Bell acquitted?

The given reason for the ‘not guilty’ verdict can be found in the criticism of the Boston oral history archive made by the judge, which was that either the interviewer, Anthony McIntyre was less than professional in his questioning or that the guarantee of confidentiality that I negotiated was at fault.

I will deal in much greater detail with the issue of confidentiality in a later posting but first a word or two in explanation about Anthony McIntyre’s interviewing technique.

Conventional oral history projects involve professional interviewers with little or no connection to their subjects sitting down and asking questions of their subjects. The key here is that interviewer and interviewee would in most cases be strangers to each other, bound together only for the few hours the interview took to complete.

That is the ideal version of oral history. It was not possible to replicate that for this project for the simple reason that former members of the Provisional and Official IRA’s, the INLA, the UVF and Red Hand Commandos would not reveal their innermost thoughts, recollections and secrets to a stranger. The reason for that is obvious – the absence of trust.

They would only do so to one of their own, or someone who was as close to one of their own as made no difference. This is the feature that defined the Boston College project and made it different and special from normal oral history ventures. In that respect what we put together was far from being a conventional oral history research.

And so Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner with a First Class Honours degree in politics and a PhD in the same subject – based on a thesis dealing with the IRA – and Wilson McArthur, another Honours graduate in politics with family ties to the Loyalist paramilitary world, were chosen as interviewers. They were academically qualified and likely to evoke trust in the people they talked to.

What followed from that was a level of intimacy, familiarity and conversational informality that would be out of bounds in any other oral history project – but the consequence was that interviewees felt freer to speak more fully and honestly about their paramilitary lives.

Unlike the judge or the ‘expert’ witness on whose testimony he so heavily relied, I have read all of Ivor Bell’s interviews. they stretch back to the involvement of the Belfast IRA in the 1956-62 campaign, the 1969 split, the creation of the Provisional IRA, the early campaign of violence, internment, the importance of Adams’ influence, the takeover of the IRA by Northerners, the re-organisation of the IRA, the post-hunger strike IRA and finally his break with Adams as the organisation began the journey to the peace process.

It is a story told in unprecedented detail, a document of immeasurable historical value and none of it would have been possible without McIntyre’s unconventional approach.

That defining difference was never understood nor appreciated by the court – nor even explained as far as I can tell – but it allowed the judge, guided by a hostile witness (hostile to myself and McIntyre), to deem the interviewing technique unprofessional and biased.

What was never factored into all this was that Anthony McIntyre was interviewing people who were friends, former colleagues and even comrades – that made for a very different interviewing style. Purists, and  Judge John O’Hara, chose to condemn the technique and that led directly to the acquittal of Ivor Bell. But we knew it could happen no other way.

Ivor Bell’s acquittal meant that Gerry Adams was off the hook. Had Bell been convicted then, by extension, Adams would also be deemed guilty; demands for his arrest from Unionists would have quickly followed (and possibly from Jean McConville’s family) and, at a time of Brexit-induced crisis, the republican part of the peace process would have been pitched into potentially fatal calamity.

So to save Adams and the peace process, Ivor Bell had to be acquitted. And so he was. But in the process other reputations needed to be trashed.

A couple of puzzling questions remain unanswered out of all this (questions unasked by the media).

What was the purpose of the gagging order? Why was it necessary to keep the trial a secret from the world not just as it happened but in the weeks leading up to it? One consequence was that media coverage concentrated on the final day when the judge took complete control of proceedings? But were there other reasons?

Finally, the most intriguing, unanswered question of all. Why did the judge take the final decision away from the jury, dismiss them and deliver his verdict and judgement without their assistance? What, one wonders, would a jury have thought of the evidence?

We may just have witnessed one of the most political, no-jury trials of the Troubles.

2 responses to “The Ivor Bell Hearing – The Most Political Trial Of The Troubles?

  1. With respect, your writing about the trial give me the impression the negative comments made regarding the project have been taken a little personally. I understand they may not seem fair, and that unfairness may well be more apparent to someone who has read more of the transcripts; however I hope any assurance of confidentiality until death will not be considered null and void because transcripts had to be provided to a limited audience under court order.

    I was seeking to persuade some former combatants to discuss their experiences when news of the Boston disclosure put a very firm stop to it. The verdict, I hoped, might allow projects like that (though mine was small) to resume.

    I don’t doubt the comments made in the trial seem very unfair given they were based on the narrow context related to the trial, but made as if they represented the value of the project. Clearly they could not have been an informed evaluation of the project given their limited visibility to early work, and you have made that point very clearly.

    The trust of veterans is of immense importance as you tightly pointed out, so I hope you, like I, maintain the hope that a process can be found which allows that to be developed and builds on the work you and your colleagues have done under difficult circumstances and I presume at considerable stress. I worry that disclosure related to material not made public in the trial may further make trust difficult when the verdict could instead perhaps provide an opportunity to continue valuable work.


  2. Paul, I have come to suspect and believe that one of the reason for pursuing the Boston tapes was to discourage other freelance efforts at discovering the hidden history of the Troubles and that in the process of punishing those like ourselves, that will serve to deter and discourage others tempted to follow our path. The PSNI may claim that they wanted to bring the killers of Jean McConville to justice but I am sceptical. Like the Garda Special Branch in Co Louth, who likely knew the whereabouts of Jean McConville’s grave many years ago but did nothing, the RUC/PSNI knew so much about the IRA’s disappearances and the role/existence of the IRA’s ‘Unknowns’ they could have acted, or at least toid the family what they knew many years ago but chose not to.

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