How The Irish Times Banned My Response To The Boston Tapes Case

Last week, I phoned the editor’s office at The Irish Times to complain about their coverage of the Boston Tapes court case.

The paper had featured a ‘Long Piece’ written by their long serving Northern Editor, Gerry Moriarty detailing the evidence given at the two-week long trial – which was held in camera in accordance with a judicial gagging order.

He also penned several additional pieces including one that chronicled the judge’s criticism of the way the Boston project had worked. His articles amounted to several thousand words altogether.

As the former Director of the Boston College project, I expected to be contacted and asked to comment in some detail.

I did get a call – from a junior reporter, I gathered – but it didn’t come until  9 p.m. Irish time and it had all the appearances of an afterthought rather than something that had been planned.n

The article in the Times that followed included a grand total of seventy-two of my words.

So I decided to phone The Irish Times and ask the editor, Paul O’Neill for the right of reply. He was not in the office, or at least did not come to the phone, but an assistant told me that I would be allowed to reply and to liaise with the Opinion editor, John McManus.

The following is the article that I wrote and submitted to The Irish Times. The editor Paul O’Neill has refused to publish it, despite having commissioned it, offering me instead ‘a letter to the editor’ spot strictly limited to 400 words.

As a former Northern Editor of the paper I had expected that the editor would offer me sufficient space to put my side of the story, both as a courtesy and in recognition of past service.

But as they say in Ireland, eaten bread is soon forgotten. What he offered me is an insult and a disgrace.

Tomorrow I shall publish our email correspondence. In the meantime here is the article that has been banned by The Irish Times:

Boston Tapes
From Ed Moloney
FAO John McManus

Just over a week ago, a Belfast court heard swingeing criticism of the Boston College oral history project when the trial of Ivor Bell on charges connected to the disappearance of Jean McConville collapsed.

After hearing testimony from a Boston College history teacher, Kevin O’Neill, the Belfast judge, John O’Hara criticised the project researcher, Anthony McIntyre saying he was not “in any way a professional or neutral interviewer” and that he was “out to get Gerry Adams”.

He also took aim at myself, saying the taped Bell admission was unreliable as “a direct result of the circumstances in which it was improperly and dishonestly induced by Mr McIntyre working under the auspices of project director Mr Moloney”.

John O’Hara is not the only judge to have pronounced on the quality of the Boston tapes. Seven years ago in Boston, US Federal judge William Young agreed that the tapes relevant to the McConville case in the archive should be handed over to the PSNI, but added:

“This was a bona fide academic exercise of considerable intellectual merit…..[These materials] are of interest – valid academic interests. They’re of interest to the historian, sociologist, the student of religion, the student of youth movements, academics who are interested in insurgency and counter-insurgency, in terrorism and counter-terrorism. They’re of interest to those who study the history of religions.”

So how could two men, both learned in the law, come to such wildly differing judgements about the same body of work?

Well one answer may be that the judge in Belfast read only fragments of two interviews by Ivor Bell, whereas Judge Young read every single one of the 201 interviews, given by 26 interviewees, that make up the republican part of the archive.

When, in late 2012, Boston College officials could not identify interviews relevant to the PSNI subpoenas, Judge Young had taken the entire archive home and read the interviews from cover to cover over the Christmas vacation.

As for Kevin O’Neill, I had barred him at the very outset from any further access to the tapes when, in my hearing, he repeated criticism of myself, whose recently published book, ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ had provoked Sinn Fein outrage.

My principal concern was for the safety of Anthony McIntyre, whose life would be in danger had his work become known in Belfast. I do not think Kevin would have said or done anything to harm McIntyre, but an incautious word in the wrong place could have had bad consequences.

Until the trial, Kevin had read only one very early interview which I had asked Boston College to review so as to assess McIntyre’s interviewing skills. By definition it fell below required standard.

As for anti-Adams’ bias let me say this. The Sinn Fein leader had by then been denying for many years that he had ever been in the IRA. I knew from my own interactions with him that this was not true but I am a journalist not an activist. It was important to discover from former comrades what their view was.

Even so, of the twenty-six Republicans interviewed, whose number included Official IRA and INLA veterans, only three spoke in depth about Gerry Adams and they had all been very close to him, especially in the Troubles’ early years. They were Brendan Hughes, Dolours Price and Ivor Bell, all admirers of Adams’, his close friend, and fans of his tactical skills before they turned against him.

Common sense demanded that they be interviewed about their former friend. There was no obsession with Gerry Adams, merely good practice.

On the issue of confidentiality, it took many years before we discovered what had happened. It had been clear for some time following the serving of subpoenas that the guarantee was deficient, but how was this possible?

Our point of contact had always been Bob O’Neill, the college librarian who was in charge of a multi-million dollar budget and had amassed an impressive collection of Irish art, photos, diaries and memoirs.

To myself and McIntyre he said that the library would refuse to take in interviews if there were any ‘legal repercussions’ for the participants. To the UVF/Red Hand Commando interviewer, Wilson McArthur he gave ‘an ironclad’ guarantee of legal protection for the interviews. (O’Neill now suffers from memory loss and could not give evidence at the Bell trial)

To be sure, my own contract gave protection ‘to the extent that American law allows’ but O’Neill, who was, it should be remembered, speaking on behalf of one of America’s leading universities, kept assuring us that in the land of the First Amendment and a Bill of Rights the interviews would, under American law, be safe.

Hindsight, they say, is twenty-twenty vision and I should have checked out his assurances but at the time I can honestly say that none of us could have imagined or foretold what then happened.

The truth of what really happened was ferreted out by the US magazine The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) in late 2014.

The test would come when the individual donor contracts were prepared. These would set out the conditions of the interview for the participants, that the tapes and transcripts would remain the property of the interviewees but would stay at the college until death, when ownership reverted to BC.

I showed the CHE the email I had sent O’Neill, which asked him to submit the draft to the university’s legal counsel for approval. That would be the real acid test. If there was a limit to the guarantee the counsel would insist it be inserted.

He emailed back: ‘I am working on the contract to be signed by the interviewee and I’ll run this by… counsel’.

He later told me that the lawyer had given the thumbs up and we were in business.

But, years later, he admitted to The Chronicle of Higher Education, that he had never gone near the college lawyer.

We had embarked on the project on the basis of a lie.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.