Last month, police in Belfast arrested veteran republican Ivor Bell, on the basis of material obtained through a controversial subpoena against the Boston College Oral History Project in the United States. This has intensified an already bitter debate that existed among republicans about the project.
Responding to suggestions that the Police Service of Northern Ireland might wish to speak to him, Gerry Adams stated:
It is clear that the so-called Boston Oral History project is an entirely bogus, shoddy and self-serving effort by those involved. The idea for this project originated with Paul Bew, an advisor to David Trimble and was taken up by Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre who conducted the interviews. Both are vitriolic critics and opponents of the Sinn Féin peace strategy, of me in particular and of Sinn Féin and its leadership.
Ed Moloney, a journalist and author of the book, Voices from the Grave, based on the interviews from the project, responded in a US radio interview:
First of all, Paul Bew’s involvement in this project, which is now being highlighted by Gerry Adams, was marginal. He was a message boy from Boston College to a number of people in Belfast back in 2000- 2001.
If anyone had any ideas for projects or things that Boston College could do commemorate the peace process – to record The Troubles – Paul Bew would pass on their ideas to Boston College and we were one of the ideas that was put forth.
So his role is marginal but is being played up by Gerry Adams because he was also at one stage advisor to David Trimble so he’s trying to make this appear to be a Unionist plot of some sort which it is absolutely not.
Secondly, I was never an interviewer. I coordinated the project. The interviews were conducted on the Republican side by Anthony McIntyre and on the Loyalist side by Wilson MacArthur. So again, another inaccuracy.
Moloney's description of Bew as a 'message boy' is particularly striking here. Even if one takes it at face value, the one indisputable failure of the project was the disagreement between Moloney and the College over how far they could defend the confidentiality of their interviews. That suggests a failure of communication from the outset.
But can one take it at face value? Bew is after all one of the most prominent academics writing on the Irish conflict, and has since become a member of the House of Lords. It is hard to imagine that he would have simply passed on a message about the project, without the College attaching great weight to his assessment.
In fact, Professor Tom Hachey and Dr Bob O'Neill say as much in a preface to Voices From The Grave which Moloney himself published:
Paul Bew, politics professor and senior political adviser to a Northern Ireland First Minister, together with two historians who remain anonymous, assisted in an assessment of the information contained in the recorded interviews. Lord Bew strongly encouraged Boston College to document and archive the stories of paramilitaries who fought on both sides of the sectarian divide, known more popularly as the Troubles, because it was such a natural fit. (Voices From The Grave, Faber and Faber, 2010, p.1.)
Did the issue of what undertakings could legitimately be made to such paramilitaries figure in those discussions? It was the lack of clarity on this question which was the central failing of the project, leading to a situation which may have a chilling effect on such oral history projects in future.
It is tempting to see that opacity as a reflection of the illusory community of interests among the project's supporters, some of whom have ended up in PSNI interrogation rooms, while others sit on the plush red benches of the Lords.