Whatever You Say, Say Nothing: Truth, Justice and the Boston Tapes

Social share:

(The following article was co-authored by Dr Cillian McGrattan)

The transfer of tapes from an oral history archive at Boston College to British authorities has inspired a range of sententious comment concerning the need to respect academic (and by implication, journalistic) integrity.

The tapes, which are recordings of interviews from republican and loyalist terrorists, were to be quarantined until the deaths of the individual respondents.

The aim of the project was to try to shed light on the motivations of some of those responsible for the almost four thousand deaths that were related to the Northern Irish conflict.

The lessons that could be learned from what brought belligerents to espouse peaceful negotiation lay at the heart of the project’s rationale.

Ed Moloney. Image courtesy of John Stillwell/PA


Two of the main researchers on the project, Dr Anthony McIntrye (a former republican prisoner and a political scientist) and Ed Moloney (a respected journalist who has written ground-breaking histories of Northern Ireland) have argued vociferously in print and before the United States judicial system that the tapes should remain sealed: their contents could endanger lives and potentially lead to the collapse of the Northern Irish peace process.

Other academics and political commentators have argued that academic integrity needs to be respected.

The decision to hand over the tapes will have a deleterious impact on academic research goes the argument: people will be less willing to talk to researchers and journalists about their experiences if confidentiality and anonymity cannot be guaranteed.

Following the Moloney line, the Guardian conjectured that the ultimate result of the decision could be to render hopes for truth recovery in Northern Ireland futile: factual knowledge about murders could be suppressed and the possibility of societal reconciliation would disappear in a haze of suspicion and renewed distrust – culminating in a revival of the state of affairs described in one Seamus Heaney poem as ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.

Dr McIntyre is a serious and courageous researcher who has suffered for his dissection of the Adams-McGuinness leadership and its intimate relationship with the logics of doublethink.

However, it is not the PSNI nor the US courts that have damaged journalistic or academic research but the high-handed idea that somehow that research can easily be divorced from the messy realities of ethnic conflict.

Dr McIntyre


McIntyre has plausibly claimed that his former IRA comrades will consider his involvement as a breach of the organisation’s ‘code of silence’ – and he is surely correct to fear the lessons of recent history in that regard, despite the evidence of senior police officers to the contrary.

In this regard McIntyre too finds himself at the mercy of revisionists and those journalists and academics that refuse to draw a line between fact and fiction, who refuse to draw attention to the conceit of the inevitability of violence, and who refuse to distinguish between victim and perpetrator.

When the case first arose to prominence during the summer, Professor Eunan Ó Halpin, an historian at Trinity College Dublin, robustly defended the position of victims.

In cases of murder, torture, and disappearances, prosecuting perpetrators takes precedence over the particularities of academic research, he argued.

Indeed, it could be added, projects such as Boston College’s or a similar one, at Queen Mary’s University London, receiving almost £1millon from the EU, from which republicans have reportedly withdrawn consent are politically naïve and morally vacant – after all, as the novelist Glenn Patterson has pointed out, we have surely heard enough from the perpetrators of mass murder in Ireland.

In the words of Baroness Nuala O’Loan speaking on RTE’s Prime Time: ‘we’re building a new society in Northern Ireland. A society based on the rule of law. And international law says, we don’t have amnesties for gross violations of human rights. And abducting a mother and murdering her is a gross violation of human rights. So where material is gathered and where it is available it should be there for the investigator.’

But, what about if Ó Halpin’s position is carried through?

What might the Boston College tapes entail for Northern Ireland in general and Sinn Féin in particular?

Boson College


The Boston College tapes apparently implicate Gerry Adams in the disappearance of Jean McConville, a mother of ten, in 1972.

The best case scenario for Sinn Féin is that Moloney’s assertions are borne out and Adams is not mentioned in the tapes (although this has been disputed by Price).

Another scenario might be that even if Gerry Adams is questioned by police his supporters will either ignore it or will interpret it as forces from the past pursuing vendettas against democratic and peaceful politicians.

Sinn Féin seems to enjoy dominance in the north and is continuing to experience uplift in the south.

Citizens of both jurisdictions have not expressed any real, concrete wish to pursue the party about its shady pasts and perhaps the party can continue to bank on the wilful amnesia that exists around its history.

In that scenario, the easy consensus surrounding issues of truth and justice will simply be recycled.

The worst case scenario is however substantively different and would see Adams is indicted for war crimes – the practice of disappearance falling under Geneva Protocols and International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

International law provides for no exceptional circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance.

This is applicable to any person “who commits, orders, solicits or induces the commission of attempts to commit, is an accomplice to or participates in an enforced disappearance”, and indeed a superior who knew, was responsible for or failed to repress enforced disappearance.

In this instance, with the conjecture developed by more recent public statements made by Price, Adams would be undeniably comparable to recent international war criminals.

Quite how republicans would integrate their narrative of the conflict – a quasi-liberationist struggle against a neo-imperial occupier and a defence against recalcitrant Protestant colonists – with that would be another matter.

For it appears that for Adams “the wriggle room has diminished and the criticisms have grown more insistent”.

Such an integration would, perhaps, require Sinn Féin and provisional Republicans to examine their own bloodied past – in which their armed wing, the IRA, turned its back on the peaceful and successful civil rights movement and undertook a war of aggression. And, in turn, such a revision may open up the space for victims’ voices to be given a fair hearing within Northern Ireland.

This deferral of consideration of factual truth appeared in a most robust form in the comments of the influential Irish journalist Niall O’Dowd who seemingly believes that attention to context is critically missing from the debates over Gerry Adams and his past. Unfortunately, O’Dowd attempts to fill his readers in with his own reheated version of the republican narrative of Northern Irish history.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams


Gerry Adams, he tells us, was just like every other ‘able-bodied man back in the days when the Troubles were at their height’ and understandably therefore ‘got involved’. Understandably, since:

‘Decades of complete Unionist misrule led to a tinder-box situation after civil rights marchers were batoned and beaten off the streets in 1968 and 1969. It all inevitably exploded and then all hell broke loose when the British Army was called in to defend the indefensible status quo we had Bloody Sunday and a fully-fledged IRA campaign’.

This is bad history: on the one hand, recent historical work by Simon Prince has pointed out that marchers were batoned off the streets of Derry long before 1968 – the difference as any history student knows was the presence of television cameras.

On the other, work by Thomas Hennessey has demonstrated that the decision to ‘take the war to the Brits’ and attempt to finish the revolution that started in 1916 was deliberately taken by the IRA at the end of 1969.

Given O’Dowd’s revisionism it is worth repeating that the civil rights movement was peaceful and had achieved most of its aims before the IRA’s decision to go to war.

Secondly, to conflate a genuinely mass movement with a terrorist insurgency is to sully the names and memories of those who strove to find peaceful solutions to Ireland’s problems.

It is bad history and more: for O’Dowd’s revisionism serves to muddy the waters politically and ethically.

Comparing terrorists with peaceful marchers leads inexorably to the idea that everyone was a victim and everyone was responsible for the killings.

The appeal to history is, in this instance, a red-herring and a way of silencing accurate historical judgments – a contemporary, postmodern version of German Philosopher Theodor Adorno’s ironic advice that it is impolite to talk of nooses when we find ourselves in the house of the hangman.



The above article was co-authored by Cillian McGrattan. Cillian lectures in Politics at Swansea University. He received his PhD from the University of Ulster. His books include Memory, Politics and Identity: Haunted by History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012);Everyday Life after the Irish Conflict: The Impact of Devolution and North-South Cooperation(Manchester University Press, 2012) (co-edited with Elizabeth Meehan); Northern Ireland, 1968-2008: The Politics of Entrenchment (Palgrave Macmillan 2012); and The Northern Ireland Conflict (Oneworld, 2010) (with Aaron Edwards).

Social share:

About Author

Máire Braniff lectures in Sociology at the University of Ulster. Awarded her PhD by Queen’s University in 2008 she has since gone on to develop her research interests in conflict and peace studies with research on Indonesia-Aceh, Cyprus, Georgia-Russia and the Balkans regarding legacy, victimhood and transition. Her book “Integrating the Balkans: Conflict Resolution and the impact of EU expansion” was published by IB Tauris in 2011. Recently she has held research posts with Dublin City University (2010), University of Liverpool (2012) and conducted consultancy research with INCORE (2012). In 2012, the NI Community Relations Council commissioned Máire to author “Implementing Peace Agreements” (2012). 


  1. Maire – I was the journalist to whom the IRA dictated a detailed statement/briefing on the disappeared in March 1999.
    It was a statement that told the story of dark practice and secret graves; brutal executions, including the killing of Jean McConville,
    But it was also a statement of hope – hope that the remains would now be found and returned to the families for burial. We know that in a number of cases the searches continue as does that agonising wait.
    That statement in March 1999 was one in many hundreds of such statements I took from a range of organisations – one jigsaw piece that fits into a much bigger picture.
    The task now is to complete as much of that picture as possible.
    It is not just about Adams and his “war crimes”, but a story of many dark arts that were part of, not a dirty, but a filthy war.
    If we have a process on the past that does not properly and credibly address the Adams/McGuinness IRA leadership roles, then in my opinion, it will be a sham/farce initiative.
    But there is so much more to explore. The paid agents in loyalist leadership roles in the rooms where the killing was directed.
    ‘Stakeknife’ – one agent involved in the culling, interrogation and execution of other suspected agents.
    To whom do we attach the “war criminal” label in this case? Is it to ‘Stakeknife” or to those paying, handling and managing him? Maybe ‘State-knife’ and not ‘Stake-knife’ would be a more accurate description.
    I argue for a process that will deliver the maximum amount of information – that asks not just about what happened but why. I argue that everyone should be at the table, and that means all sides and every side.
    To finish, I want to include a few lines I wrote some years ago in the Belfast Telegraph on the disappeared:
    “It is a chapter from the past that still reads into the present – stories of killing, of secret burial, of hidden and lost graves, of tortured, traumatised families and it is an episode that still haunts the IRA itself.
    It is something in the war that just won’t go away – and it is something that has been described as “a dark and disturbing period for many republicans”.
    You do not hear the word “shame” – but disappearing bodies is something I have heard described as falling outside the IRA’s own “moral framework”, what it would consider as the rights and wrongs of war.
    Republicans don’t want to talk about it.
    Others use it as a political beating stick – to remind everyone of the IRA’s ugly past.
    But for those, such as the McIlhone family, who have waited so long for some news, for information that might lead to the discovery of the remains of a loved one – there is no need for such reminders.
    For many years grieving families have lived in the reality of this horror.”

    • Barney, as usual I concur but don’t forget the IG – from the £100k used by PIRA in late 69 / 70s to secure arms through to Gardai collusion, and downright State inaction in border areas post armed action by PIRA.

      The reality is that State played an armchair vendetta against Stormont and HMG that was only concluded by Reynolds in 1993.

      Balance, eh? ….. all played like muppets at times.

      • Glenn – you know my position on this.When I talk about every side at the table, I mean all sides including governments – British and Irish.
        I like you think the only way to the answers that people are looking for is in a process made possible by amnesty/non-prosecution.
        I also believe that before we go into any such process, we should know levels of co-operation from all sides and the type of information sharing mechanisms that will be used. I believe this process should be constructed by international facilitators.
        Too many people have too narrow a blame focus.
        If there is to be a debate on “war criminals” then let’s have all of them up on the stage, and I’m not just talking about republicans and loyalists.
        The process I’m interested in and argue for is about information, explanation and answers – not one or two bogeymen or playing politics with the past.
        When’s the last time you heard a unionist politician publicly name a loyalist leader or someone from the intelligence community who played in the so-called ‘dirty war’?
        I can’t remember hearing such an interview and I’ve been reporting on this place for the best part of thirty years.

        • True, but ‘truth hurts’. For Political Unionism to name or call for such things is to question some of their own activity. Given the elitist, biblical ‘we are right’ attitude it’ll never happen publicly (though many will voice their fear or concern off record) which is why an outside body needs to be appointed.

          However, that needs HMG & IG endorsement and so ….. round & round we go…

          I know many see my view point as naive but ‘truth’ begins within. Perhaps when there are enough who have personally evolved that we’ll collectively say “you know what yeah I did that but …… ” One thing is for certain: such revelations or processes have happened in every conflict HMG has been involved with – it’s just a question of time.

          To cement our society I personally wish it was now because so much more is possible through an honest, non ego, societal outlook.

  2. Thank you barney rowan for placing this in even wider context. the academics above clearly are fixated on the “Get Adams” narrative –which McIntyre and Moloney were also which conveniently ignores all the other aspects of what created the thirty year war –Its always interesting to be called a revisionist by revisionists — I lived through that time in Ireland and have a very clear memory of what the cause and effects of the IRA campaign were . I suggest they read and re read Tim Pat Coogan’s book The Troubles for enlightenment and scholarship rather than jumping on the Get Adams bandwagon.

    • Niall, agreed, there where many varied aspects that contributed to the start of the recent period of troubles however Maire’s commentary is primarily specific to the issue of ‘the disappeared’ and offers a wide consequence of those incidents for those allegedly involved.

      Gerry Adams lived about 450m from my house as the crow flies. The impact
      of 2nd Bn PIRA activity and to a lesser extend 3rd Bn PIRA was felt
      daily in the Woodvale of my child hood. Funny enough the names of Joe or
      Billy or Seamie weren’t rumored as the organizers of these exploits but
      Ivor, Gerry & Brendie constantly where… but, today, we’re expected to
      accept that such talk from the heart of Nationalist west Belfast was all misinformation by ‘the Crown’. We’re expected
      to accept the heli trip to London was just Gerry out for a joy ride as
      an observer. We’re expected to accept that PIRA restructuring to ASU and the Long War of attrition modus-operandi just arose from mythical magic – spare me the blarney.

      Facts don’t cease to exist because they’re ignored and there is a level of arrogance in denials presented today by elements of Republicanism which borders on we won’t tell the truth because you’re not worthy of it.

      Now before you accuse me of being a crown force instigator of loyalist death squads jumping on the ‘Get Adams Bandwagon’, I must stress that I hold the man in high esteem. Despite what he is alleged to have done in the name of Irish Republican socialism I value his leadership of the Republican movement, and respect his commitment to ‘the cause’. Importantly I can see how he has actually guided the movement to where it is now, and again respect that strength of character.

      I’ll end by quoting Mahatma Ghandi: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, murderers, liars and deceivers who for periods of time seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, think on that: always”

  3. Excellent article, but wrong on one point.

    Adams would not be a war criminal.because there was no state of “war” or conflict that would be recognised under international war. Hence no war crimes, but simply crimes under the domestic.criminal law.

  4. Dear Barney,

    Thanks for your response: we agree that context is vital in these debates but they literally become academic if we defer consideration of their inherently ethical and societal implications.

    That is why in our last piece we cited your view that the major responsibility lies with our political leaders – the effective abdication of responsibility in this regard by many of our leaders is of course to be deplored. Indeed, that makes Glenn B’s take all the more refreshing

  5. Did you ever feel like you were going round in circles and never quite finding an avenue out? Or to put it another way – lost in a maze of hedges that just get higher and higher? That’s about how I feel in this debate. The issues keep coming back but outside of this site there is very little debate about them. I find that depressing because at some stage we will just get smothered as it all overgrows. For me the questions about truth and justice are evident and somehow we will have a chart a way through all of that debris of history and the hopes that some have for something different than we have right now. There is also no doubt in my mind that there are those refusing to consider anything different because they prefer to keep their enemies in their place than to move to somewhere different. That doesn’t mean I think people should simply be ‘let off the hook’. By no means. But it does mean that across society there is an opportunity to look to a future that will be different from the past and having imagined that future as more than what we have now there is then the challenge to chart out the route to that future. Undoubtedly that will be both painful and hopeful. Brian Rowan here writes about taking the IRA statements and he finds hope in the darkness of that time. Somehow in the darkness of memory which haunts and hinders there has also to be hope.
    Elsewhere on this site there is talk about loyalism. There is no one I miss more from local community and political life than Billy Mitchell. I wish he were here to reflect on how loyalism can find a renewed voice and feel it has a voice that makes a different. That making a difference would be focussed not just on the political process and the old conversations which have the potential for new hope, but would also be clearly focussed on lifting the voices of those who feel unheard, unrepresented and uncared for from the places where they simply mutter to each other and into a place where a difference can be made for the most disenfranchised, least educated, least hopeful. That’s a journey that needs to be made if society is to change.
    In today’s Telegraph Liam Clarke writes about young people and what this society is offering them. It’s not full of hope, certainly nothing to pat ourselves on the back about. It’s little wonder that the deadening effects of alcohol, drugs and underage sex have more to offer than the realities of no prospects, no will to be educated, no vision for self or community and no hope. There is a whole field of work for those representatives on the ground to do but the challenge for them is to find a way to set aside the ‘old enemies’ mentality and begin to vision something different, better, more hopeful and tangible for communities that could so easily be overwhelmed by despair.
    Some will be critical of my remarks I am sure, not least because the church has so often failed to be and do what it could be and do. I accept that. I understand the criticism and I want to be working in a community that begins to address the issues that are robbing people of hope. I want to be able to do that without the burden of history forever stalling the work. I believe that unless we address the legacy of the past, face the pain and the hope of that process, then we will forever fail the real politics that will make a difference to people’s lives. No one needs to be out to get anyone. But we do need to be out to get something better and more effective so that human beings can flourish and bring to society all that they have to offer. If we know where we want to go then what faces us clearly is the question of how to get there.

    • Hi Lesley – There are those in governments, politics, security, intelligence, and in the republican and loyalist communities who want this debate to get lost in that maze you describe.
      And those people will never look for the way through. They have too much to hide.
      So, a path will have to be charted by someone else – someone not of this place and not of our wars.

      I’m talking about international facilitators to map this process and find the routes from where we have been to where we need to go; to a place of information sharing, questions and answers, explanations – some better understanding of what happened and why it should never happen again.
      That process should not be a re-run of the war – some pointless play on winners and losers.
      We will never have absolute truth from any side, and, like you, I have no interest in a parade of the ‘war criminals’ and ‘bogeymen’ .
      There are too many who would escape that stage – the war players who were not republican or loyalist.
      This debate needs focus, it needs structured, it needs to stop going round in a peace industry circle – and it needs something to happen. It needs those international people to give this initiative some point and purpose.

  6. John, Lord Alderdice on

    I fear that if we try to deal with all the interconnected issues which trouble us about our society we will get stuck in this maze.
    There are some problems that may relate to the past, but which are common to many societies which have not had the intense politically-motivated violence that ours has experienced – anger, anomie, substance misuse, sexual abuse and gang violence amongst young people, for example. These are issues that need to be addressed, but they are not all particular to the legacy of our years of violence.
    There are individuals who have suffered in various ways from injuries and losses directly attributable to the violence, and then there is a whole society that is uncertain how to address the intrusion of its past into the present – there are different challenges; providing care for individuals and developing a healing process for a whole (divided) community.
    There is the wish to know exactly what happened, and the wish to lay the memories of the past to rest – how far do various professional and personal agendas push us in one direction or another in this dilemma?
    In searching for a way out of the maze there is a wish to believe that ‘out there’ in the international community there are some people who can take us forward. It may be so, but after exploring the issue in various parts of the world I am not yet convinced (as in the early days of the IMC) because I have yet to see much evidence that others have charted the path ahead of us, and those that have (eg in Rwanda) have used their own very specific history and culture to take them forward often against the advice and views of international NGO’s and human rights organizations.
    Let us keeping thinking, reflecting, analyzing, exploring and talking to each other. The upcoming SF event in London is a part, albeit only a small part, of that process.

  7. Looking forward to hearing from Máire Brannif on this site on what happened in the Balkans.
    She will help us see exactly what approach to post conflict resolution was taken in those quarters far too familiar with ugliness. Substantive contributions thankfully right here from Rev Lesley Carroll and Dr. John Alderdice.

Leave A Reply