After NBC News Question, Northern Ireland Police Request Secret Tapes

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By Tom Winter

Authorities in Northern Ireland have expanded their request for documents from Boston College’s “Belfast Project,” and are now seeking the entirety of the trove of confidential recordings of members of the Irish Republican Army and loyalist militias discussing their roles in three decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, NBC News has learned.

“Detectives in the Serious Crime Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have initiated steps to obtain all the material from Boston College as part of the Belfast Project,” the service said in a statement. “This is in line with PSNI's statutory duty to investigate fully all matters of serious crime, including murder.” The service did not immediately indicate how it was pursuing the materials.

The PSNI statement came in response to a request for comment from NBC News regarding the service’s apparent interest only in documents from the oral history related to the IRA. The PSNI initially said that “as part of this material is involved in current criminal proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment further.” It later sent an amended response that indicated it was seeking the project in its entirety.

A limited number of IRA-related materials from the Belfast Project were surrendered to authorities in Northern Ireland as the result of subpoenas served on Boston College by the U.S. Justice Department at the request of the PSNI. Authorities in Northern Ireland were seeking evidence related to the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who was allegedly kidnapped and executed by the Provisional IRA.

The information from the tapes led to the March arrest of Ivor Bell, a former IRA commander, for questioning about McConville’s murder. They also led the PSNI to interview nationalist leader Gerry Adams on April 30 in connection with the case. The PSNI released him after questioning without any charges being filed.

Adams, 65, who has been president of the Sinn Fein political party since 1983, became world famous for helping broker peace in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. While Adams had been elected to the British parliament while living in Northern Ireland, he now lives in the Republic of Ireland and has served in the Irish parliament since 2011.

NBC News had formally requested in a letter to U.S. District Judge William Young in Massachusetts that all the materials that had previously been subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the PSNI be released to the public. No decision has been made.

The new request from Northern Irish authorities covers material not necessarily related to the IRA or the McConville case, but presumably documenting the activities of British loyalists, including members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a largely Protestant militia.


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Boston College’s archive includes taped testimonies by dozens of former members of the IRA and loyalist militias talking about “the Troubles” and their roles and the roles of others during that period in Northern Ireland’s history.

“The Troubles” is the term used to describe the often violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland that started in the late 1960s and lasted until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that Adams helped to broker. The IRA has observed a cease-fire since 1997, though there have been violent incidents traced to dissident republican factions.

Between 2001 and 2006, researchers at Boston College conducted confidential interviews with 46 members of the opposing militias. Twenty of the people interviewed were ex-members of the UVF, and 26 had belonged to the nationalist and largely Catholic IRA. Irish journalist Ed Moloney ran the Belfast Project, while a former IRA volunteer named Anthony McIntyre conducted the IRA interviews and a researcher with connections in the loyalist community did the UVF interviews.

According to the rules of the Belfast Project, the tapes would stay confidential until the participants died. They were kept at Boston College under lock and key, with the names of the interviewees in code.

In the tapes, former IRA commander Brendan Hughes alleged that he had first-hand knowledge of what had become of McConville, who was abducted from her apartment in 1972 and never seen alive again. Her body was found on an Irish beach in 2003.

Hughes said that McConville had been identified as an informer for the British Army and that his IRA commander had ordered her killed. He said that his commander was Gerry Adams.

Hughes had become disillusioned with the IRA. Before he died in 2008, he asked McIntyre to make sure his story was told. In 2010, Moloney published a book based in part on the Hughes interviews and included his confessions about the murder of McConville.

That same year, newspapers said that Dolours Price, a former IRA bomber who had also become disillusioned the militant group, was about to tell authorities about her participation in McConville’s abduction. One of the pieces noted that Price had given a taped interview to an American university.

In 2011, Boston College was subpoenaed. The subpoena said that the U.S. Department of Justice, at the request of the British government, wanted access to the Hughes and Price interviews as part of the investigation of McConville’s murder.

Hughes was dead, so Boston College turned over the Hughes interviews. It declined to hand over the Price interviews.

Three months later, the Justice Department hit Boston College with a second subpoena at the behest of U.K. authorities. That subpoena requested all the documents in the Belfast Project that might have anything to do with the McConville case.

In May 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that 11 tapes should be turned over to the PSNI. Boston College had also dropped its objection to the release of Price’s tapes, since she had died in January 2013.