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Boston College. Cock-up. Not conspiracy.

Posted by: on May 13, 2014 | One Comment

A British journalist has waded into the Boston College debacle that led to the arrest of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Isn’t it time we all moved on from the blame game?

JASON WALSH

Writing in the Guardian, senior British journalist Roy Greenslade has asked some searching questions about the Boston College Belfast Project, the oral history of the conflict in Northern Ireland that at least contributed to landing Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in police custody for four days earlier this month. What was the role of Paul, now Lord, Bew in the debacle?

In his story, Mr Greenslade links to a web site that makes a claim of political motivation in the decision to record the Belfast Project, a series of oral histories of the troubles direct from the mouths of protagonists in the conflict, performed under the aegis of Boston College. The site asks what was the role of Paul Bew in the genesis of the controversial project.

[Mr Bew was an] adviser to David Trimble and the Unionist Party during the peace negotiations that led up to the St Andrew’s agreement in 2006 and constantly agitated against a peace agreement that might be too “green” for Unionists and cede too much ground to Sinn Féin and Dublin. Perhaps more importantly, Bew was for a long time, an influential member of the Official Republican Movement – the sworn enemy of Sinn Féin. The Official Republican Movement morphed into the so called “Workers Party”

The facts here are straightforward enough, if difficult to comprehend: Mr Bew was indeed an adviser to then Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble. He was also once a member of the Workers’ Party (previously known as Sinn Féin-The Workers’ Party and, before that, Official Sinn Féin).

The author of the piece Mr Greenslade linked to, Paul Larkin, made a documentary film about the Workers’ Party for the BBC—and it is a murky tale indeed. So much so that I cannot even begin to do it justice here. Some readers will be familiar with it; those who are not should seek out a copy of The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar for a history, albeit in my opinion a somewhat panglossian one, of the group’s transformation from hardline Irish republicans to Soviet-aligned communists before eventually becoming, variously, pillars of the Irish establishment and, in many cases, actively opposed to Irish unification.

Mr Larkin continues: “Nor does Bew point out that he was McIntyre’s adviser for his PhD and that it was an anti peace process tract from a dissident republican ethos.”

It is correct that Mr Bew was Anthony McIntyre’s PhD supervisor, and this is where things get a little tricky. (I shall return to the question of Mr McIntyre’s PhD thesis being a “dissident republican” tract in due course.) It is also correct that he was a visiting professor at Boston College when the Belfast Project was founded, though his role in the project is disputed.

Mr Bew is a unionist, albeit a former republican of a certain stripe. Mr McIntyre is a republican, plain and simple. He is a frustrated and disappointed republican and one who is critical of Sinn Féin, but he remains an Irish republican who wishes to see Irish unification.

I have not read Mr McIntyre’s PhD thesis, though I now intend to, but it is a safe assumption that it is highly critical of Sinn Féin. That does not mean it is the work of a “dissident”. In the context of writing about contemporary Irish republicanism, the term dissident means one thing and one thing only: a desire to reignite the war with Britain. This is both a shame—historically Irish republicanism sought to unite Catholic, Protestant and dissenter; dissenter referring to Presbyterian—and an abuse of language, but it is, alas, reality. To call someone a dissident republican today is to raise the spectre of the gunman.

Whatever his ethos, Mr McIntyre has stated countless times, in print and in public, that there is no legitimate basis for a return to violence and, further, that the Provisional IRA’s war was futile.

I interviewed Mr McIntyre in 2009, shortly after an outbreak of dissident republican killings, for a story published in the Irish Examiner newspaper, asking him where the dissidents were going. This was his reply: “I don’t think they’re going anywhere — except prison”. That seems pretty clear to me, but even if it wasn’t any one of his countless statements that there is no call for war are a matter of public record.

Returning to Mr Bew, yes, he has been associated of two parties implacably opposed to Sinn Féin: the Workers’ Party, their former rivals in the republican split; and the Ulster Unionist party. One cannot divine from this, however, that there is any political motivation behind his association, whatever it is, with the Belfast Project.

For a start, finding an entirely disinterested person in Irish politics is an impossible task. More importantly, though, examining the politics of both the Workers’ Party and McIntyre will reveal only one similarity. Both agree that the IRA’s war against Britain was unwinnable. That’s why the Workers’ Party’s armed wing, the Official IRA, went on ceasefire in 1972. For the record, it did not disband or disarm, and engaged in robberies, extortion and counterfeiting at least into the 1980s. As I reported in The Christian Science Monitor in 2011 allegations, including of distributing counterfeit dollars made in North Korea, continue to dog the party to this day. The truth is, though, that few care. The party, once a Moscow-aligned force to be reckoned with, died a death with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its senior figures, shorn of their Stalinism, eventually ending-up in Ireland’s Labour party (currently the junior partner in government). The remaining rump party is of little significance and has no popular support. Today it publishes a small magazine that goes largely unread and has not benefitted from the rising tide that saw other left wingers, including the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party, Sinn Féin and several independents, swept into parliament.

Mr McIntyre, on the other hand, stayed with Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA up until the mid to late 1990s at least. He may have drawn the conclusion, as did the Official IRA, that the IRA’s war was futile, but that doesn’t mean they share any other politics.

Moreover, the current position of Sinn Féin in the power sharing assembly in the North of Ireland, where they co-govern alongside the hardline Democratic Unionist party, is itself an implicit acceptance of the old Official IRA position that the unification of Ireland was not achievable by means of physical force. Whether this was the case in 1972 when the Officials declared its ceasefire is open to question. Perhaps the Provisional IRA was deluded in continuing the fight; perhaps it was not. It doesn’t matter in the context of this article. The point, however, is that all parties involved in this dispute—both Sinn Féin and its various critics—have rejected the gun. Given that you’d think they might stop sniping at one another, though I suppose it’s better that it’s done in the pages of the press than on the streets of Belfast.

Much will be made of Greenslade’s own political allegiances—he is a supporter of Sinn Féin—but this is neither here nor there. People, yes, even journalists, are entitled to their views and whether its opponents like it or not Sinn Féin is a legitimate and popular political party. Those who continue to traduce the party solely on the basis that the IRA existed were also the first to demand the IRA disarm and go away. It did both.

As this issue is so clouded in personal feelings I think it is appropriate to dwell for a moment on the personalities involved simply in order to remove the possibility of accusations of partiality. I am accusing no-one here of acting in bad faith. To state my own view, I believe that the peace process is deeply flawed but it is the only game in town. Furthermore, as I wrote in The New Republic last week, I do not believe protagonists in the conflict, be they IRA, loyalist or British state forces, should be tried. Too much time has passed and doing so brings back too many bad memories, stalling any actual reconciliation—something of which Northern Ireland has seen precious little.

I do not know Mr Greenslade, though I have interviewed him a number of times (on media issues; he’s a professor of journalism and former Daily Mirror editor). I found him to be helpful and pleasant, so anyone looking for character assassination can go elsewhere. (For the record, over the years I have also conducted a number of interviews with Danny Morrison, a writer and former Sinn Féin director of publicity, who is a severe critic of the Boston College Belfast Project, and the same is true of him.)

I have spoken to Ed Moloney several times and found him to be a candid interviewee. Even more generous with his time is Anthony McIntyre, whom I have spoken to countless times.

I have never spoken to Paul Bew, though not for want of trying. I recall desperately seeking his opinion on the visit of the British Queen to Ireland for a story I was writing in The Christian Science Monitor. Irksome as that was at the time, there is nothing sinister about it. Lots of people don’t reply to journalists’ calls and e-mails, particularly ones made at short notice.

So, after all that, is it possible that Mr Bew acted as some kind of puppet master seeking to damage Sinn Féin? Is it possible that Anthony McIntyre is simultaneously a Ruairí Ó Brádaigh-like dissident and Cathal Goulding Official IRA supporter?

Not in my opinion, no.

If it simply a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” that still leaves two questions unanswered: Firstly, Mr Bew’s advice to the Ulster Unionist party may have been to not give an inch to Sinn Féin, but the party did, and still does, sit in government with it in Northern Ireland.  Secondly, if Mr McIntyre is clear that a return to war is to be avoided at all costs—and he is—where is the profit for him in seeing Mr Adams arrested? Mr McIntyre has been perfectly forthcoming in his views on, inter alia, Sinn Féin, the Provisional IRA and the conflict. He himself speculated that the arrest was politically motivated on the part of the British government who would very much like to see Sinn Féin’s calls for inquiries into the likes of the Ballymurphy Massacre come to an end.

The more likely answer is that Mr Bew acted in good faith and in a disinterested fashion as Mr McIntyre’s PhD supervisor. I am open to being convinced otherwise, but as the facts stand they do not add up to a conspiracy to damage Sinn Féin or Gerry Adams.

Mr Bew’s role in the formation of the Belfast Project could do with further explication, but as things stand I cannot see any reason to consider it sinister. Applying Occam’s razor—the dictum that in the absence of evidence the fewest assumptions should be made—tells me this: someone at Boston College, I do not know who, made a questionable research ethics decision.

Someone needs to explain why they thought the Police Service of Northern Ireland would not subpoena the oral testimonies of men and women involved in a conflict that has left many unsolved murders. Moreover, even publishing after the death of the interviewees is open to question. What about the very much still alive people they talk about? People like Gerry Adams for one.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that, contrary to claims being made that the entire Boston College Belfast Project was a setup or convoluted “touting” scheme, it was in fact a legitimate and potentially valuable scholarly project that has gone badly awry. Claims that it was anything more sinister require more evidence.

Boston College. Cock-up. Not conspiracy.