This week a US appeal court was asked to choose between the value of law and justice on the one hand, and the value of political stability and academic history on the other. In ordering Boston College to hand over interviews conducted for an oral history project with a convicted IRA terrorist to Northern Ireland Police, it came down on the side of law and justice.
Understandably, the family of Jean McConville, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA 40 years ago, welcome the light that the interview with the Old Bailey bomber, Dolours Price, could throw on what happened, and whether anyone now in a senior government position is alleged to have had any involvement in her murder.
One can see that for McConville’s family, and police still investigating her murder, the court’s decision is a good thing.
It is rare for history and law to be put in conflict in this way - we are more accustomed to them being compared. An investigation, a court case, a line of historical enquiry - all aim to uncover a narrative explanation of the events they cover, to show how it really was (‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’, in Von Ranke’s phrase).
To do that, hypotheses suggested by parts of the evidence are tested against surviving testimony. ‘Peer review’ for lawyers and historians can be thorough and grueling. And both deal in subjects where, in addition to their peers, the public, the media and our governing class can hold strong opinions.
By recording interviews for posthumous publication, the ‘Belfast Project’ director Ed Maloney is trying to achieve in a sphere concerning politics, violence and power, a feat that social and cultural history has had better success in. For example, the volume, completeness and quality of deliberately captured contemporaneous sources and accounts relating to life in the 1930s, is an enviable resource.
The fairly recent past may be a jigsaw puzzle we cannot yet complete, because we are ‘sitting on the pieces’. Maloney and his colleagues were acting to stop some of the pieces being lost. With the assurance for his interviewees that their testimony would not be made public till after their death, the project captured evidence that would otherwise be unlikely to be collected.
In that sense, the Price interview and, it is reported, a further seven which may be of interest are unexpected evidential windfalls.
Many lawyers, schooled in speaking ‘truth unto power’, will believe that leaders should not be able to hide alleged guilt for past deeds in the name of peace or stability. (This, ‘let me off or else,’ line does not sway me either, though it was an argument deployed by senior US public figures including John Kerry.)
I understand why these interviews are sought. Put in the position of either McConville’s family, or the Northern Ireland police, I would want these interviews.
But also I regret that history, as a discipline, is the big loser here. Equivalent frank interviews with people who served in the police and army may now not take place. And so, in seeking to make sense of a shared traumatic past, there will be less to go on.
That is not just the case for this project - but also for any similar effort where crime, violence and politics combine. This evidence-gathering tool is hereby returned to social and cultural history box. Outside of the Belfast Project, I suspect police will not have another similar opportunity.
Does that really matter to anyone other than historians - themselves so keen on shining a light in to dark places, who delight in finding items they were not supposed to have?
I think it does. The past remains an active agent for informing public policy and forming our laws. It surely cannot be in the public interest for either to be based on, in both senses of the word, a partial picture.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
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