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Gerry Adams' Arrest Calls Educational Privacy Into Question


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was arrested in connection to a 1972 murder. He has been accused of being behind the crime. There has never been enough evidence to warrant his arrest. But then came what's known as the Belfast Project. Former IRA members gave a series of candid, even confessional, interviews to researchers at Boston College.

The paramilitaries were promised that the information would be kept secret until their deaths, but a U.S. court forced Boston College to hand over the tapes to Northern Ireland police, and there has been this clip from one of those recordings. Brendan Hughes, former officer commander of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA.


BRENDAN HUGHES: There's only one man that gave the order for that woman to be executed. That man was nary the head of Sinn Fein and he went to this family's house and promised them an investigation into the woman's disappearance. That man is the man that gave them the order for that woman to be executed.

SIMON: That man, of course, Gerry Adams. Joined now in our studio by Beth McMurtrie, senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, who has been covering this protracted legal battle. Thanks very much for being with us.

BETH MCMURTRIE: Good to be here.

SIMON: I feel the need to begin with knowing not more about Gerry Adams, but at the beginning, who was Jean McConville?

MCMURTRIE: Well, I'm glad you asked that because I think the life of Jean McConville often gets overlooked. She was a widow. She was a mother of 10. And she was accused by the IRA of being an informant for the British Army. In 1972 - in December of 1972, a gunman burst into her apartment, and in front of her children, dragged her away and shot her in the back of the head and buried her in a beach in Ireland. Her body wasn't discovered until 2003.

SIMON: To follow up on the legal question, how does an interview given in an oral history that is supposed to be kept sealed wind up with the Northern Ireland police?

MCMURTRIE: Well, because it turns out there is no absolute legal protection for confidential interview. So when the Northern Irish police learned of Brendan Hughes' tapes, they decided to pursue those tapes, and there was - through a two-year court battle, they eventually got hold of Brandon Hughes' tapes and a series of other interviews, in which Jean McConville was talked about.

SIMON: There were some divisions in Boston College over what to do, weren't there? I mean, there were people who believed that they should destroy the tapes rather than give them over.

MCMURTRIE: Yeah. So the project itself, the people who actually conducted the interviews and oversaw the project were not employees of Boston College. They were not faculty members. The head of the project was an Irish journalist by the name of Ed Moloney.

SIMON: And should be explained that Boston College didn't think Boston College scholars would have the same entree to the people they were trying to talk to.

MCMURTRIE: Yes. They chose - they believed that somebody who actually knew former members of the IRA should be the ones conducting the interview. And so the person conducting the IRA interviews was a former IRA man himself, Anthony McIntyre, who had actually spent 17 years in prison.

SIMON: Are oral historians bound by some, at least morally, by some of the same ethical guarantees that reporters feel bound by? In other words, if you tell a source, I'll keep your word, they'll keep it, whatever the consequences to the reporter.

MCMURTRIE: Yes. And that raises another interesting question. If it was only an oral historian who was involved in this, if it was a single person doing the interviews and a single person who held onto the tapes, that person, specifically Anthony McIntyre, would have gone to jail to protect his sources. But the tapes were held by an institution. So at that point, it becomes the institution's problem and the institution's challenge. Are they going to defy the law or not? I mean, Boston College decided not to defy the law and felt that it had to work within the bounds of the law.

SIMON: I mean, on the other hand, this was the murder of a mother of 10.

MCMURTRIE: Yes. And that's the tragic part of this. And that's why I think we should never forget Jean McConville and who she was. But, you know, I went to Belfast last fall, and I talked to two of her children. They don't necessarily feel that this investigation will lead to arrests. And in fact, they saw some of the people who took their mother away that night. These were people who lived in the apartment complex that they lived in.

The apartment complex with a hotbed of IRA activity. And, Michael McConville, one of her children who I also met, said that he knows some of those people, but he's not going to tell the police who they were because he's afraid of retaliation. So what looks like the pursuit of justice from a distance is actually much more complicated up close. And people know more than they're saying, and politics seems to be involved in every aspect of this case.

SIMON: Beth McMurtrie, senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Thanks very much.

MCMURTRIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.