SEVERAL former terrorists did speak about Jean McConville’s murder on secret tapes held in Boston College, an American judge has dramatically confirmed.
The contents of the tapes were meant to remain in a vault at the US university until each paramilitary’s death, but the judge deciding whether they should be given to the PSNI has revealed some details of what they said.
The revelation comes as Northern Ireland’s former Police Ombudsman gave her backing to the detectives’ attempts to access the tapes – a bid that appears more likely to succeed in light of Judge William G Young’s written ruling.
Baroness Nuala O’Loan told the News Letter that police have a duty to pursue all avenues of inquiry when attempting to solve crime and that there should be no amnesty for terrorists.
The solicitor said that there was no legal basis on which academics or journalists could tell former terrorists that information about murders would be kept away from the police.
The secret recordings of former terrorists speaking candidly about their actions during the Troubles were given on the belief that they would be held in a vault at the American university until after each individual’s death.
However, a PSNI legal bid to access the archive in an attempt to solve the 40-year-old murder of Jean McConville is on the verge of being successful. A final appeal, lodged by two of those involved in the interviews, journalists Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, is due to be heard in the coming days in what may be a final bid to prevent the tapes’ release after the college declined to appeal an earlier judgment in favour of the PSNI.
In his ruling, Judge William G Young said: “...only six interviewees even mention the disappearance of Jean McConville that constitutes the target of the subpoena.
“One interviewee provides information responsive to the subpoena. Another proffers information that, if broadly read, is responsive to the subpoena.
“Three others make passing mention of the incident, two only in response to leading questions. It is impossible to discern whether these three are commenting from personal knowledge, from hearsay, or are merely repeating local folklore.
“In context, the sixth interviewee does nothing more than express personal opinion on public disclosures made years after the incident.
“The court concludes that the full series of interviews of the five interviewees first mentioned above must be disclosed and that the interview with the sixth need not be produced.
“Moreover, two other interviewees mention a shadowy sub-organisation within the Irish Republican Army that may or may not be involved in the incident.”
However, Judge Young said that the references were “so vague” that it was almost inconceivable that UK law enforcement did not already have the information.
In the House of Lords, Baronness O’Loan – who sits as a crossbench peer but whose husband Declan was until last year the SDLP MLA for North Antrim – said that the Boston College tapes could be recovered by the police.
Baroness O’Loan raised the Boston College tapes in the context of the difficulties in “managing the past”. She cited it alongside the recent release of 1981 hunger strike Government papers which “appears to indicate that lives could have been saved”.
“Despite the facts that some of those involved [in the hunger strike] are still alive; there is no threat of prosecution; and that no amnesty is required – we do not have an agreed version of what happened,” she told the Lords.
“The second involves the recent controversy surrounding the British application for the tapes recorded by former IRA member Dolores Price and stored in an archive at Boston College in the United States.
“Since making that tape, Ms Price has indicated that she drove a number of the Disappeared to their deaths at the hands of the IRA. Police investigating the abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10, require access to the tapes for investigative purposes.
“The Boston project was predicated upon assurances that the tapes would not be disclosed until after a period of 30 years, or the death of the individual.
“It is obvious that such assurances could not lawfully be given. Journalists and academics are subject to the rule of law, as the rest of us are, and material can and will be recovered by the police according to the law for investigation purposes.”
Speaking to the News Letter, Baroness O’Loan said that the police were right to ask for the tapes.
“The police are under a duty to seek evidence if it can be secured and they are complying with that duty,” she said.
“This is a perfectly proper request on the part of the police. I think that if we have rules of law then the application of that law should be applicable to everyone — that should be the beginning and the end of it. Let the courts decide.”
Baroness O’Loan also told the Lords that the Government needed to “establish the rule of law” so as to deter recruitment by both dissident republican and loyalist paramilitaries.
And she said that suggestions of a truth commission — something supported by Sinn Fein and the Eames-Bradley report — were deeply problematic.
“It is now being suggested that the only way to deal with the past would be a truth commission, with an amnesty for all individuals who appear before it.
“To suggest this is to ignore international law, which provides that you can have no amnesty for gross violations of human rights.
“The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is often held up as a model, would not satisfy the requirements of international law. If we did what it did, we would have to establish an amnesty committee that would sit in public, before which people would have to appear to seek amnesty, and in the course of which they could be cross-examined by victims and their families.
“In South Africa 7,000 people applied; 849 were granted amnesty. Such hearings in Belfast could hardly be expected to consolidate the peace process.
“The consequential truth commission would hear testimony from individuals who chose to appear. Experience to date suggests there would be a very low participation rate.”