Lessons of the Irish ‘Troubles:’ Settling for Imperfect Justice

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The struggle for control over Northern Ireland is known as “the Troubles.” This very violent, decades-long conflict pitted Catholics against Protestants, Irish against British.

Both sides committed atrocities. It’s estimated that, in the end, more than 3,600 people were killed.

In addition, 16 people vanished and were believed to have been murdered and buried in secret graves. Some of the bodies of the Disappeared, as they came to be known, have been found. But the fate of the others remains a mystery.

The Troubles officially ended in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. To create a “definitive history” of this terrible time, two researchers began the Belfast Project under the auspices of Boston College.

As recounted in the New York Times, Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre recorded 26 interviews with former Irish Republican Army (IRA) members and 20 with former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group, over the course of many years.

To obtain complete and truthful testimonies, the researchers promised the subjects complete confidentiality until after they’d died.

But those promises have been undermined by court orders requiring the disclosure of notes on, and recordings of, the interviews to British authorities. (This Stanford Law Review article does a good job spelling out the legal process and theories that resulted in the orders to release the interviews.)

British authorities are using the disclosed information to open investigations into certain disappearances and murders from the Troubles.

For example, on the basis of this information, Gerry Adams, president of the Irish political party Sinn Fein, was brought in for questioning in connection with the abduction and murder of Jean McConville. He was eventually released without being charged.

British authorities did officially charge Ivor Bell with aiding and abetting the McConville murder. They’ve also reopened investigations into at least 16 unsolved disappearances from the Troubles.

You’d think people would be happy that justice may finally be served in some of these cold cases. But some have objected to the use of this so-called confidential information by the criminal justice system.

Legal scholars and other academics have debated the many issues raised by this situation, including whether the confessions made as part of the Belfast Project should have been protected by “scholar’s privilege.” I’m not going to rehash these issues.

When I first read about the Belfast Project and the disclosure orders, my first response was more emotional than legal or practical. I wondered, “Is it worth knowing the truth about what had happened to someone, even if those responsible wouldn’t be punished?”

In a perfect world, when someone confessed to a crime, that confession would be used to prosecute that individual and thus achieve justice.

But our world is far from perfect. And sometimes the best we can hope for is simply the truth.

If someone I loved had disappeared or was the victim of an unsolved murder, I’d rather know what happened and get some closure than always be wondering. I think the not knowing would be the worst part.

In fact, that’s exactly what the mother of a missing child said.

In March 1998, 7-month-old Melissa McGuinn vanished from her home in Trenton, NJ. Twenty-six years later, her disappearance is still unsolved, although the state police have recently reopened the case.

Melissa’s mother Becky is convinced that her daughter is still alive.

“The hardest part is not knowing,” she said. “Knowing that there’s a beautiful young lady out there somewhere that is mine. And I don’t know: dead, alive, mistreated, happy?”

I obviously can’t speak for the families of those who simply vanished during the Troubles. But I suspect that given the choice between uncertainly and closure, they’d be willing to settle for the knowledge of what happened to their loved ones—and perhaps a body to give a proper burial.

Simply having the truth strikes me as a lesser, imperfect form of justice.

To that end, perhaps it’s worth shielding confessions made in an academic context to provide an incentive for individuals to disclose incriminating information to researchers.

It seems clear that those individuals interviewed in the Belfast Project wouldn’t have agreed to participate or would have been less candid if they thought what they said could be used against them.

In fact, Boston College’s response to the controversy has been to offer to release the original recordings to any of the participants who request them and not to retain any copies or transcripts of the interviews.

The university also said it will continue to shield participants’ identities until their deaths. Several interviewees have already taken the school up on its offer.

So without confidentiality, those stories would likely have been lost forever—and those families left with unanswered questions.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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