Northern Ireland experienced three decades of violent conflict until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Many of perpetrators never faced justice and some of these individuals have been brought into the political system as a part of the peace deal. This past creates multiple tensions in the present and leaves significant questions about how the judicial system should approach the numerous unsolved murders. Historians and those interested in truth and reconciliation have their own desires to better understand this past. Why did so many otherwise normal individuals become involved in mass murder? Can a greater knowledge of the individual motivation of IRA members help us better understand these kinds of conflicts in the future? All this leads to significant tensions between the desires of victims’ families for justice and the demands of a political settlement and power sharing agreement that might fall apart if too many reformed political leaders are brought up on charges. An academic project to record oral histories with living IRA members, which were then to be locked away at the archives in Boston College until the interviewee passed away, has brought these tensions between the demands of justice and a search for historical understanding into the news. The Belfast Project for Boston College preformed the interviews with republicans for five years beginning in 2001. Last year, after details from the late Brenden Hughes interviews were published, the Police Service of Northern Ireland began court proceedings in the United States requesting access to the remaining interviews.
An appeals court in the United States will now have to decide between the demands for justice and the value of this kind of historical project, which might become impossible in the future if academics cannot find a way to deposit transcripts beyond the reach of a subpoena. The issues are further complicated, as some suggest these interview transcripts might confirm Gerry Adams’ role in some of the violent attacks and potentially could lead to criminal charges for the current President of Sinn Féin (something Adams denies). Beyond the legal implications, this could damage Adam’s political career, as he claims he was never a part of the IRA. This creates a very difficult situation for the American appeals courts, as their decision might lead to a potential political crisis in Norther Ireland. Academics and journalists will now have the opportunity to intervene in the court case and make arguments that the importance of creating this kind of historical archive outweighs the demands of justice for the unsolved crimes from the troubles. Are they right? Does our quest to better understand the past supersede the rights of all of the victims?