Season 1

From the Travel Journal: Belfast: The Stories We Tell

The Troubles, a family’s search for justice, and a mystery 48 years in the making.

INTRODUCTION

As our team launched headfirst into exploring Belfast, one theme seemed to come up over and over again: stories matter.

The stories we tell ourselves shape how we see the world and each other. When our stories promote trust and interconnectedness and respect, that’s what follows. And when they say the opposite… that’s where trouble begins.

Places have stories, too. And Belfast is a city in the process of rewriting its story. That’s what drew us there in the first place for Passport. When we travel, we want to truly get to know a place – and to do that, sometimes you have to dig into the dark side of things. Belfast has done an incredible job forging a new, peaceful path forward. But it’s not an easy process to reshape how the world sees you. Just ask Hell, Michigan.  

Listen to the latest episode of Passport to hear the amazing story we discovered in Belfast. But while we were there, we stumbled on another incredible, present-day drama playing out right now that is literally about the stories people told.  

It’s the true story of a tragic murder, a family still looking for justice, and a team of academics who tried to make a record of The Troubles, but instead ended up in trouble themselves; embroiled in an international murder investigation 48 years in the making. 

PART I

The story begins on a Belfast evening in December of 1972, in the midst of what the Irish called “The Troubles.” Which, sidenote: as an American raised by the 24-hour-news cycle and therefore prone to turning every molehill into a hyperbole, I’ll perhaps never get over the understated title of this conflict. It’s the equivalent of calling the Vietnam War, That Time we Agreed to Disagree. But for anyone who grew up with Irish grandparents, you already know; their humour is as black as their taxis. But back to our story. 

Tensions have never been higher between the Irish Republicans, who want Northern Ireland to become part of a unified Ireland, and the Ulster Loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. The year will eventually become the worst for casualties in the history of The Troubles, with 479 people killed and 4,876 injured. 

A young, widowed mother of 10 (TEN), 38-year-old Jean McConville was taking a bath as her children, aged 6 to 20 waited for one of their sisters to return home with a bag of fish and chips for dinner. Suddenly, a group of masked men and women — nobody is sure how many — rushed into the flat. Jean quickly got dressed to see what they wanted. They had guns and demanded that Jean take a ride with them. As Jean’s terrified children clung to her legs and begged them not to take her, Jean was forced to go with them. The gunmen assured the children their mother would be back in a few hours. One of her oldest sons, Archie, demanded that he be allowed to accompany her. The gunmen relented. But, as they reached the bottom of the stairs of the apartment complex, one of the gunmen turned on Archie and shoved a gun into his face. Archie wasn’t coming with them. Jean was loaded into the car and driven away.

She never came back.

Helen, Jean’s 15-year-old daughter, tried her best to take care of her hungry, younger siblings while they waited. But three weeks after Jean’s disappearance, a stranger showed up at their flat and handed them Jean’s purse, with 52 pence and her three rings in it.  Jean’s disappearance was, incredibly, never investigated. For nearly 30 years, nobody knew exactly what had happened to Jean. And for nearly 30 years, The Troubles continued. More people would “disappear,” just like Jean.

Then, in 1998, The Troubles officially ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It was a new era of peace for Belfast and Northern Ireland. And once the Agreement was signed, the confessions began. As part of the reconciliation process, each side agreed to finally give the other information about certain crimes and attacks. And in 1999, the IRA finally confirmed that they had executed Jean McConville for supposedly informing on the IRA to the Loyalists (evidence of this has never been uncovered). Then, as if nature had also been waiting nearly 30 years for this moment, on August 26th of 2003, a storm washed away part of an embankment near Shellinghill Beach, which is just over the Northern Irish border in Ireland. The next day, someone taking a walk on the beach discovered Jean’s body.

Jean’s children finally had her body back. But they wanted answers. Who had been in that car, who had pulled the trigger, and who had ordered it in the first place?

PART II

In 2000, two years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and three years before Jean’s body would be discovered, three men shared dinner at Deanes Restaurant in Belfast, a meeting which had all the makings of the start of a joke: a journalist, a librarian, and a former IRA member walk into a bar… Their conversation was intense. They were: Ed Moloney, a Northern Irish Journalist; Robert O’Neill, head of the Burns Library at Boston College; and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member who had spent nearly 17 years in prison for murdering a Loyalist soldier, gotten his doctorate after he was released, and was now an independent historian. The men were discussing a new project Ed Moloney had proposed that Boston College was considering, known simply as “The Belfast Project”. 

The project was an ambitious one. The goal was to locate and persuade former paramilitary members who had participated in The Troubles to record their oral histories. Which sounds so academic, and it was. But in truth, this meant convincing formerly (and possibly still) heavily armed combatants to essentially confess, on tape, to… God knows what. Recordings that, besides being an incredible historical record, could also be used to help future generations understand how a conflict like this had started, how it had persisted for so long, and how it had eventually ended — from the people who actually lived at the leading edge of it. That was The Belfast Project.

Ed Moloney had proposed bringing in his friend, Anthony McIntyre. He wagered that, as a former IRA member, nobody would be as trusted as McIntyre by other IRA members to share their own stories. Simply put, he had street cred. This was serious business. The Troubles were a raw subject. And the ink on the Good Friday Agreement was practically still wet. The men were discussing how they could gather these important oral histories without putting the lives of their interviewees at risk; retribution from the IRA was still a realistic fear.

Stories differ about what was said and decided at dinner that day in 2000, and about what was, and was not, promised by each party. But when it was all said and done, that misunderstanding would have profound implications for Jean McConville’s murder case.

Project Belfast got underway by 2001 and, just as Ed Moloney had hoped, Anthony McIntyre was able to bring former IRA members to the table. For six years, Anthony McIntyre toiled away recording these incredible, candid, vulnerable, angry, and anguished stories. Eventually, he’d gathered 26 long, rich interviews.

One of those interviews was with a former powerful IRA member, and a good friend of McIntyre’s, Brendan Hughes. In failing health and depressed, Hughes had grown disillusioned with his years in the IRA. He’d been the mastermind behind some of Belfast’s most notorious attacks. But now, he’d begun to feel like all of it — the violence and all the things he’d done — had been for nothing and he was ready to talk. McIntyre assured Hughes, as he had done with all his other interview subjects, that he wouldn’t release his interview until after Hughes’ death. Hughes told McIntyre everything. He also divulged what had happened to Jean McConville — who had been there, who had done it… and who had ordered it. And his confession implicated Gerry Adams, who was a former Member of Parliament in Northern Ireland and the head of one of Northern Ireland’s major political parties, Sinn Féin.

McIntyre kept his promise. It wasn’t until after Hughes’ death in 2008 that his story was revealed. It was released as part of Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland, a book Ed Moloney had written using The Belfast Project tapes. It was supposed to be the first in what would eventually be a series of volumes drawn from the tapes — each volume released only after that subject had passed away. The book was published in 2010. And that’s when the trouble began…

PART III

Only portions of Hughes’ story had been included in the book. Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre had been careful to remove any identifying information about anyone else in Hughes’ accounts. That had been their understanding with all their interview subjects. If people had reason to fear that they’d be implicated in crimes, nobody would have talked. Confidentiality was everything. These tapes weren’t about retribution, they were about recording the truth of what had happened.

But now that people knew the Belfast tapes existed, they wanted answers. People began asking Boston College for access to the tapes — including the Department of Justice. The first subpoena arrived at Boston College in 2011. The DOJ, it turns out, had a mutual-legal-assistance treaty with Britain, which meant the Police Services of Northern Ireland were able to subpoena any records they needed for a criminal investigation. They wanted the tapes of Brendan Hughes as well as those of Dolours Price, who had also participated in the project and later given an interview with a Northern Irish publication in which she indicated that she had recorded a confession about Jean McConville’s killing and given it to a “Boston University”.

And with that, justice for Jean McConville ran head-on into questions of academic integrity, journalists protecting their sources, and the ethics of gathering oral histories at all.

Boston College turned over the requested tapes, something many in academic circles still find scandalous. After receiving the tapes, police in Northern Ireland arrested both Gerry Adams and another man, Ivor Bell. Adams was ultimately released without charge. But Ivor Bell was eventually charged with the murder of Jean McConville. After taking years to make it to court, Bell’s trial played out over eight wild days in October of 2019 and ended with his acquittal when the Judge in the case ruled that the tapes were inadmissible because they were ‘tainted’. The judge remarked that, just as Bell and others had been free to tell the truth, they had been equally as free to lie. These were oral histories, not sworn testimony. And, he added, McIntyre had clearly had an agenda on the tapes. McIntyre was too close to the subjects and the subject matter to be neutral, the judge remarked. This was the equivalent of Tony Soprano interviewing Tony Soprano for posterity. It might be the subject’s story as they saw it, but that didn’t make it the truth. For the record, the judge didn’t make that Tony Soprano reference, that’s all us. But the judge did paint McIntyre out to be a man with a grudge and an agenda. To which protestors accused the judge of having his own agenda and grudge. And then it officially became a real life Escher painting.

PART IV

And that’s where things remain today. But this isn’t the end of it. Police in Northern Ireland have  since requested the rest of the tapes from Boston College — including Anthony McIntyre’s own  personal tapes. After a lengthy legal battle fighting to keep his tapes from going to police, McIntyre lost his appeal and his tapes were turned over.

The battle of what will happen to the Belfast Tapes continues to this day. And questions about whether anyone else will eventually be charged with Jean McConville’s murder remain.

This case cuts to the heart of the stories a place tells itself. As a city determined to move forward and recast its international image — and it’s made huge gains towards that — there are still some in Belfast for whom it isn’t easy to move on. Who are still looking for justice. And as Northern Ireland is suddenly thrust into the middle of the conflict over Brexit, it could find itself with a hard border with Ireland, and there is a real danger that old sentiments and conflicts could be dredged up once again.

Listen to Passport 

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.