Oral history of N. Ireland strife raises dilemma

A Boston College oral project includes confessions of murder from the decades of violence between Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants. CBS News

Boston College is facing a crisis that's both moral and legal. The school collected an oral history of the vicious war between Irish Protestants and Catholics -- a history that includes many confessions of murder.

It promised to keep the confessions secret, but now those secrets may now be exposed with potentially violent consequences. CBS News Mark Phillips reports on the complications involved.

During the three decades of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland -- and even in the 14 years since the peace deal -- the worst crime after the bombing and killing itself has been to talk about it.

Too many deaths are still unsolved. Too many families still want revenge, or, like Seamus and Helen McKendry -- justice.

"I mean it's not just us," said Seamus McKendry. "There are thousands of families here grieving still, never knowing what happened to their loved one. Everyone is entitled to the truth."

And the truth -- or at least a version of it -- now exists on tape: Interviews recorded as part of an oral history project for Boston College on the promise that the confessions would be kept locked up in the college library until those who made them died.

Former IRA commander Brendan Hughes' interview was released after he died in 2008. "I knew she was being executed -- I knew that," he said on tape.

Hughes' confession from the grave concerns the 1972 killing of Helen McKendry's mother, Jean McConville. A widowed mother of 10, McConville was abducted and murdered by the IRA on suspicion of being an informer.

"The front door got kicked open and they dragged my mother from the bathroom, and that's the last that she was seen," said Helen McKendry.

And Brendan Hughes' testimony contained another bombshell -- he says he knew who ordered the killing:Gerry Adams, now one of Northern Ireland's main peace-makers, but who was long suspected of -- and always denied -- being an IRA commander himself.

"The special squad was brought on the operation there called the Unknowns. Gerry had control over this particular squad," Hughes said on the tape.

But when a book containing Hughes' and other revelations hit the streets, the Northern Irish police became involved. They wanted to know what other evidence of unsolved crimes might be under wraps in the Boston College library, and they subpoenaed the U.S. courts to get it.

After a legal battle, Boston College was compelled to hand its archive over. Its spokesman. Jack Dunn. now says the court will now decide whether to release it.

"We as a university are trying to fight the fight on behalf of oral history. but our ability to do so is limited in the face of a federal subpoena regarding a criminal investigation for horrific crimes," said Dunn.

But many feel the school could have put up a much stronger fight to protect the interview archive. And that if it's released, people like Anthony McIntyre, who conducted many of the interviews, could be hurt -- or worse.

"I think the people who spoke are at risk," he said.

McIntyre, a former IRA member who served time for murder himself, has now been labeled a traitor and informer by his once-IRA colleagues. He knows what that could mean.

"It demonizes a person and traditionally the IRA punishment for people that are accused of informing was death."

The Boston College tapes have exposed the conflict between those who are seeking justice and those who are seeking peace. And it may be that in Northern Ireland these days, you can't have both.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips returned to the CBS News London bureau as a correspondent in 1993. He has covered many major stories since then, including the war in the Balkans, the death of Princess Diana and the weapons inspection conflicts in Iraq.

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