The year is 1972. Belfast, the largest city and the administrative capital in Northern Ireland, is in turmoil over the long-standing, violent struggles between Irish Nationalists and Unionists.
This period of ever-present chaos and unrest, labeled in the late 1960s as the Troubles, was defined by assassinations, bombings, riots, kidnappings and full-blown military action dominating the streets of Belfast. The result: over 3,500 deaths and thousands more who remain victims with torn families, destroyed homes and no chance to seek justice.
Recent developments involving Boston College have ignited a late response to this torment, questioning the thin line that divides retribution and the preservation of peace.
One victim of the Troubles, Helen McKendry, was a child when her widowed mother, Jean McConville, was forcefully kidnapped from her home as her children helplessly watched. Now, having lived most of her life parentless and clueless as to why, a disheartened and bewildered McKendry may have found a path to explanation.
A series of documents and tape recordings known as the Belfast Project, safely archived in the Burns Library on campus, may hold the answers to the disappearance and death of McConville.
Since the middle of the 17th century, Ireland has been religiously and politically divided between Catholics and Protestants. As a minority in Ireland, the Catholics created a group called the Irish Nationalists who are fervent believers in the unity of all of Ireland (North and South) and its independence from the United Kingdom; they are known as Republicans.
The Protestant Unionists, who are strong believers in Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK, are called the Loyalists.
Violent conflict between the Republicans and Loyalists was the face of Northern Ireland for the larger part of the second half of the 20th Century. Countless atrocities riddled the streets of Belfast for years, leaving a cringing memory that still haunts its victims and defines the dispiriting aura of Belfast even today; it is a city built on memory.
In 1998, the Belfast Good Friday Agreement outlined a plan of truth recovery by encouraging a “Forgive and Forget” policy throughout Northern Ireland. Born out of these principles, the purpose of the Belfast Project was the preservation of peace through oral history accounts, directed at those responsible for the creation of victims.
Former members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA, the Republican paramilitary group) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF, the Loyalist paramilitary group) were interviewed as part of the Belfast Project. The IRA and UVF were the groups that really did all the dirty work that caused the mayhem in Northern Ireland, such as kidnapping, bombing and assassinating. Thus, the confidentiality of the Belfast Project tapes was obviously very important, since the interviewees would be putting out self-incriminating information, although in the spirit of reconciliation, regret and forgiveness.
For years, Boston College has upheld its duty to keep the tapes safely archived in confidentiality; however, a loophole in the original contract with BC has provided Northern Ireland authorities reason to submit many subpoenas to BC indicating that it should hand over the tapes for an investigation regarding the disappearance and death of Jean McConville. Basically, victim Helen McKendry, in combination with the Northern Ireland police, wants the tapes to discover what happened to her mother many years ago.
Here is the moral dilemma: now that the troubles in Northern Ireland have significantly subsided, the release and publication of the Belfast Project tapes could very well ignite violent reactions to whatever is revealed in them. The public disclosure of the spine-chilling events by the very men who committed those crimes could quite possibly result in a reawakening of the anger, distrust and violence that once vehemently corroded the societal structure of Northern Ireland. This would completely negate the forgive and forget principle that has since taken the reigns within the conflict; and all for what? The satisfaction of one woman by figuring out what happened to her mother?
Obviously my sympathies go out to Helen McKendry and all the sorrowful victims of the Troubles; however, should Boston College contribute to a turn of events that could impede the peace of Northern Ireland? My vote: if forgiving and forgetting has brought Ireland through peace movement, in general, looking back will do just the opposite. Look to the future, forget the past; be progressive; long live (Northern) Ireland!