By 1998, the Troubles – the late 20th-century conflict in Northern Ireland that pitted Protestants loyal to the British Crown against Catholic nationalists who demanded a united Ireland free of English rule – were over. The Good Friday Agreement had been signed. Gerry Adams had completed his transformation from Irish Republican Army commander to polished politician and was even cooperating with firebrand loyalist preacher Ian Paisley. But the peace was as fragile as a Belleek teacup.
Journalists and historians knew that time was running out to record the history of the Troubles. And the Good Friday Agreement had made no provisions for a truth and reconciliation commission that would allow combatants on both sides to share their stories and confess to their atrocities without necessarily facing criminal charges. So, a group of men decided to compile an oral history of the Troubles as told by the men and women who had fought in loyalist and nationalist paramilitary groups. The two interviewers were veterans of the IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Forces.
The Belfast Project, as it came to be known, was conducted in utmost secrecy. Despite the peace accords, tensions were not far from the surface, and the interviewees’ stories could put lives – theirs and others – in danger. The researchers decided not to publicly identify the interviewees. Their interviews would be housed at Boston College, and the details therein would not be released until after the subjects’ deaths.
As Patrick Radden Keefe explains in his book, “Say Nothing,” about one of the grimmest crimes committed during the Troubles, this endeavor was well-meaning but fatally flawed. The contracts of confidentiality were never vetted by legal counsel. The interviewers misunderstood the terms, thinking the interviews wouldn’t be released until all subjects had died. And when the secrets of the interviews finally leaked, subpoenas rained down on Boston College and graffiti sprung up in Belfast blasting “Boston College touts” – or informers.
But before the issues with the Belfast Project had been fully revealed, the project’s mastermind, a journalist named Ed Moloney, published “Voices from the Grave.” The book transcribes and contextualizes interviews with two men: Brendan Hughes, once a Provisional IRA volunteer, and David Ervine, a former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The interviews provide insight into poverty in Belfast, the horrors of the Troubles experienced by both sides, and the malcontent that followed the Good Friday Agreement. At a time when the Six Counties are once again making headlines, this time over the Brexit deadlock, “Voices from the Grave” is a striking reminder that the Good Friday Agreement left a lot of threads hanging and that there’s still resentment and fury simmering in Northern Ireland.
Emma Pennisi, editor