Belfast Project: Boston Prosecutors as Irish Politicians

Today I bring you an editorial by Chris Bray, a longtime observer of the Belfast Project case. Chris believes the UK authorities don’t intend to prosecute anyone in the McConville case, and thus he regards the entire affair as a farce of sorts. I read his piece as a criticism of the US Attorney General and the UK authorities, not of the US courts, which I think is right. I would be less inclined than Chris to criticize the US authorities, because on its face the UK’s request seems to relate to the investigation of a murder. If despite appearances the UK sought the materials for some reason not contemplated by the MLAT, then it seems to me the fault lies with the UK authorities.

The Supreme Court has turned aside a legal appeal from Belfast Project researchers Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, and IRA interviews will likely soon be transferred from the archives at Boston College to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. (A more limited appeal from BC, still pending, relates to only some of the subpoenaed interviews.)

The Irish press has been busy covering this development, and the stories tell you everything you need to know about the federal subpoenas of confidential academic research materials. They all center on Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein politician alleged to have ordered Jean McConville’s murder in 1972.

“Like his hero, Fidel Castro, Adams plans to go on and on,” reads an April 27 editorial in the Herald, a Dublin newspaper. “Until now many of us have given him the benefit of the doubt on both counts.”

But not anymore, the newspaper concludes:

“Meanwhile, Sinn Fein goes from strength to strength. As long as a growing number of voters conveniently forget about the hell that Jean McConville suffered, few among the Sinn Fein ranks will challenge their leader for life.”

This is the point of the effort to breach the Boston College archives, openly discussed in the Irish press as the object of the investigation: to stop Sinn Fein from going “from strength to strength,” preventing voters from conveniently forgetting the actions of the IRA,and convincing party members to challenge their leader.

This is not law enforcement.

Similarly, many of the Irish news stories about the pending release of the tapes say that the move could lead to the “downfall” of Gerry Adams. Here are some words and phrases you will not find in any of those stories:

  • “prosecution”
  • “murder charges”
  • “arrest”

Because none of that is the point. The Herald does refer to the possibility that Adams will face “a case,” but everyone involved knows what case that is. The McConville family is likely to sue the Sinn Fein leader in civil court. This, too, has already been reported.

“We owe it to McConville to reveal IRA interviews and tackle Adams,” the Herald headline reads.

Gerry Adams is to be tackled, challenged, sued, unmasked before an audience of voters, and weakened before the members of his political party. He is not going to be convicted in a court of law on murder charges, and no one—no one, period—believes that he will be.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston is using federal subpoenas to intervene in Irish politics, not to assist in a British murder investigation. I have been saying this for two years. Now the Irish press is saying it too.

Will anyone bother to notice this act of political malfeasance? Or do we simply accept that federal prosecutors should loan their authority to foreign political causes?

5 thoughts on “Belfast Project: Boston Prosecutors as Irish Politicians

  1. If the UK sought the materials for some reason not contemplated by the MLAT, then it seems to me the fault lies with the MLAT itself as a legal and diplomatic form, and with the political assumptions that underlie its ratification and enforcement. The Massachusetts ACLU’s amicus brief in the First Circuit covered this ground very well. We have a set of international agreements that allow our government to service the political inquisitions of foreign governments with no judicial or political oversight. If the UK uses a legal assistance treaty to get political assistance, then we should burn the legal assistance treaty.

    1. Well, I disagree that there is no judicial oversight—a court deciding that you have no privilege to refuse to turn over documents is hardly the same as a court refusing to exercise oversight. To put this another way, your view implies that the US rode roughshod over the rights of M&M, but it’s precisely to the question whether M&M had a right that the government was seeking to violate that the US courts gave careful consideration and detailed reasons for their ultimate conclusion.

      You could be right that the Attorney General exercised less political oversight than he should have. The treaty allows him to refuse to comply with a request if he believes that the request would “impair [the United States’s] sovereignty, security, or other essential interests or would be contrary to important public policy,” or in cases of double jeopardy, or if the US regards the offense as “an offense of a political character” or an offense only under military law. These matters are within his discretion, and the remedy for perceived mistakes is, in the end, at the polls.

      I also think your view fails to account for the reciprocal character of the MLAT. It’s true that the US government agrees to act as agent for the UK government with only limited grounds for refusing a request. But the UK government also acts on our government’s requests. So we benefit from the treaty to the same extent as we are burdened by it.

      1. I think ultimately that the courts, and the DOJ, have run roughshod not over M+M, but rather over the interviewees. Those former members of violent organizations did a reasonable thing for a reasonable purpose, speaking candidly in an effort to help future social science researchers understand political violence. That’s a positive effort toward a socially valuable goal, and future participants in political violence won’t make the same choice after this. I agree that this whole mess is bad policy in the executive branch more than it’s bad application of law in the courts.

        I do notice the reciprocal nature of the MLATs, and I think in this case that it’s another argument against the way they’re currently applied and controlled. The government of the UK is misusing law enforcement authority to pursue a political vendetta against an enemy of the British state, but don’t worry — it’s totally reciprocal.

        If this MLAT request doesn’t result in law enforcement action, then we need to notice, and we need to reconsider. It seems to me that we are about to see clear evidence that MLATs can be instruments for political recrimination dressed up in a police uniform.

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