Why a 1972 Northern Ireland murder matters so much to historiansRoundup
tags: IRA, Ireland, Bloody Sunday, Belfast Project
Donald M. Beaudette is an assistant professor of political science at Oxford College of Emory University. He is currently writing a book on punishment attacks and policing during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
Laura Weinstein is an independent scholar and analyst of Irish politics. She is currently researching a book on racism and far-right nationalism in Ireland.
In a recent decision, a court in Northern Ireland ruled that evidence from an oral history project could not be considered in a 1972 murder case, clearing 82-year-old Ivor Bell of soliciting the killing of Jean McConville. Evidence from the Belfast Project, an oral history of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, indicated Bell and other members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) kidnapped and murdered McConville because they incorrectly believed she had provided information to the British Army about IRA activity in Belfast. This evidence played an important role in Bell’s indictment and trial in the McConville case.
The body of the widowed mother of 10 was not uncovered until three decades later, and her surviving children continue to wait for justice. Bell will not face punishment for his alleged role in this crime, however.
This ordeal strained the relationship between legal justice and historical truth. While legal decisions and records inform history, historians also draw on other types of records — including oral histories — to bring forward the voices of the weak or underrepresented. The courts evaluate evidence differently, weighing only information and testimony that conforms to strict legal standards that are designed to protect the rights of accused people, not to allow the consideration of all available sources. Integrity in the historical process, however, requires the consideration of every piece of evidence.
Bell was implicated in McConville’s murder after the publication of Ed Moloney’s “Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland” in 2010. Moloney’s work drew on the Belfast Project, an oral history project that aimed to collect firsthand accounts from people who had participated in paramilitary activity on both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland. “The Troubles” refers to the period from 1969 to 1998, during which the IRA used violence in an attempt to force the British government off the island of Ireland. At the same time, loyalist paramilitaries deployed their own acts of terrorism in defense of Northern Ireland’s union with Britain, and atrocities were also committed by the British security forces. During that period, more than 3,500 people died.
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