In a recent Periscope column in the Irish Voice (August 23rd) Niall O’Dowd can be found lunging wildly at a range of targets he has taken umbrage at. Their transgression is nothing other than having taken part in a research project for Boston College. Because he is of a view that the project failed to establish that Gerry Adams was never a member of the IRA, he has lashed out not only at the college but also at Ed Moloney and myself, the project manager and lead researcher respectively.
What Niall O’ Dowd fails to understand is that academic research is not about falsifying the historical record so that history becomes the mere tool of the present, a servant of a current political process. It is about establishing to the best of its ability a record for the benefit of posterity. Oral history is not without pitfalls, relying as it does on the recollection of players in key historical moments. Their accounts might be off centre, even wrong. They are certainly never beyond question. What they are is an indispensible contribution to public understanding, without which society is left intellectually poorer. Oral history seeks not to monopolize the historical record or suppress alternative histories, but to deposit an additional layer of historical sediment on the vast formations already in existence.
The preposterous suggestion that Boston College carried out a witch hunt against the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is a figment of Niall O’Dowd’s imagination every bit as much as never having been a member of the IRA is a figment of Mr. Adams’ own imagination. Was the late Kader Asmal, via memoirs published after his death, also involved in a witch hunt against Mr Adams? What possible interest would Boston College have in making life difficult for Gerry Adams? It more than any other US university has worked diligently and assiduously in its promotion of the peace process of which Adams was one of the prime architects.
Fortunately, for the sake of knowledge and public understanding, there is no compelling reason for academic investigation and political narrative to coincide and many good reasons as to why they should not. Has, for example, one serious academic or journalist ever publicly acquiesced in the Adams narrative on his relationship to the IRA?
Niall O’Dowd may well seek to smear the people assigned by Boston College to conduct its research project, and by extension the college, but in doing so he has failed lamentably to make a convincing case that the Boston College research project worked towards a predetermined outcome. What he has achieved is a demonstration of his own proclivity for discriminating against journalists and researchers who have had the temerity to probe beyond the politically expedient narrative of the peace process.
Whatever Niall O’Dowd’s motives in attacking the oral history project of Boston College the defense of academic integrity does not figure amongst them. He is merely behaving as an echo chamber for Sinn Fein exasperation that its version of history is not the sole thread in the historical tapestry. But in a milieu of intellectual pluralism he should expect no less.
In his Periscope broadside he accused Boston College of having hired anti-Adams researchers. He fails to make the point that both myself and Ed Moloney are considered well outside the confines of Boston College as competent analysts. We brought a measure of certifiable journalistic and academic acumen to the task at hand. Perhaps had we lacked qualifications, were members of Sinn Fein and interviewed people who would testify to Gerry Adams history of non involvement in the IRA, we might have satisfied his rigorous criteria as to what constitutes a non biased research team.
Niall O’Dowd complains of irony inherent in the claim by Ed Moloney and myself that recalcitrant elements in the PSNI might have cynically opted to damage the peace process. He dismisses it with the words ‘stable door and bolted horse.’ Implicit in this comment is that it is par for the course on the part of some security force personnel. Indeed it is, but not to the extent that has long been suggested. Does Niall O’Dowd seriously contend that the Northern Bank Robbery, links to Colombian guerrillas, the Castlereagh break-in and the kidnapping of Bobby Tohill were all false allegations, as alleged by Sinn Fein at the time, made by security force personnel to undermine the peace process? Such a spurious belief is what academic research can often undermine and for which it should be valued rather than denigrated
Unlike the incidents just referred to, there would on this occasion seem to be no plausible alternative explanation to the theory proffered by Kevin Cullen in the Boston Globe that the exercise by the PSNI in pursuit of material from the oral history archives at Boston College is an attempt to cause problems for Gerry Adams. The Northern Irish police displayed no eagerness to solve the case at the centre of the subpoena for almost 40 years. Why now? Niall O’Dowd appears to agree as he approvingly cites the Cullen argument. What seems incongruous is that O’Dowd then attacks the project rather than the PSNI. He seeks to weaken the college defense of academic freedom and free inquiry by alleging that the history project was an ersatz academic venture, the real purpose of which was to collate negative information about Gerry Adams. ‘Unwittingly or wittingly perhaps’, he is adding ballast to the case of those in the PSNI he accuses of seeking revenge on Gerry Adams.