Oral histories are an essential part of preserving history. What better source than those who were there, who can describe their thoughts and emotions?
Oral histories are stories told to someone conducting an interview, usually the person who intends to use the oral histories to compose an overarching story of what happened when.
Researchers at Boston College spoke to those who were involved, in some manner, with The Troubles that plunged Ireland into a world of terror. Those who agreed to share their thoughts and experiences did so with the understanding that what they revealed was being kept in confidence. Only after they died could anyone know what they said.
So when the courts came knocking, asking after the transcripts and recordings, the researchers at Boston College discovered that their assurance of confidentially held no weight. They were not professional journalists allowed to protect a source. They were just a bunch of academics who could not hold back that which the Police Service of Northern Ireland wanted.
They wanted the words so they could prosecute those who were either fighting for freedom or committing a crime, depending on your side of the divide. An American court determined that the PSNI could have the tape-recorded oral histories, and so Ivor Bell was arrested and charged with aiding the murder an innocent Catholic woman who did not toe the IRA line.
So are those oral histories just hearsay? Conducted by a university researcher, could a jury conclude that the oral histories did not follow proper protocol for a police interrogation? Mr. Bell's solicitor would like the judge to think so, but given the flight risk of the average IRA member, Mr. Bell has been denied bail.
Can he receive a fair trial? The Catholics on the jury might not be willing to convict, swayed by centuries of colonial rule and blatant bigotry so ingrained that no trial will ever be perceived as fair. The Protestants on the jury would convict because Mr. Bell was active in the IRA and they'd like to see him hang on a matter of principal.
Then there is the collection of recordings. Could they be considered nothing more than hearsay? The PSNI can conduct voice analysis to prove it is Mr. Bell doing the talking, but is he giving testimony, making a confession, or relaying things he heard someone else say?
When the peace process was concluded at the close of the Twentieth Century, those in jail for political crimes were let go, with the idea that their release was also the letting go of the past. The past, unfortunately, did not quite go away, and the difficult issue of dealing with illegal activities in the name of rebellion will have to be faced.