In Defence of Interviews

By Thomas Leahy 

It was during my research on the impact of the intelligence war on the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) armed and political strategies 1969 to 1998, that I discovered the value of interviews. After studying the available but fragmented archival, memoir and statistical data, for example, it was not apparent that the regional structure of the IRA was a significant factor in explaining the trajectory of the intelligence war and IRA’s campaign by the 1990s. But the majority of former republican prisoners, former IRA informers, and previous members of the UK security and intelligence services interviewed were in agreement: many rural IRA units such as in south Armagh were resistant to significant long-term infiltration. They explained that this rural resilience allowed particular IRA units to maintain a persistent low-level of activity right up to 1997.[1] After returning to available written sources with a new outlook on the IRA’s campaign, I spotted vital details to verify these interview accounts. The British army’s post-conflict report in 2006 even suggested that the IRA’s rural activities by the border with the Republic were so important that they ‘should have been the geographical focus of the [security force] campaign’.[2]

This is not to argue that interview research on the Northern Ireland conflict does not involve challenges. The passage of time and contemporary events can influence an interviewee’s account of the past, either intentionally or subconsciously.[3] Another problem is that the level of insight available to researchers from interviews on sensitive topics has become restricted. This limitation arose following the fallout from the candid interviews provided by some former loyalist and republican paramilitaries to the Boston College oral history project, which has led to arrests and charges in a few cases.[4] Whilst not completely preventing interview research, it has meant that discovering details about unsolved individual killings and incidents from paramilitary or security force interviewees is highly unlikely, and too dangerous for the researcher and interviewees.

Nonetheless, I remain a defender and advocate of interview research on the conflict. In response to concerns surrounding the politicisation of the past or faulty memories, I concede that using interviews alone can be a flawed methodology depending on the area of research. Cross-checking interview accounts with each other for consistency, and, equally, with a range of other available sources, including archival material, memoirs and statistical data, can help to check the validity of what is being said. One example from my own studies involves the controversial question of how influential were particular informers and agents against the IRA, such as the agent Stakeknife. When former republican prisoners, IRA informers and British security and intelligence personnel explain why this alleged informer had little impact on the south Armagh IRA, that opinion becomes more believable. To further strengthen the validity of this view, chronological details of the IRA’s campaign in south Armagh alongside archival and memoir material were used to corroborate this opinion.[5] In reality, this level of scrutiny is not unique to interviews as researchers should be doing this with all sources.[6]

Interview accounts that cannot be verified are not redundant to a researcher. These can be used to understand why certain versions of the past are ‘psychologically true’ for particular individuals or groups, which is a key part of understanding conflict legacy.[7] Returning to the south Armagh example, the perception from British officials or security forces of that area being disobedient to any authority can be questioned. The fact that the IRA in that area observed the ceasefires in 1994 and 1997 demonstrates that they accepted the IRA leadership’s consensus to engage in peace. Nonetheless, as British security forces experienced local hostility for a variety of reasons, witnessed local smuggling activities, and felt (whether rightly or wrongly) the south Armagh IRA were behind all of this ‘disregard for authority’, they often believed this area was ‘bandit country’.[8]

Interviews can also offer researchers the opportunity to hear and explore previously unheard voices. These new perspectives can come from often overlooked female or non-Belfast perspectives. Gathering potentially fresh insights ensures that history continues to demonstrate how ‘complex’ the conflict was, and how nuanced the memory of that conflict remains.[9] In relation to my research, cross-referencing interviews with a range of dissenting republicans revealed that they do not all believe that the intelligence war against the IRA was a crucial influence on the peace process.[10]

Furthermore, interviews can widen the researcher’s perspective away from the largely dominant Belfast narrative in current Troubles memoirs, archival papers and secondary literature.[11] Belfast was a crucial epicentre of the conflict, since it was Northern Ireland’s capital. But as interviewees from all sides suggested, rural IRA units and those operating in England became vital to the IRA’s efforts as the conflict progressed.[12] It was possible to explore this regional question in interviews because the researcher can ask for further insight. Archival documents and memoirs do not provide this option.[13]

In summary, the prospect of uncovering original insights, nuances to our current understanding and compelling evidence after cross-referencing interviews with other sources makes interview research on many (but not all) Troubles topics suitable. But time is against us. This year marks twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement. Next year represents fifty years since the conflict began. Gathering interviews from those who experienced or observed the conflict is rapidly becoming a finite source.

 

[1] Thomas Leahy, ‘The Influence of Informers and Agents on Provisional Irish Republican Army Military Strategy and British Counter-Insurgency Strategy, 1976–94’ in Twentieth Century British History, Vol.26, Issue 1 (2015), 134-144; Thomas Leahy, ‘Informers, Agents, the IRA and British counter-insurgency strategy during the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1969 to 1998’ (unpublished PhD, King’s College London, 2015), 93-99, 150-181, 228-231.

[2] See Operation Banner in Leahy, ‘Informers, Agents, the IRA and British counter-insurgency strategy’, 168.

[3] Trevor Lummis, ‘Structure and Validity in Oral History’, in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader (London: 1998), 273-283.

[4] Leahy, ‘Informers, Agents, the IRA and British counter-insurgency strategy’, 25-6.

[5] Leahy, ‘The Influence of Informers and Agents’, 137-40; Leahy, ‘Informers, Agents, the IRA and British counter-insurgency strategy’, 171.

[6] Ronald J. Grele, ‘Movement without aim: methodological and theoretical problems in history’ in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, Oral History Reader (London, 1998), 40-1.

[7] Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (New York, 1991), 15-62.

[8] Leahy, ‘Informers, Agents, the IRA and British counter-insurgency strategy’, 154-156, 196-213.

[9] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford, 1986), 22-24, 122-123, 134-137, 213.

[10] Leahy, ‘Informers, Agents, the IRA and British counter-insurgency strategy’, 196-226.

[11] Leahy, ‘Informers, Agents, the IRA and British counter-insurgency strategy’, 22.

[12] Leahy, ‘The Influence of Informers and Agents’, 126-127, 134-146; Leahy, ‘Informers, Agents, the IRA and British counter-insurgency strategy’, 93-99, 150-181, 182-237.

[13] Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories, 15-62; Thompson, The Voice of the Past, 122-137, 213.

(Image: Burns Library, Boston College Flickr Account)

Thomas is currently a lecturer in British and Irish Politics and Contemporary History in the Politics and International Relations department at Cardiff University. He currently has a book under consideration on the intelligence war between the British state and the IRA, 1969 to 1998. His areas of specialisms include the Northern Ireland conflict and intelligence war, Irish republicanism since 1969, post-conflict reconciliation and dealing with the past across the island of Ireland. He was previously an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the National University of Ireland Galway in 2017, and completed his PhD at King’s College London in 2015.

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