N. Ireland papers on disarmament archived at BC

Site is compromise after debate over Dublin or Belfast

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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Boston College has been chosen to be the repository for the archive of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, the body that oversaw the disarming of the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.

Two Finnish members of the commission, Brigadier General Tauno Nieminen, who was one of the weapons inspectors, and Aaro Suonio, the commission’s cabinet chief, delivered the documents to the Chestnut Hill campus on Friday.

There was competition for the archive among British and Irish universities and institutions, and a debate over whether the archive should be housed in Dublin or Belfast. Boston College’s selection was seen as a compromise and as a recognition of the university’s extensive, existing collection of material related to the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles.

Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that saw the end of most of the violence in Northern Ireland, Boston College compiled lengthy oral histories with IRA volunteers and British loyalist paramilitary fighters, which are to remain sealed until their deaths.

The archives of the international commission that oversaw the disarming of the various paramilitary factions in Northern Ireland are of particular interest to historians and scholars trying to chart the way the IRA was gradually persuaded to give up some of its weapons and then destroy its vast arsenal, hidden on both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The commission was established in 1997 and only recently disbanded.

Thomas E. Hachey, executive director of the Center for Irish Programs at Boston College and a professor of history, said getting the archive was a coup for BC.

“This is an incredibly valuable collection for future studies on the era of The Troubles,’’ he said. “BC was such a natural fit, and it was a logical alternative to Dublin and Belfast.’’

Just when historians will gain access to the archive is unclear.

“Under Irish and British law the archive could be inaccessible for a period of 30 years,’’ Hachey said. “But there will be periodic review that may grant notably earlier access if approved by the appropriate Anglo-Irish authorities.’’

Hachey and Robert O’Neill, the Burns Librarian at Boston College, received the documents from Nieminen and Suonio on their official last day of service to the commission. The archive will be housed in the special collections at the Burns Library.

Hachey said the awarding of the archive to Boston College was the result of high-level diplomatic efforts on both sides of the Irish border and the Irish Sea. He said Sean Aylward, the secretary general of Ireland’s Department of Justice, had pushed for BC to receive the archive. Aylward was also instrumental in luring Kathleen O’Toole away from her job as Boston Police commissioner to become chief inspector of Ireland’s national police force, the Garda Siochana, in 2006.

The agreement to relocate the archives to Boston was worked out between the international commission, Ireland’s newly appointed Justice Minister Alan Shatter, Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson, and Hilary Jackson, director general of the Northern Ireland Office.

Hachey said the collection contains the commission’s deliberations and personal notebooks of commission members.

“It will be curated over time, and possibly digitized so that it may eventually be available, at least in part, on the Internet for scholars everywhere,’’ Hachey said.

The commission was chaired by Canadian General John de Chastelain and included Nieminen and, since 1999, American diplomat Andrew Sens. Much of its work was clouded in secrecy because of the sensitivity of getting the IRA, and later loyalist groups, to disarm.

Besides housing the personal histories of many combatants, and now the activities of those who got them to disarm, Boston College has the private papers of Northern Ireland writers and poets, and the entire archive of Bobby Hanvey, a photographer who chronicled The Troubles for four decades.

Kevin Cullen can be reached at