By Ross Kerber
BOSTON (Reuters) - Senator John Kerry said on Friday he had contacted British officials, hoping to end their quest to subpoena confidential interviews of Irish Republican Army (IRA) veterans kept under seal at Boston College in Massachusetts.
Kerry, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading voice on U.S. policy toward Ireland, said the probe risks upsetting the 1998 peace deal that ended fighting in Northern Ireland if it leads to prosecutions of current political leaders.
"If you start now to chase after some of those people who are governing, you wind up creating a whole set of retro-tensions that are contrary to this reconciliation," Kerry said in a telephone interview with Reuters.
The interviews are part of an oral history project on Northern Ireland and include talks with IRA figures and veterans of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Many were subpoenaed at the request of Northern Ireland's police by the Justice Department last year.
British authorities want the records to help solve one of the most notorious killings of Ireland's so-called sectarian "Troubles," the death of Jean McConville.
A widowed mother of 10, McConville was abducted and murdered in 1972 by the IRA on suspicion of being a government informer - something her family has denied. Her body was recovered in 2003.
The case got new attention in 2010 following interviews of IRA members who connected Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams to McConville's death. Adams has always denied being part of the IRA or that he had anything to do with McConville's case.
One of the IRA members, Brendan Hughes, died in 2008, freeing researchers affiliated with Boston College to publish the interviews Hughes had granted as part of what is known as the "Belfast Project."
The details from Hughes and another IRA member led to new interest in the collection, and eventually the subpoenas filed by the U.S. Justice Department at the request of British authorities under international criminal treaties.
In a statement on Friday, The Police Service of Northern Ireland said that "Detectives have a legal responsibility to investigate all murders and pursue any and all lines of inquiry - for the victims, for the next-of-kin and for justice. As a result, detectives from the PSNI'S serious crime branch have asked for all the material held by Boston College."
Asked about Kerry's views, a spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office referred questions about the case to other ministries, who were not immediately available to comment on Friday evening in London.
The subpoenas are now the subject of an ongoing battle in U.S. courts over how far the college and researchers can go to protect the materials, and exactly what promises of confidentiality and control the college allowed the researchers to make to the interviewees.
On January 20 U.S. District Court Judge William Young ordered the school to turn over material from a half-dozen or so interviewees, but the order has been stayed pending an appeal on which a hearing is expected in March.
Hoping to defuse tensions, Kerry said he is "reaching out at the highest levels" to British officials, who he declined to specify, and may meet with some soon about the case.
In a January 23 letter to the U.S. State Department about the subpoenas, Kerry said "it would be a tragedy if this process were to upset the delicate balance that has kept the peace and allowed for so much progress in the past fourteen years" since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that became the basis for peace in Northern Ireland.
One weakness of the peace deal is that it lacked a formal process for airing out all the details of the country's violent past, as have been set up in other war-torn nations like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Kerry said such a process might be possible in Northern Ireland some day, but not just yet. "I don't think things are far enough along as far as resolving some of the issues," he said.
The work of such a commission, Kerry said, "would be a little raw right now."
(Reporting By Ross Kerber in Boston; Additional reporting by Ivan Little in Belfast and Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Sandra Maler)