Where blame lies over lost Boston tape names

Where blame lies over lost Boston tape names
The war of words between Boston College and the former director of its Belfast Project has become increasingly acrimonious. Here US-based journalist Ed Moloney answers his critics
Ed Moloney
Belfast Telegraph
05 AUGUST 2013

Dr Robert O’Neill, the Burns Librarian at Boston College, describes as “bizarre” a claim from me that he “lost” materials for the Belfast oral history project at the college.

The materials were, in fact, contracts, or donor forms, signed by IRA participants in the project, without which the PSNI probe into the disappearance of Jean McConville is stalled.

“Bizarre” is not the word I would use. “Inescapable” is a better adjective, for that is the only conclusion a rational person could arrive at from the evidence that Dr O’Neill himself presented to a Boston court in 2011.

Admitting to the court that Boston College could not locate the donor form for interviews given by the late IRA member Dolours Price, he wrote in an affidavit, lodged at the federal district court in Boston: “We have conducted a search of the archives of the Belfast Project and have been unable to find the form executed by Dolours Price, but we have no reason to doubt that she did sign one, just as the same donation agreement was signed by most of the other interviewees in the Belfast Project.”

So, Dolours Price contract was signed by her and sent to Boston College, but then could not be found. In Boston, as well as in Belfast, that is what most people would regard as having been lost.

And, having lost Dolours Price’s contract, is it not reasonable to suspect that others have also gone missing from Boston College’s archives in the same way?

Dr O’Neill also referred in the same affidavit to the donation agreement having been signed “by most of the other interviewees”, indicating that, at that point, Boston College was well aware that not every interview had a corresponding donor form.

So, it is beyond doubt that Dr O’Neill and Boston College knew in 2011 that there were multiple missing contracts. Yet they did nothing about it.

Dr O’Neill now accuses me of “a clear contractual violation” by not providing the donor forms. But, if Boston College was in any way concerned about any contractual violation, it failed to either raise the issue with me, or to take any action before the time limits expired for enforcing any obligations in 2012.

Not that there was any breach of contract on my part, but if the college really believed that there was, then its failure to enforce the agreement only further compounds its incompetence.

It had the opportunity to complain of contractual breach as late as 2011 when the subpoenas were issued and it realised it did not have several donor agreements, but never once did so.

The college is precluded from taking any action on that contract now and would have been unsuccessful in any action in any event.

Boston College is unable to identify three of the seven interviewees, whose archive material has been cited by US courts as responsive to the second subpoena. The Belfast Project ended in 2006, some five years before both the first and second subpoenas.

In that time-frame, in which Boston College co-operated in the publication of a book and a documentary film based upon material from the archives, no-one from Boston College had ever raised the problem of missing contracts.

Following my move to New York in 2001, Dr O’Neill accepted that the original arrangement would have to change. (Incidentally, the UVF archive was begun after I left Ireland and all the arrangements were exclusively in Dr O’Neill’s hands.)

Since our contracts mandated that the donor forms had to be picked up in Ireland and then delivered “by hand” to Boston for security reasons, and since I now lived 3,000 miles away from Ireland, I could no longer play a part in the process.

In fact, it even became too dangerous for me to know the identities of those taking part in the project and so I stayed out of this particular loop.

To maximise security for the archive, Dr O’Neill agreed to collect the donor forms in Ireland from the researchers and ferry them back to Boston. As a buyer of artifacts for his library, Dr O’Neill was a frequent visitor to Ireland and this arrangement was most convenient.

A key aspect of the arrangement was that no donor form ever came into my hands. Since I never handled the forms, I could not lose them.

So, why are Dr O’Neill and Boston College desperately attempting to shift the blame for this debacle on to me?

I suspect it is because the recent revelations that one of America’s premier colleges cannot identify its own research participants raises uncomfortable and embarrassing questions about the competence of the college staff and their handling of this most sensitive project. And, so, the impulse is to shift the blame elsewhere.

Not for the first time since this saga began, Boston College is attempting to fault others for its own mistakes, instead of committing its full energies to protecting the integrity and confidentiality of the Belfast Project archive and, most of all, the safety and security of the oral history interviewees.