CONFIDENTIAL: 2002 Burns Belfast Project Report

CONFIDENTIAL

January 28, 2002

Dear Tom,

I did a quick review of the Burns Oral History project material on Jan.24, 2002.

Here are my observations:

  1. The files contain very important information on the early days of the Troubles, the formation and development of the PIRA, and subsequent events up to the Hunger Strikes [it may contain more that I did not have time to see.] What is already collected forms the foundation of a significant historical archive.
  2. The material condition of files, discs, and recordings seem very professional. However, I would have to listen to the audio to be sure of this.
  3. There is a serious problem with the interviewing technique. The interviewer frequently leads his subjects not only into areas of discussion [which he should], but also into modes of analysis [which he should try to avoid], and occasionally even conclusions [which he must avoid!] Some examples:
  • Q. “In my view it was very very naïve” [this is from interviewer!]
  • Q “Is it true to say, as many writers and academics claim, that was one of the significant turning points….” [Falls Curfew]
  • Q. “I think that what you are trying to do is argue…”
  • Q. “Even in the most functional terms, was it a sledgehammer to crack a nut?”
  • Q. They seemed to be …incestuous….
  • A. ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛
  • Q. Most volunteers that stayed the course seemed to have that as an objective, I know I did…”

    Such leading of subjects would be thrown out in a court; they are equally damaging in the collection of oral history. They leave the future reader unsure whether he/she is looking at attitudes and linguistic formations of the subjects, or of the interviewer. As there is only one interviewer this provides the possibility of a large scale “corruption” of this “data”.

Conclusion:
There is much of value here, but before I could offer a professional opinion on the historical merit of the archive I would need to have answers to the following questions:

  1. How are the subjects for the interviews chosen/excluded?
  2. Does anyone involved in the project have experience/training in oral history collection? If not, why not?
  3. The interviewer operates with a clear sense of “engagement” with the Republican movement. This may cause difficulties with some Republican voices [mainstream]; it clearly be quite inappropriate if there is an intention to expand this project to include Loyalists. Is this the intention?
  4. What discussion has taken place to insure access to Republicans still active in the mainstream?

5. Protection of the interview materials.

Boston College has scrupulously observed the expectations of confidentiality given to those interviewed for the Belfast Project. Interview materials are stored at the Burns Library of Boston College, in a secure area, monitored by cameras, with access controlled by a combination of keyed lock and entry of a security code. Access is limited to select Burns staff, and the key must be signed out by staff. O’Neill Affidavit, ¶9. Only the few interviewers and academicians directly involved in the Project have been permitted to see the materials of those interviewees who have not died. O’Neill Affidavit, ¶10; Hachey Affidavit, ¶8-9. – MOTION OF THE TRUSTEES OF BOSTON COLLEGE TO QUASH SUBPOENA

  • A sampling from the transcripts was made available in the 2001-2002 time period to two scholars of Irish history for their assessment of the historical value of these interviews and the quality of the interviewers’ work. – Affidavit of Robert K. O’Neill, June 2011
  • Apart from the two interviewers, who saw only the transcripts of the individuals whom they themselves interviewed, the only other people who ever saw any of the material were Robert O’Neill, Ed Moloney, myself, and two academic specialists who were given some of the transcripts to review, but only with coded numbers (not names) attached to them, for the purpose of confirming for us what we believed to be the value of this unique collection. – Affidavit of Thomas E. Hachey, June, 2011

[NOTE: No reference or acknowledgement of any academic reviews, including Kevin O'Neill's, are in Moloney or McIntyre's affidavits]


“[Kevin O'Neill, an associate professor of history and former director of the Irish-studies program] had been asked by Mr. Hachey in early 2002 to review a couple of interview transcripts. He wrote a memorandum saying that he was impressed by their potential value to historians, but was very concerned that the interviewer didn’t appear to have much experience with oral-history methodology — asking leading questions, for example. He says he never heard back from Mr. Hachey.” – excerpt from ‘Secrets from Belfast’, Beth McMurtrie, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2014

“The shame of it is that Anthony conducted the interviews with the IRA members and those who have heard the tapes said his work was very weak. Kevin O’Neill from Boston College said that he was stunned by how leading the questions were.” – Spokesman for Boston College Jack Dunn, interview with Brooke Gladstone, On The Media, broadcast 31 January 2014


The first time Mr McIntyre was given a copy of the confidential memo written by Kevin O’Neill in 2002 was in February, 2014, after the comments made by Jack Dunn on NPR. Prior to that, neither he nor Mr Moloney had ever seen O’Neill’s assessment.