Belfast Project: No lawyers, few historians (and no IRB)

Belfast Project: No lawyers, few historians (and no IRB)
Zachary M. Schrag
Institutional Review Blog
22 February 2014

Discussions of the ill-fated Belfast Project at Boston College often frame the issue as what can happen to an oral history project in the absence of IRB oversight. But a recent account of the project in the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as subsequent discussion, suggests that the real problem was a lack of involvement by lawyers and historians.

[McMurtrie, Beth. “Secrets From Belfast.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 26, 2014.]

No lawyers

The introduction to a follow-up webcast on the Chronicle site exemplifies the framing of the controversy as one over IRBs:

How is oral history different from other forms of scholarship? What obligations do oral historians and their colleges have, for example, if a subject reveals sensitive information? Who is allowed to hear these recordings and when? And should oral-history projects be vetted by institutional review boards?

But the webcast might better have asked, should oral-history projects be vetted by lawyers?

Here’s what we learn from Beth McMurtrie’s story:

In 2001, Robert O’Neill, head of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College, told researchers Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney, “I am working on the wording of the contract to be signed by the interview[ee], and I’ll run this by [historian] Tom [Hachey] and university counsel.” But, the article explains, “Mr. O’Neill never did check with a lawyer about the wording.”

This may have been the step when the project went wrong. Indeed, the researchers see it that way. As researchers Ed Moloney, Anthony McIntyre, and Wilson McArthur put it in follow-up statement:

Following the disclosure in the current edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education that Boston College misled ourselves and the participants in the oral history project into believing that the donor contract or agreement for interviewees had been vetted by the college’s legal advisers when it had not been, we are consulting our attorneys about the legal implications.

Let’s be clear. It’s not that the researchers or the university failed to recognize the need for legal advice. Rather, the university promised legal review and then failed to follow through.

In the webcast on the story, both Mary Marshall Clark, director of Columbia University’s Center for Oral History Research, and Clifford M. Kuhn, executive director of the Oral History Association, stressed the importance of consulting lawyers, not ethicists, when making promises of confidentiality. As Clark put it, “IRB is not a legal board, it’s an ethical board.”

Ethics review occasionally offers legal advantage, as when the Quebec court considered it as a factor in quashing a subpoena. But recall that in that case, the University of Ottawa refused legal representation to the researchers, and that the University of Arizona turned over data over the objection of its IRB. I suggest, then, that the problem at Boston College was not the absence of IRB review, but of legal review, which is quite a different thing.

Few historians

The article also shows the relatively small role played by professional historians and historical methods in the project.

  • Anthony McIntyre, described in the article as “an independent historian,” received his graduate training in political science. (McMurtrie’s article doesn’t mention this, but Wilson McArthur, who interviewed Loyalists, also has a degree in political science.)
  • Thomas Hachey–the Boston College historian most involved in the project–states, “I don’t think any pretense was made by any of us at the time that this was going to be following the template for official oral history.”
  • The project was mostly kept away from BC’s history department and its Irish-studies program. And when Kevin O’Neill, an associate professor of history, was eventually consulted, he “wrote a memorandum saying that he was impressed by [the interviews'] 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.”

Now, what O’Neill considers “leading questions” sound a lot like the two-sentence format used for decades by oral historians. At the risk of an ad hominem argument, I note that O’Neill is listed as a specialist on pre-famine Ireland. What training does he have in oral history methods?

Perhaps knowing that no one involved had much if any training in oral history, Clark used her time on the webcast to repeatedly disavow the project as an oral history project, calling it journalism instead.

I don’t know the exact basis for her distinction; it strikes me that a project aimed at developing an archive of interviews for future use is a lot more oral history than journalism. But this element of the story deserves more exploration.

What are the interests of third parties?

While McMurtrie’s article is a helpful addition to our understanding of the Belfast Project, it leaves unanswered what I consider a key question: what would have happened if all the contracts had been honored, and the researchers had followed all the protocols suggested by Clark? What if, that is, all narrators had reviewed their interviews, and those interviews had remained sealed until the narrators’ deaths?

The answer, it seems, is that the project would still have generated controversy, because the people most exposed by the interviews are not the narrators, but third parties they mentioned.

Here’s a key passage from the article:

Mr. Hughes gave a detailed account of the activities of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, of which he was a leader, including its role in the murder of Jean McConville. In December 1972 gunmen abducted the mother of 10 from her apartment in front of her children. Ms. McConville was never seen alive again. Mr. Hughes, who monitored the slum known as Divis Flats, where the McConville family lived, said she had been revealed as an informer for the British Army, was ordered killed, and her body buried. That order, he said, had come from Gerry Adams, his commanding officer.

Hughes died in 2008, so the interviewers broke no agreement by releasing his interviews after his death. Nor would the right of review stressed by Clark have kept Hughes from identifying Adams (who denies ever belonging to the IRA) as an IRA commander.

In his insightful take on the project, James Allison King, a doctoral student in information sciences, notes that Moloney claims inspiration from an earlier project conducted by the Irish Bureau of Military History.

[King, James Allison. “‘Say Nothing’: Silenced Records and the Boston College Subpoenas.” Archives and Records (published online 31 January 2014): 1–15. doi:10.1080/23257962.2013.859573.]

From 1947 to 1957, the Bureau compiled 1773 statements covering the Irish independence movement from 1913 to 1921. Rather than seal each interview until the narrator’s death, the Bureau apparently sealed the entire project until 2003, by which point, one suspects, just about everyone mentioned in the interviews was dead. That some of the Belfast Project’s interviews were published much more rapidly reflects not any misunderstanding between Boston College and the interviewers, nor the result of an unexpected subpoena. Rather, it was, at least in part, the decision of the interviewers that only the narrator had an interest in what he or she disclosed. But I haven’t seen an explicit statement from Moloney or McIntyre to this effect.

Oral history, Clark argues, “is a field of ethics.” I think she’s right, and the field may need to say more about the Belfast Project than that it wasn’t oral history.