Recasting History: Boston College case has profound questions for historians

Recasting History

Dr. Aaron Edwards with a piece on the Boston College archive conflict. Aaron Edwards is a historian and former journalist with The Other View magazine. Views expressed here are his own.

Academic historians have been conspicuous by their absence in the debate over the Boston College case. This is extremely disappointing but it is not surprising and seems to reflect a risk adverse culture that has facilitated the public upbraiding of individuals who have taken great personal risks to bring us much-needed alternative perspectives on the past. While I have never had any personal association with the Boston College case, I am not prepared to stand idly by while the debate is poisoned by ill-informed perspectives that reduce discussion of the case to a question of the integrity of the personalities involved and not the merits of the enterprise itself.

There are occasions when those who care about the craft of history have to stand up and be counted. This is clearly one of those occasions.

We live in inauspicious times for the study and practice of history when the people involved in the collection of the traces from the past – from the gifted amateur to the most accomplished professor – are under increasing pressure to justify both their motivations and the research methods employed to yield their research findings. This pressure is particularly acutely felt in those societies deeply divided along ethnic, national and religious lines and which are emerging out of armed conflict.

Of course, there are consummate bureaucrats out there who will point to the existence of ethical guidelines available to anyone involved in research of this nature. However, while this might well be the case, it has been privately acknowledged by many academics that these guidelines (produced by universities and learned associations) are principally about mitigating the risk of litigation that may be levelled against institutions. One has only to consult the small print of the contracts drawn up between academics and scholarly journals and book publishers – the main vehicles for academics to disseminate their research findings – to know that by signing a copyright form the academic author essentially indemnifies the publisher from any legal action that may arise out of the work in the future. In other words, researchers who generate, collate and disseminate findings from their research are taking a huge gamble with both their reputations and their financial wellbeing when they decide to go rummaging around in a troubled past.

Consequently, there has been a tendency for historians to err on the side of caution and avoid controversial subject areas for fear of risking litigation. Unfortunately, the by-product of avoiding these uncomfortable aspects of the past can have a very real chill factor and lead invariably to the reproduction of a sanitised version of the past. Perhaps even more worrying is that it can lead invariably to a recasting of history as ethnic folk wisdom that bears no resemblance to what actually happened. In his compelling novel The History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989) Julian Barnes makes the telling observation: ‘We make up a story to cover the facts we don’t know or can’t accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by smoothing fabulation; we call it history’.

In conflicts where ethnic, national or religious identities remain the key fault-lines dividing peoples, the temptation to resort to ‘smoothing fabulation’ is obvious. But it is also incredibly dangerous. We know from experience of other places that by doctoring the historical record in a way that explains away human rights abuses, genocide and ethnic cleansing may trigger a reoccurrence of violence in the future.

We have recently seen the recasting of history in which the ‘alleged’ former Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA explained away the death of a non-combatant in a proxy bomb attack on a security forces base as being ‘open to interpretation’. At the same time he minimised his own involvement in the operation by claiming that he was elsewhere at the time, ‘allegedly’ (that word again) knee-deep in discussions with Margaret Thatcher’s government in a bid to lay the foundations of the ‘peace process’.

While this interpretation of the past may gain traction within a narrow political constituency, it has been contested by unionists – and it must be said by some republicans too – as being disingenuous or plainly untrue. It is, therefore, the responsibility of historians to subject such claims to the white heat of scrutiny – and in light of the available evidence. In a world where non-state actors (like terrorist groupings) rarely recorded on paper the process by which orders were given and received it is obvious that oral testimonies are of vital importance to understanding what happened, why, and with what consequences. This is why academic initiatives like the Belfast Oral History Project are so invaluable for historians like me who may not have had an opportunity to interview key players – at whatever level – so that we can assemble all of the available evidence and draw accurate conclusions from it.

I should add here that my own research interviews with republicans, loyalists and members of the British state security forces over the past 15 years were based on my belief that you cannot understand the armed conflict in this part of Ireland without factoring in the roles played by all sides.

I would be the first to admit that historians do not come to the past with a clean slate. They bring their own experiences, prejudices (some subconscious, others not) and intuition to bear on the facts. For what it is worth I am from a working class Protestant background and a community in North Belfast that suffered much and, in turn, inflicted terrible hurt on its neighbours, both Protestant or Catholic, during the ‘troubles’. It is for this reason that I am conscious of the importance of recognising and declaring my own biases and not passing these off as ‘objective truth’. In this at least I defer to the words of renowned writer George Orwell, who made the point that, while it may not be possible to ‘get rid of these feelings simply by taking thought’, it was possible to ‘at least recognize that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental thought processes’.

It is for these reasons that I believe that the Boston College case has thrown up profound questions for historians – and for anyone who lived through the ‘troubles’ and wishes to understand what happened – but these questions will go unanswered if we insist on reducing the debate to one that simply calls into question the integrity of the personalities involved. To truly audit the past we must consider the wider processes in play so as to avoid an ill-informed view of history that obscures more than it reveals.

NEWS OF INTEREST: Facing His Torturer as Spain Confronts Its Past

Facing His Torturer as Spain Confronts Its Past
New York Times
April 6, 2014

José María Galante said he was tortured after being arrested for his anti-Franco protest activities. “I agree with the idea of reconciliation,” Mr. Galante said. “But you just can’t turn the page.”

MADRID — José María Galante was a leftist college student when he was handcuffed to the ceiling of a basement torture chamber, his body dangling in the air. A police inspector laughed and taunted him, striking martial arts poses before repeatedly kicking and beating his face and chest.

The man who Mr. Galante says tortured him was an infamous enforcer of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s, widely known as Billy the Kid for his habit of spinning his pistol on his finger. So Mr. Galante was startled last year when he located the man — living in a spacious apartment less than a mile from his own neighborhood in central Madrid.

“How did I feel when I saw him for the first time? We got you now, you bastard,” Mr. Galante said, adding: “I agree with the idea of reconciliation. But you just can’t turn the page. You have to read that page before you turn it.”

This week, Mr. Galante is again planning to see Billy the Kid, whose real name is Antonio González Pacheco. This time, it will be at a hearing at Spain’s National Court, where Mr. Galante and other victims are, for the first time, seeking to prosecute Mr. Pacheco in a case that is reopening the country’s painful Francoist past and threatening the political pact that helped Spain transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Spain’s democratic transition has been a source of national pride, a period that saw political rivals make compromises credited with allowing a new country to emerge. The public wistfulness for that lost political spirit was evident last month with the death of Adolfo Suárez, the prime minister who guided the country in those early years.

But the grand bargain that allowed this transition was a complicated one. After Franco’s death in 1975, a sweeping amnesty law absolved everyone — leftists and right-wing Francoists — and encouraged a kind of collective forgetting in the name of reconciliation. The belief was that Spain could prosper only by looking to the future, not the past.

For victims like Mr. Galante, this meant the door to justice was slammed shut. For more than 40 years, Spanish courts have refused to hear these cases, citing the amnesty law. So Mr. Galante and others have taken their complaints to Argentina, invoking the legal principle of universal jurisdiction under which certain crimes, because of their magnitude, transcend borders. An Argentine judge is now seeking the extradition of Mr. Pacheco and another individual accused of torture. Mr. Pacheco’s hearing on April 10 in Madrid is to decide whether to grant the request.

Spanish courts are usually reluctant to extradite Spanish citizens. But whatever the outcome, the Argentine case is stirring up old demons in Spain. Critics say Spain must confront its past and even push aside the amnesty law. Others warn that doing so could lead to a slew of prosecutions, even reaching the country’s elite.

Today, Spanish politics, business and law are still sprinkled with people who have direct or indirect links to the Franco regime. Last week, a lawyer for the victims asked the Argentine judge to bring charges against five former ministers from the Franco era.

“I just don’t think it would be good for the country,” said Ramón Jáuregui, a lawmaker with the opposition Socialist Party, who opposed Franco during the 1970s but is reluctant to break the amnesty pact. “We don’t know where it starts and where it finishes. If we take someone who was a torturer in 1970, why aren’t we going to go after some ministers in Franco’s government who are still alive? Why not the courts? Where do we set the limit?”

Spain’s government is already facing growing pressure from the United Nations. Pablo de Greiff, a United Nations special rapporteur, said Spain “lagged behind” other European countries in addressing its recent past. He said Spain’s government had done too little to help victims of the Franco era, and recommended setting aside the amnesty law so that prosecutions could go forward, either in Argentina or in Spain.

“Some problems do not go away,” Mr. de Greiff, the special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, said in an interview. “They cannot be swept under the rug. People, not surprisingly, do not forget.”

Franco was a contemporary of Hitler and Mussolini, though his dictatorship lasted until the 1970s and his legacy is more complicated, and contested. Not far from Mr. Pacheco’s apartment, the National Francisco Franco Foundation serves as the watchdog of the Franco legacy. The small office is like a time capsule from the dictatorship: Portraits of Franco hang on the walls, while a small display offers souvenir Franco T-shirts and other memorabilia.

“Since the Catholic Kings, Franco was in power the longest, and with the most public support,” said Jaime Alonso, the foundation’s spokesman and second in command. “He had great popular support until his death — despite what the propagandists maintain.”

Mr. Alonso, a lawyer, argues that Franco was not a dictator and scoffs at evidence of forced labor and postwar atrocities. “What is happening now is the need the left has to delegitimize history,” Mr. Alonso said.

Most historians agree that Franco oversaw a regime that trampled civil liberties and often ruled by fear and with impunity.

For several years, private associations led by the descendants of Franco victims have pushed for the exhumation of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship. In recent years, it was revealed that thousands of infants were abducted from Republican families and placed in institutions or adopted by families loyal to Franco.

Controversy also surrounds the Valley of the Fallen, the massive mountaintop shrine where Franco is buried along with 30,000 others. Franco called the shrine a symbol of reconciliation. But scholars now say that some of the interred are Republican soldiers who were put there without their families being notified.

In 2008, Judge Baltasar Garzón, a crusading magistrate known for stirring up controversy, opened an inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity during the Franco era. Within two years, Judge Garzón’s investigation was shut down after a right-wing group (represented by Mr. Alonso of the Franco Foundation) filed a lawsuit accusing him of overstepping his judicial authority.

Eventually, Spain’s Supreme Court removed him from the bench after finding that he had wrongly used illegal wiretapping in a different case — a finding that his supporters say was politically motivated. “In my case, it was an example of killing the messenger,” Judge Garzón said in an interview. “What they don’t understand is, yes, the transition was fine — at the time of the transition. But they don’t understand that now, the government is not allowing access to the truth, to justice.”

One of the lawyers in the Pacheco case, Carlos Slepoy, said that the Spanish authorities have sought to derail his prosecution, too, even as depositions have been taken at Argentine embassies around the world. Groups of Spanish victims have flown to Argentina to provide testimony.

“Initially, there were two families and a few human rights organizations that set this in motion,” Mr. Slepoy said. “Now, there are 350 lawsuits, innumerable depositions and a huge public support movement.”

Ángel Llorente, an official with Spain’s Ministry of Justice, said the government was cooperating with the Argentine judge and has allowed the extradition process to continue. Mr. Pacheco and his lawyers could not be reached for comment, despite repeated efforts. He has not spoken publicly about the torture allegations against him.

Mr. Galante, the man accusing Mr. Pacheco of torture, has already testified in Argentina about his experiences in the 1970s — a period when the abuses of the dictatorship had supposedly ended. He was arrested several times for protesting and joining an illegal anti-Franco student union. In custody, Mr. Galante said, he was beaten on his genitals and subjected to a form of water boarding.

“Billy the Kid had such a sense of impunity,” he said. “He never thought he would get caught. He didn’t ever think about getting information. He just wanted to beat people up.”

Last year, Mr. Galante and others began their search for him. They discovered he had founded a private security company. Later, a contact provided a copy of his national identity number, which helped them discover that he had competed in the New York City Marathon and a half marathon in Madrid.

Finally, they found his address, not far from Bernabéu Stadium of the Real Madrid soccer team. “We did what he used to do with us: A bunch of us would stand in the neighborhood, and if we spotted him, we would follow him,” he said. “The first time we saw him, he was running. We had to pretend we were running, too.”

Patricia Rafael and Brenda Yastremski contributed reporting.

Reeling in the truth

Reeling in the truth
John Mooney
Sunday Times
23 March 2014

Over 40 years since Jean McConville disappeared, a man has been charged. Will justice finally be done

The look of terror on his mother’s face has remained etched on his memory for over 40 years. Michael McConville, then aged 11, vividly remembers the night the IRA took his mother. The knock on the door of their home in the Divis flats in west Belfast came at about 6.30pm on December 7, 1972.

“They just barged in when my sister opened the door. Some of them wore masks, others didn’t. They were shouting and screaming,” he said. “I held on to my mother. I think I attached myself to her leg. I was crying, refusing to let go. My mother was in a terrible state. The IRA had taken her the night before and beaten her up. She was terrified. She was crying. I think she probably knew what was going to happen.”

The intruders were local members of the IRA, both men and women. “They tried to calm us down because we were all screaming. My brother Arthur, who was a teenager, said he wanted to go with her. They said OK, and the two of them left, but when Arthur walked down the stairwell of the flats, they put a gun to his head and told him to go home. That was the last we ever saw of her,” McConville recalled.

“I think about it every day. It haunts me. I think she knew what they were going to do. I can still see the terror in her eyes. That look has never left me.”

Jean McConville was 37 and the mother of 10 children. She had been widowed the previous January when her husband Arthur died from cancer. In the months before she was abducted, she had had a series of nervous breakdowns, attempted to take her own life and suffered depression as she tried to cope with her loss and raise 10 children alone.

She is believed to have been interrogated for up to six days until an IRA gunman murdered her with a single shot to the back of the head. Her body was then taken to Shilling Hill beach on the Carlingford peninsula in Co Louth, where she was buried.

The IRA didn’t claim responsibility for the killing. Instead she became one of the Disappeared — paramilitary victims whose bodies were buried in remote bogs south of the border. The McConville family’s ordeal was just beginning.

The IRA returned a week later to take Michael, who had recognised at least three members of the gang: a woman and two men from the local area. The boy was hooded, strapped to a chair and beaten with hurleys in a disused house.

“They held me for three hours. They said that if I said anything about the IRA, they would kill me. They placed a hood over my head, but I could see them through it. They hit me. They fired a cap gun to frighten me and put a knife in my mouth,” he said. “These people were supposed to be protecting our community and this is what they were doing to an 11-year-old boy. I still see them around today. I still won’t make a statement to the police in case they get to my family. The IRA haven’t gone away; people just think they have.”

Having silenced the McConville children, the IRA denigrated their mother’s memory by telling journalists she had abandoned them to pursue a relationship with a loyalist paramilitary and was living in Britain. “We knew this was a lie. We all knew our mother was dead. She would never have left us,” said Michael.

The McConville siblings looked after themselves for a week or two until the social services heard of their plight and got involved, placing the children in care homes. Their mother’s remains were not found until August 2003.

Now, almost 42 years later, the circumstances surrounding the abduction and murder have again come back to haunt the IRA and Sinn Fein. The PSNI yesterday charged Ivor Bell, a 77-year-old republican and former associate of Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, in connection with the killing. More charges are expected to follow.

So could further revelations about the events around McConville’s murder implicate Adams, said to have been the leader of the Belfast IRA unit responsible for the “disappearance”?

THE death of Jean McConville was a singular event in the history of the Troubles, according to Anne Morgan, whose 33-year old brother Seamus Ruddy is among the Disappeared.

“We recognise that what happened to her was like no other. The IRA ruined that family. Those children still have the scars. I personally think it’s much sadder than my own case,” said Morgan, whose brother was murdered in France in May 1985 after he left the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army. Ruddy’s body has never been located.

“She wasn’t just a mother; she was a widow, a vulnerable woman. She was rearing 10 children in Divis flats on her own. She was born a Protestant but converted to Catholicism to marry someone she loved. There are all those elements which make her story a poignant one,” said Morgan.

The republican movement denied knowing anything of the missing woman until 1999, when it finally admitted killing her and operating a policy of disappearing people.

The IRA identified the location of her body after it began co-operating with a special body set up by the Irish and British governments, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains. Those who provided information about the missing bodies were granted immunity under the Good Friday agreement.

The IRA initially identified the burial location as Templetown beach in Co Louth. It was extensively excavated, but no trace of her remains were found.

Michael Finnegan, a retired detective chief superintendent who oversaw the search, believes the IRA did its best but simply got the location wrong. “The commission was in close contact with the IRA,” he said. “We spoke to a lot of the locals but they couldn’t understand why anyone would bury a body there, because it was overlooked by a house.

“The Provos insisted it was there, but nothing was found. They came back with more information to say there was a stream running down by the burial site. Lo and behold, when the body was eventually found at Shilling Beach, which is nearby, it was close to a stream. The information obviously came from someone who was there when she was buried, but got the location wrong.”

If the victim had been found at the spot identified by the IRA, the gardai and the PSNI could not have pursued the current prosecution due to the immunity deal, according to Finnegan.

The IRA has never offered any explanation as to why it murdered Jean McConville, but possible motives began to emerge in 2010 alongside details of taped interviews with IRA members recorded as part of an oral history project organised by Boston College in America.

The interviews, which involved 26 former IRA members, were carried out between 2001 and 2006 by Anthony McIntyre, himself a former IRA member, and Ed Moloney, a journalist and author. Among those who gave interviews was Dolours Price, a former IRA bomber, and Brendan Hughes, an erstwhile IRA hunger striker and one-time confidant of Adams.

The two researchers undertook to keep the recordings secret until the participants had passed away. When Hughes died in 2008, Moloney published a transcript of the dead republican’s interview in a book, Voices from the Grave. It implicated Adams in the disappearance of McConville.

Hughes said the IRA killed McConville because she had worked as an informer, although a later investigation by Nuala O’Loan, the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, found no evidence of this and dismissed the claim.

Adams denied involvement, but then Price claimed she too had been associated with the McConville “disappearance” and insisted that the Sinn Fein leader had ordered the woman’s murder. The statement prompted the PSNI to initiate legal proceedings to obtain the Boston College tapes, which ultimately proved successful.

Richard O’Rawe, a former IRA hunger striker who shared a cell block in the Maze prison with Hughes, believes that the latter was “haunted” by McConville’s death.

“He totally regretted the killing. His view was that if she was not going to be shot dead and left on the street like other informers, then don’t shoot her at all,” O’Rawe said. “I spoke to him after he got out of jail and he was still adamant she was helping the British. I don’t know, but even if she was, I think he would have preferred to let her go.”

O’Rawe said he knew nothing of the IRA policy of disappearing people. “I never heard Jean McConville’s name until the mid-1980s. The ordinary IRA volunteer wasn’t told about this activity; it was obviously done on a need-to-know basis, but it was awful. Kidnapping someone and secretly burying them in a bog is horrendous.”

O’Rawe believes McConville was “disappeared” because the IRA could not bring itself to admit publicly to killing her.

“It would have been a major embarrassment for the IRA leadership. The obvious option would have been to expel her. In my view, that would have been the right thing to do if they were convinced she was an informer. But again, what could she have known about the IRA?

“Her intelligence value to the security forces would have been minimal. She wasn’t even a member of the IRA. The most she could have done was report someone for carrying a rifle. Everyone saw people with guns in those days. It was no big deal.”

THE McConville family do not know whether or not Adams was involved in the death of their mother. They simply say they would like all of those responsible to face justice.

Michael McConville said he has no doubt as to why his mother was abducted and murdered. “I met Gerry Adams after my mother’s body was found and he apologised for what happened, but I think he lives in denial. He doesn’t even admit to being in the IRA,” he said.

“I know why my mother was killed. She wasn’t trusted in the community because she had helped a British soldier whom she found injured outside our flat one night. So they killed her, but then couldn’t admit to what they had done, because it was a new low for the IRA. Labelling my mother an informer was something the IRA had to do to justify what happened. People like my mother didn’t mean anything to the IRA.

“My mother’s murder hasn’t gone away because it was one of the worst crimes imaginable. I’m not saying it was the worst crime ever committed in the Troubles by the IRA, but it was certainly one of them.”

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.



Author’s accepted manuscript: ‘Say Nothing’

‘Say nothing’: silenced records and the Boston College subpoenas
Archives and Records: The Journal of the Archives and Records Association
James Allison King

This is an Author’s Accepted Manuscript of an article published in Archives and Records, Spring 2014 [copyright Taylor & Francis], available online at:

‘Say nothing’- silenced records and the Boston College subpoenas
Author’s accepted manuscript


How will subpoenas for Boston College’s sealed Irish Republican Army (IRA) oral histories affect future attempts to archive the Troubles and armed conflict in general? To answer this question, the author examines the long-term implications of subpoenaing Boston College’s Belfast Project, arguing that the subpoenas present a case study of the little-recognized preservation hazard of silenced or uncreated records. The author situates the case within the context of the two types of wartime preservation hazards: the destruction or obfuscation of extant record and the silencing of records that otherwise would have been created. In order to show the subpoenas’ grave implications on the archive’s mission to record the full story of the Troubles for future generations, the article places the Belfast Project within the context of other Northern Irish and international archival projects. Ultimately, the author intends to demonstrate the relevance of the case to archivists, arguing that the Boston College subpoenas pose a preservation risk as hazardous as any fire or explosion by threatening to silence records that otherwise would have been created and thereby creating irreparable holes in the historical record of the Troubles.


‘Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing’
–Seamus Heaney, North

Talk could be deadly during the Troubles, especially in the Catholic neighborhood of Divis Flats, where Jean McConville and her children lived.

Of the 3,709 people killed during the three decades of sectarian violence, the tragic circumstances surrounding her execution as an alleged agent for British military intelligence continues to haunt a traumatized nation.

Although the Irish Republican Army (IRA) executed McConville in 1972, her case remains unresolved more than four decades later. Detailed, first-hand information concerning her murder only became available under the auspices of a relatively recent groundbreaking oral history endeavor called the Belfast Project. Brendan Hughes, a Provisional IRA leader at the time, spoke about the IRA disappearance of the widowed mother of ten for the first time in a Boston College-sponsored oral history project:

I knew she was being executed. I didn’t know she was going to be buried…or ‘disappeared’ as they call it now. I know one particular person on the Belfast Brigade at the time, Ivor [Bell], argued for [her] to be shot, yes, but to be left on the street. Because to take her away and bury her…would serve no purpose people wouldn’t know. So looking back on it now, what happened to her…was wrong.

Like all IRA and Loyalist men and women interviewed by the ‘Belfast Project,’ Hughes was assured by Boston College’s researchers that ‘no material could be used until and unless the interviewee consented or had died.’

The Belfast Project sealed oral histories until the contributor’s death because, in the words of historian and journalist Chris Bray, ‘frank discussion about armed civil conflict could get interviewees killed or arrested.’

The College honored the contract for Hughes, who died in 2008. But federal subpoenas for the complete oral histories of Hughes, Dolours Price, and any other IRA recordings with information concerning McConville’s murder instigated a lengthy court battle extending over two years, which only recently attained some level of resolution. Although all parties concerned assumedly seek resolution for the 2,000 some unsolved murders during the Troubles, efforts to prematurely unlock the archive might paradoxically deepen the secrets of the Troubles by chilling present and future projects to retrieve previously unheard voices.

While some academic and political communities were quick to speak out about the case’s far-reaching cultural and legal implications, archivists have been slow to acknowledge the potential repercussions of the Boston College subpoenas.

Christine George has proven the exception by raising awareness throughout the community in part through the publication of a critical article exploring the future legal and ethical implications of the court case.

Like George, I intend to argue that the fate of the Belfast Project directly affects the archival community. My approach differs from hers, however, by examining the case through a preservation lens. More specifically, I will analyze how the subpoenas — and the inevitable distrust and entrenchment they will engender — threaten to determine how present and future conflicts are, or are not, preserved.

‘Say nothing’: silenced records and the Boston College subpoenas

‘Say nothing’: silenced records and the Boston College subpoenas
Archives and Records: The Journal of the Archives and Records Association
James Allison King

DOI:10.1080/23257962.2013.859573 Published online: 31 Jan 2014


How will subpoenas for Boston College’s sealed Irish Republican Army oral histories affect future attempts to archive the Troubles and armed conflict in general? To answer this question, the author examines the long-term implications of subpoenaing Boston College’s Belfast Project, arguing that the subpoenas present a case study of the little-recognized preservation hazard of silenced or uncreated records. The author situates the case within the context of the two types of wartime preservation hazards: the destruction or obfuscation of extant record and the silencing of records that otherwise would have been created. In order to show subpoenas’ grave implications on the archive’s mission to record the full story of the Troubles for future generations, the article places the Belfast Project within the context of other Northern Irish and international archival projects. Ultimately, the author intends to demonstrate the relevance of the case to archivists, arguing that the Boston College subpoenas pose a preservation risk as hazardous as any fire or explosion by threatening to silence records that otherwise would have been created and thereby creating irreparable holes in the historical record of the Troubles.

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TRANSCRIPT: The Belfast Project and the Future of Oral History Projects, On the Media

The Belfast Project and the Future of Oral History Projects
Brooke Gladstone interviews Anthony McIntyre and Jack Dunn
On The Media
National Public Radio
31 January 2014

Begun in 2000, the Belfast Project was an oral history project that aimed to document combatants’ stories in the clashes between the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force in the 1970s through the 1990s. But the charged nature of what interviewees told the project has brought immense pressure on the project’s organizers to release records of the interviews, which they’d promised to keep secret. Brooke talks with Anthony McIntyre who recorded many of the interviews for the project.


Brook Gladstone: It seems that oral histories are generally ignored unless they make history. The Belfast Project is an archive of taped recollections of members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Irish Loyalist Army [sic] who warred against each other from the 70s into the 90s.

The bomb blew apart the Horse and Groom pub in Guildford killing five people and injuring 50 more. An hour later another pub 200 yards up the road was also bombed. Then a month later at Woolwich in South London another soldiers’ pub was bombed and two people were killed.

BG: They were promised that their stories would stay secret until after their deaths. That promise was broken this month aggravating a wound that has never healed despite 15 years of peace. Some thirty five hundred people were killed in Ireland’s so called time of troubles. The Belfast Project intended to preserve the IRA stories inside the Boston College Library. But when reports emerged about the substance of two of the interviews the British government used the Mutual Legal Assistance between the US and the UK to obtain them and much more. In particular the British authorities wanted access to interviews that touched on the unsolved murder of Jean McConville

News Report: “Jean McConville’s abduction, torture, murder and secret burial by the IRA nearly 40 years ago leaves many unanswered questions. The mother of ten’s body was dumped on a County Louth beach and despite extensive searches was only found in 2003 by a passing walker.”

Beth McMurtrie, whose magisterial piece about the Belfast Project ran recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, called McConville’s case a uniquely tragic atrocity. The widowed mother of ten was dragged from her house in front of her then kids in 1972 and murdered as a suspected informer. Among the interviews archived in the Belfast project are some that implicate Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein party, often called the IRA’s political wing.

Anthony McIntyre whose credentials include a PhD in political science began recording the oral histories in the spring of 2001, for nearly six years collecting 26 interviews with IRA members, people who had every reason to trust him.

AM: I served a life sentence for IRA activity including the killing of a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force. And I have been involved … in the hunger strikes back in 1981 and 1980. And on the blanket protest along with Bobby Sands. I first went to prison when I was 16 and released when I was 18. I returned to prison when I was 18 and was released when I was 35. And I was known to these people to be trustworthy.

BG: What promises did you make to them?

AM: that these interviews would not be released until their death or with their consent prior to that. And that neither the Provisional IRA nor the British state would be allowed to access those interviews.

BG: One of your interviewees, Brendan Hughes, died and a book came out by your collaborator on the project, journalist Ed Moloney. In the book Brendan Hughes figured prominently. He told you that Gerry Adams was involved in the murder of Jean McConville, something that Adams has denied. Here is a little bit of Brendan Hughes’ tape.

“I never carried out a major operation without the OK or the order from Gerry. And for him to sit in his plush office in Westminster or Stormont or wherever, and deny it … I mean it is like Hitler denying that there was ever a Holocaust.”

AM: Well, during the course of the interview, Brendan revealed a lot of his life in the IRA. Gerry Adams was his operational commander in Belfast, and that Gerry Adams had ordered the killing of Jean McConville, had ordered the London bombings and had ordered a lot of IRA activity. Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams were very close comrades in the IRA back in the day.

BG: Boston College having been confronted with this order to turn over the entire archive calls it a victory that it doesn’t have to turn the whole thing over, only eleven documents.

AM: What Boston College secured was a minimising of the defeat. That is what we secured. The state seemed to have a view that ‘we were dealing with pushover professors and we will get anything we want out of them.’ And they weren’t far wrong.

BG: Pushover professors?

AM: Yes.

BG: And they weren’t very far wrong you were saying?

AM: No, they weren’t very far wrong. There should never have been a discussion about whether we do this or we don’t. They should have been straight out of the traps and said ‘We will face this head on.’

BG: Hmm Hmm

AM: Rather Boston College were transmitting messages to the Justice Department and law enforcement that ‘we are willing to fold if you give us the right opportunity.’ But unfortunately for Boston College, myself, my wife, and Ed Moloney decided to stand and fight. And because we fought Boston College then were embarrassed.

BG: Okay. Let’s, let’s consider the arguments on both sides of this issue. The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said in a special on CNN that nobody is above the law:

“We have been quite clear as a government there can be no concept of an amnesty. So, we have to support the police in bringing those who committed crimes to justice.”

AM: That’s fine. What he actually means is that nobody outside law enforcement is above the law. Because the British authorities have withheld vital information from the relatives of the murdered human rights lawyer, Pat Finucane, murdered by agents of the British state. The British state have withheld vital documents from the victims and families of the people killed in the Dublin Monaghan bombings in May 1974.

BG: I hear what you are saying. That they are, they are having a double standard.

AM: Well, absolutely. But I mean people in Boston and America should know about British double standards from the War of Independence out there …

BG: (laughs)

AM: So I don’t think you should be too surprised about British double standards.

BG: Okay then. The argument for the lawyer for the McConville family says that the wounds of the troubles can never heal while injustice like the murder of Mrs McConville is allowed to fester.

AM: I have a great deal of sympathy for the lawyer’s sentiment and I have enormous sympathy for the family of Jean McConville and the family of any person killed. But it is not the task of a researcher to become a gatherer of evidence for law enforcement. Even for clergy men – now one can argue that researchers produce knowledge and clergymen produce nonsense …

BG: (laughs)

AM: …, yet clergymen are allowed to maintain confidentiality and researchers aren’t. It seems to me to be a bizarre situation. There are certain obstacles that have to stand in the way of the state for the betterment of society. And I think that academics and journalists need to be protected from this sort of encroachment and incursion. If the only view of society that we have, the only view of the past is that of law enforcement we will learn very little from it.

BG: But how can it really effect policy and improve somebody’s life if you don’t get to look into it until thirty years hence and the people who committed the wrongdoing on both sides of the struggle are never brought to account.

AM: Well, I mean we have a situation in the North where the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that the Criminal Justice system had to be turned on its head in order to bring about the Good Friday Agreement. Basically politics in the North of Ireland did trump justice. And it has also trumped truth.

Truth in the North of Ireland is used for recrimination not for reconciliation. They want to use it to – yesterday’s issues to fight the political battles of today.

This information wasn’t gathered by ourselves as researchers to hand over to relatives. Because people are simply going to clam up. All the knowledge that could have been brought to the families at some point under a variety of processes about truth recovery and the past has now been sabotaged by this issue.

It is very sad that the McConvilles cannot get the truth. I think that the McConville family are behaving nobly and honourably. It’s just that I represent a different constituency of knowledge and ‘ne’er the twain shall meet.’

BG: Ed Moloney, your colleague in the Belfast Project, has said that the release of the tapes could endanger your life. Do you really think that’s a realistic concern?

AM: I am going to see people coming for me even when they are not coming for me

BG: (laughs)

AM: because I am in the eye of the storm and I am sensitive. Former colleagues can be very vitriolic and bitter. Some of them with great audacity and chutzpah …

BG: (laughs) …

AM: who many of us have for a long time suspected of being informers are now calling the participants of the Boston College project informers. It’s a load of old hooey. But we must be very cautious. But if you are asking me do I live under the bed fearful that I am going to be attacked imminently? No I don’t.

BG: Anthony McIntyre is an independent scholar.


Brooke speaks with Jack Dunn, the Director of the Boston College News and Public Affairs office about what Boston College has done to protect the tapes from the Belfast Project and the future of academic oral history projects.

Jack Dunn is the director of the news and public affairs office at Boston College. He says Boston College did everything in its power to protect the interviews.

JD: We hired the best lawyer available to fight the subpoenas and we won a significant court case that reduced the number of recorded materials from 85 to 11 interviews that were ultimately required to go over to the Police Services of Northern Ireland.

BG: McIntyre says that rather than lobbying politicians to protect the manuscripts the College instead set about undermining him and Moloney. Now you claim, I think, that the comments by McIntyre and Moloney hurt your efforts to protect …

JD: Oh they did.

BG: … the manuscript.

JD: What happened is the first subpoena occurred shortly after Ed Moloney published his book Voices from the Grave and after his video of the same name was released in Ireland. There is no doubt in our mind that the children of Jean McConville – who are victims themselves in this – they heard that there was a university that had in its archives recordings of conversations with IRA members that could shed light on their mother’s murder. So they apparently sought the help of the Police Services of Northern Ireland to issue a subpoena to the United States. And then to our astonishment Ed Moloney said in interviews in American newspapers that Boston College should burn the tapes and that sort of rhetoric that we might somehow burn materials which is something no university would ever consider, no doubt prompted the second subpoena.

BG: McIntyre says that the loss to history of this whole episode is very grave: it irreparably harms the possibility that people will really know what happened during the Troubles. And Boston College should have had the courage to stand up and engage in an act of civil disobedience.

JD: It is just a clash of cultures between an American university that is obviously going to be respondent to a US court subpoena and an individual from Northern Ireland with a long, criminal record who just seems to have a utter disregard for the legal process and a suspicion of any authority.

BG: What about the issue of the loss to history?

JD: 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.

BG: You feel he conducted shoddy interviews?

JD: A lot of critics such as Danny Morrison, a former IRA member himself, have been critical of Anthony McIntyre suggesting that he interviewed only people who held the same viewpoint that he did, people who would be critical of Gerry Adams.

BG: McIntyre has pushed back and said that the efforts by the Irish police to get the tape is part of a campaign against Gerry Adams. So everyone is charging this is a campaign against Gerry Adams. But perhaps not admissible as evidence. Right?

JD: Probably not. I think Mr McIntyre and I would agree on that, that the information would probably not have value in a court of law. As we all have pointed out one of the great ironies is that Boston College in this very Burns Library holds the recordings of the conversations that led to the various paramilitary groups laying down their arms. And the condition is they will not be available to anyone for thirty years. The Police Services of Northern Ireland have gone after the tapes of the IRA members but never requested the tapes of UVF members.

BG: Has Boston College changed its procedures for gathering oral histories?

JD: I think everyone in the world will change the way they undertake oral histories. When this project began in 200o everyone followed the Colombia University model which said oral histories really wouldn’t be subject to Institutional Review Board. I think that has changed. There would certainly be a heightened scrutiny today. All of the participants entered into this agreement with good intentions. Some good came of it. Clearly mistakes were made on all four of the parties involved. And the reality is that the promise of the Belfast project has been lessened. The political reality clearly got in the way and now I think we have all learned a need for heightened caution as anyone embarks on such a project.

BG: Jack, thank you very much.

JD: Thank you for having me.

BG: Jack Dunn directs the News and Public Affairs office at Boston College.

Authors to sue Boston College over terror tape ‘guarantees’

Authors to sue Boston College over terror tape ‘guarantees’
By Liam Clarke
Belfast Telegraph
03 February 2014

Three authors who worked on the Boston College Belfast Project are intending to sue the college after it admitted procedures on when controversial material would be published weren’t checked by lawyers.

Ed Moloney, Dr Anthony McIntyre and Wilson McArthur, who carried out the research, are planning to take action against Boston College after it emerged it didn’t check with its lawyers before collecting an archive of taped confessions from IRA and UVF members detailing their involvement in murder and other crimes.

They are consulting Dornan Associates, a Washington law firm, claiming that they collected the interviews only after receiving guarantees that they would not be released until the participants were dead.

It has also emerged that Bob O’Neill and Thomas Hachey, executive director of the college’s Irish programme, each got a 25% cut from royalties on Voices From The Grave, a best-selling book which Mr Moloney wrote. It was based on the taped confession of Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes and David Ervine, a former UVF bomber who was prominent in the peace process, the first two of the interviewees to die.

In the preface, Mr O’Neill and Mr Hachey described it as “the inaugural volume of a planned series of publications drawn from the Boston College Oral History Archive on the Troubles”.

Mr Hughes, a 1970s IRA commander and 1980 hunger striker, admitted his part in the abduction of Jean McConville, a widowed mother-of-10 who was taken from her home in Divis flats in 1972, murdered and secretly buried. Hughes accused Gerry Adams, now Sinn Fein president, of being the IRA commander who authorised Mrs McConvilles disappearance. Mr Adams denies this. Mr Hughes’ claims were backed up by Dolours Price, another IRA veteran. Before her death she told a newspaper that she had given an account to Boston College. After this PSNI officers investigating Mrs McConville’s murder took legal action to secure the tapes.

This caused consternation among interviewees who were told their confessions would never be disclosed in their lifetimes.

Mr O’Neill now says that it was “a mistake” not to specify that confidentiality only extended “to the extent American law allows”. He says he did not run the wording past a lawyer.

Mr O’Neill’s statement appeared in a major article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington-based academic journal.

“Boston College’s reputation has been tarnished,” concluded Beth McMurthie, the author.

“There’s institutional failure there on the part of Boston College,” stated Mary Marshall Clark, director of Columbia University’s Center for Oral History Research.

Mr Moloney said: “We went ahead on the basis that the contract had been cleared with lawyers and that it was safe for the participants. Had we known the true position, the project would have been stillborn.”


Forty-six people gave taped interviews detailing their involvement in terrorist violence to Boston College’s Belfast Project. They were assured that the interviews should be released only after their deaths. The first to die was Brendan Hughes, who admitted taking part in the murder of Jean McConville. Now the PSNI is fighting a court battle to get access to the entire archive.

Boston College: Project Director and Researchers Statement

Statement from Ed Moloney, Anthony McIntyre & Wilson McArthur:

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.

During the preparation of the project in 2001, the putative project director, Ed Moloney wrote to Bob O’Neill, the Burns librarian at the college outlining the possible wording for the donor agreement but asking him to run it past the college’s lawyer. O’Neill replied in an email: “I am working on the wording of the contract to be signed by the interview[ee], and I’ll run this by Tom [Hachey] and university counsel.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in its article published today that O’Neill has now admitted that he never did check with a lawyer and instead issued a contract to us that gave the interviewees complete control and ownership of the interviewees until they died. Instead the contract should have warned participants that the interview could be seized by the authorities.

The article, quotes Mr O’Neill as saying: “In retrospect, that was my mistake.”

Mr Moloney commented: “We went ahead on the basis that we believed O’Neill had cleared the contract with lawyers and that it was safe for the participants to give interviews. Had we known the true position the project would have been stillborn.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education report can be read here:

Chronicle Review: Secrets From Belfast

Secrets From Belfast
How Boston College’s oral history of the Troubles fell victim to an international murder investigation
Story by Beth McMurtrie
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Chronicle Review – Chronicle of Higher Education

Anthony McIntyre made one thing clear: The project had to remain absolutely secret. If Boston College wanted him to interview former members of the Irish Republican Army, he needed that guarantee. They would be talking about dangerous things—bombings, shootings, and murder.

It was June of 2000, just two years after a controversial peace accord ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. Mr. McIntyre, an independent historian, was having dinner at Deanes Restaurant, in the center of this small, working-class city, with an Irish journalist and a librarian from Boston College.

The journalist, Ed Moloney, was a friend who had recommended Mr. McIntyre for the project. But the librarian, Robert K. O’Neill, was a stranger. And Mr. McIntyre needed to know what sorts of promises he and Boston College were willing to make. The IRA was an unforgiving organization. Although the fighting was over, informers—or “touts,” as the IRA called them—were not looked upon kindly. You just didn’t go around talking about what you had done in those dark years.

Yet the idea was undeniably appealing. To record the stories of the men and women who had put their lives on the line for the cause of independence, some of whom had committed horrific acts of violence in the process, that was something no one else had done. The three men at the table understood the insights that could be gained, Mr. McIntyre perhaps most of all. He was a former IRA man, and had spent nearly 17 years in prison for killing a loyalist paramilitary soldier. That’s why Mr. Moloney wanted him for this job: His fellow fighters would trust him.

“No matter how skilled or experienced the academic researcher or journalist,” Mr. Moloney wrote in a proposal two months before the meeting, “ex-paramilitaries know far more about the subject and are familiar with the lifestyles of ex-colleagues in a way others cannot even approach.”

Mr. O’Neill, head of the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College, might have seemed a surprising partner in such a risky venture. His was a world of manuscripts and manicured campuses. But he also had extensive connections in Ireland, traveling in both the north and the south to develop one of the most comprehensive collections of Irish literature and history in the world. Now, with peace in the air, he was looking to fill a gap in the Burns Library, focusing on the recent political history of Northern Ireland. When Mr. Moloney, Northern Ireland editor for The Sunday Tribune, heard of the librarian’s interest, he proposed an archive collecting the stories of former paramilitary members at “the cutting edge of the conflict.”

Thirteen years later the three men would have vastly different recollections of their first meeting. The two Irishmen walked away from dinner thinking that Mr. O’Neill would not pursue the project unless he could assure them that its secrecy was legally protected. Mr. O’Neill insists he would never have made such a blanket promise.

But all agree on one point. In those heady, early days, when talk of reconciliation dominated public discussion in Northern Ireland, none of them imagined their project would get caught up in an international criminal investigation into a four-decade-old murder. How that happened is a tale of grand ambitions undermined by insular decision-making and careless oversight.

The Belfast Project, as it came to be known, was unique in focus and design. But it is one of a growing number of oral histories undertaken at colleges across the United States. The field has expanded and professionalized in recent decades and now claims its own association, with about 900 members, along with several degree-granting programs. Its popularity is driven by the interest among contemporary historians in the lives of ordinary people and also by digital advances. Simply put, it has become much easier to conduct oral histories and to disseminate them.

Sixteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, the so-called peace walls—a series of metal, concrete, and barbed-wire barriers erected during the Troubles to serve as buffers between Protestant and Roman Catholic neighborhoods—have never been taken down.

The attractions of the Belfast Project to Boston College lay not only in the vogue of oral history but also in the college’s deep ties to Ireland. An Irish-American success story, BC has risen from a modest 19th-century college, founded to educate the children of poor Irish immigrants, into a prestigious institution with an endowment of nearly $2-billion. It has proudly maintained its connections to Ireland through its Irish collection at the Burns Library, its Irish-studies program, and its Irish Institute, which attempts to promote reconciliation in Ireland and Northern Ireland through professional-development programs.

So it was not surprising when, in the spring of 2000, a visiting scholar from Queen’s University Belfast, Paul Bew, suggested to Mr. O’Neill that he consider documenting the recent history of Northern Ireland. Mr. Bew recommended Mr. Moloney, an intense and seemingly fearless journalist who was not averse to risky projects. Having spent decades getting to know people on both sides of the conflict, he was in the process of writing A Secret History of the IRA, a behind-the-scenes look at how the organization had shifted from the gun to the ballot box in its quest for influence.

To get the stories of the veterans, Mr. Moloney suggested Mr. McIntyre, who had earned a doctorate in political science, with a focus on the Republican movement, from Queen’s University Belfast after he was released from prison. The two had met in 1993 at a funeral for a young IRA member who had blown himself up in a fish shop in what came to be known as the Shankill Road bombing.

Thomas E. Hachey, Boston College’s newly hired executive director of the Center for Irish Programs and a historian of modern Ireland, became the fourth member of the organizing group. Over time he secured $200,000 for the project—about four-fifths of its estimated cost—from Thomas J. Tracy, an Irish-American businessman who was active in both American and Northern Irish politics.

After their evening in Belfast, Mr. McIntyre, Mr. Moloney, and Mr. O’Neill spent several months hashing out the details of the project and drawing up contracts. All acknowledge that their concerns about secrecy at the time stemmed not from a fear of potential criminal investigations but from possible retribution by the IRA.

“It was a prime concern that the interviewee would say nothing about his or her participation in the project,” recalls Mr. O’Neill. “I didn’t even allow any staff members to have any involvement. We wanted to keep this to the participants and the interviewers and the project director and me and Tom Hachey.”

In what was to become the most contested wording in the subsequent falling out between the researchers and the college, Mr. Moloney’s contract as project director, which he signed in January 2001, stated that each person interviewed was to be given a contract “guaranteeing to the extent American law allows the conditions of the interview and the conditions of its deposit” at Boston College. The document did not specify what those conditions might be.

The essence of the arrangement, as laid out in the subsequent agreement for participants, was that each interview would be sealed until the death of the interviewee. No lawyers vetted the wording, and no one at Boston College other than Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Hachey reviewed Mr. Moloney’s contract or the one drawn up for interviewees.

There was also apparently no discussion of whether Boston College faculty members should direct the project. Mr. Hachey says he didn’t feel anyone on the campus had the necessary expertise. Although a number of faculty members studied Irish culture, history, and literature, he says, “I was looking for someone who was an unequivocal expert” on modern-day Northern Ireland. He relied on the advice of Mr. Bew, who not only had recommended Mr. Moloney but also had been Mr. McIntyre’s adviser at Queen’s.

Mr. Hachey also didn’t see the project as a traditional work of scholarship. “What we intended was a recording of people’s memories at the time from both communities,” he says. “The intent was to preserve these for other generations to profit from it, through a study of the phenomenology of sectarian violence. … 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.”

Yet Mr. Moloney’s contract contained one other requirement: An oversight committee was to be formed “to assure that the strictest standards of historical documentation are to be followed.” At a minimum, Mr. Hachey, Mr. O’Neill, and the head of the Irish-studies program were to be members.

Armed with a tape recorder and his intimate knowledge of the IRA, Anthony McIntyre began conducting interviews in the spring of 2001.

It was a full-time job, one he did for nearly six years in relative secrecy. “We were tight about it,” he recalls in his thick Belfast accent. “I would approach people who I was absolutely certain, as far as one could be, that they wouldn’t run blabbering about it to the IRA and expose the whole project.”

At the time, he was living in Belfast, which remains divided along religious lines to this day. The worst of the fighting took place here: working-class Roman Catholics in favor of a united Ireland against working-class Protestants who wanted to remain citizens of Britain. Pipe bombs placed under cars, masked gunmen entering shops, army tanks rolling through the streets—the terror was close, and the toll was intimately felt. Families lost brothers, mothers, and children. In all, more than 3,500 people died.

Mr. McIntyre, who first went to prison at 16, one in a long line of young men who believed in the rightness of political violence, knew these streets well. He met people at their homes or other safe places, his tape recorder tucked away in a bag. Sometimes he would travel to other towns where former IRA members lived. If they asked him out for a pint afterward, he says, he kept his bag wrapped closely around his chest.

“I was nervous without being shaky,” he recalls. “If I was doing an interview 100 or 200 miles away, I couldn’t rest until I got back to the house.”

Gregarious, erudite, and often profane, Mr. McIntyre most likely put others at ease because he is at ease with himself. He does not hide his past: A memorial sculpture, given to him by fellow prisoners upon his release, sits proudly on a bookshelf in his home. But he also speaks fluidly about his disillusionment with the IRA’s Marxist trappings, his youthful faith in the cause, and the danger of judging people’s actions in war through the prism of peace. His bookshelves are packed with works by or about Marx, Chomsky, Guevara, Indira Gandhi, and Stalin.

He left the movement after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, in 1998.

“We rose up to right a wrong,” he says, reflecting on the life of the Provisional IRA, as the modern-day organization is known. “And in the course of righting that wrong we violated too many rights ourselves.”

Many of the people he interviewed had also fallen out with the organization and saw the power-sharing arrangement as the death of their cause, with Gerry Adams, president of the IRA’s political counterpart, Sinn Fein, as its architect. Mr. McIntyre did interview some who viewed the peace process in a more positive light, but he says if he had approached former leaders of the IRA or Sinn Fein, they would have tried to shut down the project.

“I could not afford having people going back to Gerry Adams or the IRA and saying, ‘This is what he’s doing,’” Mr. McIntyre says. “That would have exposed us all to risk.”

After each interview he had the recordings transcribed. Then he sent the transcripts, without the interviewee’s name attached, by encrypted email to Mr. Moloney, who had moved to New York soon after the project began. Mr. Moloney gave him directions for follow-up interviews: Ask this, double-check that, dig deeper there. It was not unusual for Mr. McIntyre to spend 10 or more hours with one person. Before he turned on his tape recorder, he asked people to think carefully about what they would like to talk about and what they’d prefer not to discuss.

He kept no recordings or transcripts in his home any longer than he had to. He sent them by mail to Mr. O’Neill, who put them under lock and key in Boston College’s Burns Library. The contracts with interviewees—known as “donor contracts” and containing the code to identify the anonymized tapes—were hand-delivered to Mr. O’Neill during his trips to Belfast.

The project expanded during its early years to include interviews with members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group. A Belfast-based researcher with connections in that community conducted those interviews. By the time the project ended, in 2006, it included interviews with 20 loyalists.

For his part, Mr. McIntyre interviewed 26 people. He knew some of them quite well. Dolours Price, who helped plant a series of bombs in London in 1973, was godmother to his son. Brendan Hughes, mastermind of some of the bloodiest IRA attacks in Belfast, gave away Mr. McIntyre’s wife, Carrie Twomey, at their wedding.

The interviews proved cathartic for many. “Sometimes,” recalls Mr. McIntyre, “it was hard to get them started. And then it was harder to get them to stop.”

People revealed information about the inner workings of the IRA and shed new light on infamous events.

Richard O’Rawe, now gray-haired, told Mr. McIntyre about secret negotiations behind a prison hunger strike during the 1980s in which 10 people died. Haunted by the belief that IRA leaders could have prevented some of those deaths, Mr. O’Rawe says he never would have told his story to anyone but Mackers, as he calls him. Both had been on “the blanket,” protesting their treatment as ordinary criminals rather than political prisoners by refusing to wear prison uniforms. “I needed to know the guy I was telling this to could be trusted one billion percent,” he says.

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.

Mr. Adams, who now serves as a Sinn Fein representative in the Irish parliament, has said Mr. Hughes’s accusation was a lie. Indeed, he has always denied he was a member of the IRA, to the disgust of his former friend. Mr. Hughes had once thought of him as a brother.

During his interviews, living alone and struggling with ill health and depression, Mr. Hughes reflected bitterly on his life’s work. He had been beaten and imprisoned, had nearly died in a hunger strike, and had committed horrific acts of violence. And for what? The British had succeeded, he said, “in turning a revolutionary movement into a conservative organization.”

“As everything has turned out,” he told Mr. McIntyre, “not one death was worth it.”

Mr. Hughes decided that he wanted to tell the world what he knew. But Mr. McIntyre warned him against it. The IRA might hunt him down. Equally important, the whole Boston College project might be revealed, endangering many others while interviews were still being conducted.

So they struck a deal: Someday, Mr. McIntyre would make sure his story got told.

What obligations do oral historians and their colleges have if someone reveals sensitive information—perhaps even a crime—during an interview? Who is allowed to hear the tapes and when? Do interviewees understand what might happen to their stories once they speak into the microphone?

“The issues that this case represents are issues we deal with constantly,” says Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Columbia University Center for Oral History, home of one of the largest archives of recorded histories in the world. “We’re ethically bound as historians,” she says, “that the people we interview know what will happen to their material and what could happen.”

Some universities have concluded that oral-history projects should be subject to review by institutional review boards, or IRBs, in the same way as scientific research on human subjects, a view that troubles oral historians. (Boston College now requires IRB review if oral-history archives are to be made public, but the Belfast Project began before those protocols were in place.) The historians say that interviews don’t raise the same ethical questions as medical research and would be overly confined by the protocols, such as vetting questions in advance.

Still, oral history is fraught with its own challenges, which is why Ms. Clark believes scholars must carefully research and consider all of the potential risks, both ethical and legal, before embarking on a project.

“I tend to avoid talking about criminal activity where there’s still risk,” she says. “There’s really no way we can protect people. If it were a project like that, we would be going through the IRB, there’s no question about that.”

She estimates she spent more than a year helping formulate proper protocols for a project Columbia is leading on the impact of the Guantánamo Bay military prison, in which former detainees as well as lawyers and judges have been interviewed. Participants retain a lot of control over their interviews, including being able to review all transcripts and delete portions if they have second thoughts.

“We have procedures in place to triple-check everything,” she says.

In retrospect, Mr. Hachey, of Boston College’s Center for Irish Programs, wishes he and Mr. O’Neill had subjected the Belfast Project to more scrutiny. While maintaining that it was not standard oral history, he says, “that’s not to excuse us for not having been more inclusive in the beginning.”

After Mr. Hughes died, in 2008, Mr. McIntyre kept his promise. Two years later, excerpts from his interview were included in Ed Moloney’s Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland, published in both Britain and the United States. It told Mr. Hughes’s story and that of David Ervine, a former member of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force and key leader in the peace process, who also had died. Mr. Hachey and Mr. O’Neill wrote the preface. A documentary soon followed.

If anyone involved with the book had a notion of the firestorm about to be ignited, it wasn’t evident. Voices From the Grave represented “the inaugural volume of a planned series of publications drawn from the Boston College Oral History Archive on the Troubles in Northern Ireland,” the preface announced. In one of several publicity interviews, Mr. Hachey told The Irish News that he hoped the archive would “illuminate the mind-set of people who are engaged at the operational level.”

Not everyone in Northern Ireland saw it that way. A retired detective wrote an opinion article saying that Mr. Hughes’s confession could provide evidence on which to build a criminal case in Jean McConville’s death. Danny Morrison, a former director of publicity for Sinn Fein, attacked the project on his blog, questioning Mr. McIntyre’s and Mr. Moloney’s motivations and fairness toward the IRA and Sinn Fein.

Mr. Morrison emailed Mr. Hachey to say that he would like to listen to Brendan Hughes’s interviews for himself. The request took everyone involved in the project by surprise: They had never formally determined how the archive should be released and who should have access.

Mr. Moloney argued that the Hughes tapes, and recordings of others who had died, should be off-limits to all but serious scholars. They contained highly sensitive information that could be used against former IRA members. The quotations in the book and the documentary had been carefully edited. “We had to remove a lot of names for libel reasons,” he wrote to Mr. Hachey, in one of a series of emails he shared with The Chronicle.

Mr. McIntyre felt the same way. While he had initially thought that someday the tapes should be made widely available, pushback from former IRA and Sinn Fein members had caused him to reconsider the timing a few months after the book’s release. The house next to his, in a suburb of Dublin, where he had moved a few years earlier, had been smeared with excrement, in an attack he believed had been meant for him.

Mr. Hachey chastised the two men, writing in an email that he had “never got as much as a hint that there was any expected fallout other than unhappy IRA veterans who would have preferred that this was all left unreported,” and arguing that he and Mr. O’Neill “probably would not have chosen to release the interviews for a decade or more … had we anticipated this sudden change of protocol.” But he also noted that they probably would not have received so much financial support from Boston College and from donors if the project had been “mothballed” for a long time.

Mr. Hachey says today that the book was Mr. Moloney’s idea and that he had relied on the journalist’s judgment about its likely reception in Northern Ireland: “Ed Moloney is the specialist, prize-winning journalist on Northern Ireland. McIntyre served in the paramilitaries. I thought that if they thought it was safe enough … To find McIntyre and Moloney later saying, well, our lives have been placed in jeopardy, what did they expect?”

Mr. Moloney says the book was produced with his partners’ full cooperation. If anything, he says, Mr. Hachey had been pressing them to publicize the project sooner. He, Mr. McIntyre, and Wilson McArthur, who interviewed loyalists, recall being asked by Mr. Hachey in 2006 if interviewees might be willing to renegotiate their contracts to allow for earlier release of their interviews. Mr. Hachey calls the claim “outrageous.”

As for risks to participants in revealing the project so publicly, Mr. Moloney argues that there were none, “as long as people didn’t know who had taken part in this thing” other than those who had died.

Although Mr. Hachey was able to rebuff Mr. Morrison’s request for the tapes, the words of Mr. Hughes and of another project participant, Dolours Price, would come back to haunt the project organizers.

Ms. Price had also struggled to make sense of her life and her feeling of betrayal by Gerry Adams and the IRA, and had suffered from both alcoholism and depression.

Around the time Voices From the Grave was released, two newspapers published articles that said she was going to tell authorities about her participation in the abduction and murder of several people during the Troubles, including Jean McConville. One article stated that Ms. Price had “made taped confessions of her role in the abductions to academics at Boston University.” The institution’s name was wrong, but the reference, buried deep in the story, confirmed her involvement in the project.

The public now knew three things: Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price had been involved in the death of Jean McConville. Both alleged Gerry Adams had been their commanding officer. And both had participated in an oral-history project at a Boston college.

A little over a year later, the college would find out just how vulnerable that project had become.

The first subpoena arrived on May 5, 2011. Its contents were under seal. Boston College was told only that the U.S. Department of Justice, acting under a mutual-legal-assistance treaty with Britain, was seeking the interviews of Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, for help in a criminal investigation in Northern Ireland involving kidnapping and murder.

The subpoena was a shock. None of the four principals was aware that such a treaty existed, allowing the Police Services of Northern Ireland to ask the United States for help in securing evidence they thought relevant to their case. And just two months earlier, the British government had given the college highly sensitive papers related to the disarmament process, to be kept locked away for 30 years. Yet that same government now wanted access to other sensitive documents about the same era.

“That irony was not lost on any of us,” says Jack Dunn, the college’s spokesman.

To some the motive was obvious: politics. Mr. Moloney, Mr. McIntyre, and other observers were quick to argue that the investigation wasn’t about solving an old crime. It was about embarrassing Gerry Adams, who had just won his position in the Irish parliament.

“Clearly, for some police involved, it’s an opportunity to score huge brownie points for solving one of the most atrocious crimes of the Troubles,” says Mr. Moloney. “But at the same time, no policeman can start out on this investigation without knowing that it’s going to end at the door of Gerry Adams.”

Mr. Moloney contacted The New York Times within days of learning about the subpoena. He felt publicity was the best defense, to both rally support and pressure Boston College to fight back. He also talked to The Boston Globe, telling a reporter that the college might need to destroy the rest of the archive if forced to hand over the tapes.

That assertion rankled people on the campus. According to emails Mr. Moloney shared with The Chronicle, Boston College’s president, the Rev. William P. Leahy, was unhappy that Mr. Moloney had spoken to the press and that he had raised the possibility of destroying the collection. “We are perilously close to losing the crucial support of a president who was/is willing to take on all comers,” Mr. Hachey wrote to Mr. Moloney, calling his remarks about the archive “over the top.”

The next day he and Mr. O’Neill held a conference call with Mr. Moloney, Mr. McIntyre, and Mr. McArthur, the other interviewer. It was the first time, the Irish researchers recall, that their Boston College colleagues began asking questions about what exactly the interview subjects had been promised.

Less than two weeks later, Boston College turned over the Hughes interviews to the Justice Department. It kept the Price interviews, but as far as the college was concerned, it had no grounds on which to hold Hughes’s tapes, because he was dead. The researchers saw that step as a dangerous concession.

No doubt, Mr. Moloney wrote in an email to Mr. Hachey, there are “teams of lawyers working in the bowels of the British government trying to discover ways to force BC to surrender the names of other possible interviewees named by Hughes.” He devised a new proposal: Dispatch the rest of the archive to Mr. McIntyre, who was willing to go to jail, if needed, to keep it safe from both American and British law-enforcement agencies. Boston College immediately rejected the offer.

Instead, the college hired Jeffrey Swope, a Boston lawyer who had successfully argued a case against the Microsoft Corporation, in which the company had sought confidential interviews two scholars had conducted with officials at a rival business, the Netscape Communications Corporation. The Boston College case, Mr. Swope knew, could be a tougher fight. Courts have given more weight to the demands of a criminal investigation than they have to civil lawsuits like Microsoft’s.

Mr. Swope argued that, in reviewing the government’s request, the court should consider the promises of confidentiality given to sources—without which they would not have cooperated—and the value of the research itself in shedding light on the Troubles. He also argued that the release of the tapes could threaten the safety of participants, the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the broader field of oral history.

It is hard to pinpoint the moment at which the researchers and Boston College became irrevocably divided. But according to the college’s lawyers, Nora E. Field and Joseph M. Herlihy, Mr. Moloney’s statement to the Globe about destroying the archive was a turning point. The lawyers say they believe it led to a second subpoena three months later. (Mr. Moloney argues that the second one was an extension of the British government’s “fishing expedition”—hence his request that the college move the rest of the archive.) This subpoena revealed the focus of the police investigation: It wanted all interviews in the Boston College archive that contained information about the abduction and death of Jean McConville.

As the case progressed in court, Boston College saw itself as a vigorous defender of academic freedom within the limits of the law. The Irish researchers saw cowardice. “It’s the obligation of a researcher to destroy their material before allowing it to fall into the hands of anyone who would bring it to harm,” says Mr. McIntyre. “Boston College had an obligation to engage in an act of civil disobedience.”

After the second subpoena was filed, Mr. Moloney and Mr. McIntyre hired their own lawyers to argue, among other things, that the mutual-legal-assistance treaty was being used for political ends, not criminal ends, and that the subpoena was capricious.

They also ratcheted up their public campaign, giving more interviews, writing op-eds, and calling on academic organizations, lawmakers, and others to get involved. Mr. McIntyre’s wife, Carrie Twomey, created a website that detailed every twist and turn of the case. She also traveled four times to the United States to urge politicians and Irish-American associations to lend their support. Several members of Congress, including Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, were persuaded to voice their objections to Hillary R. Clinton, then secretary of state. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts submitted a friend-of-the-court brief.

Still, Mr. Moloney felt, their efforts would have little impact on their own.

“Boston College blessing the campaign would have made just a huge difference,” he says. “As it was, it was a couple of Paddies, trouble-making Paddies, fighting by themselves. Who no one cared about. We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any political clout. We didn’t know anyone. Who the hell were we?”

To Boston College, Mr. Moloney was an impediment in court and a distraction outside of it, publicly questioning the college’s intentions.

“Had our efforts gone to Congress in identifying supporters, to work with the State Department and the Department of Justice, we could have been more effective,” says Mr. Dunn, the college’s spokesman. “But our efforts were involved in legal matters and distancing ourselves from the reckless rhetoric of Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre.”

Boston College faculty members, meanwhile, were stunned by what they were reading in the newspapers.

Most surprised of all was Kevin O’Neill, an associate professor of history and former director of the Irish-studies program. Like others on the campus, he knew little of the project and had shared the puzzlement of colleagues when Voices From the Grave appeared. “The reason I understood none of us knew anything about this was the need for secrecy,” he says. “Then a major participant in the project publishes a book, blowing the cover off any secrecy about it. I got a lot of questions from my colleagues in Ireland wanting to know what the heck was going on. It was rather embarrassing.”

As the court case proceeded, Mr. O’Neill, who is not related to Robert O’Neill, learned that he was supposed to have been on an oversight committee, as described in Mr. Moloney’s contract. But the oversight committee had never been formed. The original group preferred to keep the project as closely held as possible. “I was shocked,” Mr. O’Neill says. “It’s inexplicable how you could have something in the contract like that and then not do it.”

He 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.

Kevin O’Neill and other faculty members say they believe Mr. Hachey and Robert O’Neill were able to avoid any sort of internal review because neither was based in an academic department. Mr. Hachey was also highly placed at the college. A former colleague of President Leahy’s at Marquette University, he had been hired to fill the newly created position of executive director of Irish programs, which gave him authority over the Irish-studies program and the Burns Library’s Irish collection, among other things.

“He was not communicating about the project to any of us in the Irish-studies program,” Kevin O’Neill recalls of those early days. “He made it quite clear that his activities were none of our business.”

The court case revealed other questionable aspects of the project. Some interviewees’ contracts had been lost, for example, making their identities on tape irretrievable.

Eight months after the first subpoena was served, Judge William G. Young of the U.S. District Court in Boston ordered Boston College to turn over Ms. Price’s interviews as well as 85 interviews of seven other former IRA members that he deemed relevant to the investigation.

The college considered Judge Young’s ruling a victory in one key way: It rebuffed the government’s argument that the court was required to order the college to release all materials requested, without passing judgment on what might be relevant. The judge agreed that subpoenas of confidential academic research deserved heightened scrutiny. Even so, Boston College believed the judge’s interpretation of relevancy was overly broad. Both the college and the researchers filed appeals.

On January 25, 2012, five days after the court ordered the tapes handed over, Ireland’s public radio station, RTE, broadcast a report about the Belfast Project. During it, Mr. Dunn, the college’s spokesman, described Mr. Moloney as a questionable partner who was out for money.

“I think quite frankly that Mr. Moloney was so excited about this project and quite frankly so eager to write a book from which he would profit,” Mr. Dunn said, “that he chose to ignore the obvious statements that were made to him, including a contract he had signed expressing the limits of confidentiality.”

It was a narrative that Boston College was to employ regularly in the news media, one in which the college was a victim of Mr. Moloney’s recklessness.

There was a problem with that version of events, however. Not only had Robert O’Neill and Mr. Hachey written a glowing preface to the book, but each had received 25 percent of the royalties. Mr. Dunn acknowledged in a follow-up interview with RTE that he had not known about the payments.

But he, Mr. O’Neill, and Mr. Hachey continued to argue that Mr. Moloney had known about the limits of the confidentiality agreements and chosen to ignore them. Specifically, they noted that Mr. O’Neill had written in a letter to Mr. Moloney a month before their dinner at Deanes Restaurant that “I cannot guarantee, for example, that we would be in a position to refuse to turn over documents on a court order without being held in contempt.”

The two researchers put forth a competing narrative, in which Boston College had failed to fully vet the legalities of the project and had made promises it couldn’t keep, putting everyone involved at needless risk. Mr. O’Neill, they said, was reassuring when they met over dinner in Belfast. “Bob O’Neill made it very clear that nothing—and the words he used were ‘legal repercussions’—he said nothing would be permitted or accepted into the library if there were legal repercussions for those involved,” recalls Mr. McIntyre.

Mr. McArthur, who interviewed loyalists, corroborates that view. He says he was told by Mr. O’Neill when he joined the project, around 2003, that it was legally protected. “The phrase that stuck in my mind was ‘ironclad,’” he says. In conversations with Mr. Hachey, whom he met later, “it was implicit in everything we said.”

Mr. O’Neill says he never made such promises. Boston College’s chief lawyer, Mr. Herlihy, confirms that he told the librarian, in their one, very general conversation about the proposed project, that U.S. courts have never given absolute protections to academic research. “Once I had the advice of counsel,” says Mr. O’Neill, “I would not have taken it upon myself to nullify the position.”

Even so, the contracts with interviewees made no mention of legal limits on confidentiality. “I am working on the wording of the contract to be signed by the interview[ee], and I’ll run this by Tom [Hachey] and university counsel,” Mr. O’Neill wrote to Mr. Moloney in early 2001, the day the journalist signed on as project director.

Mr. O’Neill never did check with a lawyer about the wording. Instead, the one-page document said that the interview subject had agreed to give Boston College possession of the interview, which would be restricted until after the person died, unless he or she otherwise allowed.

“In retrospect, that was my mistake,” Mr. O’Neill says. “The contract unfortunately omitted the phrase ‘to the extent American law allows.’” But he and Boston College maintain that all participants were ultimately subject to the terms of Mr. Moloney’s contract, in which that requirement was clearly stated, and that the researchers understood this.

Mr. Moloney disagrees.

“If that phrase had been in the donor contract, that project would have been dead,” Mr. Moloney says now. “There’s no way myself, Anthony McIntyre, or any of the participants would have had anything to do with it because it would have been a red flag, and we would have immediately have said, ‘What the hell does that mean?’”

To many academic observers the Boston College case, as troubling as it was, remains an oddity. Not many oral historians choose to interview members of paramilitary organizations. And few universities contract out such work.

But the case has had a chilling effect among scholars. Richard L. English, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, says he has heard from a number of researchers seeking advice about whether to pursue research on political violence if it includes interviewing those involved in conflict. “I think the fallout is much wider than Northern Ireland,” he says. “There has been a shadow cast over this kind of research.”

Clifford M. Kuhn, executive director of the Oral History Association, says the Belfast Project offers several lessons. Make sure you consult your legal team in advance, for one, and get the top administration on board. “Perhaps a word of wisdom is, if you have this kind of project,” he adds, “don’t open it up until all participants are deceased. At the very least, do your best not to publicize it.”

Ted S. Palys and John Lowman, professors in Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology who have written extensively about legal protection of confidential research, say the Belfast Project illustrates the necessity of outside review, by both a university research board and university lawyers. No doubt such a review would have raised questions about the wisdom of releasing information about the project while some participants were still alive, they say. It also would have caught the inconsistencies, negligence, and lack of awareness of the legal landscape before the project even started.

The project remains controversial on the Boston College campus. Faculty members have repeatedly asked the administration to explain how it came about.

Susan A. Michalczyk, president of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, says the lack of on-campus consultation conveyed “a complete lack of understanding of what a research university is supposed to be about. No one can have a pet project, and no one individual should make decisions on something as sensitive as this without taking seriously what the specialists in those areas would be able to offer.”

Last May, Boston College won a victory of sorts when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the district court had “abused its discretion” in determining which tapes were relevant to the criminal investigation. It greatly scaled back the number of tapes to be turned over, from 85 to 11.

Ms. Price’s interviews were released in full. She had died at her home a few months earlier, and Boston College saw no grounds for keeping them.

What will become of the dozens of tapes now in the hands of the police in Northern Ireland is unclear. The police have not spoken publicly about why they sought the recordings, and they declined to speak to The Chronicle.

What is clear is that in Belfast the past lives on. The investigations into Jean McConville’s death and others who disappeared during the Troubles are mired in political infighting. Giant murals celebrating the martyrdom of fighters on both sides are daily reminders to passing shoppers of what was sacrificed. The so-called peace walls, a series of metal, concrete, and barbed-wire barriers erected during the Troubles to provide buffers between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, have never been taken down.

“Truth isn’t used here for reconciliation,” says Mr. McIntyre. “Truth is used here for recrimination. It’s about poking your enemy in the eye.”

Robert O’Neill retired last month from Boston College. Mr. McIntyre and Mr. Moloney say they’ve worked little in the past few years, spending most of their resources and time battling the case and Boston College.

“To me, personally, it’s the single most devastating thing that ever happened to me,” says Mr. McIntyre, worse even than going to prison. Boston College’s reputation has been tarnished. Faculty members say they’re still questioned about the case by colleagues at other universities. “There’s institutional failure there on the part of Boston College, not just the interviewers,” says Ms. Clark, of Columbia.

The remaining interviews are locked away in a vault inside the Burns Library. A number of participants—including everyone interviewed on the loyalist side—have asked for their recordings back. Mr. Dunn says the college will consider those requests and honor them “to the extent we are able.”

The project itself is dead. No more books, no more revelations, no further insights into the minds of former paramilitary fighters. “It can never be used now,” says Mr. Moloney. “It’s all done for nothing.”

The Troubles and the Tapes 1965 – 2014

1968 A civil-rights march heralds growing unrest.

1969 The Provisional Irish Republican Army is formed.

January 1972 Bloody Sunday: British paratroops fire on civil-rights protesters, killing 14.

July 1972 Bloody Friday: The IRA explodes up to 22 bombs across Belfast, killing at least nine.

December 1972 Jean McConville is abducted and killed by the IRA.

1973 The IRA explodes two car bombs in London, killing one and injuring 200.

1981 A hunger strike by IRA prisoners, protesting the conditions of their interment, leads to the deaths of 10 men.

1983 Gerry Adams is elected president of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political counterpart.

1993 British and Irish governments commit to a peace process founded on self-determination.

1994 Talks continue among most major parties to the Troubles, and the IRA declares a cease-fire.

1998 The Good Friday Agreement ends fighting and begins a power-sharing arrangement.

1999 The IRA admits to the murder and secret burial of nine people during the Troubles, including Jean McConville.

2001 The Boston College Belfast oral-history project begins.

2003 Jean McConville’s body is found on a beach in Ireland.

2006 The Belfast Project ends. The Police Services of Northern Ireland’s ombudsman concludes the police failed to investigate Jean McConville’s death.

February 2010 Dolours Price tells reporters she participated in the abduction of Jean McConville.

March 2010 Voices From the Grave, a book based on the Belfast Project, is released.

March 2011 Gerry Adams is elected a member of the Irish parliament.

May 2011 The Police Services of Northern Ireland, with the help of the U.S. Justice Department, seeks interviews with participants in the Belfast oral-history project as part of an investigation into Jean McConville’s murder. Tapes of interviews with Brendan Hughes, who died in 2008, are released.

May 2013 A U.S. appeals court confirms that Boston College must turn over more of the Belfast Project interviews.

July-December 2013 Northern Irish political parties hold talks on lingering issues related to the peace process, including how to handle crimes committed during the Troubles, and fail to reach consensus.