Cliopatria – History News Network
Chris Bray

Watch this difference very closely.

Here’s the New York Times describing the Belfast Project, oral history interviews conducted under the aegis of Boston College regarding the Troubles in Northern Ireland: “Boston College filed a motion this week to quash a federal subpoena seeking access to confidential interviews of paramilitary fighters for the Provisional Irish Republican Army… Academics, historians and journalists conducted the interviews from 2001 to 2006. Known as the Belfast Project, its goal was to interview members of the I.R.A., the Provisional Sinn Fein and other organizations about their activities during the Troubles.”

Here’s the Irish Times describing the same project: “In a case being watched closely by academics around the world, Boston College has asked a judge to quash subpoenas demanding it turn over to British authorities records from an oral history project involving republican and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.”

In American news accounts, the project produced interviews of former republican paramilitary gunmen (and vaguely identified others), and the Department of Justice is trying to get IRA interviews on behalf of British authorities who wish to investigate violent crimes from an era of anti-government terrorism.

But in Irish accounts, the project produced interviews of former republican paramilitary gunmen and former loyalist paramilitary gunmen, while British authorities are only trying to reel in the interviews that might incriminate the republicans. An honest effort to examine the era would closely investigate both — the violence of loyalist paramilitaries is well known.

This information makes it quite a bit harder to believe that the British government is motivated by a desire to produce impartial justice; as BC’s lawyers wrote in support of their motion to quash the DOJ’s subpoena, the effort to compel disclosure of some interviews but not others is a “classic fishing expedition.” The police project here seeks political ends, not a disinterested settling of all accounts.

There are clearly a number of contests going on in this exchange that are not visible to outsiders, and the politics of the matter are not clear to me. But it is absolutely clear that politics is exactly the heart of these subpoenas: someone is out to settle a score, and they’re trying to use a body of academic research to do it. And yet the academic response is unmistakably muted.

The haphazard and foolish G.O.P. effort to target William Cronon for political retribution over his engagement in Wisconsin state politics produced waves of frantic commentary decrying the threat to academic freedom. That effort has ended; Cronon was not destroyed, not damaged, not silenced. No one could ever have seriously believed that a distinguished senior historian would be driven to the shadows by some fools with a computer and a postage stamp.

But here, the potential chilling effect is perfectly clear, and the political nature of the inquiry is unmistakable. And yet, compare this to this, or thisto this. Why is this subpoena producing so little discussion?

ADDED LATER: An earlier New York Times story on the subpoena did note that the BC interviews were of participants from both sides, and the subpoena was only for accounts from republicans.