Boston College seeks to quash British subpoenas seeking IRA oral histories

Boston College seeks to quash British subpoenas seeking IRA oral histories
June 8, 2011 2:06 PM
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff

In a case that is being watched closely in academia, and on both sides of the Atlantic, Boston College has filed a motion in US District Court to quash subpoenas from British authorities seeking access to a confidential oral history project involving paramilitary fighters in Northern Ireland.

In papers filed with the US attorney’s office, which delivered the subpoenas on behalf of unidentified British authorities, BC lawyers said the release of audiotapes and other materials connected to interviews with former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army could jeopardize the safety of those interviewed for the project, the former paramilitary members who conducted the interviews, and BC staff involved in the project.

BC’s lawyers also said giving British authorities access to interviews that were granted with the understanding that they would not be disclosed until the participant’s death could threaten other history projects, as well as the ongoing peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.

Jack Dunn, a BC spokesman, said BC’s lawyers expect a hearing in US District Court within the next few weeks. He said the court filings were self-explanatory, and that BC would have no further comment.

BC officials and their lawyers had been discussing their options for weeks after being stunned by the subpoenas from the US Attorney’s office, which acted on behalf of British authorities whose exact identity is unknown because the order authorizing the subpoena is sealed.

In their filings, BC lawyers express frustration that their response to the subpoenas has been legally limited because they don’t know exactly who wants the records or why.

Thomas E. Hachey, a University professor of history at BC and executive director of the college’s Center for Irish Programs, said in an affidavit that he suspects the Police Service of Northern Ireland are seeking the tapes and records of what BC calls the Belfast Project.

“The fact that these materials are sought by governmental authorities, believed to be the Police Service of Northern Ireland, will almost certainly create needless alarm among otherwise peacefully-reconciled individuals and risks stoking unrest among combative elements of that society who would like nothing more than to see the embers of division fanned into the flames that would consume the hopes of those who seek reconciliation, rather than recrimination,” Hachey wrote.

In their motion, BC lawyers said Hachey “was recently warned by the United States Consul General in Belfast not to come to Belfast for a previously planned celebration of Boston College’s contribution to the peace process because of reactions to the possible release of materials from the Belfast Project.”

In an interview in Dublin last month, a former senior member of the IRA told The Boston Globe that many former members of the IRA believe the subpoenas are the work of disgruntled police officers in Northern Ireland and are aimed at embarrassing Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the party that used to be the political wing of the IRA. Adams has always denied he was a member of the IRA. The records being sought are interviews with two former members of the IRA, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, who were highly critical of Adams’s stewardship of the peace process. Both Hughes and Price have alleged that Adams was a senior member of the IRA, involved directly in killings, abductions, and other acts of IRA violence. Hughes died in 2008.

Adams is not mentioned in the BC filings, but some BC officials privately believe the subpoenas are aimed at embarrassing Adams following his election earlier this year to the Republic of Ireland’s parliament.

In the motion, one of BC’s lawyers, Jeffrey Swope, of the Boston firm Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, asked the court to either quash the subpoenas or at least let BC have “access to the documents that describe the purposes of the investigation to enable them to specify with more particularity in what ways the subpoenas are overbroad.”

The filings by BC show that British authorities are looking for information about murder, conspiracy to murder, incitement to murder, aggravated burglary, false imprisonment, kidnapping, and causing grievous bodily harm.

The subpoenas demanded that BC turn over original tape recordings, “any and all written documents,” and notes and computer records connected to interviews with Hughes and Price.

BC’s filings indicate that the college has already turned over recordings and transcripts of the interviews with Hughes “because the conditions pertaining to the confidentiality of his interviews had terminated with his death.” But the college refuses to turn over information about Price and other records, describing the records request as “a classic fishing expedition.”

In their motion to quash the subpoenas, BC lawyers argue that the demand for records threatened academic freedom and, in some cases, personal safety.

Anthony McIntyre, the former IRA volunteer who interviewed former IRA members for the BC project, said in an affidavit that the home next to his in Belfast was attacked with excrement, in what he said was a case of mistaken identity, after a book based in part on the interviews he conducted with Hughes was published.

“There were reports in the press of death threats to myself,” wrote McIntyre, who served 18 years in prison for killing a loyalist fighter. “I am of the view that the more the Belfast Project interviews reveal about how deeply matters of the IRA were discussed, the greater the danger that I as the primary researcher will face.”

Ed Moloney, author of the book “Voices from the Grave,” based in part on interviews with Hughes, and project director of the BC oral history project, filed an affidavit arguing that the British request for BC’s records flies in the face of official British government policy, which was to release all paramilitary prisoners, even those recently convicted, after 1998’s Good Friday Agreement ended the war in Northern Ireland.

Moloney said that he believed McIntyre and Price would be at particular risk for having violated the IRA’s rule against talking about IRA activities, something Moloney compared to the Mafia’s “omerta.” Violating that rule carries a penalty of death, though with the IRA’s disbanding in 2006 it is a threat posed more by individuals than an organization.

McIntyre said Price is suffering from depression and is at risk for that, and for disclosing IRA activities.

In an affidvait, Robert K. O’Neill, the Burns Librarian at BC, pointed out that the British and Irish governments only recently donated sensitive papers of the Independent International Commission of Decommissioning of paramilitary weapons in Northern Ireland, “a clear affirmation from both governments of their trust and faith in Boston College as a neutral, unbiased, and secure repository for sensitive historical papers.”

Underscoring the concern other academics have for the potential precedent in the BC case, Clifford M. Kuhn, an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, and past president of the Oral History Association, filed an affidavit in support of the BC motion.

“This development has the potential to set an ominous precedent, not only for Boston College but for the entire field of oral history,” Kuhn wrote. “Oral history has proven to be a vital means of chronicling the dimensions of war, violence and trauma in the contemporary world. If potential narrators fear reprisals because of interviews which are ‘leaked’ or promises which are broken, they will be far less likely to take part in such activities, and as a result we all will be impoverished. I fear the Boston College episode could snowball and have a genuinely chilling effect on oral historical scholarship.”