A Fight For the Record Books
University Defends Sensitive Tapes on Northern Ireland
By Daniel Tonkovich, Heights Editor
The Heights – The Independent Student Newspaper of Boston College
Published: Thursday, September 8, 2011
Updated: Thursday, September 8, 2011 04:09
An international showdown involving British police, the U.S. Justice Department, and former IRA members has Boston College placed on the frontline.
The University is currently engaged in efforts to quash a federal subpoena for access to confidential interviews regarding a period known as “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland that lasted from 1969-1998.
In May, the U.S. Department of Justice, acting on behalf of the Police Services of Northern Ireland, issued subpoenas ordering BC to release interviews of Brendan Hughes and Delours Price, two former Northern Irish republican militants, stored in its archives.
The interviews, housed in the John J. Burns Library, are part of the Belfast Project, an oral history project conducted in the late 1990s by Irish journalist Ed Moloney. The collection contains approximately 30 to 50 oral histories from both republicans and those loyal to the British Crown. Many of those interviewed for the project engaged in activities in the hope of victory for their desired role of Britain in the governance of Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
Directed by Moloney, Anthony McIntyre, a former Irish Republican Army member, interviewed Republicans, and Wilson McArthur, a former unionist militant, documented the experiences of loyalists. Those interviewed were guaranteed the record would not become public until their deaths.
The agreements of safeguarding the tales of participants in violent acts during the Troubles until their death have caused the current legal feud.
Agreements granting confidentiality to subjects discussing sensitive topics, such as criminal activity, are not uncommon in oral history research. The strength of agreements against government subpoenas, however, is vague, which has led to the current battle the University is facing to uphold the integrity of the project.
The requested accounts are part of an investigation into murders and kidnappings conducted as part of the struggle over governance in Northern Ireland. Law enforcement officials in the United Kingdom seek the contents of the project in hopes of gathering information related to the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville.
McConville was a mother of 10, residing in Belfast at the time and suspected of being an informer for British loyalists. The IRA has admitted its involvement in the murder of McConville, whose remains were discovered in Ireland in 2003, but no individuals have ever been charged with the murder.
Hughes’ interviews were handed over, as the promise of confidentiality expired upon his death, in 2008 and most of his testimony has already appeared in Moloney’s Voices from the Grave. Price remains alive, and BC lawyers stated in June to The Heights on her behalf that she would be “deeply traumatized” if her interviews went public. However, in late August, a second round of subpoenas for all of the interviews of IRA members regarding the McConville case from the Belfast Project were issued by an unidentified party in the UK through the U.S. Attorney’s office. The University responded with an additional motion to quash the broadened request for access to the archives.
Hughes and Price made previous assertions that Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, a political party in Northern Ireland associated with the Provisional IRA, ordered McConville’s murder. Adams has denied the allegations.
Moloney and McIntyre have dismissed the subpoena as without merit and claimed it to be politically motivated against Adams.
“The subpoenas that have been served are based on an unproven assertion: that an interview given to the college by a former Irish Republican Army activist, Dolours Price, could shed light on a 40-year-old murder and should be surrendered,” Moloney and McIntyre said in a joint opinion published in The Boston Globe.
“The truth, however, is that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), on whose behalf U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz is acting, does not know what Dolours Price told Boston College’s interviewers. Neither does Ortiz. They do not know because the legal basis for the subpoenas is deeply flawed, the result of either rank incompetence or sleight of hand,” the duo wrote.
“The authorities have justified the action by claiming that an interview with Price published in a Belfast newspaper in February 2010 about the murder was derived from her Boston College interview, when in fact it was based on a separate taped interview given directly to the newspaper. Price’s interviews have never been released by BC and never would be – because a guarantee of confidentiality was given to every interviewee. What is happening is essentially an unwarranted fishing expedition into the college archives.”
BC maintains that relinquishing the interviews prior to the death of the interviewees as promised jeopardizes the safety of the participants in the Belfast Project, the peace process in Northern Ireland, and academic freedom.
“The University’s ongoing position has been that the premature release of the tapes could threaten the safety of the participants, the enterprise of oral history, and the ongoing peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland,” said Jack Dunn, University Spokesman.
Prosecutors maintain that BC had no authority to grant confidentiality and that justice for a crime supersedes academic privilege.
Moloney and McIntyre have also filed their own suit seeking to quash the subpoena. Moloney and McIntyre argue that prosecution for politically motivated crimes was excluded under the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
“This is to supplement, not conflict with, BC’s action, and we are doing it because it is a much more political approach,” Moloney said in a recent interview with The Boston Globe.
Judge Joesph Tauro is expected to rule in the coming months as to whether he will make a judgment based on the motions filed by BC or hold a hearing in the U.S. District Court in Boston.