Advocacy Groups Weigh in on Belfast Project Subpoena

Advocacy Groups Weigh in on Belfast Project Subpoena
Active Measures Taken to Quash the Subpoena Order
By Daniel Tonkovich, Heights Editor
The Heights
Published: Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2011 02:10

The international rhubarb over the federal subpoena of the Belfast Project oral history tapes guarded by Boston College has piqued the interest of several advocacy groups who are taking active measures outside of the court system to quash the order.

Representatives of Irish American organizations recently met with officials in Senator John Kerry’s office regarding the federal subpoena of confidential oral histories related to a period known as “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland that lasted from 1969-1998.

Richard Wall and Richard Thompson of the Massachusetts Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternal organization which seeks as part of its mission for a peaceful and just solution to the issues that divide Ireland-along with Boston attorneys John Foley and James Cotter and New York attorney Stephen McCabe of the Brehon Law Society and the Irish Parades Emergency Committee briefed staffers on the subpoena controversy.

“Discussed was the chilling effect of the actions of Great Britain in issuing subpoenas could have on oral history projects, and the first amendment questions raised when journalists are requested to divulge information obtained in confidence,” said the representatives in a statement.

Kerry’s office has expressed concern over the sensitive issue.

“Senator Kerry and his staff have sought information and been kept up to date on the subpoenas issued to Boston College. Obviously this is a sensitive issue, and while it is an issue for the courts, Senator Kerry has urged all parties involved to carefully consider any actions that could affect the peace process,” said Whitney Smith, press secretary for Kerry.

Kerry was involved in the Belfast Agreement, which includes assurances that offenses which occurred prior to the 1998 agreement would not be re-opened for trial.

The subpoenaed oral history tapes, promised to the interviewees to remain confidential until death of the interviewee, 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, issuing a subpoena for the tapes through the U.S. Attorney’s office, 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 been charged with the murder.

The interviews of one of the Project’s participants, Brendan Hughes, has been handed over to the requesting party in the UK, as the promise of confidentiality expired upon his death in 2008, and most of his testimony has already appeared in Irish journalist Ed Moloney’s Voices from the Grave. The testimony of others, including Delores Price, the subject of the original subpoena for records, continues to be held in confidentiality by the University until death of the individual interviewed. Both 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.

Violation of the Belfast Agreement is the argument used by Moloney, who directed the Belfast Project currently housed in the Burns Library, and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member who interviewed Republicans for the project, to object to the federal subpoena separate from BC’s challenge. Moloney and McIntyre argue that the use of the tapes for the prosecution concerning McConville’s death is a direct violation of the agreement.

The international ordeal has also sparked action by the Irish American Unity Conference (IAUC), an advocacy organization for continued reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The IAUC has issued a plea to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene and have the subpoena rescinded, claiming the subpoenaed documents would endanger the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.

“Release of the materials sought by the subpoenas would be contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the U.S. because they have a high potential for severely undermining the peace process, which has been an important foreign policy objective of the U.S. for the past 15 years,” said Thomas J. Burke, Jr., national president of the IAUC, in his letter to Clinton.

“As you are aware, the United States, under the administration of former president Clinton, was a principal architect of the Good Friday Agreement, or ‘GFA’ [also known as the Belfast Agreement] signed in 1998 by the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. The results of this historic agreement have been the establishment of stability and relative calm to the North of Ireland.”

“In sum, the information sought has a serious potential for destabilizing the peace process and, by extension, U.S. national security interests,” Burke said. “The IAUC therefore urgently requests that you communicate with Attorney General Eric Holder, regarding the serious national security implications raised by the subject subpoenas, and for that reason request that the subpoenas be withdrawn.”

Representatives from the IAUC could not be reached for additional comment on their request to Clinton or other efforts to annul the request for records.

The concern of the IAUC over the impact of the release of the tapes on the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland echoes the position of the University. BC maintains that relinquishing interviews prior to the death of interviewees as promised by the Project coordinators would not only violate an agreement, but also jeopardize 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 University Spokesman Jack Dunn, in a previous interview.

Prosecutors maintain that BC had no authority to grant confidentiality and that justice for a crime supersedes academic privilege.

Despite the increased concern from outside organizations, officials declined to comment further on the case.

“Many Irish and Irish-American groups have expressed interest in this case, and offered opinions and support in varying ways. While all are welcome to do so, we prefer not to comment on the case until it is resolved in the U.S. District Court.”

Prolonging the ordeal, Judge Joseph Tauro removed himself from the case stating conflict of interest. His son, Christopher Tauro, is a partner at Edwards Wildman Palmer, the firm representing the interests of BC in the case. Judge William Young has been assigned to the case.