The blog has been following closely the attempt by the British and (more shamefully) the American governments to pry loose the files of The Belfast Project, an attempt by journalists and scholars to put together an authoritative oral history of the last round of “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. The people running The Belfast Project got a great number of the principals to talk about their roles in the conflict, and they did so by promising the parties involved that their interviews would be held in confidence. The British government seems to be on a fishing expedition as regards one particular murder, that of Jean McConville, who disappeared in 1972, but whose body was not found until 31 years later. This appears to be an attempt to implicate Gerry Adams in McConville’s death, something that Adams has denied. Defenders of the Boston College program make the not unreasonable point that this kind of official strong-arming would put a chill into academic historical research of the kind they’re conducting, and they also hint that the British government, which has not shown any inclination to investigate hundreds of other murders, particularly those committed by Loyalist militants, has concentrated on this particular crime out of a desire to embarrass Adams, who was elected to the Dail Eireann last year.
Yesterday, the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union joined the fight on Boston College’s behalf, submitting arguments on behalf of the researchers with the U.S. Court Of Appeals currently dealing with the case. The ACLU argues not only that the people running the project were within their rights as journalists to promise anonymity, but also that they will be in danger of reprisals themselves if the material is handed over to the authorities for possible prosecutions. Were I a professional historian, particularly a historian working in unravelling the various sectarian bloodletting of the century just passed, this kind of thing would make me very, very nervous.