Researcher faults BC over Belfast project

Researcher faults BC over Belfast project
By Mary Carmichael
Boston Globe
April 04, 2012

Facing a court appearance Wednesday that could be his last hope for resisting a British subpoena of secret interviews with Irish paramilitaries, the researcher at the center of the Boston College Belfast Project drama blamed the school for the mess because it broke a contractual obligation to convene an oversight committee for his work.

The researcher, Ed Moloney, said such a panel could have helped him try to shield the confidential interviews from the British government, which is seeking the material as part of its investigation of a 40-year-old murder case. Moloney and his Irish research partner, Anthony McIntyre, fear violent reprisals if the interviews are turned over to British police.

The university confirmed Tuesday that the promised oversight committee never met. But it said Moloney, in turn, is at fault because BC assumed, per his employment contract, that he would warn his interview subjects that their confidentiality could be compromised in court.

Academics, college administrators, and civil libertarians worldwide are watching the case because of its implications for researchers trying to pursue sensitive projects without government interference.

“This is the most important case there has ever been on research confidentiality,’’ said John Lowman, a Canadian specialist on academic protocols.

The subpoena has provoked such acrimony that reconciling the parties may require its own peace accord.

The sticking point is whether school administrators should risk fines or jail to protect oral history interview subjects, as journalists sometimes do to shield their sources.

BC librarian Robert O’Neill appeared to take a stand on that issue in 2000, writing to Moloney that the school could not guarantee “that we would be in a position to refuse to turn over documents on a court order without being held in contempt.’’

But McIntyre said O’Neill told him the next month that BC would not accept interview materials “unless they were absolutely certain there would be no legal repercussions for the interviewees.’’

Moloney maintains that BC should have done more to make its legal limitations clear and that he would have treated sources differently if it had done so.

Some BC professorsbelieve the accusation has merit. Last month, 55 of them petitioned BC’s president to formally investigate the way it handled the project, a series of interviews with 26 Irish paramilitary fighters.

“It seems to have had very little oversight, and we want to know why,’’ said Marilynn Johnson, a history professor who wrote the petition.

The school’s dean of arts and sciences is expected to tell the professors this week that the university’s legal counsel has examined the project within the last month and concluded it did not need the approval of an institutional review board.

If the project were initiated today, though, BC might act differently, a BC spokesman said Tuesday.

“The Belfast project has likely changed how oral history projects will be conducted moving forward,’’ said spokesman Jack Dunn, stressing that he was referring not just to BC but to schools in general. In particular, he added, colleges “will be reluctant to record oral histories in nations’’ with treaties requiring them to legally assist other countries.

That could have a chilling effect on scholarship, said Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil liberties lawyer: “What is astonishing to me is that BC chose not to defend its scholar from the beginning. What is an institution for?’’

The controversy began last summer when the British government demanded to examine the interviews, which were meant to remain confidential until after the subjects’ deaths.

BC initially agreed to turn over two interviews: one with a subject who had died and another with a subject who had revealed some of the information to an Irish newspaper.

The university is now fighting an order to release parts of seven other interviews a judge has deemed relevant to the 1972 abduction, killing, and secret burial of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of 10.

But BC is also fighting Moloney, who has been unrelenting in his criticism.

The university and Moloney parted paths shortly after the subpoena last year, when BC’s lawyer sent Moloney an e-mail advising him that “my keeping you informed about developments in the case is with your agreement that you will not go to the media about the information.’’

An incensed Moloney responded by contacting reporters.

Since then, two major issues have arisen. The first centers on Moloney’s employment contract, which calls for a committee of three specific individuals “to assure that the strictest standards of historical documentation are to be followed.’’

Though the committee never officially met, Dunn said its members consulted each other informally.

Some outside observers said no advisory board could have prevented the contretemps because there is no legal way to ensure the confidentiality of most academic research.

“The idea that an institutional review board would have prevented this is ludicrous,’’ said Donald Ritchie, the US Senate historian. “If anything, a board would have just said, ‘Don’t interview anybody,’ and thrown the scholarship out the window.’’

The second point of contention is who bore ultimate responsibility for warning the interview subjects their confidentiality might not stand in court.

John Neuenschwander, a leading specialist on oral history and law, said both parties could ultimately be at fault. One thing is clear, he added: “Somebody missed a step here.’’