Tough questions in UK quest for Irish archive in Boston

Tough questions in UK quest for Irish archive in Boston
By Ross Kerber
Thu Apr 5, 2012 4:08am IST

* UK police want answers on 1972 Northern Ireland death

* Researchers seek U.S. Appeals Court help to stop inquiry

* Archive part of oral history project at Boston College

BOSTON, April 4 (Reuters) – Judges grilled a U.S. Justice Department attorney on Wednesday over the agency’s attempts to help United Kingdom police gain access to a closed archive of interviews with fighters from Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflict that is housed at Boston College.

Tough questions from the three-judge Appeals Court panel gave hope to researchers battling to keep the archive mostly sealed since it was originally meant for historians to use years from now. A ruling could be several weeks away.

“We’re still kicking!” journalist Ed Moloney said after the hearing in Boston.

Moloney and a colleague are trying to block subpoenas filed by U.S. officials on behalf of the Police Services of Northern Ireland. Officials want to have access to the archive to help with investigations involving onetime Irish Republican Army members.

The Justice Department has said it is acting under a mutual legal assistance treaty with the United Kingdom.

Critics of the UK effort to gain access to the archives say details from the interviews could undermine a 1998 peace deal that ended decades of fighting in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants.

U.S. lawmakers, including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have called the records quest a threat both to peace and to academic freedom.

Material from the archive has already raised new allegations that Sinn Fein Party leader Gerry Adams played a leading role in the Irish Republican Army, something that Adams has consistently denied.

Court filings say UK police officials are following up new leads that emerged in 2010 in a notorious killing, the 1972 abduction and death of Northern Irish woman Jean McConville.

A widowed mother of 10, McConville was killed by the IRA on suspicion of being a government informer – something her family has denied. Her body was recovered in 2003.

Known as “The Belfast Project,” the archive kept at Boston College includes several dozen interviews conducted since 2000 with figures from both sides of the conflict.

According to Moloney, the interviews were to be kept sealed at least until the subject died or agreed to release the interview. Boston College says the confidentiality agreements are not absolute and are subject to U.S. law, a limitation researchers say was not explained to interviewees.


The case got new attention in 2010 following the death of a leading IRA figure, Brendan Hughes. His death freed Moloney to publish “Voices from the Grave,” a book based partly on interviews Hughes had granted for the archive. In the interviews Hughes connected Adams to McConville’s death – a link that Adams has denied.

The interviews were conducted by Anthony McIntyre, a historian and former IRA member who is now Moloney’s partner in the legal effort.

Wednesday’s hearing at Boston’s federal courthouse lasted about a half hour and centered on the research team’s appeal of lower court rulings keeping them from pursuing their own efforts to block release of the material.

In January, a District Court judge ordered Boston College, a private university, to turn over some of the material to the Justice Department in the archive, but stayed the order pending appeals.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the judges focused most of their attention on a U.S. government attorney, Barbara Healy Smith, who at one point noted that arguments in favor of keeping the material sealed had been made by Boston College in earlier proceedings.

That brought a response from Judge Michael Boudin: “It’s odd to hear how well Boston College represents these interests,” he said, since the college has not been as aggressive as the researchers in fighting the government’s demands.

At another point Chief Judge Sandra Lynch told Smith that the U.S. Constitution, not international law-enforcement treaties, should guide arguments.

Eamonn Dornan, representing the researchers, told the panel that government officials have been too quick to attempt to tap the archive, and should properly balance law enforcement issues against the confidentiality promised to interviewees.

With hard feelings still rife in Northern Ireland, Dornan also said McIntyre and interviewees could face attacks or retaliation if the archive material were to be made public. There is a “real risk of physical harm,” he said at one point.

Dornan was optimistic about the case after the hearing, saying the judges “listened attentively to our arguments.” Smith declined to comment.

(Reporting By Ross Kerber in Boston; editing by Ros Krasny and Eric Beech)