The Belfast Project and the Boston College Subpoena Case

The Belfast Project and the Boston College Subpoena Case
Anthony McIntyre
Special Session: Oral History and Conflict Resolution
Annual Conference
Oral History Network of Ireland

The following paper was given at the Oral History Network of Ireland (OHNI) Second Annual Conference in Ennis, Co Clare on Saturday the 29th September 2012

  • Introduction
  • Origins of the Belfast Project
  • Purpose of the Belfast Project
  • Confidentiality and Copyright
  • Process that led to the publication of the book and the issues surrounding it, including the threat to researchers’ and participants’ safety
  • The Press and Dolours Price
  • Boston College’s response to the subpoena and the subsequent legal action brought by myself and the Project Director, Ed Moloney, against the US Government to stop the subpoena
  • Progress of the case
  • Protections and the egregious role of institutions housing material from the perspective of John Lowman and Ted Palys
  • In terms of conflict resolution, oral history can play a large part in dealing with legacy issues
  • Conclusion


The trials and tribulations of the Belfast Project if nothing else should serve as a salutary lesson to oral historians who opt to capture narratives of an acutely sensitive nature. Like other history the oral component often deals with a safe subject, posing no risk to the researcher, research participants or the research project.   There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But history construction, particularly that which seeks to excavate armed conflict is often going to unearth knowledge that is frequently more toxic, than safe.

Out there is a fertile terrain waiting to be mined that because of its sensitivity and disputatious nature will not easily yield its secrets. Should the researcher back off and leave that important area unexplored? Or should they step out from the shelter afforded by less dangerous pursuits and seek to pioneer their way through that challenging territory known as the past?

In my view it is the vocation of the historian, conventional or oral, to preserve as much of the past as is possible. What has been pithily stated by Gene Kerrigan and Pat Brennan of journalism could as easily be applied to oral history: one of its functions ‘is to accumulate and preserve hard won information, to act as a kind of communal memory.’ That accumulation cannot be achieved by plastering a verboten sign over certain areas of inquiry because they are too dangerous, might be officially considered the preserve of others or because they may require  the historian to tramp on the toes of vested interests.

The Belfast Project, for all its shortcomings and oversights was a groundbreaking venture which thus far, from what has been made publicly available, has provided new insights into the world of republicanism as it functioned during the conflict years. To cite one area where a change of episteme was arguably ushered in was in relation to the 1981 hunger strike.

The current effort by British authorities to invade the archive is in the words of close observer Chris Bray:

a recipe against historical inquiry. It’s a guarantee of a return to silence. It seeks evidence in one case that closes the door to evidence in every other. It is obvious madness, and yet no one who lives on a government paycheck will be bothered to notice.

Origins of the Belfast Project

The Belfast Project germinated from an idea to gather the voices of a number of Northern conflict participants before the opportunity to tap into their narratives had passed forever. The methodological approach of oral history, unlike other strands in historiography, is time specific. There is a small window of opportunity before the voice of the prospective candidate is lost forever.

In this type of endeavour the researcher is engaged in a race against time. An unrelenting foe of information acquisition in the field is age profile. If the moment is lost it is kaput. As it would prove to be with the Belfast Project some people who agreed to be interviewed died prior to the interviews being started. Given their off the record discussions, which were not taped, it is clear that lost with them was much in the way of great potential insight into events that for so long came to characterise the Northern conflict. Truth recovery has undoubtedly been diminished as a result.

Prior to the action of the British authorities, which amounted to an effective sabotaging of the Belfast Project, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, proclaimed himself an admirer of the same project, stating that ‘some of the people involved in the events of recent history … are now getting old, their memories are fading. I think there is merit in trying to capture this information now before it is lost.’ Not as much merit seemingly as trying to seize academically meritorious research for the purposes of police investigations.

That from a research perspective, it is meritorious rather than deleterious is a case that can be strongly made. Although there are those who for seemingly political reasons, rather than out of any concern for research protocol and methodology, have lambasted the project on the grounds of alleged researcher bias, one person who has read the republican side of the archive in full – and who is no friend of the researchers – give an insight into its merits. Judge William Young of the Boston federal court who ordered the material to be handed over to British authorities had this to say of what he perused:

This was a bona fide academic exercise of considerable intellectual merit … It’s clear to the Court … these materials are of interest. They are of interest – valid academic interests. They’re of interest to the historian, sociologist, the student of religion, the student of youth movements, academics who are interested in insurgency and counterinsurgency, in terrorism and counterterrorism. They’re of interest to those who study the history of religions. And I’m sure others.

The idea was first proposed in 2000 by Professor Paul Bew of Queen’s University, now Lord Bew. Bew had been a visiting professor at Boston College and felt that adding an extra string to the bow of the academic disciplines, political science and history, would prove invaluable. Bew returned to Belfast with a proposal that an oral history project would be a valuable resource for academia to be in possession of. He discussed the matter with Ed Moloney.

Subsequent to that when Moloney discussed the viability of the proposal with me, our overriding concern was whether confidentiality could be guaranteed without any caveats. It had to be an all or nothing approach. Without cast iron unqualified guarantees of absolute confidentiality there simply would not be a Belfast Project.

Purpose of the Belfast Project

Distilled down, the overriding purpose of the Belfast Project was to ultimately enhance public understanding. This was to be achieved through collating and sealing for a time within academia the perspective of those who were combatants or people who had insights that would add to societal knowledge of the conflict.  Professor Tom Hachey of BC publicly summarised it as serving to ‘illuminate the mindset of people who are engaged at the operational level, people who implemented the campaign, what their attitude was then and what their thinking is looking back on it retrospectively.’ Rather than recreate something akin to True Detective the project called for much moral reflection on the part of participants about conflict and the use of political violence.

Further it was envisaged that the material would be of benefit not merely to historians but also to people involved in conflict resolution and policy making right across the board. If the causes of politically violent conflict can be better understood and anticipated in advance then it stands to reason that the potential for averting such conflict increases.

Confidentiality and Copyright

The type of research conducted though the Belfast Project is a veritable minefield for the researcher. Before embarking on a project of this nature with live subjects it is absolutely incumbent on the researcher to ensure that before all else every measure is taken to ensure that no harm will accrue for research participants as a result of what they reveal in the course of confidential interviews. Jean Hatzfeld cited the maxim of Oscar Wilde when reflecting on his discussions with the Hutu Power killers of the Rwandan genocide: give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth. That mask is absolute confidentiality. Without it endeavours like the Belfast Project are essential non starters. To cite Judge William Young of the Boston federal court:

And what is perfectly clear to me is that the subject of the materials I am reviewing now would never have said the things she said had she in any way understood that they could be revealed to the requesting state, specifically here, the British authorities. The British authorities in Northern Ireland. And it’s perfectly clear to the Court that had that been understood she never would have consented to these interviews and what she has to say would be lost.

From the outset the researchers sought and were ultimately given guarantees by the research institution that the work they engaged in would not be subject to any prior release unless stated otherwise by the research participants, and that there would be no question of law enforcement agencies being able to breach any guarantees given.

Seeking clarification on this crucial and non-negotiable matter delayed the initiation of the project for around 8 months. While the BC librarian from the outset stipulated that no material would be accepted into the library archive if there was any possibility of legal repercussions accruing for the research participants, this fell short of what both I and Moloney required. We wanted it properly formulated and advised BC to check with their lawyers prior to any donor contracts being drawn up.

The end result was that the research participants were given a donor contract issued by Boston College stating that the ‘ultimate power of release’ shall rest with the interviewee while copyright would become the exclusive property of BC.

In terms of sequence the donor contract guaranteeing ‘ultimate power of release’ was preceded by the BC contract with Moloney ‘guaranteeing to the extent American law allows the conditions of the interview and the conditions of its deposit at the Burns Library including terms of an embargo period if this becomes necessary…’  Given that this appeared in a paragraph of Moloney’s contract separate from the paragraph in the same contract mentioning confidentiality BC was readily able to imply that it addressed copyright.

Was the subsequent contract granting ‘ultimate power of release’ to the donors not permissible by American law there was a clear onus on the issuing authorities, BC, to warn the research participants and researchers that confidentiality would not prove resistant to a court order or a subpoena. Moloney’s contract, unlike similar contracts in Canada, did not state that ‘any information that is obtained during this study will be kept confidential to the full extent permitted by law.’  BC, it seems, rather disingenuously inserted a number of paragraphs between use of the word confidentiality and the phrase ‘guaranteeing to the extent American law allows …’ Crucially, BC failed to insert anything about the extent American law allows into its donor contract. As stated by Professor John Brewer, that is a minimum requirement in any donor consent form.

Since the subpoena, and only since, Boston College has sought to backtrack on the matter of confidentiality. Any public pronouncements the college made prior to the subpoenas firmly indicate absolute confidentiality and indeed legal cover. Just prior to the publication of the book Voices From the Grave Professor Tom Hachey of BC told the Irish News in respect of the interviewees:

They also needed to know that we would honour an agreement not to publish any of their testimony until death. The only caveat is that if they give their consent before their death in writing, that would clear us legally.

BC’s post subpoena withdrawal from its original position is probably due to covering its rear in respect of any law suits it might anticipate from research participants who justifiably feel the college has broken its contractual arrangement with them. Again we find Hachey outlining the contractual obligations BC felt itself to be under prior to the subpoena:

B.C. is firmly and unconditionally committed to respecting the letter and intent of what is a contractual agreement never to release any of the material to anyone unless given permission in writing (notarized) beforehand by the participant, or until the demise of a participant.

Process that led to the publication of the book and the issues surrounding it, including the threat to researchers’ and participants’ safety

Voices From the Grave was the first book to have emerged from the Belfast Project that acknowledged its roots in the project. While Richard O’Rawe had earlier in 2005 published his ground breaking account of the 1981 hunger strike he refrained from identifying it as having originated in the interviews that he gave to BC in 2001.

There has been a considerable amount of controversy about Voices and some, including BC, have taken to blaming Ed Moloney for publishing it and in doing so having acted as the catalyst for the subpoena. Yet the book was written with the cooperation of Boston College, two of whose staff members, Tom Hachey and Bob O’Neill, penned the forward and had royalties transferred to their own personal accounts. It was the college that saw the opportunity to promote its non partisan stewardship of the Belfast Project by projecting an account that spanned both sides of the North’s sectarian fault line. Hence the narrative of former UVF leader David Ervine was to run parallel with that of the former IRA leader Brendan Hughes.  Like the confidentiality agreement that preceded it, the book too was subject to the St Peter Syndrome only after the subpoena.

An additional factor in the appearance of Voices was the insistence of Brendan Hughes who during the course of his involvement with the Belfast Project had been pressing for his narrative to be made public. He was persuaded to desist from going to print while the project was still live given the potential any such action would have for derailing ongoing research. This is the type of problem that can arise carrying out sensitive oral history work. A fine tuned balancing act has to be in place in order for it to proceed. In this case Hughes was given undertakings that his account would see the light of day.

With both Hughes and Ervine dead Boston College was contractually free to lift the embargo on their interviews.  If there was any reason for BC to believe that the material held in its archive might not prove resistant to a court order that was the moment to have raised misgivings. They would most certainly have been promptly heeded by Ed Moloney and no book would ever have seen the light of day.

Since the book has been published there has been an increase in hostility towards the project. Death threats have been reported in newspapers. The onetime P O’Neill, in whose fictitious name Provisional IRA press statements were issued, branded those involved, researchers and research participants alike, as touts/informers in what has presumably been a bid to shape a hostile environment for those involved. A Sinn Fein member who lectures in journalism has in recent days claimed that:

I’ve always argued the defence against the subpoenas is a sham, it’s required as an alibi for Price and McIntyre and Moloney for handing over the material to the PSNI. The whole project was always a sham.

The inference to be drawn here is that there has long been intent on the part of two researchers and one research participant to provide British police with sensitive information on republican activities during the Northern conflict. It requires no great leap of the imagination to work out where that could lead.

As an aside for anybody remotely interested, the same lecturer almost a decade ago could be found writing lengthy diatribes against myself and Ed Moloney in his bid to demonstrate that Freddie Scappaticci AKA Stakeknife was not a British agent secretly working at the heart of the Provisional IRA. As Jack Kerouac might have said of him, he has nothing to offer anybody except his own confusion.

The Press and Dolours Price

The role of Dolours Price has emerged as a central feature in the case, and has prompted BC to abandon any defence of her archive on the grounds that she breached confidentiality. Both I and Ed Moloney have continued with the legal fight to protect her despite the undoubted problems her press interventions have caused.

In February 2010 Price gave an interview to a journalist from the Irish News despite protestations from her family to the paper’s staff that she was troubled. Within days of this a journalist with the Sunday Life newspaper reported that he had heard tapes in which Price allegedly admitted her involvement in the phenomena known as the disappeared including the abduction and slaying of Jean McConville.  In the course of that article it was reported that Price had made admissions to Boston College in her interviews with me. Given that the one tape that certainly did exist was made by the Irish News reporter the logical assumption is that the tape heard by the Sunday Life reporter was the same one made by the Irish News.

On this basis it was claimed by the US Justice Department in its subpoena request that the Sunday Life reporter had listened to Price’s BC tapes. This was simply impossible. As would later be submitted in affidavits to courts in Belfast from both myself and Ed Moloney, Price disclosed nothing of her alleged involvement in the abduction or death of Mrs McConville in any interview that I carried out with her for the Belfast Project.

The same Sunday Life journalist later posting on the Slugger O’Toole website under the pseudonym ‘Maradona’ called for the Boston College tapes to be handed over to British authorities.

In view of this we are left to conclude that British authorities sought interviews as part of a fishing expedition based on a shady report by a Northern journalist who later demonstrably sought to have the tapes made available to the same British authorities.

Boston College’s response to the subpoena and the subsequent legal action brought by myself and the Project Director, Ed Moloney, against the US Government to stop the subpoena

When the first subpoena was issued in the spring of last year Boston College did not inform the researchers. One member of staff confused and concerned by the developments brought the matter to the attention of Ed Moloney. What he told Moloney was disturbing.  There was an attitude forming amongst campus in-house lawyers that the research participants were just a bunch of terrorists anyway and their welfare should not be a factor in the deliberations of BC on how to respond to the subpoena. Moloney then took the view that Boston College was going to comply with the subpoena and hand the requested material over to the US Justice Department for the purpose of it being shipped to British authorities.

The only way to ensure Boston College honoured its commitment to confidentiality was to go public and effectively make it difficult for the college to hand over the material surreptitiously which in our view was its intention.

For a while Boston College refused to publicly commit itself to a position of seeking to have the subpoena quashed. This enhanced suspicions that its instinct was not to contest the matter. It is the view of both Moloney and me that BC ultimately agreed to fight because of the press coverage he had ignited by going public.

When warned by myself in the wake of the first subpoena that a second one was likely to follow and that BC should take measures to put an endangered confidential archive, not yet subject to court order, beyond reach of the British authorities, BC declined to do so. It came up with a number of specious arguments including one that the college had given its word to the research participants that their donations would be safely stored on the college and for BC to put them anywhere else would be a breach of confidence.

This was pure moonshine. The last place the research participants wanted their donations to be at that point in time was BC for the very reason stated in court in December last year by the external college lawyer Jeff Swope: that ‘we are holding them and took them on a condition of confidentiality and we can’t maintain that.’ Attempts through solicitors to have them withdrawn from the college on the grounds that BC could no longer honour its commitments were turned down. This is in spite of Swope having informed the court that the college would have to return the material to the donors upon request on the grounds that confidentiality could not be maintained.

BC also stated that the likelihood of any second subpoena was farfetched and the college had been advised to this effect by lawyers including those formally schooled in international law.  A second subpoena duly arrived.

This leads to a blunt conclusion: Boston College simply did not check out the legal position or if it did it wilfully failed to convey the legal status to its researchers or research participants. We are entitled to infer from this that it was equally cavalier in its approach to the legal situation from the outset. It is impossible to believe that BC despite its phalanx of lawyers took any proper, observable and recorded legal guidance, relying instead on a belief expressed to it in good faith by Paul Bew that the British authorities would not come looking for material that predated the Good Friday Agreement. The alternative is to believe that BC’s legal advisers were so incompetent and not up to speed in developments in international treaties that they failed to see that a second subpoena was legally permissible and likely to come. How plausible is that?

The BC response reinforces the contention of the researchers that BC neither at the beginning of the project or after it, even at the very point when it was falling down around its ears, ever properly engaged its formidable array of lawyers who would readily have warned it of the perilous course it was on. BC wanted a valuable archive in its possession and was prepared to gild the legal lily to obtain it.

Progress of the case

The US Federal Court ruled against the BC motion to quash the subpoenas.  Boston College pulled stumps and decided to walk off the legal park, making no attempt to appeal in the case of Dolours Price.  Neither the federal court nor the First Circuit court of appeal opted to defend the right of researchers to carry out the research free from law enforcement incursion.

Aided by excellent lawyers Eamonn Dornan and James Cotter, I and Ed Moloney took up the fight and in doing so have ensured that nothing apart from the Hughes material has found its way to British authorities. A motion by me and Moloney to independently intervene in the case in the US courts was denied by the Federal and First Circuit courts. In the bid to intervene we were backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. We are now seeking to have the case heard by the US Supreme Court again with the backing from the ACLU.  And there is currently an application in the Belfast High Court seeking leave to have a judicial review. Judgement there is expected to be delivered on Monday morning.

In the US there has been considerable political lobbying with Irish American bodies, senators and members of Congress making their voices heard in support of the tapes not being handed over to British authorities. The incongruity of the subpoena is being flagged up by reference to the extradition treaty between the UK and the US which rules out any extradition requests for people suspected of activity prior to the Good Friday Agreement.

The implications the subpoena action has for oral history collection and its impact on the collection of recent and contemporary Irish history

A fuller understanding of any situation is proportionate to the information gleaned in the subject area under investigation. The input of participants is important and can only add to and never diminish public understanding. The historian Arthur Hibbert once advised Salman Rushdie that people should not write history before they hear people speak. It seems axiomatic that in the study of conflict and combat the combatants are people whose voices if denied leave silences which amount to epistemological black spots.

In this respect oral history is an invaluable tool for displacing the mute and inserting the spoken, throwing light into tenebrous caves, adding to the complex tapestry that broadens and deepens our understanding of conflict. It explains much about motive even in those situations where the attempt is to mask. The probing oral historian is not a blank sheet upon which the narrative of the interviewee can be seamlessly laid. He/she has the ability to critically interact with primary source material and can prompt it to speak back, something that cannot be done when parsing written records.

The tools of an oral historian are not those of the police detective. They fashion something entirely different from a scenes of crime view of activity. The value of oral history in respect of the Belfast Project is evident from BC’s Professor Tom Hachey who opined:  ‘I don’t think this will eclipse them all but it is a unique approach from all ends of the political spectrum and it’s going to be more informative than other studies have been.’

Yet the value of this information unlocking research is set to be devalued. The chill effect on accessing sources has already been felt. A number of academics have publicly commented on it and there was a report in the Guardian that already one London university had, as a consequence of the Belfast Project difficulties, aborted a similar venture, this time drawing on the narratives of people in the security services.

Protections and the egregious role of institutions housing material from the perspective of John Lowman and Ted Palys

Unfortunately, it seems that the protections available to oral historians as well as researchers or journalists for that matter are nowhere near as robust as they arguably need to be. Whatever safeguards are in place there is no effective shield law that will protect research in all circumstances. It seems that the courts are unwilling to protect confidential research. At best they offer protections which are neither strong nor expansive.

If the first obligation of a researcher is to protect research participants from any harm that may accrue from information revealed during the course of a confidential interview it is then incumbent on the researcher to use whatever means at their disposal to ensure that protection.

On occasion that might require following the example of Rik Scarce, a US researcher engaged in research work with animal rights activists.  He went to prison for 159 days rather than make his research available to investigating authorities. The judge eventually relented after a number of months during which it became clear to him that Scarce was not one of the push over professors the authorities were more used to dealing with and getting their way.

Last ditch action like this is unavoidable in those situations where the university is unwilling to resist law enforcement and possibly more than willing to shaft its researchers and research participants.

Ted Palys and John Lowman from the Simon Frazer University in Canada have spent many years examining the issues around research confidentiality and have shown how universities as institutions will take the easy way out and abandon researchers and research participants in the process of protecting the institution regardless of what assurances they may have issued to begin with. In the celebrated case of Russell Ogden, a Canadian researcher who conducted work on assisted suicide involving AIDS sufferers and whose work was subpoenaed by a coroner’s court, Judge Steinberg, who eventually heard Ogden’s claim for damages, was scathing of Simon Fraser University for its abysmal failure to support Ogden.

Palys and Lowman offer a perspective which oral historians should seriously consider. If it is accepted that researchers have the fortitude to refuse to be corralled in any epistemological Garden of Eden where they can be told that there is a certain tree of knowledge from which they shall not eat, then it is incumbent upon them to know exactly what measures are open to them in the event of the state trying to plunder their research.

Even where it is no easy task to decipher it is crucially important for researchers to both familiarise themselves with and anticipate the law. If something untoward can happen the researcher must assume it will happen and on that basis make a choice. If their deliberations are guided by the law of the land perspective, where the law must be complied with by researchers no matter how draconian its demands, then it is better that they do not involve themselves in research if in so doing the research participants may reveal something that could be harmful to them and which the researcher is not willing to be a shield for research participants against any encroachment by law enforcement.

If they follow the Ethics First perspective, which holds that, ‘in the last instant, law must be subordinated to ethics’ then they must realise that no matter what the law insists upon, once they have given the guarantee of confidentiality to the research participant it becomes incumbent on them to engage in civil disobedience of the type admirably carried out by Professor Scarce as a last resort to protect their research participants. In short researchers who are not up to the onerous burden of facing imprisonment and other court sanctions as a means to protect sources have no option but to side step the type of research that may place them on the horns of a dilemma. Much might be lost to them but as Marvin Wolfgang argues ‘the social scientist is not a representative of any branch of government with an obligation to execute certain police or judicial duties.’ Their overriding obligation must be to their research participants against whom they must never consciously gather information that might be used as evidence against them.

In my own view, no area should be out of bounds to a researcher. In a pluralist society information should be pursued by journalists, researchers and law enforcement alike. But there is no compelling reason for law enforcement to invade bona fide research and attempt to turn it into evidence for the purposes of prosecution. As Marvin Wolfgang asserted, ‘data obtained that could have direct untoward consequences to subjects are not the possession of the state but of science.’

If researchers yield in this crucially important arena it can only lead to a situation whereby certain areas of knowledge will be foreclosed to the researcher and in the fields of criminology, conflict studies, history and political science, there will be tendency towards a law enforcement view of some matters.  We know from experience just how skewed that would be. We can also envisage how it would be used to protect law enforcement from some forms of external scrutiny and investigation. As argued by Palys and Lowman the law is not the arbiter of ethics and should not be free to impose ethical limits on the researcher.

In terms of conflict resolution, oral history can play a large part in dealing with legacy issues

Oral history techniques have the potential to play some role in conflict resolution. They tease out narratives that would otherwise not be heard. Research participants will reveal things to oral historians that would never be forthcoming to police detectives. Knowledge of conflict is subsequently enhanced. At the end stage of a peace process when the thorny issue of truth recovery emerges the role of the oral historian can acquire greater significance. The oral historian has some advantage in this regard over his fellow historians. She has talked with the people involved in the very conflict that is actively being resolved.

But perhaps of equal significance is the role that oral history projects may have to play in conflict avoidance. A greater societal understanding of the causes of conflict might in some way, no matter how limited, help to ensure that the conditions likely to give rise to armed conflict are dealt with in advance. Indeed all historical study of conflict helps to play this role and it is important not to plead special circumstance on behalf of oral historians. But their work should never be devalued.

In the North where truth is more about recrimination than reconciliation the role of the oral historian takes on added significance. If the oral historian is to wait around for some agreed mechanism whereby the past can be tackled he or she shall have preserved nothing to be considered. For the oral historian it is crucial to act early although in doing so the ethical and procedural challenges faced are made all the more difficult.


Academics who fail to defend confidentiality once solemnly rendered or seek reasons to limit it or find every excuse to compromise it conjure up imagery of the writers Hugh Trevor Roper and John Le Carre who sought to blame Salman Rushdie for his book Satanic Verses rather than stand up for freedom of expression and the imagination.

There is no doubt that the outcome of the legal battle being waged around the Belfast Project will set parameters on what oral historians can actually collate certainly in any institutional setting. It will always be easy to tease out from a combatant what they had for breakfast on any morning of their activist lives. How tenuous in value that is we hardly need reminded of. It is much more difficult, yet I would argue more productive and beneficial, to ask a combatant about a particular operation they were involved in, the strategic decision making processes that shape political violence, and to interrogate the moral dilemmas that must lie at the heart of political violence in a way that is not distant and abstract but up close and personal. This is what gives the edge to works like Jean Hatzfeld when he interviewed the Hutu Power killers of Rwanda, Mark Baker when he spoke to US military Vietnam vets and Horacio Verbitsky when he brought out the voice of a senior Navy figure behind the Disappeared in the Argentine security services.

Ultimately the oral historian must decide what position he/she is prepared to take when embarking on an epistemological minefield and what price they are prepared to pay in order to protect the providers of the information they find rather than allow to be lost.  Palys and Lowman outline the challenges and responsibilities researchers such as oral historians will be confronted with:

While confidentiality is essential to many different types of research, nowhere is it more important than in research where subjects are asked to divulge information about criminal activity and criminal justice processes, especially when this concerns criminal activity and/or rights violations that have not been detected. The primary role of research ethics is to ensure that subjects are not harmed by their participation in research. When subjects divulge information about crime or criminal justice processes, it is our ethical responsibility to ensure that the information cannot be used against them. Without a guarantee of confidentiality and confidence in our willingness and ability to maintain it, neither offenders nor those who prosecute, process and incarcerate them    police, prison guards, prosecutors and judges   are likely to reveal sensitive information about the nature of their activity and the operation of the criminal justice system.

The choice is stark. But for myself and Ed Moloney the luxury of choice is something denied us. We have no choice to make. Our freedom for action is totally circumscribed by the undertakings we gave to interviewees on behalf of Boston College when we walked into their lives and asked them to cast light on a dark past. As journalists and oral historians we are ethically bound to protect them in all circumstances and to face whatever legal consequences or financial hardship that may flow from that.

As the once imprisoned sociologist Rik Scarce contends:

You give your research participants assurances of confidentiality, and you stand by those statements. What you don’t do is to do what Boston College appears to be doing, which is to cave in, in an instant. The tragedy is, that is exactly what many institutions do.

But in all of this let us spare a thought for Boston College, a wealthy, powerful institution used to gracing the corridors of power and with an aversion toward spending money on fighting the corner of people it effectively cornered in the first place. As Rex Stout said ‘nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth.’