The Belfast Case: Information for SAA Members

The Belfast Case: Information for SAA Members

The Belfast Case: What’s the starting point for archivists?
Background information aggregated by the SAA Oral History Section, for SAA Members
Society of American Archivists
February 2013

Between 2001 and 2006, Irish researchers conducted forty oral histories with Irish paramilitarists active on both sides of the violence between loyalists and unionists of Northern Ireland, otherwise known as “The Troubles.” The recordings were housed at Boston College’s Burns Library, with the understanding that each interview would remain closed until the subject’s death. However, as part of an investigation into the 1972 murder of an alleged British informant, the Police Service of Northern Ireland sought to access two of the interviews, and in March 2011, the US Justice Department issued a subpoena on behalf of the British government. Though the confidentiality agreement allowed each subject to provide an honest and detailed record of their involvement in The Troubles, the legality of such agreements is now being challenged, and the outcome could have lasting and serious effects for oral history programs and archival collections across the country.

Archivists from across SAA groups have recognized in various formal and informal ways the seriousness of the Boston College/Belfast Project Supreme Court case, including and especially the impact that decisions will have on the work that we do and the communities within which we practice.

SAA Council, the Government Affairs Working Group (GAWG), and the Oral History Section (OHS) agree that at this time, an official statement by SAA and/or any SAA group would be premature and inappropriate. However, as the court battle continues, this case provides archivists an opportunity to evaluate our code of professional ethics, and consider the ways in which legal frameworks may or may not support our work.

In lieu of crafting an official statement, the OHS would like to help offer opportunities for SAA members to connect with information and with each other, in order to foster understanding and dialogue. In the interest of keeping section members informed, we’ve compiled this short list of links to try to help members learn more about this complicated case, and stay informed as the case progresses.

The Oral History Section steering committee is also working on more in-depth tools and informational pieces, to help us all consider the impact to our work and our profession. Please look for additional resources in the near future.

Selected links for getting started: 

1. Discussion Document re: the Boston College/IRA Oral History Situation

Prepared by the Government Affairs Working Group (GAWG), this piece includes background information, a timeline of legal actions, and a discussion of the merits of the case.

See Also:

March 2013: NOTE: This document is currently under review and being revised.

2. Major Legal Challenges Facing Oral History in the Digital Age (Oral History in the Digital Age Essay)

A very good essay by past Oral History Association President and Oral History and the Law expert John Neuenschwander, who is also a retired Professor of History at Carthage College and former Municipal Judge for the City of Kenosha, Wisconsin.

3. Boston College Subpoena News

Though the authors clearly have a strong bias towards keeping the interviews closed to police investigation, this weblog seems to be the go-to site for the latest news about the case. It offers background information, aggregated links to media about the case, an AAUP petition, as well as numerous court documents available to download, including a copy of the recent Amici Curiae Brief to the US Supreme Court.

4. Oral History and the Troubles

Oral historian and Austin Community College Adjunct Professor Virginia Raymond provides a lengthy and opinionated piece on the history of the case, which includes the challenges that oral historians face when interviewees may divulge sensitive information, and recommendations for those collecting such interviews.

5. Defending Research Confidentiality “To the Extent the Law Allows:” Lessons From the Boston College Subpoenas (Journal of Academic Ethics, Volume 10, Issue 4, December 2012, pp. 271-297)

*requires journal subscription

6.  College Fights Subpoena of Interviews Tied to I.R.A.

We call attention to this NYT piece, because Oral History Association (past) President Mary Larson makes a statement in support of fighting the subpoenas.