Author’s accepted manuscript: ‘Say Nothing’

‘Say nothing’: silenced records and the Boston College subpoenas
Archives and Records: The Journal of the Archives and Records Association
James Allison King

This is an Author’s Accepted Manuscript of an article published in Archives and Records, Spring 2014 [copyright Taylor & Francis], available online at:

‘Say nothing’- silenced records and the Boston College subpoenas
Author’s accepted manuscript


How will subpoenas for Boston College’s sealed Irish Republican Army (IRA) oral histories affect future attempts to archive the Troubles and armed conflict in general? To answer this question, the author examines the long-term implications of subpoenaing Boston College’s Belfast Project, arguing that the subpoenas present a case study of the little-recognized preservation hazard of silenced or uncreated records. The author situates the case within the context of the two types of wartime preservation hazards: the destruction or obfuscation of extant record and the silencing of records that otherwise would have been created. In order to show the subpoenas’ grave implications on the archive’s mission to record the full story of the Troubles for future generations, the article places the Belfast Project within the context of other Northern Irish and international archival projects. Ultimately, the author intends to demonstrate the relevance of the case to archivists, arguing that the Boston College subpoenas pose a preservation risk as hazardous as any fire or explosion by threatening to silence records that otherwise would have been created and thereby creating irreparable holes in the historical record of the Troubles.


‘Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing’
–Seamus Heaney, North

Talk could be deadly during the Troubles, especially in the Catholic neighborhood of Divis Flats, where Jean McConville and her children lived.

Of the 3,709 people killed during the three decades of sectarian violence, the tragic circumstances surrounding her execution as an alleged agent for British military intelligence continues to haunt a traumatized nation.

Although the Irish Republican Army (IRA) executed McConville in 1972, her case remains unresolved more than four decades later. Detailed, first-hand information concerning her murder only became available under the auspices of a relatively recent groundbreaking oral history endeavor called the Belfast Project. Brendan Hughes, a Provisional IRA leader at the time, spoke about the IRA disappearance of the widowed mother of ten for the first time in a Boston College-sponsored oral history project:

I knew she was being executed. I didn’t know she was going to be buried…or ‘disappeared’ as they call it now. I know one particular person on the Belfast Brigade at the time, Ivor [Bell], argued for [her] to be shot, yes, but to be left on the street. Because to take her away and bury her…would serve no purpose people wouldn’t know. So looking back on it now, what happened to her…was wrong.

Like all IRA and Loyalist men and women interviewed by the ‘Belfast Project,’ Hughes was assured by Boston College’s researchers that ‘no material could be used until and unless the interviewee consented or had died.’

The Belfast Project sealed oral histories until the contributor’s death because, in the words of historian and journalist Chris Bray, ‘frank discussion about armed civil conflict could get interviewees killed or arrested.’

The College honored the contract for Hughes, who died in 2008. But federal subpoenas for the complete oral histories of Hughes, Dolours Price, and any other IRA recordings with information concerning McConville’s murder instigated a lengthy court battle extending over two years, which only recently attained some level of resolution. Although all parties concerned assumedly seek resolution for the 2,000 some unsolved murders during the Troubles, efforts to prematurely unlock the archive might paradoxically deepen the secrets of the Troubles by chilling present and future projects to retrieve previously unheard voices.

While some academic and political communities were quick to speak out about the case’s far-reaching cultural and legal implications, archivists have been slow to acknowledge the potential repercussions of the Boston College subpoenas.

Christine George has proven the exception by raising awareness throughout the community in part through the publication of a critical article exploring the future legal and ethical implications of the court case.

Like George, I intend to argue that the fate of the Belfast Project directly affects the archival community. My approach differs from hers, however, by examining the case through a preservation lens. More specifically, I will analyze how the subpoenas — and the inevitable distrust and entrenchment they will engender — threaten to determine how present and future conflicts are, or are not, preserved.