Belfast Project aftermath
Times Higher Education
19 JUNE 2014
In the lengthy piece on the Boston College oral history archives (“Oral history: where next after the Belfast Project?”, Features, 5 June), you say that “an investigation by the Society of American Archivists has found that the researchers made promises of confidentiality that went further than university lawyers had advised. However, [Ed] Moloney disputes this and says that the fault lay with the institution because it was Boston College that prepared the donor contracts for interviewees to sign.”
The story has moved on significantly since then and new facts that have come to light both challenge this version and cast Boston College’s behaviour in a distinctly unfavourable light.
We always said that Boston College had approved, not “prepared”, the donor contracts. The evidence for this was in an email that I sent to the college librarian and keeper of the Belfast Project archive, Bob O’Neill, on 30 January 2001 and his reply the next day.
The emails show that I and the lead IRA researcher, Anthony McIntyre, composed a donor contract that gave “ultimate control” over the disclosure of interviews to the interviewee until his or her death at which point ownership reverted to Boston College.
In the course of my email to O’Neill, I suggested that this draft contract should be vetted by the college attorney and in his reply to me, O’Neill assured me he would. I was later assured that this had been done.
However, an investigation by The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Secrets from Belfast”, 26 January 2014) extracted an admission from O’Neill that in fact he had not cleared the draft donor contract with the college’s lawyer. He also said that the contract should have included a phrase guaranteeing confidentiality “to the extent American law allows” but because he had not asked the college lawyer to vet the contract this was omitted. So we, the researchers, were misled into thinking that we were on legal safe ground. If that phrase had been in the donor contract, there is no way that myself, McIntyre or any of the participants would have had anything to do with Boston College or the Belfast Project.
Windsor, New York
I hope that the researchers arguing that there may be a silver lining for oral history in the wake of the unravelling of promises of confidentiality in the Belfast Project are correct (“Within these four walls”, Features, 5 June). But I see no silver lining for Boston College, particularly not for its Irish Studies Program.
Boston College did a great deal more than agree to “house” the project. Without its extensive financial support, the project would never have gotten off the ground. And it was Thomas E. Hachey, the executive director of the Center for Irish Programs, who rejected any participation by the many qualified historians at Boston College, an action that led directly to the subsequent fiasco.
In spite of many calls for an impartial investigation of Boston College’s involvement in the project and the ways in which decisions about it were made, the university has to date done nothing. As I wrote to The Boston Globe (Letters, 25 May 2014): “Nobody at the university has accepted responsibility for a project that has badly damaged the university’s reputation and harmed its prized relationship to both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Is nobody going to be held accountable?”
I cannot help but wonder if Boston College’s Irish Studies Program will be able to re-establish its close and trusted ties to Irish academic institutions unless that happens.
Professor emeritus and chair (1997-2003)
Department of history, Boston College