The Belfast Project That Students Forgot

The Belfast Project That Students Forgot
Delphina Gerber-Williams
The Heights
22 September 2014

In the past year, we have witnessed our country plummet in its Global Press Freedom Ranking, the U.S. Supreme Court refuse to step in on behalf of a Pulitzer Prize-winner facing jail time for protecting a source, and concern over Internet freedom growing. We’ve discussed freedom of the press, feared the NSA, and worried about all of our Facebook conversations going public. But where were we, the Boston College community, when confidentiality, protection of sources, and the integrity of academic freedom were being fought over by the U.S. Department of Justice, three senators, six congressmen, and three nations, right here on our campus?

Last May, BC announced that it would return recorded interviews from the controversial Belfast Project to its participants. This not only marked the end of a string of legal disputes involving BC, the UK, and the U.S. Department of Justice, but also the death of a groundbreaking research project.

Starting in 2001, the Belfast Project was aimed at documenting the three-decade ethno-nationalist conflict that wracked Northern Ireland from the 1960s to 1998, known as the Troubles. Organized by Executive Director of the Center for Irish Programs Thomas Hachey, then-Burns Librarian Robert O’Neill, Irish journalist Ed Moloney, and former Irish Republican Army (IRA) member and historian Anthony McIntyre, the project consisted of interviewing 46 former paramilitary fighters from both sides of the conflict. The project directors intended each interview to remain sealed until the death of the respective interviewee.

In 2010, the first interviews were published in the book Voices from the Grave, by Ed Moloney. These interviews, with former IRA leader Brendan Hughes and former Ulster Volunteer Force member David Ervine, were only made public because of their deaths in 2008 and 2007, respectively.

Shortly after, the British government contacted the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking two interviews from the project that might shed light on a murder committed during The Troubles. After deliberation, the University agreed to hand over Hughes’ interviews, but kept the interviews of Dolours Price on the grounds that she was, at that point, still alive.

Eight months after the initial subpoena, the British government issued a second subpoena, now requesting all of the interviews in the BC archive that contained information about the abduction and death of Jean McConville.

The subpoenaing of the tapes threatened the project. One of the first academic endeavors to reveal new details on the Troubles through interviews with former IRA and unionist members, and the only of its scope, the Belfast tapes had the potential to shed light on the sensitive and complex problem of sectarian violence.

The possible ramifications of the subpoenas, however, ran far deeper than the tapes. Traditionally, academic research is granted higher protections from the law so that knowledge and truth can be pursued for the advancement of society. These subpoenas threatened this notion and challenged the idea that academic freedom is essential to the vitality of our society.

The subpoenaing of the tapes also threatens further research. As University Spokesman Jack Dunn told WBUR radio, reported by NPR in May, “Clearly, this could have a chilling effect on oral history projects.” Without protection, researchers will face uncertainty from those who gather information from confidential sources and the sources themselves.

In defense of his own work and academic freedom, McIntyre even claimed that a researcher is actually obliged to destroy his or her material before giving it to a person who could bring it harm, according to an article by Beth McMurtrie published in The Chronicle of Hgher Education in January. He also offered to take the archive into his possession in order to keep it from law enforcements, risking jail for the sake of research.

Initially on the same page as McIntyre, BC attempted to protect the files, appealing the subpoenas several times. As proceedings continued, the administration decided to distance itself “from the reckless rhetoric of Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre,” as Dunn put it in an interview with McMurtrie for the aforementioned article.

While BC was distancing itself from McIntyre and Moloney after the second subpoena, Senators Chuck Schumer, Scott Brown, and John Kerry, along with six other congressmen, wrote to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for a withdrawal of the subpoena.

And the students of BC remained silent, uninformed. When I questioned my peers about the project, I got the resounding response, “What’s that?”

As academics across the nation followed the fate of these tapes this spring, where were the BC students?

It is our full-time job as students to learn, to immerse ourselves in the pursuit of knowledge. We are the next generation of researchers. And yet, there were no big conversations on campus about the project that might redefine future research. Why weren’t we concerned with the questions circling our campus, the future of our own academic freedom?

Furthermore, why has BC refused to be open with its students about the project? The University never participated in a dialogue with students over the legal disputes.

The Belfast tapes case raises many questions. What degree of freedom should academic research have? How responsible are researchers and their universities in protecting interviewees who reveal sensitive information? At what point does the pursuit of justice supersede the pursuit of truth and knowledge?

I am not suggesting that the student body of BC had the ability to decide the fate of these tapes, but we should have at least known and taken part in the discussion.

Despite McIntyre’s efforts, the relevant tapes were turned over. “There has been a shadow cast over this type of research,” Richard English, a professor of politics at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told The Chronicle for the aforementioned article. Many scholars, English said, have expressed apprehension about pursuing projects like this, for fear of it coming to naught. The Belfast Project is dead now—there will be “no more books, no more revelations,” as McMurtrie put it in her article. And for McIntyre, “It is the single most devastating thing that ever happened to me,” he told The Chronicle. “It can never be used now. It’s all done for nothing.”

Say Anything: The DOJ Comes Clean on Retribution

“The public release of such allegations could have ramifications in a foreign country which are not fully appreciated here.”

Say Anything: The DOJ Comes Clean on Retribution
Chris Bray
Tuesday, September 16, 2014

For government lawyers, truth can be a contingent, situational, and highly malleable idea. And today we have new evidence of that fact.

Three years ago, when Boston College filed a motion in a federal court to quash subpoenas of Belfast Project interviews, Assistant U.S. Attorney John T. McNeil flatly rejected the idea that the release of those interviews from a protected academic archive might endanger people involved in the project. You can read McNeil’s July 1, 2011 brief here. But here’s the relevant passage, from pg. 2:

While the Respondents make other equitable and factual claims, including the claims that the researchers will face retribution and that the disclosure of the materials will threaten the political stability in Northern Ireland, those claims falter in the face of close scrutiny. The researchers themselves, and the subject of the interviews, widely publicized their involvement in this oral history project long before the subpoenas in this case were issued. Moreover, the Respondents’ decision to publicize the issuance of the subpoenas – which had been kept under seal by the United States – belies any claim of such risk. If there were a substantial risk of retribution, the Respondents’ efforts to publicize the subpoenas would compound the purported problem, rather than mitigate it.

So the release of Belfast Project interviews would be no big deal: no risk to the political stability of Northern Ireland, no risk of retribution for people involved in the project. No good reason not to pry open the archive, your honor. No danger at all. They made this claim often and loudly; see also this example.

This week, Assistant U.S. Attorney John T. McNeil filed two documents with the same court — a brief, and a supporting declaration — to argue against a federal judge’s proposal to publicly release documents filed under seal in the matter of the Belfast Project subpoenas. Why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, the release of material related to the Belfast Project endangers witnesses and might subject people to retribution.

Same prosecutor, same case. The material should be released, because warnings about retribution are silly; the material must not be released, because it’s dangerous and people will get hurt.

Here’s a link to the brief; the relevant language is on pg. 2, where McNeil writes that British officials “continue to seek that the materials remain impounded to ensure that evidence (both testimonial and documentary) is not destroyed or altered, and to ensure that witnesses and investigators are not subject to harassment, reprisals or tampering.”

And here’s a link to the supporting declaration, where McNeil writes that “the release of such information could unfairly impugn the reputation of those witnesses and suspects, or subject them to retribution.”

Suddenly, three years later, the Department of Justice says the release of documentary material related to the Belfast Project threatens to subject people to retribution.

So what does that say about the decision to pry the interviews out of the archive in the first place?

See: Threats to Researcher and Research Participants

Dealing with the Future by Dealing with the Past: Chief Constable

Chief Constable’s speech at British-Irish Association conference
George Hamilton
06 Sep 2014



When President Obama visited us in June 2013 he said these words “You set the example for those who are seeking peace. You are their blueprint to follow. You are the proof of what is possible.”   (President Obama Speech, Waterfront Hall, Belfast 17/06/13)

It is often easy to forget the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland.

This year’s conference theme is on the Future – and I thank you for the opportunity to be part of your discussion this afternoon. But of course any talk of the future must also facilitate discussion on our past: because to talk about the future, we must be ready to talk about our past.

Obama’s words were a huge compliment; but also a huge challenge.

To live up to such an accolade, requires constant, tireless and selfless work.  It requires us to face up to the difficult issues; to respond to the needs of our society.

There are many areas that remain unresolved; but it is the past more than any other, which “continues to confound the sense that Northern Ireland has left the troubles behind.”     (Peace Monitoring Report, 2012)   

The extent to which the legacy of the past has implications for both the present and the future cannot be underestimated.  Time has passed and huge progress has been made; but for many, the pain is still real and still raw.

A policing role in dealing with the past

I have the privilege of being the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, at a time when the community, together with civic and political leaders, including those gathered here today, are being challenged to take the next steps towards securing a safe, confident and peaceful society.

As Chief Constable, my role is to deliver a Police Service that is fit for purpose; our job is to keep people safe.   Today, however as Chief Constable, I also find myself with a significant role to play in trying to deal with the past.

It was not a role referred to in the Patten Report; yet the past has a very significant impact on both the operational side of policing and the way in which we are perceived by the community. It is a role that presents very real dilemmas and is coming under increasing financial, legal and ethical challenge. In recent weeks, the financial challenges have been brought into starker focus. The status quo is now simply not an option.

I want to talk about first of all –


3260 people lost their lives between 1969 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Many of the cases remain unresolved.

The very cold reality is that the older a case, the harder it is to prosecute. While some cases will lend themselves to further progress through the judicial system, with forensic science providing the greatest opportunities; judicial closure is increasingly unlikely in the majority of cases. Memories have faded; witnesses and suspects may have died. The hurt however will not have faded and many families still have questions they want answered.

Understanding that something had to be done, and in the absence of others taking responsibility for dealing more holistically with the past, the PSNI formed the Historical Enquiries Team in 2005. HET, as it became known, was a genuine and unique attempt by policing to provide a process through which to address over thirty years of unresolved deaths. Its creator, Sir Hugh Orde, was clear from the outset that it could not be a stand alone solution to dealing with Northern Ireland’s past. However, no broader solution to the past was ever agreed and in the intervening years, the continually evolving HET project was left in unclear territory, somewhere between truth recovery and serious case review. This lack of clarity could only lead to problems and the work of HET remains on hold following the publication of last year’s challenging HMIC report following the work of Professor Patricia Lundy.

Landscape of legal processes

The absence of a holistic approach to dealing with our past has left a landscape of legal processes to address the pain caused by Northern Ireland’s troubled history. These include police investigations, which PSNI have a responsibility for, coronial inquests, public inquiries, Police Ombudsman investigations and the Criminal Cases Review Commission; all of which PSNI has legislative responsibilities to in terms of disclosure.

There are new requirements for review, re-investigation and disclosure on an almost weekly basis.

It is not just the sheer numbers of cases, but the complexity of the processes and the resources required. The pace at which we can deliver on the growing demand has become an increasing public confidence issue.

It takes significant time and resource to bring a case before the courts. The officers and staff that work on these historic investigations are the same officers and staff that I rely on to investigate murder and other serious crime in the present day. The caseloads that they balance are significant, and they must prioritise their work accordingly. The inevitable delays only serve to add more pain to families who await answers over the deaths of their loved ones.

Delays are also a significant issue in disclosure, as evidenced by recent media coverage of delays in PSNI disclosing material to some of the ongoing legacy inquests. There is little public understanding of the PSNI’s duties in this established legal process. Disclosure is an unwieldy and complex exercise, involving the review of large volume of documentation and balancing competing legal obligations.

Review, investigation and disclosure on historic cases are professional duties that no police officer would seek to avoid. However, the legacy of the troubles means that the level of historical cases for which the PSNI has responsibility is on a scale which no other Police Service in these islands has to respond to.

The Policing dilemma: prioritising finite resources between yesterday and today

I want to be clear – the PSNI are committed to fulfilling a role in responding to Northern Ireland’s troubled past, not least because we are legally obliged to do so, but because dealing with the past is essential to a safe, confident and peaceful future.

But as Chief Constable, I have to balance this commitment with the very real demands of keeping people safe in the present day. It would be both unfair and irresponsible not to make clear the significant strain that the current piecemeal approach to our history is placing on the organisation I have responsibility for leading. The strain is being felt both in terms of operational resources and, significantly, in terms of public confidence.

I am on the record as saying that I want to fulfil our duties in the professional manner that victims deserve. But even if I had infinite financial resources, I could not service the current demand at the rate that is required because we have a limited number of officers and staff with the specialist skills and knowledge required for investigation and disclosure.

And the reality is that I do not have infinite resources. In fact, I face a rapidly reducing budget, with the level of cuts now so deep that there will be a substantial impact on our service delivery. Our priority must be to keep people safe in the present day.

How should policing be defined in Northern Ireland?

Section 32 of the Police Act NI requires I and my organisation to protect life, preserve order, prevent crime and secure justice. Fulfilling these duties on behalf of the community means dismantling the international criminal gangs trafficking human beings within our community; protecting the vulnerable behind closed doors, from crimes such as domestic violence or child abuse; responding to the economic threat posed by cyber and financial crime; and providing visible neighbourhood policing in our community.

It is also a fact that a small, but dangerous number of violent dissident republicans continue to plan attacks on police. While I can say with confidence that PSNI’s desire to keep people safe is greater than the terrorist desire to do harm; there is no doubt that the threat places a substantial financial and human burden on the delivery of policing in Northern Ireland.

We have thankfully had a relatively peaceful summer; but heightened community tensions over flags, parades and protests mean that the PSNI, for now, must be ready to prevent and respond to serious public order scenarios. As Chief Constable, I wonder how much progress we might make in ending such community tensions if we were able to deal with our troubled past; and plan for a shared future? The 2014 Peace Monitoring Report summarised the situation well by concluding that police have been “the shock absorbers for failures elsewhere.”  (Peace Monitoring Report 2014)

There is no doubt that policing, and indeed the criminal justice system, are being left to “absorb the shock” of the past.    In the absence of a more holistic solution the Police Service is left in a lonely position, caught between legal obligations; financial constraints; and public expectation.

Over recent years we have been striving to manage these difficult decisions. But the options I have around budgets have become extremely limited. Every choice I make has a consequence. If I put resources into one area of policing; I must take it from another. As Chief Constable, my immediate obligations must be to keeping people safe today. So, while we will continue to meet our legal obligations, there will now be change in how PSNI responds to the demands of the past and the pace at which we can service the demand.

These are hugely sensitive issues; and there is a massive risk to public confidence in policing.

Is it right that the Police Service should bear the brunt of a broader failure to deal with the past?

Where next?

There is a sense of urgency attached. Money will drive the change whether we want it or not. But, if we are courageous enough, the change can be harnessed as an opportunity to make a difference for those who have been hurt by the past. Achieving such change lies well beyond the remit of policing, although we will play our part. It requires all of us to be selfless; to go beyond our comfort zones; and have challenging conversations, such as the one initiated by the Attorney General almost a year ago.

Are the processes of current criminal law really capable of healing the hurt, establishing truth and answering questions regarding the conflict?

In the sixteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, while we have failed to agree a more holistic approach to the past, there has been significant work conducted quietly and diligently by the likes of Healing Through Remembering, the WAVE Trauma Centre and many more Groups.

This work in turn contributed to the substantial report by Eames Bradley; which itself contributed to the more recent Haass proposals. The results of all this work indicate that, while we seem to understand the need for change, there is no sign of political consensus on how to make progress.

I fully accept that reaching agreement on such a challenging issue is not easy. But, to continue to ignore, hesitate or procrastinate on the past will have unpredictable and far reaching consequences. If our own politicians cannot reach consensus on the issue, then it would seem appropriate and necessary to seek and accept much more “hands on” support from the British and Irish Governments; and indeed other interested and influential observers of our peace process.

The status quo is simply not an option. My view is that action is needed if policing, and indeed our peace process, is not to be dragged backward. We must strive for something better. We owe it to all of those who have suffered; and we owe it to the children and young people of today who have the right to a safe, confident and peaceful future.

In closing, I will quote Hannah Nelson, the school girl, who welcomed President Obama on his 2013 visit to Northern Ireland: “We should not let the past pull us apart and stop us from moving forward… Our past. Our future. It is all about time… It is in the present time that we need to be responsible, accountable people; and live to make a better future for ourselves.”  ( Hannah Nelson, Waterfront Hall, Belfast 17/06/13)

A Parody of a Satire of a Farce

A Parody of a Satire of a Farce
Chris Bray
Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ivor Bell was back in court this week, where his lawyer asked the judge to throw out the increasingly weak and stale charges against him. Here’s how the Belfast Telegraph explains the judge’s response:

“But after being told prosecutors want another eight weeks to consult with police, District Judge Fiona Bagnall indicated that the defence application should wait until full papers are served.”

Ivor Bell was arrested in March. Now, in September, prosecutors in Northern Ireland can’t make a decision about whether or not to pursue his prosecution, because they need some time to consult with the police on the case.

If six months of consultation hasn’t been enough, another two isn’t going to help. Give it up, folks.

Jean McConville murder: IRA suspect’s lawyer slams Boston College ‘evidence’

Jean McConville murder: IRA suspect’s lawyer slams Boston College ‘evidence’
Former IRA negotiator Ivor Bell’s lawyer blasts tapes used to charge his client in Northern Ireland as a ‘complete sham’
Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent
The Guardian
Thursday 4 September 2014

The use of the controversial Boston College tapes to charge a former IRA negotiator with the murder of a mother of 10 has been branded a “complete sham”.

A lawyer for Ivor Bell demanded that the case against his client should be thrown out.

The Crown alleges that Bell is Mr Z on two taped interviews for the Belfast Project in which it is claimed he spoke about the circumstances of how widow Jean McConville was dragged from her children at gunpoint, driven across the Irish border and then murdered.

The 1972 disappearance of McConville resulted in Gerry Adams’ arrest earlier this year. The Police Service of Northern Ireland questioned the Sinn Féin president over allegations that he gave the order for the woman to be kidnapped, killed and then buried in secret – a claim Adams has always denied.

Bell, 77, from the Andersonstown district of Belfast, was arrested in March and charged with IRA membership and aiding and abetting the murder.

The case against him rests on two interviews given to the Belfast Project. Among those who gave testimony to the project was the late IRA Belfast commander, Brendan Hughes, whose interview included the allegations against Adams.

Bell – who is on bail – denies any role in events surrounding the murder, saying he was not even in the city at the time.

As the IRA veteran appeared before Belfast magistrates’ court on Thursday for an update in the case, his lawyer sought a direction from the Public Prosecution Service to discontinue the case.

Peter Corrigan, defending, claimed the level of disclosure violated an international treaty between the US and the UK.

In a scathing attack on the research initiative, he argued that it was unreliable. “Boston College carried out no safeguards in relation to obtaining the interviews. At first instance the court must be satisfied that the evidence has been lawfully obtained. It’s our case that the Boston College project was a complete sham.”

District Judge Fiona Bagnall indicated that the defence application should wait until full papers were served.

Adjourning proceedings until 30 October, Judge Bagnall said: “I would urge the prosecution to endeavour to prepare this case as quickly as possible.”

The Urgent Search for Justice in a 1972 Murder, Cont

The Urgent Search for Justice in a 1972 Murder, Cont.
Chris Bray
Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Ivor Bell was arrested in March. It’s now September, and his prosecution has not gone forward. When, if ever, will he brought back into court? Six months, no action, dead silence.

Gerry Adams was arrested at the end of April. It’s now September, and no decision has been announced regarding the possibility he’ll be charged in Jean McConville’s 1972 kidnapping and murder.

At about the same time, Helen McKendry said publicly that she knew who had kidnapped her mother, and said she would go to the police to name names. It is now September, and we have no public indication that the PSNI has acted upon, or even received, the information that McKendry said she was about to bring to them.

Someone at the PSNI leaked the news, back in May, that the police would be returning to the archives at Boston College for new subpoenas of the entire Belfast Project. It’s now September, and there are no publicly available signs that those subpoenas were ever served.

The investigation into the murder of Jean McConville has stalled or evaporated. It’s time for the PSNI and the PPS to either take action or provide some explanation. What has been the point of all this?

Do it or give it up, publicly and explicitly. It’s time.