Boston College Oral History Project Faces Ongoing Legal Issues

Boston College Oral History Project Faces Ongoing Legal Issues
April Witteveen
Library Journal
March 12, 2015

After years of ongoing legal issues, Boston College’s (BC) Belfast Project is again in the news. The Project, launched in 2001, is an oral history collection consisting of recorded interviews from participants in Northern Ireland’s 30-year civil conflict known as the Troubles.

Funded in large part by Thomas J. Tracy, an Irish American philanthropist with a strong interest in American and Northern Irish politics, the Belfast Project held some 50 interviews conducted through 2006. The project director’s contracts promised confidentiality of the interviewees’ recordings until after their deaths, although these were not reviewed by BC’s counsel. However, since 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice has received numerous subpoenas requesting the interview material from the United Kingdom as they continue to investigate crimes that occurred during the conflict.

In early 2015, Winston Rea, a former loyalist prisoner, “secured a temporary injunction as police were set to board a plane for America” to retrieve his tapes from the Belfast Project. As of February 27, a judge claimed the Police Services of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) request for information was lawful as regards the subject of a police investigation; the recordings have been secured but have been kept sealed, as Rea has decided to file an appeal.

Dangerous Work

The project’s roots date back to 2000, when journalist Ed Maloney introduced BC librarian Robert O’Neill to Irish historian and former Irish Republican Army (IRA) member Anthony McIntyre in order to propose a project: to collect recorded stories from former IRA paramilitary members, capturing their record of the conflict.

While such an archive would be of great historical and cultural significance, this would be dangerous work. In a story for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beth McMurtrie wrote:

“Although the fighting was over, informers—or ‘touts,’ as the IRA called them—were not looked upon kindly. You just didn’t go around talking about what you had done in those dark years. Yet the idea was undeniably appealing. To record the stories of the men and women who had put their lives on the line for the cause of independence, some of whom had committed horrific acts of violence in the process, that was something no one else had done.”

McIntyre agreed to act as the primary interviewer for the project, assuming that the material, and the people who took part, would be protected to the fullest legal extent. The participant agreement stated that “each interview would be sealed until the death of the interviewee.” No lawyers were used to vet the agreements. McIntyre began his interviews in Ireland the following year. According to McMurtie, by 2006 he had interviewed 26 former IRA members; in addition, a Belfast researcher gathered interviews from 20 loyalist paramilitary agents to reflect the other side of the conflict.

Legal troubles for the Belfast Project began in 2011. British authorities had requested that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issue subpoenas for interviews from subjects they believed had connections to various crimes committed during the Troubles. The subpoenas were issued under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) signed between the U.S. and the UK in 1994. According to an article in the Stanford Law Review, the MLAT “provides, among other things, that the United States and the United Kingdom will assist one another in ‘serving documents; locating or identifying persons…[and] executing requests for search and seizures.’” The treaty “does not require compliance…in all circumstances,” but the DOJ chose to issue the subpoenas.

By May 2014, 11 tapes had been turned over to the PSNI after it issued a statement claiming it planned to seek the entire contents of the Belfast Project. As a result of these subpoenas Gerry Adams, former leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political branch, was arrested. Two participants in the Belfast Project had implicated Adams in the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, whom the IRA had accused of being an informant. Brendan Hughes, a “legendary IRA volunteer,” had passed away by the time his recordings were subpoenaed; former IRA volunteer Dolours Price however, was still alive, and her tapes remained under embargo. Adams was freed after four days of police questioning.

Robert O’Neill, the BC librarian involved with the project, retired during the 2013–14 academic year; his successor, Christian Dupont, was unable to provide comment. He told Library Journal that due to the unresolved nature of the legal issues surrounding the Belfast Project, all College employees have been told to refrain from making any statements.

Implications for Archives

Christine George, currently the archivist and faculty services librarian at the State University of New York Buffalo’s Charles B. Sears Legal Library, first heard about the Belfast Project when she was in library school; she has since stayed up to date with the evolving legal issues. She published her concerns on the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Issues and Advocacy Roundtable blog. When LJ spoke with George recently, she said: “…the litigation surrounding the Belfast Project serves as a reminder that archivists and institutions cannot provide the protection that certain collections may require. As a profession, archivists need to seriously consider the legal and moral implications of seeking and housing such collections.”

The 2013 response from the now-defunct Government Affairs Working Group of SAA included a discussion of the concept of archival privilege, and how it was unsuccessfully invoked in the case of the Belfast Project: “The belief that there should be an archival privilege of confidentiality rests on the ‘need of history’ for honest information, and thus the need to shield honest answers from potential legal consequences.” This concept, as applied to politically sensitive archival material, has drawn conflicting views. From SAA’s response: “Although some members of the profession clearly believe that such a right should be asserted, others believe that asserting such a right could be interpreted as an unfortunate exercise in absolutism that would be detrimental to the broader public interest.”

James King, a PhD student at the Information School at Pittsburgh University, also studied the Belfast Project and its legal ramifications. In 2014 he published “‘Say nothing’: silenced records and the Boston College subpoenas” in Archives and Records: The Journal of the Archives and Records Association (view the author’s submitted manuscript). In it, he addressed the “the little-recognized preservation hazard of silenced or uncreated records,” and told LJ of his concerns about capturing the voices of the Troubles in particular:

“It seems even more unlikely that future oral history or archival projects related to the conflict will find many participants willing to risk the hazards of contribution. I also fear that this case might affect the many community organizations and storytelling projects that have helped Northern Ireland transition from conflict, as those who experienced the violence of the conflict might now reasonably decline to tell their stories.”

Both King and George addressed the need for archival policies that would allow voices of conflict to be heard. However, with academic or archival privilege questionable at best in cases like this, King stated his hope “…that similar endeavors in the future will learn from the Belfast Project by proceeding only once all legal and ethical implications are understood, addressed, and conveyed in a manner that can truly guarantee the safety of participants.”

At this point it is unclear what contents of the Belfast Project are still held by BC. According to an FAQ on the college’s website, the records are closed, “unavailable to use for any reason.” In May 2014, the New York Times quoted BC as stating that it would return any material to participants who wanted their interviews back. This had been a point of contention between BC and McIntyre and Maloney; the latter two felt that as soon as the confidentiality of the Project was compromised this offer should have been extended to the participants. The article closed noting: “All the material is now locked away in an undisclosed location.”

This article was featured in Library Journal‘s Academic Newswire enewsletter.