BOSTON — A judge abused his discretion when he ordered Boston College to release interviews that academic researchers had recorded with former Irish Republic Army members, a school lawyer argued Friday.
In January, U.S. District Court Judge William Young ordered the school to give the U.S. Department of Justice portions of recorded interviews with seven former IRA members so that the agency could hand them over to police in Northern Ireland investigating the IRA’s 1972 killing of a Belfast woman.
The interviews were conducted as part of an oral history project, and participants said they were supposed to be kept secret until their deaths. The researchers who ran the project and conducted the interviews have argued that the participants’ lives could be endangered if their identities are revealed publicly because they could be branded as informants.
In arguments before a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday, Jeffrey Swope, an attorney for Boston College, said any interviews turned over must be “directly related” to the subject of a subpoena – the 40-year-old killing of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 whom the IRA suspected was spying for the British.
Young, who reviewed the recordings and made the decision on which interviews should be turned over, applied the wrong standard when making his decision, Swope said. He also said Young, who cited portions of interviews with seven people in his ruling, actually ordered eight interviews to be turned over because one interview was mislabeled.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Kromm argued that Young only had to decide that the interviews had “ordinary relevance” to the subpoena. He said the subpoena was very broad and called for any and all materials related to McConville’s abduction and killing.
The appeals court did not immediately rule.
In a separate but related case, the same appeals court in July upheld a ruling by Young ordering the college to turn over an interview with convicted IRA car bomber Dolours Price.
Price and the other former IRA members were interviewed between 2001 and 2006 as part of The Belfast Project, a resource for journalists, scholars and historians studying the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles.
Project director Ed Moloney and ex-IRA gunman Anthony McIntyre, who conducted the interviews, challenged the decision by U.S. authorities to subpoena the records.
In its ruling in the Price case, the 1st Circuit found that Moloney and McIntyre had no right to interfere with the police request, under the terms of a treaty between the United States and United Kingdom that requires the two to aid each other’s criminal investigations. The court also said criminal investigations take precedence over academic study.
McIntyre’s wife, Carrie Twomey, who attended the court arguments Friday, said none of the interviews should be turned over to police.
“The danger that this poses to the interviewees is too great,” she said.
McConville’s killing has received widespread media attention in Ireland because of allegations that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams commanded the IRA unit responsible for ordering her execution and secret burial. Adams has denied that.
Moloney has said he believes the recordings are explosive enough to damage Northern Ireland’s unity government, in which Sinn Fein represents the Irish Catholic minority. Its stable coalition with the British Protestant majority is the central achievement of the 1998 U.S.-brokered peace accord.