Boston College Caught In Dispute Over Belfast Project

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Britain claims BC's recordings may contain information about the killings of several people, including a Belfast mother of 10. One former IRA member has claimed that Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams (seen here in 2005) ordered that murder. (AP)
Britain claims BC's recordings may contain information about the killings of several people, including a mother of 10. One former IRA member says Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams (seen here in 2005) ordered that murder. (AP)

For 30 years, the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland between Irish nationalists and British loyalists led to regular bombings, shootings and killings.

A decade after the historic peace accord there, Boston College began assembling the stories of people on both sides of the conflict.

Now British law enforcement wants the recordings of interviews conducted for that oral history research, known as the Belfast Project. Britain claims the recordings may contain information about the killings of several people, including a Belfast mother of 10. One former IRA member has claimed that Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams ordered that murder.

A federal judge in Boston has ruled that BC must surrender some of the recordings because of a U.S. treaty with Britain, and the school is now deciding whether to appeal.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with the director of the Belfast Project, Irish journalist Ed Moloney and the man who did the IRA interviews, Anthony McIntyre, who are appealing the judge’s ruling together.

McIntyre said he promised confidentiality to his interviewees until their death — but only because that’s what BC promised.

Anthony McIntyre: It seems to me that Boston College did not have the terra firma on which to stand legally when they stated that the ultimate power of release of the interviews lay with the interviewee, not anybody else.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Ed, as the director of this project, is it fair to say that when you received BC’s assurances, you didn’t feel you had to then further research and vet the promise? You simply accepted at face value what the college told you?

Ed Moloney: Yes, indeed, because we were dealing with one of the most prestigious colleges in North America, which had built up a very solid reputation as an intervener in the Northern Ireland peace process. And the thought that we should somehow doubt these people’s word and go away and separately check, to us at that time it would have seemed almost an act of betrayal of the people that we were dealing with.

Anthony, you are a former member of the Irish Republican Army who served 18 years in prison for the murder of a loyalist. You now say that you are afraid for your own safety if the tapes are released. Why?

"[IRA interviewer] Anthony McIntyre’s life is at stake here, and very possibly mine as well."

Ed Moloney, Belfast Project director

Anthony McIntyre: Former senior members of the IRA are accusing me of being an informer. I know that they are ratcheting up the hit campaign so that I will become a hit figure or at least more susceptible to have been attacked in that circumstance.

Ed Moloney: The IRA has this attitude that you may leave the organization, but its secrets stay on forever, and that anyone who’s seen to be party to divulging those secrets — even though it’s for an academic exercise and not to the British — would be deemed by them to be guilty of informing. The penalty is death. So Anthony McIntyre’s life is at stake here, and very possibly mine as well.

Ed, in your appeal, you’re expressing concern that the peace process in Northern Ireland could be jeopardized if the tapes are made public. Why do you fear that?

Ed Moloney: A lot of us, myself included, suspect that one of the motives behind this bid for these interviews is because the police know exactly where the trail is going to end up. It’s going to end up at the door of Gerry Adams. Adams is the leader of Sinn Féin and a former IRA leader. He is responsible for the peace process. The peace process has brought Sinn Féin into government. And if Adams ends up either being accused or being indicted, or being the subject of a civil action as a result of all of this, I don’t have to spell out the damage.

On the other hand, this case has to do with an unsolved murder — the mother of 10 who was murdered by the IRA. How do you make a persuasive argument that that information should not be turned over to law enforcement if it could solve a murder?

Ed Moloney: I would be the first one to applaud you in terms of that sentiment that you just expressed if the same standards were being applied across the board. I have nothing but sympathy for Jean McConville and her family. There are other examples of police agents in Belfast who’ve been exposed, policemen who were running double agents in loyalist or in Republican organizations who allowed those people to murder at will. There have been demands that these policemen who connived other people’s murders be brought to justice. Nothing has happened. The same people who are investigating this case refuse to investigate their own police officers. And when you have double standards, then you’re entitled to say no.

Anthony, you are now appealing the judge’s decision on your own, separate from Boston College. How do you expect this to turn out?

Anthony McIntyre: I am hopeful that reason and logic, both at the political and the judicial level, will prevail. The only reason that those interviews are not now in the hands of the police service of Northern Ireland is because myself and Ed Moloney have been in the courts defending those interviews and doing our utmost not to hand them over.

Both of you are clearly very disappointed with Boston College. On the other hand, the college has fought this. It has tried to stand up for academic freedom. Do you not think that BC has done enough?

Ed Moloney: No, they certainly have not. They could have taken it to a higher court and convinced that court of the merits of their argument. But no, they didn’t. At the first hurdle, they jumped out of the race. I mean, this is a major American college involved in research projects, and it won’t defend its own research projects? So what’s the lesson from that? Don’t do any research projects. At least don’t do any that tackle risky subjects because the college is not going to defend you. Boston College should, on behalf of American academic life, have been in there fighting to the last gasp to defend the values and the principles that lie behind research and academic study. And I’m afraid they didn’t do that, and it’s to their eternal shame.

-- BC Responds —

Moloney and McIntyre’s account of legal protections promised by Boston College differs sharply from the account offered by the school. Sacha spoke with Boston College Communications Director Jack Dunn, who says the researchers refuse to accept responsibility.

Jack Dunn: Regrettably, I think Mr. Moloney and Mr. McIntyre have consistently attempted to deflect blame away from themselves. Ed Moloney was hired with the clear understanding that confidentiality was limited to the extent that American law would allow. And for whatever reason, he’s chosen to either ignore it or, worse, he chose not to extend that crucial caveat to the interviewers and the interviewees.

You believe, apparently, that Boston College has reached the end of what American law allows in terms of protection?

Well, what American law allows, we’ve learned from this court proceeding, is that oral history does not trump a criminal investigation with an allied country. From the beginning, we have asked the court to weigh two competing interests: our compelling interests as a university in protecting academic research and the enterprise of oral history with the legitimate compelling interest of the U.S. government to abide by a treaty obligation with the United Kingdom regarding an investigation into a horrific murder. And, to its credit, the court here has weighed those interests.

This has, in many ways, become a very ugly legal fight with a lot of he-said, he-said going on. I’m wondering if you think this is the kind of case where most people never even assumed anyone would know it was happening. Not that they were trying to hide it, but they certainly never would have expected the British government to be involved and subpoenas to be raining down.

In fairness to Mr. Moloney and Mr. McIntyre and to all of us, I don’t think anyone anticipated that law enforcement within the U.K. would seek a subpoena requesting these materials. Our intentions — all of our intention — was to provide a source of information on a period of great contention in Northern Ireland in which 3,000 people were killed so that historians, scholars, journalists in the future would have a resource to try to sort out the issues behind The Troubles. I think unfortunate circumstances occurred that brought this into the public light in a way that people didn’t anticipate and now all of us have to deal with it.


This program aired on January 27, 2012.


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