If trust is lost, future promises naught but troubles for research

Peter Geoghegan discusses the Boston College-Belfast Project case and its ramifications for academic freedom and social inquiry

January 19, 2012

Credit: James Fryer

The folk tale about the academic who accidentally deleted his data is older than the PC, but have you heard the one about the researchers who asked their institution to destroy all their work? No? Well that's exactly what the researchers behind Boston College's Belfast Project, an oral history of the Northern Irish conflict, have done.

"The archive must now be closed down and the interviews be either returned or shredded since Boston College is no longer a safe nor fit and proper place for them to be kept," reads a statement issued by the project's erstwhile director Ed Moloney and former researchers Anthony McIntyre and Wilson McArthur.

The reason for the dramatic declaration is as disarming as it is simple: within the coming weeks, a court in the US is to decide whether interviews with former paramilitaries in Northern Ireland conducted as part of the project should be handed over to the British authorities. All interviewees, including leading figures in the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, were promised that their recordings would not be released until after their death: now they could form the basis for criminal proceedings.

Trust is the sine qua non of much social research. Informants often participate on condition of anonymity, or sign consent forms clearly stating how their data will be used. In highly sensitive research such as the Belfast Project - which was intended to provide a unique repository of oral testimony about the Troubles from direct participants - confidentiality is paramount, as protection against both prosecution and the wrath of disgruntled former comrades.

When the project was mooted in 2000, Moloney, an award-winning Irish journalist now based in New York, and McIntyre, a former Republican prisoner who holds a PhD in history, say that they demanded guarantees that all information gathered would remain confidential. Boston College, a leading centre of Irish studies in the US, disputes this.

A Boston College affidavit introduced in court avers that the head of the John J. Burns Library, where the tapes were to be housed, cautioned Moloney that "the library could not guarantee the confidentiality of the interviews in the face of a court order". Moloney and McIntyre contend that such wording is absent from the agreements drawn up by the college and signed all the participants in the project.

Last May, following an interview given by former IRA bomber Dolours Price to a Northern Irish newspaper, British authorities issued the college with a subpoena, demanding tapes of interviews with both Price and Brendan Hughes, a former IRA commanding officer who died in 2008. In August, a second subpoena followed, this time calling for all interviews that contained information relating to the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a West Belfast mother with 10 children who was believed by the IRA to be a spy for the British Army.

In December, Boston federal court judge William Young upheld the first subpoena. Boston College criticised the verdict but surprisingly declined to appeal: the case now making its way through the US courts was taken by Moloney and McIntyre, not the institution.

Boston College claims that the Belfast Project researchers were told that confidentiality was to the full extent of US, not international, law. It's a claim McIntyre rejects: "We were given guarantees that everything was completely protected. If we (had) thought for one minute that it wasn't, we wouldn't have done the research. We never suspected Boston College would mislead us like this."

The US university stood to gain substantially from the possession of what would have been an archive of major international significance - but now that the project has run into trouble, it seems to be seeking to disassociate itself from the researchers and their interviewees.

The ramifications of the case are potentially far-reaching. McIntyre is concerned about his own security and that of his informants. A number of Loyalist participants have already asked for the return of their tapes amid concerns for their personal safety.

The irony is that oral histories such as the Belfast Project could potentially transform our understanding of recent conflicts. Indeed, prior to the subpoenas, Owen Paterson, the UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, called for the work to be replicated across the region.

Now the researchers involved want to see their meticulously collected data destroyed, and academics beyond Belfast are left wondering if they will be able to protect interviewees who divulge sensitive information.

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