Inside Boston College’s Belfast Project

Readers may remember the case where the U.K. government requested tapes contained in the Boston College archives consisting of interviews with I.R.A. members.  The nominal rationale for the request was to aid in solving a murder of an alleged British informant in 1972.  Britain asked the Justice Department for the tapes under a treaty that called for mutual assistance in criminal investigations.  The College resisted turning over the tapes and the matter went to litigation in federal court.  The District Court judge in Boston ordered the College to release 85 tapes from the interviews.  The Court of Appeals later modified that order for the release of 11 tapes.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a lengthy article on how the Belfast Project was conceived and carried out.  It’s a story of secrecy and misunderstandings.  The secrecy came from the sensitivity of the subject matter.  Former I.R.A. members would not speak freely if they weren’t assured that their comments were held in confidence while they were alive.  The misunderstandings related to the secrecy.  The College was agreeable to the project.  There are conflicts, however, in the understanding of what legal protections the College could offer to interviewees.  The contracts offered to participants were not vetted in advance and did not contain key language defining the legal extent of confidentiality.

Two of the principles in the project are Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney.  McIntyre, a former member of the I.R.A. who spent a number of years in prison for his actions, conducted the interviews.  Moloney was the project director.  He wrote a book in 2008 called Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland which used quotes from two participants who had previously died.  The book essentially revealed the Project and drew attention from law enforcement officials in Britain and Ireland.  This showed more misunderstandings in that McIntyre and Moloney had no idea the mutual assistance treaty existed as they carried out the interviews.  The lack of communication and legal oversight put the parties at odds in defending against release.  The College appears to be blindsided in some respects as were McIntyre and Moloney.

The article is useful in that it is a cautionary tale on how not to organize and manage an archival project on a sensitive subject.  There are quotes from outside archivists and others on the need to put a legal team together in advance of collecting interviews.  The Belfast Project is essentially dead at this point.  Interviewees are requesting the return of their tapes.  The University has said that it will honor those requests to the extent that it can, whatever that means.  The litigation is over though the fallout from the Project continues.  –Mark

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