BC asks for Irish project secrecy

Appeals to court to stop UK request; argues its release risks safety, history

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Staff / June 9, 2011

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In a case being watched closely on both sides of the Atlantic, Boston College filed a motion in US District Court yesterday to stop British authorities from getting records from an oral history project involving paramilitary fighters in Northern Ireland.

The college’s motion, filed with the US attorney’s office, seeks to quash subpoenas from British authorities who want audiotapes and other materials from BC’s confidential interviews with former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

The college said the release of the material from its Belfast Project could jeopardize not only the safety of those interviewed, but the two former paramilitary members who conducted the interviews and other BC staffers.

It could also threaten other history projects and even the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland, BC argues. Individuals who agreed to be part of the Belfast Project were promised that their interviews would not be made public until after their deaths, and to break that promise now could have widespread political consequences, they say.

The filings indicate British au thorities are looking for information about murder, conspiracy to murder, incitement to murder, aggravated burglary, false imprisonment, kidnapping, and causing grievous bodily harm.

The college’s lawyers expect a hearing in US District Court within weeks, said BC spokesman Jack Dunn.

The British demand has sent a ripple of concern through academia.

“This development has the potential to set an ominous precedent, not only for Boston College but for the entire field of oral history,’’ said Clifford M. Kuhn, associate professor of history at Georgia State University. “I fear the Boston College episode could snowball and have a genuinely chilling effect on oral historical scholarship.’’

Kuhn, past president of the Oral History Association, has filed an affidavit in support of the BC motion.

In their filings, BC lawyers express frustration over the vagueness of the subpoenas. The court order authorizing them is sealed, and the British agency requesting them unknown. Jeffrey Swope, of the Boston firm Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, asked the court to either quash the subpoenas or at least let BC have “access to the documents that describe the purposes of the investigation to enable them to specify with more particularity in what ways the subpoenas are overbroad.’’

Thomas E. Hachey, University professor of history at BC and executive director of the college’s Center for Irish Programs, said in an affidavit that he suspects police in Northern Ireland are seeking the records.

“The fact that these materials are sought by governmental authorities, believed to be the Police Service of Northern Ireland, will almost certainly create needless alarm among otherwise peacefully-reconciled individuals and risks stoking unrest among combative elements of that society who would like nothing more than to see the embers of division fanned into the flames that would consume the hopes of those who seek reconciliation, rather than recrimination,’’ Hachey wrote.

BC lawyers said Hachey “was recently warned by the United States consul general in Belfast not to come to Belfast for a previously planned celebration of Boston College’s contribution to the peace process because of reactions to the possible release of materials from the Belfast Project.’’

In an interview in Dublin last month, a former senior member of the IRA told the Globe that the subpoenas are the work of disgruntled police officers in Northern Ireland and are aimed at embarrassing Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA. Adams has always denied he was a member of the IRA.

The records being sought are interviews with two former members of the IRA, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, who have been outspoken in their criticism of Adams, who they claim was a senior IRA leader directly involved in killings, abductions, and other acts of violence. Hughes died in 2008.

Adams is not mentioned in the BC motion, but some BC officials privately believe the subpoenas are aimed at him, following his election in February to the Republic of Ireland’s Parliament.

The subpoenas demand original tape recordings, “any and all written documents,’’ and notes and computer records connected to interviews with Hughes and Price.

BC said it had already turned over recordings and transcripts of Hughes “because the conditions pertaining to the confidentiality of his interviews had terminated with his death.’’ But BC lawyers dismiss the demand for other records as a “classic fishing expedition’’ that threatened academic freedom and, in some cases, personal safety.

Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA volunteer who interviewed former IRA members for the project, said in an affidavit the home next to his in Belfast was attacked with excrement, in what he said was a case of mistaken identity, after a book based on the interviews he conducted was published last year.

“There were reports in the press of death threats to myself,’’ wrote McIntyre, who served 18 years in prison for killing a loyalist fighter. “I am of the view that the more the Belfast Project interviews reveal about how deeply matters of the IRA were discussed, the greater the danger that I as the primary researcher will face.’’

Ed Moloney, author of “Voices from the Grave,’’ based in part on those interviews, and director of the Belfast Project, filed an affidavit arguing the British request for BC’s records flies in the face of official British government policy to release all paramilitary prisoners, even those recently convicted, after 1998’s Good Friday Agreement ended the war in Northern Ireland.

Moloney said McIntyre and Price would be at particular risk for having violated the IRA’s rule against talking about IRA activities, which he compared to the Mafia’s “omerta,’’ an offense punishable by death.

In an affidavit, Robert K. O’Neill, the Burns librarian at BC, noted the British and Irish governments recently donated sensitive papers about the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons to BC, “a clear affirmation from both governments of their trust and faith in Boston College as a neutral, unbiased, and secure repository for sensitive historical papers.’’

Kevin Cullen can be reached at