Researchers Weigh In On Belfast Project Legal Drama
Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series about the subpoena of the Belfast Project.
The Belfast Project started as an historical effort by Boston College intended to preserve the experiences of men and women on the ground during “the Troubles,” a period of violence and political turmoil in Northern Ireland that lasted from the 1960s to 1998. Over the past nine months, the project has developed into far more—an international legal episode with high tensions and even higher potential consequences.
Last May, tapes from the Belfast Project were subpoenaed by the United States federal government, on behalf of the United Kingdom, as part of an ongoing investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) into the death of Jean McConville, an Irish widow and mother of 10 who was murdered in 1972. The U.S. government issued the subpoenas pursuant to a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), an agreement between the two countries to exchange information in the interest of solving crimes, which they believed applied in the case of the Belfast Tapes.
Last year, the Department of Justice successfully subpoenaed interviews with two former IRA members who participated in the Belfast Project, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price. The second set of subpoenas specifically called for the procurement of any and all interviews that contained information relating to McConville’s death, and have posed far greater legal difficulties.
BC filed a motion to quash the subpoenas last June, but was ordered to hand over the tapes on Dec. 27 by Judge William Young. At that time, the University did not file an appeal on the decision, but reserved the right to appeal at a later date. Young was to review the tapes and select those that he believed fit the description of the subpoena, as relating to McConville’s death. Young eventually revealed that seven of the tapes held by BC were relevant to the investigation and should be handed over to the British authorities. BC still reserves the right to appeal, and is deliberating whether or not it will, according to University Spokesman Jack Dunn.
The Belfast Project began in the early 2000s under the direction of Burns Librarian Robert O’Neill and Thomas Hachey, executive director of the Center for Irish Programs. The two spoke with Paul Bew, now a member of the British House of Lords, while he was a visiting professor at BC in 1999 and 2000, about the possibility of beginning an oral history project regarding the Troubles. Bew returned to Ireland and spoke with Ed Moloney, an Irish journalist and former schoolmate of Bew’s, who became interested in the possibility of directing such a project. Moloney referenced a similar project conducted by the Irish government after the Anglo-Irish War as part of his motivation for becoming involved in an oral history of the Troubles.
“[The Irish oral history project] was a very, very valuable historical archive and it was conducted and paid for by the government,” Moloney said in an interview. “I had always been an admirer of this. I had thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something like this in Northern Ireland and the Troubles?’ for a very simple reason, and that is that history books and accounts of history are normally written by the leaders—by the people who are the generals and politicians, who emerge at the end of the day at the top of the heap. Very rarely do they reflect the views or the experiences and life stories of people who are at the ground level in these conflicts.”
Moloney also cited the length of the Troubles as a reason to get involved immediately. Participants who had been involved with the conflict were getting older and many were dying, making the necessity of starting the project all the more pressing.
Former IRA member Anthony McIntyre, and Wilson McArthur, who had ties to loyalist groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), both signed on as lead researchers for the project in the interest of chronicling the Troubles, a period of Irish history that will likely draw considerable interest in the future.
“It held the potential to be a very valuable vein of research, and I think most researchers on the conflict would have jumped at the opportunity to be involved in that type of project, given the new material that it was certain to uncover,” McIntyre said in an interview.
“My motivation for involvement in the project was a belief that what was being proposed could prove to be of immense value to future generations studying the conflict in Northern Ireland,” McArthur said. “Time was literally running out for primary sources, and BC was in a unique position to capture the testimony of those sources for posterity.”
Dunn also emphasized BC’s longstanding dedication to Irish history as an impetus in proceeding with the project. “BC is America’s leading institution on Irish history, literature, and culture,” Dunn said. “We have the largest repository of materials regarding the history of Northern Ireland, including the decommissioning archive.”
In turn, Moloney was hired by BC as director of the Belfast Project. Moloney subsequently hired McIntyre, who interviewed republican participants, and McArthur, who interviewed loyalist participants.
Since the subpoenas were served last spring, Moloney and McIntyre have strongly supported the fight to keep the tapes out of the hands of the PSNI, saying that from the outset, BC made promises of confidentiality to those participating in the project.