Northern Irish Police Seek Entire Oral-History Archive at Boston College

May 23, 2014

Three years after Boston College began a lengthy battle to retain control over an oral-history project on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the college may find itself back in court again. The Police Services of Northern Ireland said on Thursday that they would seek the entire archive—all 46 interviews—in which former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and loyalist paramilitary groups talked about their activities during the decades-long civil conflict. Some of those conversations relate to crimes they and others may have committed.

"Detectives in Serious Crime Branch have initiated steps to obtain all the material from Boston College as part of the Belfast Project," according to a statement by the police. "This is in line with the PSNI’s statutory duty to investigate fully all matters of serious crime, including murder."

In 2011 the police sought, and later received, interviews that discussed one of the most notorious murders in Northern Ireland, the killing of Jean McConville, a widow and mother of 10 whom the IRA believed to be an informer for the British. Boston College relinquished the complete interviews of two former IRA members along with portions of interviews of a number of other participants.

The police in Belfast subsequently brought in several people for questioning, most notably Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political counterpart, and a major figure in Northern Ireland. They have so far charged only one person, Ivor Bell, with aiding and abetting Ms. McConville’s murder.

The investigation has caused turmoil in Northern Ireland, with Mr. Adams’s supporters arguing that his interrogation had been politically motivated by opponents out to embarrass him and to dismantle the fragile power-sharing arrangement between republicans and loyalists. The Good Friday Agreement, which took effect in 1998, was the result of negotiations led by a U.S. envoy, George J. Mitchell.

Boston College’s spokesman, Jack Dunn, said by email on Thursday that the college had not been contacted by the U.S. Department of Justice about the latest police effort, and thus it would be "inappropriate to comment on speculation within Northern Ireland." The Justice Department began a court case against the college in 2011 on behalf of British authorities through a treaty pledging mutual legal assistance. Christina Sterling, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Massachusetts, which handled that case, declined to comment.

‘Resist This Raid’

Ed Moloney, who directed the project for Boston College, called on the U.S. government "to resist this raid on an American college’s archive and to remember that the ultimate victim, if this succeeds, will be a peace process that was the product of American diplomacy and peace building."

Mr. Moloney, an Irish journalist, and Anthony McIntyre, an Irish researcher and writer who conducted the interviews with former IRA members, ultimately fell out with Boston College over the handling of the court case. The two men argued that the college should have refused to turn over any materials. In an email Mr. Moloney said that Boston College should "resist to the utmost this attempt to raid its private archives."

Mr. McIntyre said he was not surprised by the latest move by the police. When Boston College publicly announced that it would return interview materials to participants upon request once the court case was over, he argued, the college created a window of opportunity for the police to go after the remainder of the archive. Mr. Dunn declined to say whether the college had yet returned any materials to people who had requested the return of their interviews.

Mr. McIntyre called the latest effort by the police "politically driven in that they probably want further grounds to re-arrest Adams."

Sarah Wunsch, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Mr. Moloney and Mr. McIntyre in 2012, called the latest police pursuit "very dangerous."

"It raises very important issues for the secretary of state [John F. Kerry] and the attorney general [Eric H. Holder], possibly putting in jeopardy the peace process," she said, noting that when he was a U.S. senator, Mr. Kerry argued that the United States should ask the British authorities to withdraw their request for the tapes for that very reason.

The project has continued to generate fallout in recent weeks. One participant, Richard O’Rawe, a former IRA member, said he planned to sue Boston College for failing to make him aware of the legal risks and subsequently endangering his life. Graffiti has popped up around Belfast deriding "Boston College touts," as informers are called. And this week it was revealed that NBC News had petitioned the U.S. district court in Boston for full access to the archives.