Research

After Battle to Get Boston College's 'Belfast' Records, Prosecutors Now Largely Dismiss Their Value

September 30, 2015

Four years ago British and American authorities began a legal battle with Boston College to gain access to a confidential oral-history project in hopes that it would solve a decades-old murder in Northern Ireland. The court case took nearly three years, damaged reputations and endangered lives, and led historians to fear their research could get caught up in similar fights. Ultimately, Boston College was forced to hand over recordings of interviews with several key players in Northern Ireland’s 30-year civil conflict, known as the Troubles.

But on Tuesday the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland said that evidence on the recordings is "hearsay" and declined to prosecute seven of the eight suspects identified in the 1972 abduction and death of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 whom the Provisional Irish Republican Army believed to be an informer for the British.

One of those seven suspects, Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political counterpart, was implicated by at least two former IRA members who participated in the Belfast Project, as the Boston College effort was known. Mr. Adams has denied any involvement in Ms. McConville’s death. The sole person now being pursued by prosecutors is Ivor Bell, a former IRA leader who has been charged with soliciting her murder. He allegedly was interviewed as part of the project.

The Boston College tapes were not the sole source of evidence for investigators, but they assumed the highest profile. Pamela Atchison, deputy director of public prosecutions, said in a written statement that after "careful consideration" of the evidence against the seven people, her office "concluded that it is insufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction against any of them for a criminal offence."

‘Immense Damage’

Ed Moloney, an Irish journalist who directed the Belfast Project and fought against the records’ release, said the conflict over the project had "caused immense damage to the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, needlessly tarnished the name of Boston College, produced years of legal battles in the courts on both sides of the Atlantic, and brought four years of anxiety and grief to many of those caught up in it all."

"And what is the end result?" he asked, in an email to The Chronicle. "An admission that the interviews are ‘hearsay’ evidence and useless in court. If the police in Northern Ireland had asked, we could have told them that in 2011. Heads should fall, but alas they won’t."

When the project began, in 2001, nobody anticipated it would end up in court. Following a peace accord that ended the worst of the fighting, interviewers for Boston College spoke to people who had been on the front lines on both sides of the fighting. The hope was to gain a better understanding of the conflict, and participants were promised confidentiality until their death.

In 2013 the college relinquished the complete interviews of two former IRA members along with portions of interviews of nine more participants, out of a total of 46.

But this latest announcement may not be the final chapter in the saga. Last year the Police Services of Northern Ireland said it was going to continue to pursue the rest of the archive "to investigate fully all matters of serious crime, including murder."

Anthony McIntyre, an Irish researcher who interviewed former IRA members for the project, said that prosecutors were dismissing discussions only about other people on the recordings as hearsay. "They are insisting that if a person spoke on tape about themselves, that is an admission," he said by email.

Boston College’s spokesman, Jack Dunn, said on Tuesday that the college had fought to protect academic research. "It has been a frustrating ordeal for all those involved with the project," he said in an email, "and we hope that today’s ruling by the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland will help bring the matter closer to resolution."

Beth McMurtrie writes about campus culture, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie, or email her at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.