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Boston College finds itself at the center of a legal struggle with potential consequences for the privacy of academic research, the future of oral histories, and the Irish justice system. At issue is the Belfast Project, an oral history of Irish republican and loyalist paramilitarists begun in 2001 and archived at Boston College’s Burns Library. Between 2001 and 2006, under the project direction of Irish journalist Ed Moloney, ex-IRA member Anthony McIntyre and loyalist Wilson McArthur conducted some 40 interviews with the understanding that the interviews would be kept confidential during the interviewee’s lifetime “to the extent allowed by U.S. law.”
In May of last year, the U.S. Justice Department, acting on behalf of the British government under a mutual legal assistance treaty, subpoenaed the interviews of two individuals, former IRA members Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price. A second subpoena requesting additional materials relating to the 1972 killing of a Belfast woman was served in August. Boston College filed motions to quash both subpoenas, citing threats to academic freedom and what a past president of the Oral History Association, in a supporting affidavit, called a “genuinely chilling effect on oral history scholarship.” The University did, however, turn over the interview with Hughes, who had died and whose interviews had been the subject of a 2010 book by Moloney.
U.S. District Judge William G. Young, on December 16, denied the University’s motions, but agreed to the University’s request to review the interview materials in camera to balance the legitimate law enforcement interests against the interest in protecting confidential academic research materials. On December 27, the Judge ordered the release of the Price materials, and on January 20, after a private review of the remaining IRA tapes, further ruled that Boston College must release portions of the interviews of seven additional interviewees in response to the second subpoena. Independently, Moloney and McIntyre received a stay on the release of materials to the British government pending a hearing from the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the denial of their motion to intervene in the case, scheduled for March 2012.
Responding to the January 20 decision, University spokesperson Jack Dunn ’83 said, “Boston College’s sole intention with the Belfast Project was to be the repository of an oral history endeavor that would provide a valuable resource for historians and scholars seeking an understanding of the Troubles. We have asked the judge to weigh our interest in protecting academic research against the government’s interest in meeting its treaty obligations with the United Kingdom. While the judge has ruled that the Dolours Price tapes are relevant to an ongoing investigation in Northern Ireland, the University has filed an appeal of his second ruling regarding the seven IRA interviews because they appear to have limited probative value to the investigation. Our appeal will likely be heard in May or June.”