Legal Battle Ensnares Irish Oral History: Critics Say Boston College Subpoenas Threaten Peace Process, Academic Freedom

By McElwee, Joshua J. | National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2012 | Go to article overview

Legal Battle Ensnares Irish Oral History: Critics Say Boston College Subpoenas Threaten Peace Process, Academic Freedom


McElwee, Joshua J., National Catholic Reporter


As leaders across the world were hailing the end of three decades of brutally violent conflict in Northern Ireland, Jesuit-run Boston College in 2001 launched an oral history project aimed at learning lessons from those who had participated in the most volatile moments in the struggle.

Now, that project has become the center of a legal showdown that, experts and government officials say, potentially threatens to reignite tensions among the country's pro-British and pro-Republican parties.

The showdown revolves around two sets of subpoenas issued by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to Boston College for the testimonies. The PSNI alleges that the histories, gathered for a 2001-2006 initiative called the Belfast Project, could provide information essential to the pursuit of prosecutions of unsolved crimes.

The PSNI's request for the testimonies, first made to U.S. officials in May 2011, touched off a continuing saga that has garnered wide attention on two continents and has raised broad questions--from the scope and ability of colleges and universities to conduct research (see sidebar), to even the continued functioning of the Irish government.

Speaking to NCR about the case in September, Ed Moloney, a noted Irish journalist who headed the project for Boston College, said the matters at hand in the case were stark and "very, very dangerous."

The PSNI says it is investigating the 1972 abduction and killing of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who was abducted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), the pro-Irish independence group known for acts of terrorism across the British Isles.

The Northern Irish police's case for the subpoenas stems from an interview the project had with Dolours Price, a former IRA member known for her involvement in a 1973 car bombing in central London at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales.

Following interviews with Price in several Irish papers in 2010 and 2011, in which she referred to the Boston College project, officials with the PSNI asked U.S. officials to issue subpoenas for the testimony of Price and others interviewed. The PSNI made the request under the mutual legal assistance treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom, an agreement that each will assist the other in criminal prosecutions.

Over the past year, several reports in prominent U.K. papers and media outlets have speculated that Price's testimony could link a key government leader in Northern Ireland to McConville's murder: Gerry Adams, head of the republican Sinn Fein party.

While Adams has maintained that he has never been an IRA member, it's possible, the reports allege, that Price's testimony could reveal him as a key leader of the group in the 1970s, and perhaps even place him as responsible for ordering attacks like those on McConville.

Pointing to the impact that release of the testimonies could have on Adams' reputation should they reveal his involvement in McConville's death or in planning IRA attacks in the 1970s, Moloney said, "The damage that it could do to the peace process is really quite considerable."

"There is no way, I think, that if the police moved to charge Adams in the relation to this killing that the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland could survive," said Moloney, who has covered the conflict for some three decades, including in stints as the Northern Ireland editor for The Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune of Dublin. "And the power-sharing government is the peace process. So it's a very very dangerous, very foolish move by the police."

While another noted Irish researcher agreed with some of Moloney's assessment of the impact of the case, she disagreed that it could tear apart the Northern Irish government.

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Legal Battle Ensnares Irish Oral History: Critics Say Boston College Subpoenas Threaten Peace Process, Academic Freedom
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