Researchers responsible for a high-profile oral history project will probably face violent retaliation if Boston College relinquishes confidential interviews with former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a lawyer argued in federal appeals court Wednesday.
But lawyers for the US government contend that an international treaty on criminal investigations should trump any potential risks of releasing the interview recordings to British investigators, who first demanded the records last summer.
The interviews, recorded between 2001 and 2006, are part of BC’s Belfast Project, an effort to document The Troubles, a decades-long period of violent conflict in Northern Ireland.
Irish researchers Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney guaranteed interview subjects that the recordings would remain secret until each interviewee had died.
In July, federal prosecutors demanded that Boston College release the records to aid in an investigation by the British government into the death of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of 10 who disappeared in 1972 and whose body was recovered in 2003.
In December, US District Judge William G. Young ordered BC to turn over interviews with former IRA member Dolours Price. After that ruling, the university decided to comply, while the researchers filed their own lawsuit to keep the tapes confidential.
In court Wednesday, lawyers were faced with two questions: Should the order for the tapes’ release stand? And do the two researchers have the right to argue their case separately from BC after the initial ruling against the institution?
Eamonn Dornan, an Irish lawyer representing the two researchers, contended that the release of the records would have a “chilling effect’’ on future academic research in the United States.
Dornan said his clients and their families would be in great personal danger if the tapes were released to the British government under a mutual-assistance treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom.
The men would be viewed as informants in the eyes of the Irish Republican Army, he said, and would be targeted with violence.
He cited a 2009 incident in which an IRA splinter group opened fire on two pizza delivery drivers, along with a group of British soldiers, while they brought pies to a British Army base in Northern Ireland.
“Boston College has institutional concerns, but the stakes for my clients are unimaginably higher,’’ Dornan said.
Barbara Healy Smith, the lawyer representing the US government, argued that the researchers are not guaranteed the right to keep their research private, just as journalists are not exempt from naming a confidential source if subpoenaed.
Healy Smith’s arguments were frequently interrupted by the panel of three judges, who asked why the need to comply with an international treaty trumps the US government’s responsibility to protect the safety and First Amendment rights of the researchers.
“It’s a little hard to argue that Boston College is adequately representing [the researchers’] interests when they’re not seeking an appeal,’’ Justice Michael Boudin said.
Moloney, who holds American citizenship, said after the hearing that he is confident the judges will recognize the threats to his safety.
“We sincerely hope and believe that the distinguished judges can right this terrible wrong,’’ Moloney said.
McIntyre’s wife, American-born Carrie Twomey, attended the hearing and said that she lives in fear that a member of the paramilitary group will take vengeance against herself or her family.
“It’s been a complete nightmare, one that we don’t ever seem to be able to wake up from,’’ said Twomey, who lives with McIntyre in Ireland.