Seeking to free itself from a roiling dispute across the Atlantic, Boston College announced Tuesday that it would return recorded interviews with more than 40 participants in a controversial academic project on the Northern Ireland conflict, documents linked to the recent arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
Boston College said it would release the original recordings to any of the participants who request them, a step that could help shield the people interviewed from authorities investigating past crimes in Northern Ireland. The university also said it will not retain copies or transcripts of interviews, and will continue to shield the identities of participants until their deaths. Several participants have already filed requests.
“Some are concerned about the possibility of prosecution,” university spokesman Jack Dunn said. “Some are concerned for their safety.”
The announcement marked the latest turn in the longstanding skirmish over the oral history project, which has sparked a debate over academic freedom and reopened old wounds from the conflict known as the Troubles. It also cast into doubt the fate of BC’s archive, which fell victim to the same divides it was meant to document.
Researchers who compiled the Belfast Project sought to document the story of the three-decade conflict between unionists who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and nationalists who wanted to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.
Between 2001 to 2006, researchers recorded confidential interviews with members of militia groups that clashed during the conflict, under the assurance that their statements would be kept confidential until their deaths.
In all, 46 people were interviewed: 26 former IRA members and 20 former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group.
But at the urging of British authorities, the Justice Department demanded that Boston College hand over the interviews to US authorities, under an international treaty requiring the disclosure of evidence of violent crimes. After a high-stakes legal battle that concluded last year, the university was forced to release portions of interviews with seven former members of the Irish Republican Army, once considered the armed wing of Sinn Fein.
Allegations from those interviews tied Adams to the 1972 killing of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 whom the IRA suspected — wrongly, many say — of being an informant. The IRA later admitted responsibility for her death.
Adams has denied any role in McConville’s death. He was arrested last week and then released without charges Sunday after four days in police custody. On Tuesday, Adams welcomed the end of the BC project, asserting that it was “flawed from the beginning.”
“Everyone has the right to record their history, but not at the expense of the lives of others,” he said in a statement.
Adams said the project was biased against Sinn Fein, and that researchers were “extremely hostile to myself, Sinn Fein, the peace process, and the political process.”
Information from three participants in the oral history project “formed the mainstay” for his arrest, he said. Adams blamed those “who cannot live with the peace’’ with exploiting the archives for their own benefit.
Boston College, meanwhile, faulted the two project leaders. Dunn said the direction of the research appeared one-sided, joining critics who have said the researchers neglected to interview Sinn Fein supporters.
“The regret comes from the selection of Ed Moloney as project director and Anthony McIntyre as IRA interviewer, given the extensive criticism that has been levied against them since the project was made public in 2010,” Dunn said.
Moloney, an Irish journalist, directed the project. McIntyre, a former IRA volunteer, conducted many of the interviews. Both have had a falling out with the university, saying it should have fought harder to protect the interviews.
Dunn said the university “waged an extensive legal battle” to defend the archives against federal subpoenas.
The project, launched in the 1990s, sought to document a sad chapter in Northern Irish history. Because of the university’s deep ties to Ireland and Northern Ireland, it was seen as a logical home for the archives. BC said it paid the researchers for their work.
But when British authorities sought the records, the academic partnership soon frayed and would become a growing source of frustration for the university.
Dunn said he hopes some portion of the historical record will survive at Boston College. “The hope is that someday they may shed some light on the Troubles,” he said.
Moloney praised the move to return the interviews.
“I’ve been urging this for a long time,” he said Tuesday. “We wanted to make sure the material was not used against them. Boston College is not a safe place for these interviews to be.”
Moloney said he previously had urged the college to destroy the interviews to avoid the risk of losing them to British authorities, and has urged participants to claim the recordings. Under the approach announced by BC on Tuesday, participants will have to present identification to obtain the recordings of their interview.
Moloney rejected the criticism that his research was one-sided, saying, “We basically interviewed who we could.”
“The people who are making these judgments — none of them have read the archives,” he said.
McIntyre also welcomed BC’s decision to return the interviews, saying “they are definitely not in good hands.”
But in his view, Boston College should have notified interview subjects privately. Making the announcement publicly served as a way of distancing itself from criticism about the project, he said.
“It’s like a symbolic washing of hands,” he said.Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.