Boston College will contest a new legal bid by British law enforcement to seize the entire trove of interviews from the university’s Belfast Project, university officials said Friday, joining a renewed battle over the controversial archive.
In a statement Thursday, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said it would seek to obtain the collection of interviews with former members of militia groups that clashed during the decades-long conflict known in Northern Ireland as the Troubles. But police did not specify a course of action or timetable.
“Detectives in Serious Crime Branch have initiated steps to obtain all the material from Boston College as part of the Belfast project,” the Police Service said. “This is in line with PSNI’s statutory duty to investigate fully all matters of serious crime, including murder.”
A spokesman for Boston College said Friday that the university had not received any information about the move to acquire the archives. But the spokesman said the blanket request for all materials, including interviews with more than a dozen members of a militia group loyal to Britain, seemed aimed at rebutting critics who have accused British authorities of using the archives for political purposes.
“The [Police Service of Northern Ireland] has been criticized for only pursuing the interviews of former IRA members,” said spokesman Jack Dunn. “This appears to be an attempt to deflect criticism that their actions were politically motivated.”
A spokesman for the Police Service declined to comment.
From 2001 to 2006, researchers interviewed former members of the Irish Republican Army, who sought a united Ireland, and former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a paramilitary group that wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Dunn said Boston College would fight to protect the interviews and hoped that US authorities would reject the legal request.
“Since the first subpoenas were issued in 2011, Boston College has pursued legal, political, and diplomatic efforts to oppose the effort of British law enforcement to obtain the interviews in an effort to protect the enterprise of oral history and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland,” Dunn said. “We will continue to do so and hope that the State Department and the Department of Justice will reject this latest request.”
A spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts declined to comment.
Former militia members consented to interviews for the oral history project with the assurance that their statements would be kept confidential until their death. But Northern Ireland authorities, using a mutual legal assistance treaty with the United States, pursued the interviews as potential evidence of past crimes.
The treaty requires the nations to share information that could aid in criminal investigations.
After a lengthy court battle, Boston College was compelled to hand over 11 interviews with former members of the Irish Republican Army, leading to the recent arrest of Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, in connection with the notorious 1972 killing of Jean McConville.
After being released without charges earlier this month, Adams said interviews from the oral history project formed the basis for his arrest. Adams has denied any involvement in the killing of McConville, a mother of 10 who the IRA believed was an informer.
McConville was abducted and secretly buried. Years later, the IRA admitted responsibility for her death.
Information from the interviews also led to the arrest of Ivor Bell, a former IRA member who was charged in the slaying of McConville.
The arrests have led to criticism that Northern Irish authorities are exploiting the archives to cause political damage to Adams and Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army. Adams has criticized researchers for focusing on former IRA members who became critics of Adams and the peace process.
After Adams’s arrest, Boston College said it would return interviews to any participants who requested them and would not keep copies. Several people had already made requests.
Ed Moloney, an Irish journalist who led the project, blasted the British authorities’ latest bid to obtain the archives.
“I call upon the US government to resist this fishing expedition by the PSNI and to remember that the major consequence of this bid to invade an American college’s private archive will be to undermine a peace deal that was in no small way the product of careful American diplomacy and peace building,” he wrote on his blog.
“I also call upon Boston College to vigorously resist this action and to rally the rest of American academe in the cause of research confidentiality,” he wrote.
NBC News has also requested that previously subpoenaed materials be unsealed, writing that “any case involving incidents of terrorism and criminality . . . is a matter of great public interest.”
Sarah Wunsch — staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which backed two project researchers in their effort to protect the interviews — called on American authorities to reject the police request.
“I think it’s time for the US government to call a halt to this, which is not only damaging to oral history and academic freedom, but also immensely damaging to peace in Northern Ireland,” she said.Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.