A federal appeals court swiftly issued an order yesterday preventing US officials from turning over recorded interviews of a former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army to the United Kingdom, until further hearings can be held to determine whether doing so would pose a danger to the interviewers.
The ruling yesterday by the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit effectively stays parts of a decision by US District Court Judge William G. Young that ordered Boston College to turn the materials over to the federal government, which had subpoenaed the documents on behalf of British authorities investigating crimes during the sectarian fight for control of Northern Ireland.
US officials received the information yesterday, meeting Young's deadline, according to court records, but the appeals court decision temporarily prevents them from handing the documents over to British authorities.
In a one-paragraph decision yesterday, the appeals court said that the limited stay was issued "in order to preserve the status quo and allow this court sufficient time to assess the issues.'' The court asked that government officials file a response to the stay by Jan. 9.
Government officials would not comment on the order.
The appellate decision was in response to a last-minute plea by two people who had worked on a project involving the former IRA members, Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney. They had argued that turning over the information to British officials would not only endanger the safety of McIntyre, who lives in Ireland and did research for the project, but also cause further turmoil in Northern Ireland by opening politically sensitive wounds.
"It is my firm opinion that any material produced pursuant to the . . . subpoenas will open up a hornets' nest which, if kicked, will let loose a horde of vicious insects to do irreparable harm to the peace process in Northern Ireland,'' Moloney, a journalist and former editor of newspapers in Dublin, said in an affidavit filed with the courts.
James J. Cotter, a lawyer for both men, said yesterday that he was pleased with the decision.
At issue are materials collected for the Belfast Project, a BC oral history project about the Troubles, a tumultuous period in the latter half of the 20th century during which more than 3,000 people were killed in the struggle for control of Northern Ireland.
The British government had requested transcripts and recordings of interviews for the project through a treaty with the United States that requires both countries to furnish materials that would aid in criminal inquiries.
Government officials have said in court filings that the materials they are seeking are relevant to an investigation into the death of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of 10 who disappeared in 1972 and whose body was recovered in 2003. The IRA has admitted to killing her because she was falsely suspected of being an informer.
Among the materials authorities are interested in are transcripts of the interview with former IRA member Dolours Price, who had acknowledged being involved in crimes committed during the Troubles.
Price and another former IRA member, Brendan Hughes, have said that the abduction, execution, and burial of McConville was ordered by Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, which had served as the political arm of the IRA.
Boston College was opposed to the release of the materials because the project was for academic purposes and interview subjects were promised that their identities and the materials would remain confidential until the person had died.
Moloney and McIntyre had sought to intervene in the federal subpoena sent to Boston College, but Young rejected that request, saying that BC was already arguing on their behalf.
On Thursday, Cotter filed a new complaint separate from the Boston College case opposing release of the information. A hearing for a preliminary injunction is slated for Jan. 6. He sought the appeals court stay based on the continuing arguments.
Jack Dunn, a spokesman for Boston College, said yesterday that Young's order to release the information referred only to the materials related to Price. He said BC chose not to appeal the order because "we felt we did not have a legal leg to stand on,'' but that the university will continue to oppose release of other materials and interview transcripts.
He said that the appeals court ruling was based on the separate legal case brought by Moloney and McIntyre and that he could not speak for their case.
Moloney said in an interview yesterday that he moved forward with his own legal action because Boston College had not addressed the affects that release of the information could have on the political scene in Ireland, as well as the safety of McIntyre, who lives in Ireland with an American wife and their two American children.
"There is a very great risk that the IRA or people associated with it will physically harm [them],'' he said, pointing out that McIntyre has been accused of being an informer.