The recent arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in connection with an infamous decades-old slaying has returned Boston College, an institution with deep Irish roots, to the battles over Northern Ireland’s continuing tormented attempts at peace.
Boston College had reluctantly turned over to British authorities documents from an academic project that had implicated Adams, 65, and the Irish Republican Army in the killing of alleged informer Jean McConville, a disclosure that may have contributed to Adams’s arrest and could threaten a still shaky peace process.
“The fact is, this peace process is still tenuous, and there are still deep tensions between the two parties still in government,” said Niall O’Dowd, founder of the New York-based website IrishCentral.com, which calls itself the largest website in North America focusing on developments in Ireland.
“If you talk to anyone in Northern Ireland they will tell you the same thing, that the arrest of Gerry Adams has the potential to destabilize the peace process,” O’Dowd said in a phone interview Thursday.
Boston College’s defenders say the institution was ensnared in a political donnybrook, which the United States government has failed to recognize when it agreed to a request from Britain to seek records from the university’s academic project, known as the Belfast Project.
“It sickens me that it comes back and reflects at Boston College,” said Thomas P. O’Neill III, a former trustee with Boston College, whose father was a US House speaker from Massachusetts who helped secure peace accords in Northern Ireland.
“There’s plenty of finger-pointing to go everywhere [in Ireland], but great strides of peace have been made, and I don’t want to lose that,” he said.
The Belfast Project
Several participants in the project had implicated Adams, a popular IRA leader, in the killing of McConville, a 38-year-old mother of 10 who was abducted in west Belfast in 1972 and shot to death. The IRA later took responsibility for the killing of McConville, whom they suspected of being an informant.
One of the participants was Brendan Hughes, a legendary volunteer who disagreed with Adams’s peace strategy. Another was Dolours Price, one of the highest-profile female members of the Provisional IRA, who said Adams ordered her to drive McConville to her IRA executioners. Another alleged BC project participant, Ivor Bell, a former senior IRA commander, was charged in March with aiding and abetting McConville’s killing.
Adams — a member of the Irish Parliament, president of the Sinn Fein political party, and a major player in the 1998 peace agreement —
The US Department of Justice, at the request of British authorities, had demanded that BC turn over the Belfast Project interviews under an international treaty that requires the internal disclosure of evidence of violent crimes. Under a federal court subpoena, Boston College had agreed to provide records of Hughes’ interviews, because he was already dead. The college fought requests to provide records of Price’s interviews, as well as dozens of other interviews, but an appeals court ultimately ruled in May 2013 that portions of 11 interviews had to be released. Price had been found dead only months earlier, in January 2013, in her Malahide, Ireland, home.
The journalists involved in the Belfast Project criticized Boston College’s handling of the subpoena, saying the university failed to fight for what they called their academic freedom to protect their sources. The journalists argued that the people interviewed would never have agreed to the interviews had they known the information could have been subpoenaed.
The journalists tried to intervene, to protect their interests, but several appeals courts said the records belonged to Boston College.
“This stain is going to be on Boston College for a very long time,” said Ed Moloney, one of the journalists involved in the project. Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA volunteer who recorded interviews, has said his life could be in jeopardy.
Harvey Silverglate, a well-known civil liberties lawyer in Boston, has published several articles asserting that Boston College failed to fight for its academic freedom, the way a journalist would battle to protect First Amendment rights.
“If BC knew that it wouldn’t have the guts to refuse to turn over those materials, it never should have put itself in the position as custodian,” Silverglate said.
Jack Dunn, a Boston College spokesman, said Thursday the college successfully fought the disclosure of most of the interviews but was forced ultimately by the court order to turn over the information. He said the college’s ability to argue that the information was confidential was weakened by the production of books and documentaries by Moloney and others, as well as Price’s own admissions in separate media interviews that Adams ordered the killing.
“People understand that Boston College had no option other than to comply with the federal court order,” Dunn said. “Unfortunately, this court order could have a chilling effect on oral history projects moving forward, particularly in countries that have a [treaty] obligation with the United States.”
O’Dowd said the journalists and Boston College are both to blame for failing to recognize the significance the interviews would have in the stability of the peace process.
He and O’Neill also said, however, that the request for the information and its subsequent disclosure are part of a larger political entanglement in Northern Ireland. He questioned why authorities would be targeting Adams, when so many other murders had occurred.
“There have been consistent attempts through the years to destabilize the peace process,” O’Dowd said. “For Boston College not to be aware of the ramifications . . . is really a tragic error on their part.”
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Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.