The idea was tantalizing: a firsthand account of the Northern Ireland conflict from the front lines. Through confidential interviews, the Boston College oral history project would safeguard stories that might otherwise go to the grave, shedding light on a dark time.
But in many ways, the Belfast Project was mismanaged from the start, critics say, a victim of careless legal vetting and lax oversight, and was kept secret for years from the BC historians who should have supervised it.
In the end, when British authorities took advantage of an obscure treaty to gain access to the trove of interviews, a move that ultimately led to the stunning arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in an infamous 42-year-old killing, the project fell victim to the same sectarian divide it sought to chronicle.
Adams would be released without charges, after five days of questioning, but the fact of his brief detention stirred the old hatreds and made some worry anew about the durability of the hard-won peace.
For Boston College, the episode has left deep scars. The college recently announced it would relinquish the interviews, bringing the protracted dispute to a likely end. But the controversy has left a trail of recrimination and blame, and many scholars on and off the campus say it carries a painful legacy that discourages confidential research and undercuts academic freedoms.
“What you have here is, at some level, the perfect storm,” said Ted Palys, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who has written about the controversy in the Journal of Academic Ethics. “This was clearly botched in many ways.”
BC faculty members remain angry that such a sensitive undertaking could remain in the shadows, with virtually none of the oversight standard with academic projects.
History professors have long chafed over the project’s association with the university. Now, many are calling for an independent review of the university’s handling of the project, in hopes of avoiding similar mistakes in the future.
“The question that is unanswered is, why was the process not followed with this project?” said Susan Michalczyk, assistant director of BC’s Arts and Sciences honors program and president of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “There should have been direct faculty oversight. Academic freedom can only be maintained when people adhere to the policies that preserve ethical practices.”
Yet others say oversight might have made little difference. The notion that government officials across the Atlantic would move to seize the archives to investigate long-ago crimes could hardly have been predicted, they say.
“I don’t fault Boston College at all,” said Thomas Groome, professor of theology and religious education at BC. “I don’t think anyone could have known this was going to happen.”
Groome said he blames the British government for pressing the issue, overriding concerns of academic freedom, and putting a fragile peace in jeopardy.
“Why would they insist on these tapes? They know they would never be credible enough to convict anyone,” Groome said. “They’ve ruined oral history and achieved nothing but returning us to the sectarian tensions of bygone years. It’s unfortunate, because there are so many stories that now will go to the grave.”
The project began in 2001, when a team led by Irish journalist Ed Moloney paired up with two BC representatives, including the Irish historian Thomas Hachey. Over the next five years, 46 people were interviewed on both sides of the conflict: 26 former members of the Irish Republican Army, who sought a united Ireland, and 20 former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a paramilitary group that wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Even though a fragile peace had come to Northern Ireland with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, such a venture was fraught with tangled political and legal allegiances and festering grudges. To persuade them to speak candidly, participants were assured the interviews would remain confidential until they died.
But documents from the legal battles that would ensue — involving BC, the research team, and the US Justice Department, acting at the behest of British authorities — suggest that the promise of confidentiality was not as absolute as project researchers believed.
The pact with Moloney stated that contracts with the oral history participants would guarantee the conditions of the interview “to the extent American law allows.”
No lawyers at Boston College reviewed that participant agreement, a lapse that would come to symbolize the university’s shaky supervision of the project, faculty members say.
University spokesman Jack Dunn said Robert K. O’Neill, then head of BC’s John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, which houses a highly regarded Irish collection, “has stated his regrets that he did not run the agreement by legal counsel.”
O’Neill did speak to a Boston College lawyer who advised him to include the clause about the limitation of confidentiality in Moloney’s contract, the university said.
Dunn added that Moloney and his project interviewer, Anthony McIntyre, wrote the agreement, based on a standard oral history release form.
“This is clearly a case of shared responsibility,” he said.
Moloney said it was his understanding that university lawyers had reviewed the participant agreements to ensure confidentiality could not be threatened. “At that stage, we had complete trust in BC,” he said.
In an affidavit filed in the case, O’Neill said it was doubtful anyone would have agreed to participate without “assurances of confidentiality.”
“Their stories would have died with them, and an opportunity to document and preserve a critical part of the historical record would have been lost forever,” he stated.
O’Neill, who has since retired, said in his affidavit he initially raised concern that a court might demand access to the interviews, but “was persuaded that it would be highly unlikely.”
Hachey, in an affidavit, said interviewers were required to give participants “the absolute promise” their accounts would remain confidential until they died.
The project contract also called for an oversight committee “to assure that the strictest standards of historical documentation are to be followed.”
“None of that ever happened,” said Kevin O’Neill, cofounder of BC’s Irish Studies program.
The committee was supposed to include Kevin O’Neill. But his involvement with the project was informal and brief, he said.
In 2002, he said, he read a transcript from the project and expressed concern that the line of questioning revealed a clear political perspective. Critics said the researchers relied too heavily on interviews with hard-line republicans who faulted Adams and Sinn Fein for pursing the peace accord.
“Such leading of subjects would be thrown out in a court,” Kevin O’Neill wrote in a memo to Hachey, a copy of which was provided to the Globe. “They are equally damaging in the collection of oral history.” Kevin O’Neill said Hachey never responded to his concerns.
Moloney has denied allegations that the interviews were one-sided, saying researchers spoke with everyone they could.
In a statement, Hachey said that the lack of oversight was a byproduct of the urgent need for secrecy.
“Given how the desire for confidentiality among the Belfast Project participants was so very strong from the outset, the prevailing wisdom at the time dictated keeping the details as secretive as possible,” he said.
“With the optic of hindsight, however, I do regret that we did not include a few colleague specialists from both Boston College and elsewhere in reviewing the project, despite the potential security risk in any wider exposure of the project,” he added.
Moloney said he supported a faculty review board, and that oversight may well have identified weaknesses in the project.
Many faculty remain stunned that a project with so many potential ethical and legal pitfalls could be run with so little supervision. Given the risks involved, the project might never have moved forward if other scholars had been given a chance to weigh in, many said.
“There are all sorts of reasons why this project should not have been done,” said Marilynn Johnson, a history professor. “It’s really hurt our credibility.”
A number of specialists agree that BC should commission an independent review.
“How do you take this horrible thing and turn it into a positive?” Palys said. “You have to go back to square one.”