Historians fear Boston tapes controversy will damage research into the Troubles
College’s decision to return interviews ‘not a good precedent for researchers’
A man walks past graffiti on a wall off the Falls Road in Belfast last week. Photograph: Reuters
A temporary stability returned to Northern politics this week as Gerry Adams was released without charge by the PSNI, but there is a fresh degree of turmoil in the world of academia.
The Boston tapes controversy has highlighted not only the legal grey area surrounding confidentiality in research, but an inconsistency in academic protocols and practice. There is no agreed set of guidelines governing oral history projects, and academics point out those in existence are sometimes so onerous they stifle research.
“If there is an upside to this it will make people think a little harder about the ethical issues involved,” says Dr Ida Milne, co-director of Oral History Network Ireland.
“On the downside, people are going to be a lot more cautious and our history may be a bit less rich because of it.”
Recriminations continue among those behind the Boston College Belfast Project, which has been described by Canadian researchers Ted Palys and John Lowman as “an example that will be cited for years to come of how not to protect research participants”.
The authors of the project Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre claim the college did not fight hard enough to prevent their interviews being released to the PSNI, while the college has criticised the way the pair allowed the key allegations of the late Brendan Hughes against Adams to emerge into the public domain in a book and TV documentary – something that then forced the hand of the police.
Boston College this week took the unprecedented step of offering to return interview materials to participants. Its spokesman Jack Dunn said the project may have been “well-intentioned”, but Moloney and McIntyre should have known that confidentiality could not be guaranteed.
Palys, an international expert in research ethics, told The Irish Times this decision was “only appropriate” in the circumstances.
“The interviews were done with an understanding that they were completely confidential and no one would ever see them until after their deaths, and that is not the case.
“Those who were interviewed should have control over their information and be allowed to withdraw their data,” said the Canadian, who is professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University.
University of Limerick historian Dr Ruan O’Donnell takes a different view, saying the college decision to return the tapes was “unfortunate, in that it may result in the insights contained being lost forever. This is not a good precedent for long-term researchers.”
Like many others in the field, he believes historians should be granted some right to confidentiality over their sources, describing the Boston College episode as “a body blow to academic freedom”. But he says much of the present difficulty also “stems from the deliberate failure to introduce a statute of limitations for political offences, contrary to standard international legal practice”.
“One of the major structural flaws of the peace process was the failure to address this wider situation by means of a de facto amnesty in the form of a declared, possibly ‘special’, statute of limitations.”
In the absence of such clarity, historians of the Troubles operate in a legal limbo “with no protection whatsoever”.