Value of Boston College tapes diminished by anonymous voices
Voices said to belong to former IRA militants, talking about Jean McConville’s murder, can’t be identified
Jean McConville with three of her children shortly before she disappeared in 1972. Photograph: Pacemaker Belfast
There are voices and they talk about the death of Jean McConville. It may not matter. After two years of legal proceedings in the US, a set of audiotapes in a Boston College archive are supposed to answer questions about McConville’s 1972 murder by members of the IRA, who claim they suspected her of informing for the British army in Belfast.
The voices on the tapes are said to belong to former militants from the organisation that took McConville from her home, shot her dead and then buried her on a beach in the South.
But the prolonged court battle may produce evidence of questionable legal value, as Boston College now says it is unable to identify some of the interviewees.
Assuming no further legal wrangling in the US, police in Northern Ireland are set to receive subpoenaed material in which unidentifiable voices anonymously discuss a decades-old murder.
“It certainly greatly diminishes the value of the evidence,” says Eamonn Dornan, a lawyer who has participated in some of the American legal proceedings involving the subpoenas. “If they can’t be identified, they’re meaningless, or almost meaningless.”
The inability of Boston College archivists to identify some interviewees from the venture known as the Belfast Project grows from apparent failures in a system that was designed for the very purpose of masking the identity of research subjects.
In the archive, interview materials were marked only by a coded letter and court documents have used that coding to discuss which of the tapes Boston College is to provide to the Government.
Among the interviewees who discuss McConville’s death, which American courts have concluded from a review of the material, are those known as S, Y, and Z.
Nowhere, however, does Boston College have a key that connects those coded identities to the real identities of the interviewees.
Jeffrey Swope, a lawyer in Boston who represents the university in the proceedings over the subpoenas, acknowledged this week that the school’s archivists have never had that identification key.
In some instances, university archivists are able to identify Belfast Project interviewees by the research contracts they signed. For the subjects known as S, Y, and Z, however, Boston College acknowledges that it doesn’t have interview contracts, although it does have contracts that identify the subjects of four other sets of subpoenaed interviews.
The American university is blaming an Irish journalist for the missing documentation, saying that the writer and filmmaker Ed Moloney was obligated to provide the paperwork under the terms of his contract as the research director of the Belfast Project, which was concluded in 2006.
“Under the agreement between Boston College and Mr Moloney, ” wrote Swope in an email on Wednesday, responding to questions, “Mr Moloney promised to provide a ‘key’ to the code assigned to each interviewee that gave the interviewee’s name. Mr Moloney failed to do. Mr Moloney did provide Boston College the donation agreements for some, but not all, of the interviewees.”