US college requests quashing of oral history subpoenas

Sat, Jun 11, 2011, 01:00

IN A case being watched closely by academics around the world, Boston College has asked a judge to quash subpoenas demanding it turn over to British authorities records from an oral history project involving republican and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.

In papers filed in court in Boston, the college said releasing audio tapes and other materials connected to the confidential interviews could jeopardise the safety of former paramilitaries who were interviewed, the two former paramilitaries who conducted the interviews, and college staff involved in an oral history known as the “Belfast Project”.

The college said giving authorities access to interviews which were granted with the promise they would not be disclosed until after the participants’ deaths could have a chilling effect on other history projects, as well as the peace process. The college’s lawyers dismissed the records demand as “a classic fishing expedition”. A hearing on the college’s motion is expected in the next few weeks.

Boston College officials were stunned last month when they received subpoenas, delivered by the US attorney’s office on behalf of unidentified British authorities. The order authorising the subpoenas was sealed, but indicated authorities were looking for information pertaining to murder, conspiracy to murder, incitement to murder, aggravated burglary, false imprisonment, kidnapping and causing grievous bodily harm.

The subpoenas asked for information gleaned from two former Provisional IRA members, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price. The college turned over the Hughes interviews to US prosecutors last month, saying the promise of confidentiality ended with his death in 2008.

College officials were especially surprised by the sudden law enforcement interest because the oral history project had been praised by Northern Ireland Secretary for State Owen Paterson when he visited Boston last year. Mr Paterson suggested such an approach might contribute more to truth and reconciliation than the lengthy, expensive legal inquiries launched into various atrocities during the Troubles.

Boston College was also selected this year to be the repository for the papers of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

Thomas E Hachey, professor of history and executive director of the college’s centre for Irish programmes, said in an affidavit that releasing the information could damage the peace process.

“The fact that these materials are sought by governmental authorities, believed to be the Police Service of Northern Ireland, will almost certainly create needless alarm among otherwise peacefully reconciled individuals and risks stoking unrest among combative elements . . . ” Mr Hachey wrote.

Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner who interviewed former IRA members for the project, said in an affidavit that the home next to his in Belfast was attacked with excrement and he was the subject of death threats after a book based on the interviews was published last year.

“I am of the view that the more the Belfast Project interviews reveal about how deeply matters of the IRA were discussed, the greater the danger that I as the primary researcher will face,” Mr McIntyre wrote.

Ed Moloney, author of Voices from the Grave, the book based on interviews with Mr Hughes and former PUP leader David Ervine who died in 2007, and director of the Belfast Project, filed an affidavit arguing that Mr McIntyre and Ms Price would be at particular risk for having violated the IRA’s rule against talking about IRA activities, which he compared to the Mafia’s code of omerta.