Last week Boston College announced it would return interviews to the former Northern Ireland paramilitaries who recorded them for its now infamous Belfast Project oral history.
This week four of those paramilitaries, led by the former IRA prisoner Richard O’Rawe, declared their intention to sue Boston College for allegedly breaching its contracts with them by not advising them that their testimony could be released on foot of a court order. (The Police Service of Northern Ireland secured US court orders to release 11 recordings for its investigation into the murder of Jean McConville.) And the current and four previous chairs of the history department at Boston College itself issued a statement distancing themselves from the affair: “Successive department chairs had not been informed of the project, nor had they or the department been consulted on the merits of the effort or the appropriate procedures to be followed in carrying out such a fraught and potentially controversial venture.”
It doesn’t seem too much of an exaggeration to say that this has turned into the worst debacle in the history of Irish academic research. Everyone involved – Boston College, the interviewers, the interviewees and those against whom allegations were made – has been left feeling enraged, betrayed and bewildered, often for entirely different reasons.
What has happened bears the hallmarks of a cock-up rather than of a conspiracy. There is a deliberate attempt to generate a literally dangerous hysteria around the project by questioning not just the motives of those involved but the validity of this kind of research. Sinn Féin has very publicly labelled those involved as touts – a term saturated with threat.
Gerry Adams made a great deal of the fact that the Belfast Project was “conceived by Paul Bew, university lecturer and a former advisor to former unionist leader David Trimble”. The implication is that Bew’s suggestion, in 2000, that Boston College should start an oral archive of the Troubles was a unionist plot. But Bew is hugely respected as a historian of modern Ireland: there is not a shred of evidence that his work has ever been to anything but the highest professional and ethical standards. Insidious suggestions that he was part of a political conspiracy are not just wrong in themselves but are an attack on academic and intellectual freedom.
Bew’s suggestion was a very good one. It is somewhat ironic that, even while the Belfast Project is imploding, the understanding of the Irish conflicts whose centenaries we are now marking has been revolutionised by the fruits of a similar project: the Bureau of Military History’s records of interviews with participants in those conflicts. Testimonies from people directly involved in violent acts are not unimpeachable: such people usually have personal or political agendas. But used collectively, by careful researchers, they are invaluable. They counterbalance the tendency to write history from the limited perspective of the official records.
In retrospect it is easy to see that the Belfast Project had serious design flaws. It seems extraordinary that Boston’s own historians were not consulted. There was no independent oversight committee. No one seems to have worked out answers to basic questions such as who would have access to the recordings and when. The IRA’s rules of omerta meant that participation was likely to be skewed towards those who were unhappy with the official line.
Most significantly, there seems to have been no coherent thought about the legal framework in which the project would operate. It is crucial to any oral history project, let alone one as sensitive as this, that the participants are fully informed about what will happen to their records. With the Belfast Project, those involved ended up (I believe in good faith) giving participants guarantees they could not stand over. Ed Moloney’s contract as project director, which he signed in January 2001, stated that each interviewee was in turn to be given a contract “guaranteeing to the extent American law allows the conditions of the interview and the conditions of its deposit” at Boston College. But the contracts actually given to interviewees did not contain this crucial qualification. Neither Moloney nor the principal interviewers, Anthony McIntyre and Wilson McArthur, knew what American law might mean for confidentiality.
These are bad mistakes, and they wound up destroying the project. But the biggest mistake was to believe that history could be recorded safely because the Troubles were over. They’re not over: they are in a weird new phase where what is being contested is control of the meaning of the past. The biggest critics of the project are themselves participants in this battle. They are hardly standard bearers for objective and independent research into what happened.
The one useful aspect of this debacle is that it has shown the need for that research to be backed by the only forces that can really underwrite it: the British, Irish and Northern Irish governments. An oral archive of the Troubles is still possible, but only as part of a wider process of truth and reconciliation. Capturing what happened in Ireland should never have been the responsibility of an American university.