Boston College saga shows how the state has failed

OPINION: Boston College lost the appetite to protect the solemn promises of confidentiality relating to interviews with members…

OPINION:Boston College lost the appetite to protect the solemn promises of confidentiality relating to interviews with members of the North's paramilitary groups

LAZINESS, COWARDICE, incompetence, indifference to duty, poverty of thought, callousness uninterest in consequences.

Like the flood of endless European economic and fiscal “solutions”, the subpoenas served on Boston College for interviews with members of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland reveal the extraordinary hollowness of political institutions in many places and at many levels. In this story, the bad judgments cascade, one rushing along behind another. One level head would stop the whole mess, but the mess goes on.

Start with the PSNI and its predecessor agency, the RUC, both of which ignored the murder of Jean McConville for nearly 40 years. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland told us precisely that in a 2006 report that found almost no paper trail at all connected to that murder. Quite literally, not so much as a local patrolman ever bothered to type up a pro-forma report on McConville’s disappearance; the filing cabinet was nearly empty.


But suddenly, four decades later, the sleeping watchdog sits bolt upright and starts snarling. Nothing is going to stop the police from getting right straight to the bottom of a murder that took place in 1972. It’s an urgent matter, after all.

The RUC and PSNI covered themselves in shame with their long indifference. Now that someone else has done the work of asking about the McConville killing, the police reach out for the low-hanging fruit. They never bothered to question anyone about it, but they’ll piggyback on the questions other people asked. They can call that an investigation without actually bothering to conduct one, granting themselves a low-cost reprieve for a job never done.

My advice to the PSNI is to always have academic researchers do projects on every crime in Northern Ireland, and archive the results where they can be subpoenaed. You’ll never have to take your feet off the desk again. Then the PSNI asked the British government to make use of a legal assistance treaty to ask the United States government for subpoenas of archival material in Boston. This moment would have been a good one for a grown-up to appear and take the firecrackers away.

Some good questions to ask before you get the American prosecutors on the phone: Will a pile of unsworn interviews mean anything in court? Why now, all of a sudden, after 40 years of indifference? And what will be the consequences when we drop a political hand grenade through the door of the Sinn Féin offices? I tend to suspect that they did ask that last question, but with glee instead of trepidation.

The odour ripened as the case crossed the ocean. In March, the US department of justice got a request for subpoenas regarding a matter that would be useful in an attack on Gerry Adams, who had won an election in February.

Sounds good to us, the department decided, and off they went to court. Nor did they object a few months later, when the British government asked for new subpoenas that would broadly target every interview that the Boston College project had done with members of republican paramilitaries. No fishing expedition could be so blatant that it would make a federal bureaucrat look up from his afternoon coffee and stop yawning. The US government helped to negotiate the peace in Northern Ireland, but seems to have no interest in helping to maintain it.

Finally, the subpoenas arrived at Boston College, which had sworn solemn oaths to keep the interviews entirely confidential until the deaths of the interviewees. But when a federal judge upheld the subpoenas and invited an appeal, repeatedly and significantly noting that the case took up matters of “first impression” – that is, matters that had never been examined by the courts, leaving no case law in place to resolve them – Boston College declined the invitation. It quickly turned over every interview in its possession that dealt with republican paramilitary organisations. Its ironclad promise to protect interviewees lasted right up until the instant of its first legal defeat.

Worse, the second set of federal subpoenas had demanded every interview that directly shone a light on the McConville murder. Finally ordered by the judge to hand over just those interviews, Boston College told the court that it had no idea what any of the interviews said.

Unable to produce just the germane interviews, the university was forced to fall back on a wholesale delivery of every republican interview to the court. It gave up confidential material that had not been subpoenaed, and did so because it had not bothered to determine precisely which records answered a demand that had been in its possession for months.

Put all of this together. The police are suddenly interested in a decades-old murder they’ve always ignored, the British government acts like a mindless conduit for paperwork that just happens to target longtime political enemies of the British state, US government officials order up subpoenas for politically explosive material like they’re calling the deli to have sandwiches delivered for a working lunch. And the research university at the end of that long stream of dim slop and shallow reflex finds that it has no appetite for a sustained fight to protect the research materials it supposedly secreted away in its locked archives.

We share a perception that our institutions are failing because they are, not because we’re seeing things. It has to stop.

Chris Bray is a Los Angeles-based journalist and historian