Boston College Belfast Project…Doomed from the Start

by Sabina Clarke

The Boston College Belfast Project’s ill-fated attempt to capture the stories of former Irish Republican Army, IRA, members and former Loyalist paramilitary members during the period in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles has been fraught with problems ever since its inception in 2001.

Lack of diligence, sloppy record keeping, secrecy within the Irish Studies Department, lack of communication and lack of oversight and the  failure to  get the iron-clad guarantee of confidentiality which was the centerpiece of the agreement between the College and  the interviewees vetted by the University’s  attorneys are just some of the  missteps by Boston College.

Boston College caved in with the first subpoena served in 2011 and did not bother to inform the Belfast Project Director Ed Moloney, who found out inadvertently and outted Boston College to the New York Times.

Soon after, Boston College and Ed Moloney and Dr. Anthony McIntyre who conducted the interviews with former Irish Republican Army, IRA, members, parted ways.

Moloney and McIntyre pursued their own course of action to stop the handover of the archives and appealed jointly to the U.S. Supreme Court and to the High Court of Belfast—based on the infringement of their First and Fifth Amendment rights.

The validity of the subpoenas was questionable from the start and relied on an obscure treaty–the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, MLAT, between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

The resulting riveting narrative that played out on the world stage has  been covered by Forbes  magazine, CNN, CBS Evening News, NBC TV, ABC TV,  National Public Radio, NPR, the Guardian, the Times of London, The New York Times, Counterpunch and the Boston Globe —to name some–and  shows no signs of abating.

I‘ve  followed much of the coverage  over the past few years and found the analysis by  the Chronicle of Higher Education—“Secrets from Belfast”( January 26, 2014), one of the most perceptive presentations  of the facts and subtleties of the case with its  many nuances and challenges.

In that particular article, Bob O’Neill the Boston College librarian responsible for keeping the archive admitted that he did not have the draft donor contract cleared by the College’s lawyer—as he initially said he did.  O’Neill admits that he misled Ed Moloney, the Project Director and his researchers Anthony McIntyre and Wilson McArthur who conducted the interviews with former loyalist paramilitaries into believing that they were on safe legal ground—when none ever existed.

A recent footnote has been added to the  Belfast Project chronicle with a formal complaint filed  to the Garda Siochana, the national police service of Ireland, by Carrie Twomey, the wife of Anthony McIntyre claiming that her correspondence to the U.S. Embassy in Dublin may have been illegally intercepted since  the tabloi The Sunday World reported last month that Twomey had written to the  U.S. Embassy in Dublin and the U.S. consulate in Belfast seeking political asylum for herself, her children and her husband. Twomey denied reports that she and her family are seeking asylum and that she ever worked on the Boston College Belfast Project.

In support of Carrie Twomey, author and journalist Ed Moloney has written letters to Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Secretary of State John Kerry calling for an investigation into how Carrie Twomey’s communications were made public.

The fallout for Boston College has been great damage to its prized reputation both here and in Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

For the Project Director Ed Moloney in New York and Anthony McIntyre and his wife Carrie Twomey living in Ireland there have been threats and intimidation. All  three have been vilified and labeled as “touts”–an IRA euphemism for informer—as have former IRA members who participated in the Boston College Belfast Project.

And at least four lawsuits have begun by former IRA participants against Boston College for failing to keep its  promise of confidentiality; one of the litigants is author Dennis O’Rawe a former IRA member and Belfast Project participant.

The target of the subpoenas has always  been TD, Teachta Dail, Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Fein and member of the Dail, Irish Parliament. The stated reason for the subpoenas was the investigation into the murder of Jean McConville—a dormant case that happened more than 40 years ago and was never investigated when it happened.

Information seized from the archives resulted in the stunning arrest of Gerry Adams and his four day detention in the Antrim jail followed by his release without charge.

Now, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, has requested the entire trove of interviews contained in the Belfast Project. And this was trumped by NBC News’ in New York  entrance into the fray  requesting  that  previously subpoenaed materials be unsealed, citing that any case involving  “incidents of terrorism and criminality is a matter of great public interest.”

On a purely personal level, the case ended all civility between Ed Moloney, Anthony McIntyre and Boston College and severed any remaining goodwill between Belfast Project participants and Boston College and resulted in finger pointing from  every direction with all involved.        

In retrospect, the overriding desire to maintain secrecy about the Belfast Project’s very existence may have been its undoing.  The initial suggestion of a faculty review board—a suggestion backed by Belfast Project  Director Ed Moloney was overruled by the consideration of the participants’ strong desire to keep the very existence of the Project secret.

Almost eclipsed is the peremptory theft of history from future generations where those who contemplate similar oral history projects may tread carefully if at all.