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Boston College offers return of Irish Troubles tapes to interviewees

Belfast Project head says accounts of conflict at center of 1972 murder case are better off with participants

In the latest twist to a story that began with a brutal 1972 murder orchestrated by the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland and led last week to the temporary police detention of Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams, Boston College said late Monday that it would return recordings of interviews it had conducted with paramilitaries as part of its Belfast Project.

“If Interviewees in the Belfast Project express their desire to have their interviews returned to them, Boston College will accommodate their request upon proper identification,” a college statement read.

The announcement came as Ed Moloney, the Irish journalist who directed the project, told Al Jazeera that he encourages participants to ask for their records back, charging that the school was unfit to house the collection.

Moloney said Boston College was not the “fit and proper” place for the recordings because it had failed “to protect these interviews and keep them out of the hands of the police in Ireland.”

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) — which in 2011 first gained access to the recordings through a subpoena delivered by the U.S. Department of Justice — had said that testimonials given to the Belfast Project implicated Adams in the murder of Jean McConville, a widowed Belfast mother of 10 who the IRA believed worked as an informant for the British army.

Though Adams was released on Sunday after five days of questioning, his detention threatened to force open old wounds left by the 30-year period of internecine violence known as the Troubles.

Adams was released without charge, but the investigation into his alleged membership in the IRA and role in the killing continues.

At the center of the investigation is the testimonial of former IRA member Brendan Hughes, who accused Adams of ordering McConville’s murder. Hughes died in 2008; the project had promised to keep the testimonies secret until after the interviewees’  deaths. 

Moloney criticized Boston College for its handing of Hughes’ testimony. 

He said the police did not need a subpoena to examine the testimony but used one anyway. Moreover, requests also encroach on the testimonies of people who have not yet died — in this case, by asking for anything related to McConville's murder. 

Moloney said Boston College could have fought harder to keep the tapes out of the hands of the Northern Ireland authorities.

On Tuesday, he told Al Jazeera that he welcomed Boston College’s decision to return the recordings.

“I welcome this change of heart and hope that these interviews will be returned speedily to their owners,” he said. “We have been pressing Boston College to do that for the best part of two years.”

The school’s eventual decision to comply with the DOJ subpoena came after a legal battle proved controversial among privacy advocates who say the college had a duty to keep the recordings out of the PSNI’s hands.

Governments in recent years have stepped up legal campaigns to pry the names of sources from researchers and journalists, sometimes citing national security needs. Press freedom advocates say this compromises the institution of investigative reporting, which relies on guarantees to conceal sources’ identities.

Anthony McIntyre, the Ireland-based researcher who conducted the Belfast Project’s interviews, said that he and his colleagues had called as far back as 2011 for either the destruction of the tapes to prevent their falling into the possession of authorities, or letting McIntyre hold them himself.

“I would be willing to go to prison myself rather than let the British police access it,” McIntyre told Al Jazeera.

The secrecy of the project was necessary to protect interviewees’ safety, he said.

“I think it’s very, very detrimental to the concept of press freedom and academic freedom. The means for bringing clarity to society is through the press and historians. Law enforcement has always tried to close that clarity,” McIntyre said.

Without independent inquiry, history would be left with “a detective’s view of the world” that “that doesn’t explain motive, context,” he said. “People will be much less candid in explaining their narratives” in the wake of the subpoena.

Some in Belfast and the Irish Republic wish the interviews had never taken place at all, saying they endanger Northern Ireland’s hard-won peace agreement.

Adams, who has proclaimed his innocence in McConville’s murder and rejects accusations of IRA membership, has likewise seemingly suggested that the archive could be counterproductive.

"Everyone has the right to record their history, but not at the expense of the lives of others," Adams, a member of the Irish parliament representing the opposition Sinn Fein party, said, according to The Guardian.

Adams accused the Belfast Project of creating a treasure trove for those “who cannot live with the peace” he himself helped forge by persuading Catholic paramilitaries to lay down their arms.

Indeed, McIntyre says that the arrest of Adams has made “the situation more unstable” in Northern Ireland, but that police are more interested in embarrassing him politically.

“They don’t have evidence,” he added.

As for the value of the project itself, Eduardo Gonzalez, a sociologist with the International Center for Transitional Justice, a nonprofit that works with countries recovering from conflict, said it always faced hurdles to success.

First, by seeking to interview perpetrators of violence, it created legal challenges.

“By doing so, they introduced an additional problem to the research, which was that they could not guarantee confidentiality, given that the U.S. and U.K. have agreements on justice issues,” Gonzalez said.

In his view, the 1998 Good Friday agreement — a major milestone in settling the conflict between Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries — should have established a formal process guaranteeing legal protections for victims and perpetrators of the conflict who wanted to speak out, similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up after the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Negative reaction to the Belfast Project follows a pattern Gonzalez has seen in other countries. Not wanting to discuss the past isn’t something unique to the Troubles.

“What I have seen in many countries that have suffered a traumatic event, the natural reaction to any person is very defensive,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an issue of culture. It’s psychological. It’s normal for people to protect themselves from these memories.”

The Good Friday accord that ended the Troubles didn’t allow a safe venue for remembering the bloodshed.

“They should have created those guarantees. And they didn’t,” said Gonzalez.

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