Boston College faces quandary over Northern Ireland archive

In 1972, Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, disappeared from her flat in an Irish Republican Army stronghold in West Belfast. Her skeletal remains were found 30 years later in a shallow grave on a beach in the Republic of Ireland. She had been shot in the back of the head.

The IRA, in a statement in 1999, acknowledged that it killed McConville for allegedly being an informant. No one was ever charged in her abduction and death, one of the most infamous instances of brutality in the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles. But direct evidence in the killing of McConville and several others who similarly “disappeared” may lie in oral history archives at Boston College. And, if so, the Justice Department wants it.

Between 2001 and 2005, academics working with Boston College, which has a long history of engagement with Ireland, interviewed close to 50 former paramilitaries who had fought in the Northern Ireland conflict. The participants came from both sides of the sectarian divide. They were assured that in return for speaking frankly for the historical record about what they had seen and done, including killing, the college would hold their testimony under seal until their death.

But in May, the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston issued a subpoena seeking the tapes of interviews with two former IRA members, according to officials at the college.

The government’s attempt to access the archive is raising questions about the limits of academic research and whether the creation of a historical record for future generations can be shielded from criminal inquiries.

“This case is being watched very closely and it could have a chilling effect on future historical research and preservation,” said John Neuenschwander, professor emeritus of history at Carthage College in Wisconsin and the author of “A Guide to Oral History and the Law.” “Boston College has an ethical and a legal obligation to defend the promises it made. But I don’t think this will be successful. The courts have not recognized a ‘scholar’s privilege.’ ”

The subpoena, first reported by the New York Times, was issued under seal, but Irish sources familiar with the investigation said they think the police in Northern Ireland requested it, and they are seeking information about the disappearance of McConville and a number of people killed by the IRA whose bodies have never been found.

The IRA accused McConville and the other victims of providing information to the British army. McConville’s family consistently denied the claim, and a report by the Northern Ireland ombudsman, which was conducted after the conflict ended, found no evidence to support the IRA allegation. At least 14 people “disappeared” in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and seven bodies have not been recovered.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said it does not discuss subpoenas, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, which was set up by the British and Irish governments, also declined to comment.

Boston College is weighing its legal options. “Our overriding concerns are for the safety of the individuals involved in the oral history project and the potential damage to the peace and reconciliation process that we as a university have long supported,” said Jack Dunn, a spokesman for the college.

To support its position, the college can invoke its ostensible opponent, the British government. Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland secretary and a conservative member of the British Parliament, visited Boston College last year and commended the work of the archive.

“Some of the people involved in the events of recent history are now getting old, their memories are fading. I think there is merit in trying to capture this information now before it is lost,” said Paterson, according to a BBC report. “I just wonder if historians might not have better skills to try to get to the bottom of what happened in the past than professional lawyers. That’s one of the things we are looking at and we’re consulting widely.”

Brendan Hughes, a former senior IRA commander in Belfast known as “The Dark,” died in 2008. He gave more than a dozen taped interviews to Boston College, and that testimony formed the basis, in part, of a book, “Voices from the Grave,” and a documentary.

In the documentary, Hughes said that McConville kept a radio transmitter to alert the British army to IRA activities in the Divis Flats, where she lived. He said that McConville was interrogated, warned and released, but that she continued to cooperate with the British army. Hughes said a squad called “The Unknowns,” which answered to the Belfast commander of the IRA, seized McConville and executed her. Hughes named the Belfast commander at that time as Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing. He now is a member of parliament in the Republic of Ireland.

Adams has always denied being a member of the IRA and having knowledge of McConville’s death. “I reject absolutely any accusation that I had any hand, act or part in the killing and disappearing of Jean McConville,” Adams told Ulster Television.

The subpoena seeks the tapes of Boston College’s interviews with two former members of the IRA. Patrick Farrelly, co-director of “Voices from the Grave,” said that if it is successful, Boston College will either have to move the remaining part of the archive to a location beyond the reach of the British government or return the unsubpoenaed tapes to the participants.

“The British government was a party to the conflict and forcin g open that archive for selective prosecution has serious implications for any process of reconciliation,” Farrelly said.

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