The British are likely seeking evidence against Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in one of the most controversial killings of the Troubles, that of Jean McConville.
The move is set to inflame Irish American opinion at a time when Queen Elizabeth is on the cusp of an historic visit to Ireland.
Jim Dwyer of The New York Times broke the story in his Friday column for the newspaper.
Jean McConville, a mother of ten, was named as a British informer by the IRA and was shot dead by them in December 1972. She was abducted and her body was buried in a secret location. It was found in 2003.
The British government request was for oral histories of at least two senior figures in the IRA and possibly as many as ten and was granted by a Boston court last week.
The testimony obtained by Boston College was given on the basis that it would be held confidential until the person or persons died.
That will not now be the case unless Boston College fights the release of the transcripts which they have given no firm indication they will do.
The move by the British is seen as a blatant attempt to secure access to histories that were given on the basis of confidentiality by major figures in the IRA war against the British Army.
Two of the tapes requested are those of Brendan Hughes, a former senior IRA figure now deceased and Dolores Price who was also a convicted IRA operative, and who is still alive.
In later years both had deep disagreements with Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein on the path taken towards the peace process. Price is now a senior figure in the dissident Republican movement and was questioned about the deaths of two British soldiers in Armagh in March 2009
The Times report says the subpoena reveals that a criminal investigation is underway into Jean McConville’s disappearance and that of others 40 years ago.
Gerry Adams has long denied he was a member of the IRA or that he had anything to do with the McConville disappearance though opponents claim he was a senior figure in the Belfast IRA at the time.
Yesterday Sinn Fein’s US representative Rita O’Hare told IrishCentral that Gerry Adams has always refuted stories that he had anything to do with the McConville disappearance and continues to do so.
She stated the subpoena was a “deeply worrying” development give that those who made submissions to Boston College did so on the basis of confidentiality and had no idea their words would ever be used in attempts at criminal prosecution.
There has been strong criticism of Boston College by Sinn Fein figures because they released much of the material they had for a recent book on The Troubles ‘Voices from the Grave’ by journalist Ed Moloney.
The material was collected by dissident IRA figure Anthony McIntryre who is also an historian and Sinn Fein figures have complained that his research was highly biased,
His interviews with former Adams confidante Brendan Hughes shortly before he died have proven very controversial.
Hughes had fallen out with Adams and made his bitterness known.
However, he made statements that made clear that he expected much of his testimony to be confidential.
On revealing his IRA membership he said;“I don’t have a problem with that...If I did have a problem with that, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking into the microphone. I think a lot of the stuff I’m saying here, I’m saying it on trust, because I have a trust in you. I have never, ever, ever admitted to being a member of the I.R.A. — never — and I’ve just done it here.”
This is the first time that secret archives have been subpoenaed in pursuit of a British criminal investigation into The Troubles and has sent a shudder through the academic world.
“This is our worst-case scenario,” Mary Marshall Clark, the director of the oral history research office at Columbia University told The New York Times
Anthony McIntyre, the researcher, said the British move was appalling “The damage it would do to research at the university would be unimaginable,” he said. “People will hold onto their secrets forever” he told The Times
The college’s John J. Burns Library is a treasure trove of Irish history and scholarship. They also hold the papers of the Irish decommissioning commission which succeeded in having the Irish paramilitaries give up their weapons.Those papers are sealed for 30 years but could conceivably now be subpoenaed.