Why the Boston College Irish oral history project should be discontinued


As the legal case by the US Department of Justice, on behalf of British authorities, to subpoena and recover recorded testaments by former IRA activists who participated in the Boston College Belfast Project continues, it is worth looking at some of the claims and counter-claims.

On the defensive is Boston College’s Thomas Hachey (executive director of the Irish Studies program), Ed Moloney (Project Director) and Anthony McIntyre (who conducted the 26 interviews with former IRA Volunteers). One argument they have made is that if the subpoena is successful it will have a serious negative effect on the practice of oral history generally, which is only partially true as I shall demonstrate.

But Moloney has also ridiculously claimed that there is a “possibility that the IRA could abduct and torture [McIntyre] to learn the names of others who co-operated with the Belfast Project”. This is patent nonsense because McIntyre for the past 15 years has spent his writing life ridiculing the IRA and Sinn Fein and no one expressed any fear of IRA retaliation when Hachey penned a glowing introduction to Moloney’s tendentious book ‘Voices From The Grave’, based on interviews McIntyre conducted with former IRA Volunteer Brendan Hughes, the whole thrust of which according to many respected historians, reviewers and commentators was to undermine Gerry Adams and republican involvement in the Good Friday Agreement. 

Lately, the pair, invoking patriotism as a last refuge, hilariously claimed that the release of the material “could be immensely destructive to the peace process in Northern Ireland” and could damage Gerry Adams!

We only need to read their published writings to see that Moloney and McIntyre were never innocent historians or researchers.

This project would have been of immense value to oral history and learning from the past had it adopted a few simple principles. Instead, it was poisoned from the outset and Boston College and Thomas Hachey facilitated this skewed version of the past. Did Hachey ever ask why scores of pro-peace process republicans, prominent in the struggle, were never asked to participate?

The organisers and some participants provoked this court case – though we have a duty to defend the confidentiality of the archive though not alone on the spurious grounds suggested by the organisers. Moloney’s book names certain republicans as having been involved in certain killings. One of the interviewees, Dolours Price, in an unguarded newspaper interview, apparently repeating what she had confessed to McIntyre on tape, also speaks about at least three killings.

Did Moloney ever consider the rights of these relatives of victims to go to the PSNI and the Historic Enquiries Team and demand action?

Where was his concern with ethics when he acted as judge and jury to slander and implicate other republicans without giving them a chance to defend themselves or respond to the allegations? To have asked them for their oral history memory would have required a bit of work and might well have undermined Brendan Hughes’s account so substantially as to have rendered him an unreliable witness.



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The legacy of the conflict and what happened during the conflict and which party or parties bear major responsibility for the conflict, and who won this or lost that, are arguments heavily contested. They are played out in political debate, in newspapers, in memoirs and biographies, but with some recognisable semblance of cut and thrust and fair play.

In West Belfast the Dúchas project has been collecting oral histories for some time (including, from combatants) and has made many of its interviews available. For a humble community organisation the project would appear to have higher ethical standards than that of Boston College. Participants are interviewed on the basis of ‘informed consent’; that they can delete things with which they are not entirely happy; and that they know that what they say is going to go into the public arena for scrutiny during their lifetime and they are responsible for their own story. They talk about their own lives rather than implicating others (including former comrades)