I’ve been wanting to write about this for a couple of weeks now, but have had trouble finding a way into it.
Earlier this century, some researchers working with Boston College came up with what became “The Belfast Project”. The idea was simple; do an oral history of the conflict in Northern Ireland by interviewing people on both sides of the conflict.
This was probably a worthwhile idea. But could you convince these people to talk? Sure, if you promised them that what they said would remain confidential until they died.
In the end, “The Belfast Project” interviewed 46 people; 26 former IRA members, and 20 former members of the UVF. Since they were promised confidentiality, many of them spoke freely. Perhaps a bit too freely.
Because BC apparently didn’t think through all of the legal implications. The United States has a “mutual legal assistance treaty” with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Law enforcement in UKOGBAI became aware of the existence of “The Belfast Project” and decided to subpoena some of the interviews. The US government, under the terms of the treaty, had to cooperate with the request. There was a long legal battle, which BC lost; they surrendered 11 interviews with former IRA members.
As a result of this, Gerry Adams, the former head of Sinn Féin, was arrested as part of the investigation into a 1972 murder. The last I heard, Adams was questioned and released, and so far has not been actually charged with the murder.
Of course, people are upset. Confidentiality was breached! And BC has promised to return the interviews to the participants.
That may be “too little, too late”. Because now the government of Northern Ireland is asking for everything: all the interviews in “The Belfast Project”.
I’m not a lawyer, but I wonder what BC’s chances are at this point. If they return the tapes and burn the transcripts now, after a subpoena has been filed, will they be destroying evidence? Could BC wind up facing obstruction of justice charges?
And it seems that there are a fair number of people, on and off the BC campus, who think BC did a crap job with the project:
“The question that is unanswered is, why was the process not followed with this project?” said Susan Michalczyk, assistant director of BC’s Arts and Sciences honors program and president of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “There should have been direct faculty oversight. Academic freedom can only be maintained when people adhere to the policies that preserve ethical practices.”
Many faculty remain stunned that a project with so many potential ethical and legal pitfalls could be run with so little supervision. Given the risks involved, the project might never have moved forward if other scholars had been given a chance to weigh in, many said.