Oral History and Privacy

Between 2001-2006 Boston College embarked on an Oral History program to document Northern Irish immigrants’ history during the Troubling Times.  They called it the Belfast Project and interviewed close to 50 people who were part of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) or another paramilitary group called Ulster Volunteer Force.  There are many open crimes in Northern Ireland during the Troubling Times and the United Kingdom has a treaty with the United States where the U.S. is required to give any evidence it may have to open, violent crimes.

One of these open violent crimes was the abduction and murder of Jean McConville in 1972.  The IRA accepted responsibility for the murder, but no one was ever arrested.  After hearing that Boston College might have some information in their Belfast Project, the British Authorities urged the Justice Department to obtain this evidence.  Boston College refused, went to court, and lost just last week.  The university gave up seven interviews to the Justice Department, who passed it along to British authorities.  Last week, the authorities arrested a prominent Irish politician for Jean McConville’s murder.

Central to Boston College’s case is the understanding that these interviews were to remain as oral history.  It was a preservation interview, not an interrogation.  The project leaders have been accused of being biased against the politician’s political party, and hostile to the interviewees.  The project leaders have severed all relationships with the college, believing that Boston College should have fought harder for this information to stay private.  Wednesday, Boston College announced that it would return these interviews, if the subjects wanted them back.

How private is oral history?  There are no laws that hold an interview between an academic and an interviewee as private.  In this case, the people interviewed expected a level of privacy.  The project leaders certainly thought that the college would have done a better job to protect these interviews.  As Northern Ireland looks to close a turbulent chapter in their history, academics across the world will have to evaluate how explosive some of these interviews could potentially be.



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