Appearing before a panel of three judges at the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 7, Jeffrey Swope, attorney for Boston College, said that any interviews lawfully turned over must be “directly related” to the subject of the subpoena—the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 whom the Irish Republican Army suspected was a spy for the British.
According to Swope, U.S. District Court Judge William Young abused his discretion when he ordered the university to release interviews that researchers had conducted with former members of the IRA.
Young, who reviewed the interviews and selected those subject to release in January, allegedly applied the wrong standard when making his decision, according to Swope. Young was also mistaken when he cited portions from eight rather than seven interviews in his ruling, Swope said, due to mislabeling.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Kromm, in defense of Young, said that the judge only had to determine whether the interviews had “ordinary relevance” to the subject of the subpoena; a much lesser standard than that of Swope’s “directly related” requirement. According to Kromm, the subpoena was in fact very broad, and called for the submission of all materials even marginally connected to McConville’s disappearance and murder.
The appeals court has not yet made its ruling over the matter.
The interviews in question were conducted between 2001 and 2006 as part of the Belfast Project, an oral history project held by the Burns Library, recounting a period known as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland that lasted from 1969-1998.
Interview participants were promised that their records would be kept sealed until death because their lives would be endangered if their identities were made public. They were branded as informants. Their desire to remain anonymous until death in relation to the McConville Case, however, does not seem promising due to the precedent established by the same appeals court.
In a case separate from but similar to the McConville Case, the Price Case, the 1st Circuit upheld a ruling by Young that ordered Boston College to turn over an interview with convicted car bomber, Dolours Price, despite its promise to keep her interview concealed until death. Support for the 1st Circuit’s decision came from a treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom that requires the two to aid each other’s criminal investigations. The appeals court also said that criminal investigations take precedence over academic study.
The contract between researchers and Boston College in the Price Case guaranteed confidentiality only “to the extent that American law allows,” Jack Dunn, spokesman for Boston College, said.
To date, the McConville Case has received a great deal of coverage in Ireland due to its allegations that Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein—a political party linked with the IRA—led the IRA unit responsible for McConville’s murder and hushed burial.
The recordings involved in the McConville Case are dangerous enough to damage the unity of Northern Ireland's government due to their implications that Adams was responsible for McConville's murder, Ed Moloney, the project director who conducted the interviews involved in the Price Case, told ABC News. This is because Sinn Fein represents Northern Ireland’s Irish Catholic minority, and its peaceful coalition with the British Protestant majority had only been achieved through a peace accord in 1988, with the help of the U.S.
Many activists, though currently unwilling to publically comment on the matter as it is under litigation, are concerned about what the McConville Case means not only for the future of Ireland, but for the future of academic study. They are aware that it will become harder to record oral history if people are afraid to speak.