In response to the international scrutiny that the university has received, Boston College announced last week that it would be bringing the Belfast Project to an end. In returning the recorded interviews to the more than 40 living participants, BC is closing the door on its attempt to document the political conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.
Lasting from the late 1960s to the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, the Troubles hinged upon the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Republicans, who were typically Catholic, wished for Northern Ireland to join a united Ireland. The mainly Protestant Loyalists sided with the British forces, wishing to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
More than 3,500 people died over the course of the conflict, which was primarily fought between paramilitary forces, including the Irish Republican Army and the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force. Starting in 2001, Boston College interviewed 46 people—26 former IRA members and 20 from the UVF—hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict.
Lead by Irish journalist Ed Moloney and BC historian Thomas Hachey, the Belfast Project attempted to navigate the tense political climate of Northern Ireland in order to preserve for future generations the firsthand accounts of some of the conflict’s key participants. Members of the clashing militia groups only gave their testimonies under the promise of confidentiality, with an individuals recorded interview only being released upon death.
This was not to be the case, as the contract drawn up by the project’s organizers stated that the tapes would be kept confidential “to the extend that American law allows.” The United States Justice Department, at the behest of British authorities, demanded that BC forfeit the tapes to the US government, citing an obscure treaty requiring the release of any evidence attached to violent crimes.
After a judicial hearing last year, BC released eleven tapes to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in connection with the unsolved murder of Jean McConville. The IRA suspected that McConville was an informant for loyalist forces and in 1972 executed the mother of ten, allegedly at the order of Gerry Adams.
The leader of the political party Sinn Fein, Adams was arrested in connection to McConville’s murder last week and released after four day of questioning. The British and Northern Irish forces used evidence obtained from the released Belfast tapes to form the basis of Adam’s arrest.
In light of these headlines, BC announced that it would be releasing the remaining tapes, angering participants who feel that the university is not honoring its past commitments. Four former paramilitary members, including former IRA associate Richard O’Rawe, announced their intention to sue the university. For their part, Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, who conducted many of the IRA interviews, feel that Boston College did not fight hard enough to maintain control of the tapes before ultimately releasing them to the Northern Irish forces.
University spokesman Jack Dunn laid the blame with Moloney and McIntyre, while the current and past four chairs of the History Department stressed the poor manner with which the project was organized. The department had not “been consulted on the merits of the effort or the appropriate procedures to be followed in carrying out such a fraught and potentially controversial venture.”
Observers are calling for an independent review to determine what went wrong, while Adams and other former IRA members maintain that the project was flawed from the start. Meanwhile, the investigation into the murder of Jean McConville continues, but Boston College hopes that it no longer has a role to play.