Boston College prepared to return Troubles tapes

The interviews with former republican and loyalist terrorists were being held at Boston College

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Boston College has said it would return interviews to former paramilitaries who contributed to an oral history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Some of the material gathered for the US project was used by NI police to question Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.

He was arrested last week over the 1972 IRA murder of Jean McConville. He was released without charge on Sunday and a file is being sent to prosecutors.

More than 40 former NI gunmen and bombers gave interviews to the college.

Both republican and loyalist paramilitaries gave personal accounts of the Troubles to researchers working on the so-called 'Belfast Project'.

What are the 'Boston tapes'?

  • Dozens of former paramilitaries were interviewed in Belfast and other cities and towns from 2001-2006 as part of an oral history project known as the Belfast Project
  • Details about internal politics and activities of the IRA were revealed on tape, including accounts of a hunger strike in prison in the 1980s
  • Overall the project cost about $200,000 (£118,520), mostly provided by an Irish-American businessman
  • Each interview was transcribed, sent by encrypted email to New York and then the material was sent to Boston College, where it was placed under lock and key at Burns Library
  • Following a lengthy legal battle with the college, the Police Service of Northern Ireland gained access to a small number of the interviews last year

It was intended their accounts would not be released without their permission or until after their deaths.

After a legal battle, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) gained access to some of the tapes.

In 2011, the PSNI went to court in the United States and eventually won access to 11 out of hundreds of interviews as part of their investigation into the IRA abduction and murder of Mrs McConville.

The transcripts formed part of the material that was put to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams over four days of questioning last week about his alleged role in the killing.


He was released on Sunday and a file sent to the Public Prosecution Service.

Mr Adams, who has always denied he had anything to do with the murder, said the project's interviews with three former IRA members had "formed the mainstay for my arrest".

A spokesman for Boston College, Jack Dunn, confirmed that it would be prepared to hand back interviews to those involved.

"Obviously we'd have to verify that they were the individuals that took part in the process," he said.

"If they wanted those documents returned, we'd be prepared to return those documents."

Several loyalists have already stated their intention to seek the return of their transcripts.

Ed Moloney Journalist Ed Moloney directed the Belfast Project

The Belfast Project material is held in the Burns Library at Boston College.

It also holds records of paramilitary decommissioning sent there for storage under a 30-year rule by the Irish and British governments.

Boston College has come in for criticism from journalist Ed Moloney, who directed the project, and former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre, a researcher who carried out the IRA interviews.

'Robust defence'

The pair said the authorities there did not do enough to protect the archive when it came under legal challenge from the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Start Quote

We were doing the spadework of trying to get this thing off the ground and we were leaving the legal side to the American lawyers who knew what the legal situation was”

End Quote Ed Moloney Director of Boston College's Belfast Project

They also said it was up to the college to ensure that confidentiality commitments given to the participants were watertight under American law.

Mr Dunn, however, said the college mounted a robust legal defence, limiting the amount of material that was released to police.

He said Mr Moloney ought to have known about the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) under which the PSNI obtained access to the interviews.

He said the treaty had been signed in 1994 and there had always been the possibility that it might be invoked.

'Legal checks'

Mr Dunn said those involved in the project "were convinced that would never happen, given the goodwill that emanated from the Good Friday Agreement in 1998".

He said while the "assumption was that British law enforcement would never invoke MLAT," they had done so and the college was now dealing with the fallout.

However, Mr Moloney said there was no reason why he should have known about such a treaty.

"We were doing the spadework of trying to get this thing off the ground and we were leaving the legal side to the American lawyers who knew what the legal situation was," he said.

Gerry Adams Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said interviews with former IRA members carried out by the Boston College Belfast Project had "formed the mainstay of his arrest" last week

Mr Moloney said they had trusted Boston College to have made proper legal checks.

"When we started this project, we were in Belfast and dealing with a college that had its own legal counsel's office and its own law school - they were the guys who knew about American law," he said.

"I specifically asked that for the donor contract we sent as a sample to be run past the lawyers at Boston College and we were told in reply that it had happened.

"On that basis we therefore went ahead in confidence that it had been checked by a university that had the legal resources and knowledge to make that decision," the journalist added.

'Prepared to fold'

Mr McIntyre also rejected Mr Dunn's claim that the Belfast Project researchers should have been aware of the treaty.

Start Quote

Everyone has the right to record their history but not at the expense of the lives of others”

End Quote Gerry Adams Sinn Féin president

"I'm not a legal person, I wasn't told about it. Boston College are now claiming that they knew about it. It was incumbent on Boston College to tell me about it, to explain it to me," he said.

Mr McIntyre accused the college authorities of being "quite prepared to fold from the outset" when the PSNI launched legal proceedings to gain access to the confidential interviews.

He told BBC Radio Ulster that Boston College had "demonstrated an unwillingness to protect the integrity" of the oral history project.

The researcher said he agreed that records of the interviews should be given back to the former paramilitaries who had agreed to take part in the project.

Mr Adams said the Belfast Project was "flawed from the beginning".

The Sinn Féin leader has welcomed Boston College's offer to return the interviews before anyone else attempts to "seize the rest of the archive and do mischief".

"Everyone has the right to record their history but not at the expense of the lives of others," Mr Adams added.

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