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article imageNorthern Irish police want access to all Boston Tapes on Troubles

By Robert Myles     May 23, 2014 in Politics
Belfast - The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is seeking to obtain all historical archive material compiled by Boston College concerning The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The move is likely to add to tensions in Northern Ireland and prove politically controversial in the United States. It comes just weeks after Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was detained for questioning over the 1970s murder of Belfast mother of 10 Jean McConville. Adams was subsequently released but may still face criminal charges.
The material in the so-called Boston Tapes, most of which remains sealed, derives from interviews with those formerly engaged in violence from both sides of Northern Ireland’s political divide; it was provided on condition that it would not be made public until after those participating in what’s known as The Belfast Project had died.
In a statement issued Thursday, a PSNI representative said, “Detectives in Serious Crime Branch have initiated steps to obtain all the material from Boston College as part of the Belfast Project."
The statement continued, "This is in line with PSNI's statutory duty to investigate fully all matters of serious crime, including murder."
US based Boston College compiled archive material by interviewing those from both sides of Ulster’s sectarian fault-line, alleged to possess first-hand knowledge of a conflict in Northern Ireland that spanned 30 turbulent years between 1968 and 1998.
Last month PSNI stepped into controversy when leading Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams was arrested and detained by police, on the basis of material forming part of the Boston College archive, for questioning over one of Northern Ireland’s most notorious ‘disappearances,’ the 1972 murder of Mrs Jean McConville.
Northern Ireland police had gained access to Boston College material after a lengthy legal action, but police actions in using elements of the Boston College study have raised jurisprudential issues on both sides of the Atlantic.
With such a large Irish diaspora in the United States, the case has the potential to become political dynamite and has already been the subject of a number of interventions from leading US politicians.
According to the Boston Colleges Subpoena website, which is fighting to secure the continued confidentiality of information supplied voluntarily as part of The Belfast Project, the multi-layered case involves issues of academic freedom, confidentiality and the protection of sources and right to life issues.
The campaign group also claim the PSNI moves to gain access to the Boston College archive touch on the First Amendment of the US Constitution in so far as it cover freedom of the press and also the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures.
So what exactly is The Belfast Project?
The Belfast Project was compiled as an oral history, taking in both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict, Irish Republican and Loyalist. The material was gathered between 2001 and 2006 and is now archived in the Burns Library at Boston College.
The Boston College material was based on interviews of leading figures in the Irish Troubles but given on the basis that it would remain confidential or unattributable, until after all those interviewed had died. Researchers at the Massachusetts university interviewed 26 Irish Republican Army members and 20 members of the opposing and loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force in compiling the oral archive.
In 2010, the first material released from the Boston archive provided the basis of the book Voices from the Grave, featuring in a documentary of the same name.
The first tranche of archive material released from embargo involved interviews with Irish Nationalist Brendan Hughes, former commander of the Provisional IRA’s Belfast Brigade, who died in 2008, and David Ervine, a former member of the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, who later became leader of Ulster’s Progressive Unionist Party.
David Ervine’s transition to an advocate of the ballot paper rather than the bomb saw him play a leading role in the Irish peace process that culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Ervine died suddenly, aged just 53, in 2007 after suffering a massive heart attack and stroke.
In both cases, Hughes and Ervine had stipulated in their agreement with Boston College that their revelations would only be made public after their deaths.
In March 2011, the British government started a legal action in the United States under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) calling for the release of details of the interviews of the, by then deceased, Brendan Hughes and another interviewee, Dolours Price. In the case of the Price interviews, however, these were still under the terms of the ‘not-to-be-released-until-death’ embargo. Dolours Price subsequently died on January 23, 2013.
The MLAT case wound its way through the American courts for over two-and-a-half years. Ultimately, with the case reaching the doors of the US Supreme Court, an order was made for Boston College to hand over to the British authorities much curtailed material from the archive than had been sought by UK law enforcement.
In the case of Gerry Adams, he was released without charge after spending four days in custody being questioned by Northern Irish detectives. Although Adams remains at liberty and has consistently denied any involvement in the disappearance and subsequent murder of Jean McConville, it will be some months yet before any decision is reached by law enforcement authorities in Northern Ireland concerning the possibility of the Sinn Fein leader facing possible criminal charges.
But the fresh move on the part of PSNI calling for release of all the Boston College archive is likely to both re-ignite the controversy engendered by Adams arrest and be as welcome as a strike on the shins from an Irish camán for US politicians with a large Irish vote to consider.
Already, during the course of the lengthy MLAT case, there have been interventions from no less than 20 members of Congress demanding that the withdrawal of subpoenas seeking release of the Boston College’s archive material.
The highest profile intervention was that of Secretary of State John Kerry. In his capacity as senior senator from Massachusetts and the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry viewed the legal steps taken by the UK authorities gain access to the Boston College archive as nothing less than a direct threat to the Good Friday Agreement itself.
In an op-ed, Kerry wrote, “It is my great hope that the academic integrity of these documents is maintained and that these transcripts remain confidential because for some this has become a matter of life and death.
“At stake are much more than issues of preserving a history project, rather this investigation could endanger a fragile peace process.
“It is impossible to know exactly what information might be contained within the Project, but it is safe to say that any of the crimes that have been described would have occurred prior to the Good Friday Agreement and would create an extremely dangerous situation if this information were used to upend the process.”
This particular Irish fleadh may be just about to warm up.
More about Belfast Project, Boston Tapes, Northern ireland, Troubles in Ireland, Gerry adams
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