Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series about the subpoenas of the Belfast Project.
On Friday, May 31, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston issued a ruling with regard to interviews from the Belfast Project, Boston College’s oral history project on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The interviews in question were subpoenaed in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Justice in pursuance with the Treaty Between the Government of the United States and the Government of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters, or Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (U.S.-UK MLAT). UK authorities requested the tapes in connection with an investigation by the Police Services of Northern Ireland (PSNI) into the 1972 death of Jean McConville.
U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young, who originally reviewed the tapes to determine their relevancy to the McConville investigation, ordered that 85 of the interviews, conducted with seven former members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), be turned over to the UK authorities. The University contested the decision, and Judge Juan R. Torruella of the First Circuit Court reexamined the subpoenas. Torruella determined that only 11 segments of the 85 interviews were relevant and needed to be released.
“[The district court] abused its discretion in ordering the production of a significant number of interviews that only contain information that is in fact irrelevant to the subject matter of the subpoena,” Torruella said in the 29-page decision. He also stated that it was the duty of the courts, and not the federal government, to enforce, delay, or narrow the scope of subpoenas issued under MLAT.
“We are pleased with the appeals court ruling which affirms our contention that the district court erred in ordering the production of 74 interviews that were not relevant to the subpoena,” said University Spokesman Jack Dunn in a statement. “This ruling represents a significant victory for Boston College in its defense of these oral history materials.”
After fighting the original subpoenas, BC has already handed over Belfast Project interviews from former IRA members Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, both of whom are deceased.
Belfast Project director Ed Moloney, alongside Belfast Project researcher and former IRA member Anthony McIntyre, issued a joint statement shortly afterward in support of the ruling. “From the very outset of the serving of these subpoenas over two years ago we have striven to resist completely the efforts by the PSNI, the British Home Office and the U.S. Department of Justice to obtain any and all interviews from the Belfast Project archive at Boston College,” the statement read. “The [First Circuit Court] said that only interviews that deal directly with the disappearance of Jean McConville can be handed over as opposed to the indiscriminate consignment of the entire contents of interviews with eight of our interviewees. We see this judgement as at least a partial indictment of the whole process.”
Following the First Circuit Court’s decision, the U.S. Department of Justice was given until early August to decide whether or not to accept the ruling. Ultimately, a petition was filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals to rehear the decision. “On August 22 Boston College filed an opposition to the government’s petition to revise the appeals court decision,” Dunn said. “This is where the case stands now.”
The Department of Justice’s contestation of the appeals court decision was not the only issue that Belfast Project faced over the summer. On July 29, The Belfast Telegraph reported that BC was unable to locate a coded key identifying three of the seven interviewees whose tapes are still the subject of the ongoing subpoena case. Moloney, who had been interviewed for the piece, asserted that the coded keys had been delivered to BC’s archivists while the project was underway, suggesting that BC historians were to blame for losing the key. He stated that after moving to New York in 2001, partway through the project’s duration, he was no longer in contact with either interviewee contracts or identification keys. Moloney further said that the transport of those documents from Ireland to the U.S.-a transaction which, by virtue of its sensitivity, had to be carried out in person rather than via post or the Internet-was the responsibility of University personnel.
Two days later, Burns Librarian Robert O’Neill responded to Moloney’s allegation in a letter that was also published by The Belfast Telegraph. “As Ed Moloney well knows, the materials were not lost; rather, they were never received, in clear violation of his contractual obligation,” O’Neill said in the letter. “Ed Moloney has consistently deflected any blame from himself onto me and Professor Thomas Hachey at Boston College. He has made several false allegations against me. The Belfast Project was an opportunity to record the stories of paramilitaries, which otherwise would have been lost to posterity. It was a noble effort. It involved a great deal of work and risk for all concerned and it is sad to witness it devolve into a character assassination in which Ed Moloney refuses to accept responsibility for a project he himself was entrusted to manage.”
Moloney rejoined in an August 5 piece printed in the Telegraph, reiterating his statement that he was never in possession of the donor forms-the contracts that all Belfast Project participants were required to sign before being interviewed. “Dr. O’Neill now accuses me of ‘a clear contractual violation’ by not providing the donor forms,” Moloney said in the piece. “But, if Boston College was in any way concerned about any contractual violation, it failed to either raise the issue with me, or to take any action before the time limits expired for enforcing any obligations in 2012 … [BC] had the opportunity to complain of contractual breach as late as 2011 when the subpoenas were issued and it realised it did not have several donor agreements, but never once did so.” Moloney continued, repeating that as he was living in New York, O’Neill would have been responsible for handling the documents, and concluding that, “Since I never handled the forms, I could not lose them.”
The University maintains that Moloney is still obligated to identify the three participants in question, however. “Project Director Ed Moloney was contractually obligated to supply a key to Burns Librarian Robert O’Neill that identifies the interviewees,” Dunn said. “Boston College’s Attorney Jeff Swope contacted Mr. Moloney’s attorney after the May 31 court ruling to request that he fulfill his contractual obligation. Mr. Moloney has thus far declined the request.”