Boston College: an end of history

Slugger readers will be familiar with the ongoing saga around the content of, and, access to the archives of the Belfast Project which were deposited with Boston College (where Irish government documents on decomissioning have also been deposited). The outworking of the litigation by which the PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team are attempting to gain access to some of the material may now even lead to the intentional destruction of the archive by it’s creators.

So, methodologically, the Belfast Project is now close to a failure, of sorts. Firstly, I’m not going to shy away from one of the intrinsic methodological problems, which was the release-on-death pact made with each individual. At the same time this is liberating and offers the opportunity to point score with no recourse. The removal of the possibility of debating the content requires the addition of a further interpretative layer to unpick the interplay between the individual’s experiences, memory and motivations to fully evaluate their contribution.

But, both as a historical, and as a human archive, the collected experiences, accounting of actions and general contextualisation in each individual’s life is an invaluable resource for those seeking to explore the age-old issue of how and why societies can take such an apparently illogical course as violent internecine conflict. Histories tend to be narrated by academics or prominent individuals and the learning derived from past experience is often heavily mediated by the author. The Belfast Project, in contrast, offers the possibility a diverse, multi-vocal first person subaltern narrative that would afford a much broader understanding of the complexity of personal motivation, memory and the role of the individual. And a truth process, in miniature, if you like.

An obvious past exponent of this methodology is Gitta Sereny whose work with Franz Stangl (Treblinka commandant) in Into That Darkess and with Albert Speer (for her biography of him) provides extreme cases of using first person narratives to allow the reader to make their own assessment of the individuals. I’m making a comparison of the method rather than the content here, but I think Sereny’s work is invaluable for anyone who wants to try and get to grips with the how and why of Third Reich history as opposed to the details of what happened (oddly, though, I feel Sereny fails to close the deal with her subjects but that is another matter entirely). But there is a lesson there in trading off the wider value of such material to society against the obvious pain it may also cause.

Having collected interviews from 60-80 individuals, though, the Belfast Project now need to absorb some of the responsibility for what now appears to be a failed curation strategy as the deposition with Boston College does not appear to have been grounded in a sufficient evaluation of the potential for the agreement with interviewees to be honoured by Boston College (see the recent Belfast Project statement here). Ironically, retaining the material and citing journalistic privilege may have been a more secure approach to have taken.

A second issue with the PSNI pursuit of some of the Boston College material is in it’s evidential value. I batted this issue around on Twitter yesterday (thanks to @ciaranmacairt, @diplocksystem, @Igology, @tcgriffin and @kateyo) and there was no informed consensus on the evidential value of the interviews for either a prosecution against the interviewee, or, a third party (any legal eagles are more than welcome to provide some expert analysis here). The significance of this is central to evaluating the HET and PSNI’s pursuit of the archives (and the implications of that pursuit). The precedent of acquiring one sample of the archive material for investigative purposes would surely require the subsequent seizure of all the archive material since, by definition, it includes voluntary statements regarding a series of breaches of the law. If not, the reasons for selective pursuit would have to be explained by the PSNI (and also whether they are being as energetic and vigorous in their pursuit of similar material held by the likes of the UK’s Ministry of Defence).

In either case, the successful acquisition of any of the archive, for what I suspect is very questionable evidential value, will now precipitate it’s destruction (as indicated in the Belfast Project statement). Presumably the PSNI and HET must also have factored this into their attempts to access the material and surely they will now want it all to prevent it’s destruction as that is hardly one of their intended outcomes. Unfortunately, the Belfast Project lesson will make it unlikely that the project will be replicated and it will bring an end to history as a project for either reconciliation, or, as a way to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

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