Secrets From Belfast: a definitive guide to the Troubles (troubled?) oral history project

Beth McMurtrie has published an extensive and well-researched article for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Chronicle of Higher EducationIt examines how the Belfast Project oral history project at Boston College was established and how it has fallen apart in recent years following the PSNI’s request for access to the archive (two months after the British government had “given the college highly sensitive papers related to the disarmament process, to be kept locked away for 30 years”).

burns library booksWhat sets Beth’s article apart from much of the other existing commentary [including Slugger] on the Troubles oral history project are her interviews with all the main players, including:

  • Ed Moloney, project director
  • Anthony McIntyre, conducted the republican interviews
  • Thomas Hachey, Boston College’s head of Irish programs
  • Robert O’Neill, (retired) head of the Burns Library (which holds the archive)
  • Kevin O’Neill, associate professor of history and former director of the Irish-studies program
  • Clifford M. Kuhn, executive director of the Oral History Association

The eight thousand word article finishes:

The remaining interviews are locked away in a vault inside the Burns Library. A number of participants—including everyone interviewed on the loyalist side—have asked for their recordings back. Mr. Dunn says the college will consider those requests and honor them “to the extent we are able.”

The project itself is dead. No more books, no more revelations, no further insights into the minds of former paramilitary fighters. “It can never be used now,” says Mr. Moloney. “It’s all done for nothing.”

The article author is hosting a Google Hangout at 2pm US Easter Time (7pm GMT) on Wednesday 29 January with with Mary Marshall Clark (director Columbia University Center for Oral History Research and Clifford M. Kuhn, executive director Oral History Association).

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  • Granni Trixie

    In August 2013 I tried to arrange (well in advance) without success access to documents in archives of the Burns Library which I knew were deposited by a leader of the New
    Ulster Movement – a non politically sensitive subject, in my opinion. The reason I was offered was that they had not yet all been processed which I did not think was reasonable given I had asked well in advance and I wonder if their pickiness was part of the impact of problems associated with the belfast project. Incidentally, the weekend I was in Boston coincided with the weekend that documents were handed over to NI authorities. Bad timing,I thought.

    I was also told at that time by a librarian that the head of the library was changing and that there were possibilities that policies might therefore change.

    The Burns Library is a terrific resource and I would be so sorry if It is to be negatively affected long term.

  • Granni Trixie raises a good point.
    The problem with handing over anything to academics is that they are extremely possessive of information.
    Town and Gown.
    “Belfast” should think carefully about telling academics anything.

  • @Granni,

    Was the person who gave the interview on the NUM dead yet? Whether controversial or not the people who gave oral histories were told that their histories wouldn’t be accessible until after their deaths. Probably the academics didn’t want to set a precedent by breaking that understanding without a court order, as in the case of the PSNI’s request regarding the Adams material.

  • Granni Trixie


    No, it was not an oral account and not part of the archive called The Belfast Project. It consisted of paper documents from 1969-75 (minutes of meetings,correspondence published pamphlets etc). Some probably duplicate the contents of files in the National archive in Dublin but there could be wee gems.

  • tmitch57 – I don’t think Granni Trixie was specifically referring to ‘Belfast Project ‘ archive. Boston College’s Burns Library holds an enormous Irish collection of documents, books, music and reference material (as well as other subject areas). The ‘tapes’ are but one tiny part of the overall archive tucked away at the back of the Burns Library.

  • Turgon

    Thanks to Alan for pointing this one out.

    A number of things need to be mentioned. The Chronilce of Higher Education is not an academic journal. Its google entry describes it as follows “Weekly news and job-information source for college and university faculty members, administrators, and students.” so it is really more a newsletter for academics rather than an academic journal. Not that that makes it bad just that its articles cannot be expected to be up to the intellectual and academic standards of a formal academic journal. That is pretty self evident from the conversational and slightly sensationalist style in which the piece is written (more like something I would write than an academic piece). The article is also lacking in balance with comments like these from the first few paragraphs: “To record the stories of the men and women who had put their lives on the line for the cause of independence” and of McIntyre’s victim (a loyalist terrorist) “a loyalist paramilitary soldier”

    Whether or not this represents the end of the Boston project may be unclear. However, if it is I would submit this is something to be welcomed. In actual fact we have discovered very little from these supposed revelations. It seems unlikely that there will be a prosecution of Gerry Adams over Mrs. McConville’s murder and it is not as if we needed Brendan Hughes or Ms. Price’s testomony to learn of Adams’ involvement. “The dogs in the street” knew he was involved. Unfortunately “the dogs in the street” are what is legally, I believe, termed: hearsay.

    Of the revelations from the book produced they were extremely partial and self serving. David Ervine revealed almost nothing about what he had done as a terrorist and apart from casting out at all round him we learned very little. If he was unable to tell the truth about his own actions why should anyone believe him about anyone else’s unless they have an agenda against those whom he criticises. Ervine was repeatedly in life exposed as a liar and in death his words carry no more weight as he revealed almost nothing negative about himself.

    The same argument actually pertains to Hughes. Many are inclined to believe Hughes as he attacks everyone’s favourite bete noir Gerry Adams. This dislike unites unionists, many liberals and also dissident republicans. However, Hughes in his revelations revealed others people’s actions but seemed to say almost nothing about his culpability. Adams may well have been the IRA commander in Belfast but Hughes as his deputy did not only make the tea.

    This seems to be one of the massive weaknesses in this project. The fact that the revelations of the deceased have so far been almost entirely self serving, non self critical and not even analytical (no different to Ian Paisley’s revelations over the last two weeks). Part of that weakness may be due to employing in McIntyre an individual who despite having a PhD is not necessarily a great interviewer or great historian and who so clearly has an agenda. He has also with his recent lies about the IRA trying to avoid casualities over the Shankill Bomb revelaed himself as a self serving liar.

    A few facts pointed up by the article mentioned in the opening post are, however, relevant. It seems Boston College had little formal involvement in the project and Ed Maloney and McIntyre were the main workers. That means that the academic and intellecutal rigour of the project is likely to have been very limited. The article above suggests that attempts to get the information from Boston College for prosecutions may kill the whole thing. Boston College may well be quietly pleased as it will remove from them potentially embarrasment at their involvement in a pretty academically and intellectually limited exercise.

  • Granni Trixie


    Whilst I agree with your views re the tapes being driven by self serving motives, I nevertheless found the book of BH account v revealing about “what kind of person terrorises their fellow man” .
    He seemed to have little empathy for people killed by the IRA in contrast to high regard for comrades and keeping the rules of their world. He seemed to “enjoy” a role in the ops machine and in time came to despise leaders such as Adams who in time showed little appreciation of what they delivered for the IRA.

    So maybe this gives you some idea of why I say BH world view provides explanatory information which expands what we already know.

    Regarding the problem Boston found itself in….seems to me that ethical problems and solutions of this nature have been worked through by unis in NI throughout the troubles. This would include clarifying with informants understandings of the uses of the information gathered and informed by the legal position. Seems to me that whilst for purposes of gaining access to informants Maloney and McIntyre were v suitable, American academics ought to have learnt from academics in NI the ethical and legal rules governing the information they were collecting in order to foreshadow problems such as has now occurred.

  • Turgon

    Granni Trixie,
    I think the confidentiality issue is interesting and displays gross naievity and intellectual arrogance on the part of the historians.

    If one talks confidentially to a doctor and one reveals serious criminal activity the duty of the doctor to give that evidence to the police overrides the duty of confidentiality. The same is true for information given to a church minister (I believe confession to a Roman Catholic priest is exempt but I could be wrong). I believe the only absolute confidentiality is between lawyer and client. That being the case the idea that the researchers thought that their interviews could or should remain confidential is only comprehensible in terms of a geatly over inflated sense of importance of their work.

    If some of the terrorists found the interviews “cathartic” as the article reports I am delighted. Hopefully at least some will get to continue that catharsis in Maghaberry (though I am not overly optomistic). That would be likely to be cathartic for some of their victims: interestingly a group that received not a single mention during the original article (try using the control F function on the article and finding victim).

  • @Turgon,

    One reason why David Ervine may have mentioned very little about his terrorist career is that it might have been very short. If the bomb that he was transporting when he was arrested was his first bomb, then he didn’t have much of a career. Now it is possible that he had a much longer career, but it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t have discussed at least his own personal involvement while leaving out details about others by covering up names, etc.

  • Brian Walker

    The Boston College experience is exactly how not to proceed in future. The terms for depositing the tapes were sketchy, unclear and apparently without legal advice. It was never clear whether the archive was either a temporary bolthole for tapes that could be used the earliest possible moment (as in after death of Brendan Hughes or David Ervine), or a traditional oral history archive under longer than a life time rule. The Americans seemed naïve – not surprisingly as they were archivists without the faintest grasp of the hot property they were holding. The PSNI’s fishing expedition was a disaster.

    The most depressing comment comes from the terrorism expert Prof Richard English who is quoted as stating the obvious, that the Boston College experience has cast a long shadow over future recorded testimony.

    In any future exercise for dealing the past, truth recovery will have to be legally protected from becoming prosecution evidence, but who is to decide which is which? An issue which will survive is how to deal with references to others, quite apart from legal protection. The experience shows that legal immunity is only the first requirement for gathering new information from former paramilitaries. The accuracy of the evidence is a matter for laborious and expert cross checking by professionals.

  • tacapall

    “If one talks confidentially to a doctor and one reveals serious criminal activity the duty of the doctor to give that evidence to the police overrides the duty of confidentiality”

    Of course in a normal society that would be proper but evidently that’s not the case when it concerns criminal activity by the government which uses D notices and such laws as the Official secrets act to override your above statement. Would you agree whistleblowers like Edward Snowdon should be rewarded rather than charged with treason ?

  • Kevsterino

    I think the biggest mistake in the protection of the project was they should have had lawyers conduct the interviews.

    Then they would have had real protection.

    Academics? meh…

  • sean treacy

    Kevin oNeill ,a former director of Boston college now saying McIntyre was involved in “asking leading questions”.

  • Granni Trixie

    OMG. The worst possible start to learning from what went wrong.

  • tacapall

    Sean did Sinn Fein not already know that, seeing as they bugged the Dark’s flat.

  • sean treacy

    Tacapall,from where did you unearth that gem.Independent newspapers or the pensive quill?

  • @Granni,

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the life pretty much go out of the New Ulster Movement once Alliance was launched in April 1970? I thought that NUM’s real claim to fame was the launching of Alliance.

  • Granni Trixie

    No,the num sustained fully working until 1975, ticking over until around 198o. A little known fact is that you can trace the seeds if the NUM back to The Clifton Group,reformers such as Bob Cooper, within the Unionist Party (called after what was then Clifton constituency area). BC left UU when they would not agree to let Catholics join the party!

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Brian and Turgon have it right – BC project seems to have been amateurish and ill-conceived in equal measure. How they failed to look properly into the legal implications of the work they were undertaking was not just naive, it was breath-takingly ignorant.

    But it needn’t cast a shadow over oral historical evidence-gathering, if future projects are simply just run in a professional manner. Squaring the legal side of such projects before seeking submissions doesn’t seem to me (as a former lawyer) at the rocket science end of legal advice – some basic guidance on do’s and don’ts could be established very cheaply, I would have thought.

  • Granni Trixie


    I so agree. I also think that there is much to be gleaned in this kind of research from anthropologists in particular. I say this because it is a discipline which favours participant observer methods so obviously researchers find themselves often embedded in societies which have moral and ethical differences to what they would normally find not acceptable (places such as Papua New Guinea,for example). For example, in some societies women commonly are beaten by their husbands. How is the researcher to respond? The answer is they document to work through the problems and in doing so an ethical framework emerges.

    That said,many disciplines in NI have had also to develop an ethical and legal framework for collecting information of a political and morally sensitive nature. So why should the Boston Project reinvent the wheel? why did they not plug into work methods for academic research in NI?