Boston College: “risk could have been managed without abandoning ethical and legal considerations”

“As with any source, historians must exercise critical judgment when using interviews–just because someone says something is true, however colourfully or convincingly they say it, doesn’t mean it is true. Just because someone “was there” doesn’t mean they fully understand “what happened.”

(Frisch, Michael. A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany: SUNY Press, 1991.)

What we have now with the Boston College Belfast Project is mass misattribution that is, nobody wants to own the tapes kept there – the College wants them out of the Burns Library and its intention is to return them to the narrators (interviewees).

This might well address the immediate problem for the College but the bigger issue that won’t go away so easily is “who owns a process” that resulted in 46 ex-combatants sharing their recollections of their part in “the troubles”  a sort of “What did you do in the war Paddy?” or “It’s not too late to talk Billy” 

We now see five senior historians at Boston College, presumably with tenure, putting their departmental heads over the parapet and making it clear in writing that the Belfast project is not, and never was a Boston College history department project….

”…the people who carried out the project were “subcontracted to do the job by people acting outside the department and without the involvement of the department” 

(Alan Greenslade Blog the Guardian 8th May 2014)   

Now that’s telling them, whoever they are. 

Except that the Institution that they, Mr O’Neill and Mr Hachey work for, and regardless of the ethical and legal constructs of the Belfast Project, approved the proposal from Mr Moloney and Mr McIntyre with the assistance of Paul, now Lord Bew (who knowing all the ‘players’, brought the quartet together) provided the finance for the project from which the ‘subcontractors’ were paid.   

Boston College remains the accountable authority for the project and to all intents, got what it paid for.   

One must assume, or indeed hope, that the good fellows of Boston College entered into the Boston tapes project with the best of intentions – ie, to create a safe space to enable the narrators to tell their stories that would in turn enable historians of the future to have an additional source or reference point from the perspective of ex-combatants regarding their part in “the troubles”.  

We need to hear, the justification arguments of the then actors in Boston College, and those providing the money to support the sub-contractors e.g. Mr McIntyre, in the supply chain, as to why they overlooked or side-stepped both the academic rigour tests and the expected due diligence applied to University research.  

It beggars belief that given the ‘sensitive’ nature of the project and the need to protect and or provide the narrators with reasonable assurances regarding confidentiality and indeed the limits of that confidentiality, that research guidelines were wholly disregarded.  

Even if the argument is that the work of Mr McIntyre and other sub-contractors  was outside the bounds of  Boston College research ethics ‘tests’ and therefore not subject to the expected scrutiny, it is hard to fathom why the academics involved didn’t examine the proposals and identify the risks.  

Paul Bew quoted in The Boston Chronicle notes,

 “An historian’s most useful asset is a pair of autonomous yet coordinated eyes – one attuned to the present while the other looks toward the past” 

(Boston Chronicle April 27, 2000 Vol. 8, No.16)  

Thomas Hachey, Professor of History and Executive Director of the Center for Irish Programs at Boston College is quoted by Beth McMurtrie as saying:

 “What we intended was a recording of people’s memories at the time from both communities,” he says. “The intent was to preserve these for other generations to profit from it, through a study of the phenomenology of sectarian violence. … I don’t think any pretence was made by any of us at the time that this was going to be following the template for official oral history.”

Secrets from Belfast: How Boston College’s oral history of the Troubles fell victim to an international murder investigation’ (26th January 2014)

Instead we get a vision of capturing the last breaths of an endangered species contaminated by a nuclear meltdown; with no attention paid to the pandemic caused by not implementing protocols on how to manage the samples collected of their remains.  Maybe that’s a tad harsh but looking at the fall-out, falls outs, and the call outs, it’s a case of if the hazmat suit fits then wear it. 

The intention, according to Professor Hachey, was a recording of people’s memories at the time from both communities. 

 In fact, the end result was selected memories of narrators who were actors from an anti-agreement group not wholly reflective of the wider republican community, who had been identified by an interviewer who held similar views.

And in the case of the ‘other’ community, interviews with narrators whose memories reflected their involvement with one group of loyalist actors, again hardly reflecting the whole story.

So let’s return to Paul Bew’s description of the historian’s ‘autonomous yet coordinated eyes’.

Whilst having no vast knowledge of Mr McIntyre or his past allegiances and proclivities, let’s focus on his role as one of the sub-contracted Interviewers for the Belfast Project.  

The perceived (by whom is unclear) merits of his selecting interview subjects, (Narrators) setting the induction and recording of interviews, was that he had been a fellow ‘comrade in arms’ and had the trust and confidence of those selected for interview.    

The common ‘anti agreement’ stance between interviewer and subject this wasn’t happenstance. 

Notwithstanding the controversial nature of the Boston College Belfast Project surely any research selection panel worth its salt would have identified certain issues and challenges in the proposed methodology?

 Certainly the level of access must have been very attractive, but perhaps the project would have been better served by Mr McIntyre facilitating interviews to be undertaken by a historian who was not personally or ideologically connected with the narrators.

As Linda Shopes in ‘Making Sense of Oral History’ notes:

…oral history does complicate simplistic notions of hegemony that is the power of dominant political or cultural forces to control thought and action, as individuals articulate how they have manoeuvred with greater or lesser degrees of autonomy or conformity, risk, calculation or fear, within the circumstances of their lives.”  

Shopes offers a number of key first base questions for Oral History projects, including:

  • How might the dynamic between narrator and interviewer affect what is said in the interview?
  • Does the interviewer have a prior relationship with the interviewee… and how might this affect the interview?

Had such questions been given attention by the college, then perhaps the end result and the ongoing rumblings in Boston and Belfast could have been avoided.  

The preservation of people’s memories was for other generations to profit from it – via a study of the phenomenology of sectarian violence – being able to understand the “lived experience”. The value of the research may now never be determined.

However, it would seem that both Professor Hachey and Mr O’Neill along with the author did reportedly reap a financial return from Mr Moloney’s book. No time like the present.

The process was flawed from the outset and it’s just not good enough to chuck in the risk red herring – the risk could have been appropriately managed without the need to abandon the ethical and legal considerations.  Any next generation historians  listening in should be made aware of the larger backstory to this resulting mess.

Another storm in the Boston College teacup is that the PSNI want another unsealing of the tapes and the media here and across the pond smell the coffee with NBC writing to the courts asking for some easy listening. 

We have the solicitor for one of those under investigation noting “It’s very clear it was an intellectual, academic project, but was riddled with inaccuracies, unreliable and subjective   

Perhaps but only a privileged few (though they might not see it like that now) have access to the content of the tapes so the question of inaccuracies, unreliable and subjective will have to remain a point of opinion.  

However, whilst for me the concept of an “academic and intellectual project” remains a moot point; Judge William Young, who ordered the material to be handed over to the PSNI also noted the academic merit, 

This was a bona fide academic exercise of considerable intellectual merit… It’s clear to the Court … these materials are of interest. They are of interest – valid academic interests. They’re of interest to the historian, sociologist, the student of religion, the student of youth movements, academics who are interested in insurgency and counterinsurgency, in terrorism and counterterrorism. They’re of interest to those who study the history of religions. And I’m sure others.”   

At least the legal folk can find common ground.

As for now the least we can hope for are notarised reassurances from all those who have the information, the tapes and the transcripts, that there will be no rushing to print volume 2 as soon as the ink on the next obituary column is dry. 

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