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. 


  • Turgon

    That is a profoundly good analysis of the whole debacle.

    I think the key point seems to be the choosing of McIntyre as the interviewer. His biases are clear and well known here in Northern Ireland. Using him not only narrowed the field of potential interviewees (though it is unlikely that a different interviewer would have got more pro SF IRA members) but it also skwewed the likely discussion topics and outcomes.

    However, Boston College would not necessarily have known these problems. Clearly they had a highly respected journalist (Ed Moloney) and a highly respected academic (Lord Bew) who was even a unionist supporting the plan (lending apparent balance). As such it is maybe unsurprising that Boston College thought it seemed a good idea: McIntyre was being vouched for by apparently excellent sources.

    I would also submit that before this debacle McIntyre was held in reasonably high regard by assorted academics. As such although with hindshight the whole thing was a farce it may well not have looked that way at the time.

    Of course the whole process was flawed by its complete partiality. It interviewed terrorists still opposed to the “Peace Process” on the republican side and some loyalist terrorists. Both had their own very clear agendas. Adding to that the agendas of the interviewer it is now with hindsight an utterly flawed exercise.

    Boston College should take a little blame but most of the blame is in Bew and Moloney choosing McIntyre as the researcher. Clearly McIntyre is also at fault but anyone who thought of him as a useful person for this role must have been a fool. Also so undermined have his academic credentials been by this debacle that his relevance has faded.

  • Morpheus

    The whole Boston Tapes debacle are an embarrassment to everyone concerned.

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

    And this is exactly how they should have stayed, the ramblings of those concerned (funny how people that would not be trusted as far as they could be thrown when alive are seen as beyond reproach when dead) instead of being allowed to used as a sort of legally binding last confession.

    The stuff in those tapes would have made a decent anecdotal addition to one of those books you buy at the airport but all these subpoenas and court cases have descended the whole process into farce and opened the college up to getting the arses sued of them. And for what?

  • TwilightoftheProds

    “Clearly McIntyre is also at fault but anyone who thought of him as a useful person for this role must have been a fool. Also so undermined have his academic credentials been by this debacle that his relevance has faded.”

    Sez you, Turgon. You are top marks on Unionism but when it comes to the Republicans your diagnostic skills lack evidence and largely fall back on overly assertive pejorative adjectives. Bit of a god complex (nothing to do with Faith) emerging there. Critical inquiry requires humility first.

    I think that when the full history of this is written the outlook will be kinder towards McIntyre. He was the interviewer (and also an interviewee) who would have been told that the ethical boundaries of the project had been green lit and legal protections put in place.At that point he had no would have had no control over these, other than to pass on informed consent

    …as to the notion of bias…organisational control over those still aligned to the republican movement is very tight – he probably made some attempt to tunnel under that but would have found that those outside the camp were more accessible. Silver lining there. Indeed its often the case in oral history that a premium is put on finding previously silenced, discordant voices that were nevertheless at the heart of events…in this case mission accomplished..all too well!

    I’ve read a lot of McIntyre’s work…so much so that when I got wind that his PhD was accessible I made a point of reading it. Huge amount of sources and interviews-many seemed drawn from when he still had access to the mainstream ‘camp’.

    If you look back over the body of his work after about ’95 his conclusions have a predictive quality that bears up very well against many other academics and journos at the time.

    As regards the wider affair-the hour and minute the peelers understood there was specific information relevant to a case they had to ask for it and had every right to. On that point I differ quite radically to Mr Moloney and Dr McIntyre. Now the cops just look like they are fishing.

    But an interesting point now emerges -there is a similar critical blog over on John Brewer’s Conflict blog. Now I’m a suspicious man when it comes to coincidences – particularly when it comes to similarities in content and timing…Politics with a large ‘P’ or a small ‘p’ happening here? Anything interesting likely to further drop out of the Boston College debacle? Did McIntyre get to chat to some SF aligned types after all?

    This is the thing-none of us know the totality of what and who is in there.

  • Turgon

    I take your point entirely. I am clearly no expert on republicans. However, he is panned and dismissed by mainstream republicans. Now clearly they have reasons to think ill of him because he is opposed to their agenda.

    Now he is really only taken seriously by republicans opposed to the current SF political direction: previously his analysis may have had broader currency but not really now. That does not make him wrong per se but it does mean that his views need to be seen as coming from very much his perspective. In addition he has a very clear (and to be fair open) agenda. He also did himself significant damage with his bizarre and offensive outburst trying to suggest that the Shankill bombers were trying to save the shoppers.

  • TwilightoftheProds I wrote this piece I don’t know Mr Brewer or his blog so any coincidence is entirely that

  • Mick Fealty

    I would only add one small addendum to the points made here.

    The crucial misjudgement In my view was that the broad sense of generosity and wellbeing that was undoubtedly generated by the Good Friday agreement itself would endure for the lifetime of the project.

    It was a gamble by Boston College which proved to be profoundly misplaced.

  • TwilightoftheProds

    “He also did himself significant damage with his bizarre and offensive outburst trying to suggest that the Shankill bombers were trying to save the shoppers.”

    Oh, he has his big blind spots for sure, as do we all. In this case its squaring his critique of the IRA as a strategic ,ultimately pointless, failure with a need to hang on to the notion of a ‘justly fought’ war. Far too many instances of civilian deaths for that. And lost opportunities. In truth, he’s come pretty close to saying this at times.

    Neither you nor I can really get under the emotional skin of Republicanism, but I’d like to see the measured forensic assessment you supply on Unionism replicated on Republicanism. Once you’ve mapped the terrain, that seems the best point to get the moral compass out.

  • RegisterForThisSite

    But is the judges quote of any value, I mean fair enough it’s his professional opinion, but his profession isn’t history or research. Also the quote is from 2 years ago, in light of what we know now would the judge still stand by the quote. Even if the quote is still valid it doesn’t actually say anything of worth, ‘of interest’ is the term repeated throughout. I think if the judge was pushed to declare if the interviews met the standards expect of academic research he say he had no idea.

    So, remove the judges quote, is there anyone else has a good word to say about it?

    Also think those involve have cynically used dissident republicans, in the past few years they seem to have flip-flopped from wanting to destroy the GFA to fearing for it’s future, from been the voice of dissident to fearing murder by dissidents.

    The whole Boston Tapes stuff also comes after years of a constant output of anti-SF, anti-GFA, stuff from McIntyre and his wife mostly on blogs which I think leaves a lot of anoraks feeling they are toxic, not helped by Bew’s public denials of any real involvement, cock a doodle doo (trice) Lord Bew

  • TwilightoftheProds


    I might be suspicious of coincidences but I accept they do happen.
    For information – Brewer didn’t write it. Briggit Schippers posted it on his QUB blog:

    My own position is that the Belfast project was a useful endeavour but a research ethics ballix from the beginning; that McIntyre was likely the least responsible for this; and that there is nothing to say that it was a propaganda exercise – an attempt to dig out critical voices, sure. If they got Provo or SF insiders too ( there may be some) they were always likely to be a minority. Indeed – the ‘until death’ proviso may have been an attempt to encourage such insiders. To many Shinners McIntyre may be taboo, but others will still chat to him-if reportage on his blogs over the years are anything to go by.

    If the Shinners want to ditch the stalinist jibe once and for all-they can throw open their party to scrutiny in the same way as the DUP have just done-that’d be a start.

  • TwilightoftheProds


    we can’t know the contents – in terms of the judges opinion – its a small point in favour, from a man who is used to deliberating over factual evidence and argument. But he ain’t an historian. Having said that -we’d need the opinion of several historians. Witness the debates round the late Peter Hart’s work.

    You and I can better judge from ‘Voices from the Grave’ – I thought it was very useful stuff to add to the mix-but do not treat it as unalloyed truth.

    Mick-spot on- there was a post peace process euphoria – the reality of dealing with the past has now burst this asunder. We should have listened to the legal eagles as much as the political and historical commentariat. For once.

    In a broader outlook – the archival motherlode is somewhere on our doorstep – the HET warehouse. Now that really must be a toxic waste dump! I’d swap access to Boston for that anyday!

  • Turgon

    Thank you. I mean that sincerely. I do not want to derail the thread. However, I think it is very hard for a unionist to understand the republican community as one does one’s own. Leaving aside any moral judgements I just do not know enough about its internal and party dynamics.

    My point about McIntyre and the whole Boston College episode is that I suspect his failings were less well seen in the past. His anti SF agenda blinds him and cuts him off from useful sources of information making him a poor person to choose for this project. That was, I suspect less well known and appreciated when the project started. Indeed his anti SF stance may also have hardened (I do not know).

    Either way I think when this started Boston College probably thought they were on to a winner: highly regarded academic (Bew) and journalist (Moloney) along with research worker with apparent credibility (McIntyre with PhD and republican background). It has clearly not worked out that way both in terms of the problems with the police demanding the details and also in terms of quality. It seems much of the time McIntyre was trying (with the help of the interviewees) to attack SF in general and Gerry Adams in particular rather than actually provide much historical information.

    Boston College could not really have foreseen that that was going to happen. Lord Bew and Ed Moloney might also not have been able to forsee it at least not how poorly it has turned out. I suspect Lord Bew anyway is pretty disappointed with the quailty of the research even leaving aside the political and legal issues which have come up.

  • RegisterForThisSite

    “broad sense of generosity and wellbeing that was undoubtedly generated by the Good Friday agreement”

    er….if you say so Mick, momentum against the naysayers yes, wellbeing possibly but generosity!!

    “It was a gamble by Boston College which proved to be profoundly misplaced.”

    Cash handed to a couple of hacks on the sayso of a visiting lecturer and the project hidden from the very department that should have overseen it
    Wouldn’t call that a gamble Mick, unprofessional, yes, without merit, yes but not a gamble

    Have to disagree (although good comparison) as with the Boston Tapes his work on Kilmichael was done with a flawed methodology, it’s nothing to do with what the content is, it’s how the content was arrived at. Both bodies of work are corrupted hence the content is irrelevant

  • TwilightoftheProds


    we are going to agree to disagree on a lot- I don’t think the Republican interviews would have been straight propaganda….but

    ‘and the project hidden from the very department that should have overseen it’

    That is a very important point. Usual university politicking? ‘Thats my research/vanity project hands off’ etc? Doubt that was in McIntyre’s hands. Bew wasn’t attached long enough.

    Abject folly to cut out the in house historians. From both a research and an office politics frame. . More heads -more advice and second opinions; More heads – more blame to thin out when the sh*te hits the ceiling fan….

    Just what was the ethical procedure? Aren’t they meant to be reviewed by experts unattached to the project. I’d have thought that’s where the history dept. stepped in…

    BTW who interviewed Anthony McIntyre, when it was his turn?…and the Loyalist interviews were handled by someone different – so even if as you argue McIntyre and Moloney’s peeves twisted the approach from the outset- a large amount is compartmentalised from their outlook.

  • Dec

    Beg to differ Mick but the crucial misjudgement was the interviewees acceptance of McIntyre’s and Moloney’s assurances of confidentiality.

  • RegisterForThisSite

    @Twilight, again, it’s the methodology used that counts, how were the subjects selected what questions were asked, why those qusestions, what are the desired outcomes, it’s either science or it’s mickey mouse.

    Example, you can use a potato, salt and water as a scientific experiment to prove osmosis, you can also use a potato salt and water to make a meal, same content, similar procedure totally different outcome.

    McIntyre might have had a potato, salt and water but the only thing he proved was that a bit of cabbage and bacon would have been nice to go with it.

  • “a bit of cabbage and bacon would have been nice to go with it.”

    Well, in the vernacular, the cabbages will swallow the porkies whole.

  • “Beg to differ Mick but the crucial misjudgement was the interviewees acceptance of McIntyre’s and Moloney’s assurances of confidentiality.”


    The problem was that McIntyre and Moloney didn’t get a good legal opinion on how their assurances conformed to American law as the project was to be stored in Boston, not Belfast, or Dublin, or Edinburgh, etc. But appointing McIntyre as the sole interviewer did have consequences. Why was no one from the INLA/IRSP interviewed? Why were no pro-SF Provos interviewed? Why were all the loyalists from the UVF, and no one from the nominally larger (but less Troubles active) UDA interviewed? The whole selection process seems biased. It would have been better had Pew and Moloney come up, in conjunction with McIntyre and the loyalist interviewer, a more representative list of potential interviewees.

  • Seamuscamp

    “Historical” truth is usually a matter of perspective through the lens of incomplete information, rather than objective fact. Just compare all those books about the origins of WW1. It is more a seesaw than a slide; and in this case there’s a big fat man in one seat and a blank sheet of paper in the other. The ingredients are not likely to result in anything balanced – antagonists are primed to bias, not necessarily through malice (though one would expect malice in these interviewees).