Features > Explosive histories

08 May 2014 | by Michael Sean Winters

Explosive histories

Boston College and the IRA tapes

The questioning of Gerry Adams over the death of Jean McConville put a Jesuit-founded university in the spotlight over its collecting of oral history of the Troubles. That a prestigious college should be embroiled in this row is ironic, given its origins as an educator of the Irish Catholic poor

“University library”: the words conjure up an image of dust-covered volumes in a musty, dimly-lit room, overseen by an octogenarian perpetually telling boisterous undergraduates to “hush”. But last week, the Burns Library at Jesuit-run Boston College, a private research university located in the village of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, found itself in the middle of a criminal and political maelstrom of the first order.

Police in Northern Ireland arrested the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams on suspicion of complicity in the 1972 murder of Jean McConville (Adams has since been released and it is doubtful he will be charged in the murder). Mrs McConville, a mother of 10, was kidnapped, killed and secretly buried by the IRA (Irish Republican Army), becoming of the so-called “Disappeared” victims of the Northern Ireland Troubles. The authorities based their suspicions on interviews given by former leaders in both the IRA and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) to the Belfast Project, an oral history of the Troubles conducted by Boston College. Those interviews had been the subject of extensive litigation in the United States for several years.

The Belfast Project was undertaken by the former Irish journalist Ed Moloney, and the interviews were conducted between 2001 and 2006. A one-time IRA member and now historian, Anthony McIntyre, interviewed 26 other former IRA members and Wilson McArthur interviewed 20 former UVF members. From the start, the danger of government subpoenaing the material was known to all.

 “As a journalist, Ed Moloney was aware of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) between the United States and the United Kingdom, signed in 1994, long before the Belfast Project interviews began in 2001,” said spokesman Jack Dunn. “The possibility of British law enforcement invoking the MLAT agreement was always present. In fact, as the court records show, Boston College Burns librarian Robert O’Neill sent a fax to Ed Moloney on 10 May 2000 in which he wrote, ‘I cannot guarantee, for example, that we would be in a position to refuse to turn over documents on a court order without being held in contempt.’ The reality is that no one thought the police would take this step in light of the goodwill that emanated from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.”

In 2010, after two of the interviewees – former IRA member Brendan Hughes and former UVF member David Ervine – died, Moloney produced a book and a television documentary, both entitled Voices from the Grave, which recounted the interviews and garnered considerable attention in Ireland. This amounted to waving a red flag in the face of the police and the McConville family. “Boston College regrets hiring Ed Moloney to direct the Belfast Project,” said Dunn. “It was a mistake, as evidenced by his repeated attempts to deflect blame for his management of the project to all but himself.” Soon the Northern Irish authorities invoked the MLAT to gain access to the rest of the interviews and the US Government subpoenaed Boston College for the files.

Boston College fought the subpoenas on the grounds of academic freedom, arguing that the Government’s interest in accessing the information needed to be balanced against the interests of the university in protecting academic research. Its court submissions also argued that such subpoenas would imperil the growing, and fruitful, enterprise of oral history, and that any effort to make the interviews public, when those interviewed were promised confidentiality, might even threaten the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.
After a string of appeals, counter-motions and a second subpoena, the court agreed with Boston College that the US Government subpoena was too broad but, after reading the materials in detail, concluded that the college was still bound to release 11 segments of 85 interviews with seven former IRA members. Seventy-four other interviews are deemed to fall outside the scope of the US Government’s scrutiny and are no longer subject to release. In September 2013, Boston College turned over the 11 segments to the US federal authorities who, in turn, delivered them to the UK representatives.

The choice of Boston College as the sponsor of the Belfast Project was not by happenstance. “Boston College has been casting its lot with the Irish since its founding in 1863,” said William Bole, a religious journalist who also works on editorial and research projects at the school. “This Belfast Project may be one of the worst examples of that relationship for the university.” Boston College has extensive ties to Ireland. “There are always Irish writers coming and going,” says Bole. “There is an Irish Cultural Centre on campus.”

The ties to the local Irish community are even stronger. “Boston College is the place that the Irish political establishment has gone through,” said Bole. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who before being appointed to the post had publicly opposed the subpoenas in his capacity as a Massachusetts senator, received his law degree from Boston College. So did former Senators Scott Brown and Warren Rudman; likewise Congressmen Stephen Lynch, Mike Capuano, Bill Delahunt, Ed Markey and Bill Keating, and half a dozen former members of Congress.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is an alumnus, as was his longtime predecessor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, President Kennedy’s grandfather on his mother’s side. The rest of the Kennedy clan had the money and status to attend Harvard, but many of the political powerbrokers in the Bay State matriculated at Boston College.

Nor are the ties to the Boston community limited to the political class. “If you graduate from the nursing school, you walk into a job at Massachusetts General Hospital,” said Bole, referring to one of the finest hospitals in the US. “If you graduate from the school of education, you are immediately a leader in the Boston education establishment.” First opened to serve the needs of Irish Catholic immigrants excluded from secular and Protestant colleges, Boston College is now the incubator of the city’s leadership in a host of fields.

Boston College was “a street-car college” until the 1960s. The original campus was located in South End, the heart of the city’s Irish community. In 1909, already outgrowing its urban campus, the Jesuits purchased a large farm in the suburban community of Chestnut Hill and moved out. Irish Catholic students would take the buses from their homes in the city to the college, which had very few non-Catholic students and little in the way of residence halls. Through the 1950s, it was an all-male institution, though today women make up half the student body.

Over the past 40 years, the college has seen enormous growth in numbers and prestige, and is now one of the leading US research universities. It was ranked thirty-first and thirty-fifth in the country by US News & World Report and Forbes magazine respectively. BusinessWeek ranks the college’s business school as the fourth best in the US. It started in 1863 with 22 students; today, there are 9,100 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students. Alan Wolfe, the acclaimed political scholar who runs the college’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, said: “Boston College has become much in demand nationwide. Many local Catholics who went there find that their children may not even be able to get in.”

Growing from a small Catholic college to a leading research university has caused other strains. Like its Irish heritage, the Catholic legacy has been a source of controversy as well as of institutional strength. In July 1967, Boston College president Michael Walsh, SJ, signed the Land O’Lakes statement, asserting the independence of Catholic universities and colleges from strict control by the hierarchy. The statement has been a thorn in the side of conservatives ever since, with groups like the Cardinal Newman Society routinely chastising Boston College, the University of Notre Dame and other top-tier Catholic universities for failing to live out their “Catholic identity”, as called for by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Boston’s previous archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, had a contentious relationship with the college though the current archbishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, has been supportive. O’Malley did drop out of last year’s graduation ceremony when it was announced that the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, was going to be the speaker, but generally O’Malley has maintained a positive relationship with the college and has not challenged its Catholic identity or lack thereof.

“I am not a Catholic, so perhaps I am not the best person to assess the college’s Catholic identity,” said Wolfe. “But the place sure seems to have a lot of Catholic identifiers to me. It has a distinctly Jesuit and Catholic presence, which makes most faculty and students extremely loyal to it. Call it solidarity. People at Boston College love it in a way I have never witnessed at secular universities.”

Bole agreed that conservatives say the college lacks a Catholic identity. “It’s definitely in the air,” he says. “It wants a thicker Catholic identity to run through the institution. Still, Jesuits are comfortable with the idea of an institution of higher education, as such, being a value to the life of faith.” He points to the well-attended retreats the college sponsors and the controversy in 2009 when it decided to place Christian art in all classrooms.

The Jesuit charism, finding God in all things, can be seen by conservatives as an excuse to baptise an otherwise secular agenda. Others see it as the prism with which to view Catholic higher education, balancing the inquisitiveness of a research institution with the search for God. But it was that search which led Boston College to seek a historical resource in the oral histories of those who participated in Northern Ireland’s bitter conflicts.

That they hired a journalist who produced a well-publicised book and documentary – rather than an archivist – brought them exposure and a legal battle. It raises the issue of the need for legislatures to devise protection for academic freedom if all such pursuits are not to end in similar frustrations. While Gerry Adams may have been released in Northern Ireland, the future of oral history projects remains to be determined.

* Michael Sean Winters reports for The Tablet from Washington DC.

Share this story

Article List

Post a Comment

You can post as a subscriber user...

User Comments (0)

Latest Issue
Digital/PDF Version

PDF version (iPad-friendly)

Previous Issues
Tablet Subscription

Manage my subcription here