University historians distance themselves from 'Boston Tapes'
Published 07/05/2014 | 02:30
SENIOR historians at Boston College have sought to distance themselves from the controversial 'Boston Tapes' project, the Irish Independent has learned.
Interviews held by the US college were used by PSNI officers investigating Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who was questioned for four days last week in connection with the 1972 murder of Jean McConville.
But in a highly dramatic intervention, irate historians at Boston College have publicly rubbished the Belfast project, which they say "tarnished its reputation".
However, journalist Ed Moloney – director of the project, which collected more than 40 interviews with former paramilitaries – hit back last night.
He said the oral history project would have been "dead" if Boston College had raised any red flags about the confidentiality of the tapes.
Since his arrest one week ago, Mr Adams and Sinn Fein have strongly criticised the basis of his detention and the use of these tapes – which drew on people they said were "no friends of the peace process".
Last night, Mr Moloney, whose book 'Voices From The Grave' was based in part on the secret interviews, said the project team had asked Boston College's lawyers to ensure the donor contract with interviewees was fully vetted and "legally satisfactory".
Mr Moloney said that the donor contract ensured "ultimate control" over the tapes until after the donor's death.
He insisted it did not contain a clause "to the extent that American law allows" – a clause later relied on by Boston College.
But five distinguished academics at Boston College raised serious concerns about how the project was first given approval and allowed to proceed without consultation.
The current Chair of Boston College's History Department, Professor Robin Fleming, and four of her predecessors, said press reports referring to the tapes as their project were "fundamentally inaccurate".
In the letter, the five academics, who have headed the History Department since the mid 1990s, said all of them were kept in the dark about the Boston Tapes project.
"Successive department chairs had not been informed of the project, nor had they or the department been consulted on the merits of the effort or the appropriate procedures to be followed in carrying out such a fraught and potentially controversial venture," the letter said.
Peter Weiler, Professor Emeritus and Chair until 2003, told the Irish Independent the project has "tarnished the reputation" of the History Department.
"The project didn't observe normal academic procedures into projects of oral history. Questions asked were often very leading, and there was no attempt at balance," he said.
"Where was the academic oversight? Was it a good idea to be interviewing people who were involved in actions considered to be criminal? Serious errors were made," Prof Weiler added.
In the letter, Prof Fleming, Prof Weiler and colleagues Prof James Cronin, Prof Marilynn Johnson and Prof Alan Rogers added that Mr Moloney and his two interviewers were never employed within their department.
In response, Mr Moloney said: "As far as I am concerned, it is an internal dispute that concerns criticism of the way that the academics who were in charge of the project organised and ran the project, it is essentially an internal Boston College matter".
Earlier yesterday, Boston College said it was willing to hand interviews back to former paramilitaries who took part.
Last year the PSNI won a legal battle to force Boston College to hand over sections of the archive that related to the murder of Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville.
Former IRA members Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, both now dead, claimed in the tapes that Mr Adams had a role in ordering the murder of Mrs McConville – claims Mr Adams has vehemently denied.
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said: "Obviously we'd have to verify that they were the individuals that took part in the process." Mr Dunn told the BBC: "If they wanted those documents returned, we'd be prepared to return those documents."