Boston tapes were never meant to be part of current affairs – they're a history project
During the 1930s in Ireland, politicians, educators and IRA veterans expressed increasing concern about the urgency and importance of collecting testimony from survivors of the War of Independence for historical posterity.
The idea was that, as the generation involved in the events of 1916-21 got older, if there was no attempt made to record their experiences they would take their accounts to the grave. The response to this was what ultimately became the Bureau of Military History project; initiated by the State, overseen by personnel from the Department of Defence, and advised by a group comprising various scholars and historians.
During the 1940s and 1950s, almost 1,800 interviews were conducted with veterans, on the understanding that their testimony would not be released into the public domain for decades. Their accounts were locked up in government buildings in March 1959 in 83 steel boxes.
There was no formal agreement in the late 1950s on when the material would be released, partly because there were so many views on this – some believed a 30-year rule should apply; others argued for 50 or even 75 years. That was hardly surprising; many of the events and legacies of the revolutionary era were still raw and divisive in the mid-20th Century, and there was legitimate concern about allegations and accusations that might be contained in the statements with no right of redress. As they were being put away, the distinguished librarian Richard Hayes, a member of the Bureau's advisory committee, suggested it was important the Bureau material should not be made available to the general public. He wrote to a colleague: "If every Sean and Seamus from Ballythis and Ballythat who took major or minor or no part at all in the national movement from 1916 to 1921 has free access to the material, it may result in local civil warfare in every second town and village in the country."
His concerns seem wildly exaggerated now, but he was making an important point, of profound relevance to the current controversy over the Boston College tapes – any oral history project has to be conducted with great caution, and material that is collected needs to be locked up for a very long time, so that it remains history and does not become current affairs.
The Bureau material was not released until 2003; by then, everyone referred to in the statements was dead, and the accounts, though not without problems that are relevant to all oral history, such as the danger of exaggeration, limited recall, or the desire to settle scores, are regarded as a valuable addition to the sources of information available on the War of Independence period and are used extensively by historians.
The Boston College tapes have received a huge amount of publicity for all the wrong reasons; they are seen too much as part of current affairs and not enough as history. Those involved in orchestrating this project either did not seek proper advice or were given bad advice.
Perhaps there was too much influence over the project by those who, understandably, were interested in how the material might ultimately be used to write interesting books on the Troubles, or former paramilitaries who could hardly be considered neutral in conducting a project of this sort, either because of their own experiences during the Troubles, or their views on how the peace process was managed.
Giving interviewees a commitment that their testimony will not be released until after they have died is not enough, as interviewees can die very shortly after their testimony. Lack of proper procedures and protection means that the material receives undue publicity, with some of it finding its way into the public domain very soon after it has been recorded, and then almighty rows develop about ongoing investigations, legal entitlement and academic freedom.
As journalist Ben MacIntyre wrote in 'The Times' last week, it sets up conflict between "the protection of academic freedom versus the State's duty to solve a heinous crime". Likewise, one of those involved in the Boston College project insisted, "journalists, academics and historians need protection if they are to gain the necessary information which offers valuable insight into the past."
These assertions, however, only tell part of the story. It could be argued that this project was not a proper history project at all. The History Department at Boston College vented its anger this week at the frequency with which there is reference made to "Boston College historians" in coverage of this controversy. As they point out, this is completely inaccurate; those involved were contracted to do the job without any reference to the history department, and "most members of the history faculty were unaware of the existence of the project" until the publication of Ed Moloney's book 'Voices from the Grave' in 2010, which used some of the interviews.
The most important part of the statement from the Boston historians, however, is their assertion that "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".
That is the crucial point: had the Boston College historians been more involved in this, and had much more caution been exercised instead of it being operated by members of a closed circle, this could well have been a history project properly designed and managed for posterity, and not a current affairs controversy. A close look at how the Bureau of Military History project was managed in the 1940s and 1950s would have been wise.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD