There’s a couple of ways of looking at the New York Times coverage of the legal standoff between Boston College and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston over the matter of the oral history archive, related to the Northern Ireland Troubles and held by the Jesuit university.
The story first broke on page one of the paper on May 13th and was, typically, substantial in size and detail. It was written by Jim Dwyer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter well versed on Irish issues and one who would, naturally and unprompted, take an extra degree of interest in a story relating to both Ireland and the U.S.
Some longtime observers of the New York Times would argue that the paper has a spotty record when it comes to covering Ireland’s troubles, one that goes back to 1916 when the paper referred to the men and women fighting for a free Ireland as “rioters.”
Be that as it may, the interest in this particular story is undoubtedly a particular and well informed one, due to the fact that it was first penned by Dwyer, and also for another reason that might not become entirely clear until a ways down the legal track.
And that is with Boston College signaling that it is prepared to battle in court against the U.S. attorney’s subpoena, the case, which carries a bag-full of implications for academic and journalistic freedom, might already be on course for the United States Supreme Court.
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And the New York Times, more than any other U.S. daily, takes a very particular interest in the workings of the top court in the land.
There are, of course, other aspects to the story that make it important. Looking at it as a breaking news story it signals, as Dwyer wrote in his report, “the first indication that a criminal investigation is under way into the disappearance of at least nine people in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s who were thought to have informed for British authorities about the activities of republicans who were working to end British rule.”
The subpoena, according to the Times, seeks the accounts of two former republican soldiers who accused Sinn Féin president and now Dáil deputy, Gerry Adams, of running a secret cell within the IRA that carried out the kidnappings and disappearances.
Citing Rita O’Hare, Sinn Féin’s representative to the U.S., the Times reported that Adams, in O’Hare’s words, “has absolutely refuted that he had anything to do with it or had any knowledge of it.”
The report then focused on academic concerns here in the U.S. linked to the Boston College case though not confined to it.
“The subpoena puts an uncomfortable light on oral history projects that may offer promises of extended confidentiality that they may find difficult to keep under legal pressure,” the reported stated.
And it continued: “This is our worst-case scenario,” said Mary Marshall Clark, the director of the oral history research office at Columbia University. Interviewers for Columbia projects advise the subjects that whatever they say is subject to release under court orders, like subpoenas, and require them to sign consent forms, Ms. Clark said.”
The May 13th report stated that authorities – in this case the Police Service of Northern Ireland by way of the U.S. Attorney’s Office – were seeking interviews conducted with Brendan Hughes and Delours Price, “both of whom have admitted carrying out bombings in England and Northern Ireland.”
And it continued: “Mr. Hughes died in 2008, and portions of his history were published in ‘Voices From the Grave,’ by Ed Moloney, and included in a film of the same name by Patrick Farrelly, Kate O’Callaghan and Mr. Moloney. In the film, Mr. Hughes is heard being asked about the promise of confidentiality.”
Hughes was interviewed by the writer and onetime IRA member, Anthony McIntyre, who, along with the New York-based Moloney, and others, have submitted affidavits in support of Boston College’s resistance to releasing material from the archives.
The Times report stated that the university’s John J. Burns Library had amassed “volumes of secret materials on Northern Ireland, including, this year, the papers of an international commission that oversaw the destruction of paramilitary arms dumps. They are sealed for 30 years. The oral history project is a joint effort of the library and the college’s Center for Irish Programs.”
Anthony McIntyre, who has a doctorate in history, told the Times that compliance with the subpoena would imperil frankness from paramilitaries.
“The damage it would do to research at the university would be unimaginable. People will hold onto their secrets forever,” he said.
The Times returned to the story on June 10th, this time with a report written by Katie Zezima, and prompted by the decision by Boston College to file a motion in U.S. District Court in Boston seeking to quash the U.S. Attorney’s subpoena.
This second report stated that lawyers for Boston College were arguing that releasing the interviews would break the IRA’s “code of silence” and could lead to “punishment by death.”
And it included Anthony McIntyre stating in his affidavit: “I am of the view that the more the Belfast Project (the title name for the gathering of the archive material) interviews reveal about how deeply matters of the IRA were discussed, the greater the danger that I, as the primary researcher, will face.”
Lawyers for Boston College as say that Ms. Price suffers from depression, and will be “deeply traumatized” if her interview is made public,” the second Times report continued.
And it added that the case was being closely watched by oral historians, who fear it could erode trust between historians and interviewees and make it difficult to get people to speak candidly. ”
‘I think it’s wonderful that Boston College is fighting the subpoena,” said Mary Larson, first vice president of the Oral History Association. “What all of us in the oral history community are afraid of is this is going to have an incredible chilling effect on what we’re able to do.'”
It remains to be seen how the courts will view the case, but given the parties concerned, and the fact that their respective positions are clearly of the utmost importance, this case does appear to have all the potential for arrival on some future date on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
If that be the case, the New York Times, along with many other publications, will be publishing additional reports on this Boston-based legal battle with angst-ridden roots 3,000 miles to that city’s east.