by Bill Forry and Melissa Tabeek
The British government’s controversial attempt to seize records from a Boston College oral history collection related to the conflict in Northern Ireland scored another court victory on Tues., Jan. 24, when federal Judge William Young dismissed a lawsuit that sought to block the records’ release.
US Senator John Kerry jumped into the fray that same week, urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to halt the federal government’s cooperation with the British probe.
Kerry, who is the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, warned that the unfolding controversy threatened to undermine the intent of the Good Friday Accords. “It would be a tragedy if this process were to upset the delicate balance that has kept the peace and allowed for so much progress in the last fourteen years,” Kerry wrote in a letter dated Jan. 23. “I would urge you to work with the British authorities to reconsider the path they have chosen and revoke their request.”
The British government initiated a legal process to gain access to Boston College’s files last spring. Acting through an existing treaty agreement between the US and the UK, British prosecutors secured a federal subpoena to compel university officials to turn over specific tapes and transcripts from interviews conducted for the Belfast Project. BC initially fought the subpoena in US courts, but did supply the documents after losing an appeal in December.
Then Judge Young dismissed the lawsuit brought by the two men— Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney— who had conducted the interviews on BC’s behalf beginning in 2001. Young ruled that neither McIntyre or Moloney had any standing to seek to block the release of the tapes, adding that the treaty provisions required Boston College to comply with the subpoena.
McIntrye’s wife, Carrie Twomey, was on hand for the Jan. 24 hearing — which coincidentally was held at Boston College Law School. In an interview later that afternoon, Twomey said she was not surprised by the court’s decision. “I was hopeful going in, but realistic,” Twomey told the Irish Reporter. “We expected this and we will be appealing it, there’s no question about that. But it was emotionally hard. Because this is my life and my family’s life. And the life of the people who participated in this project.”
Still, Twomey was cheered by the letter released by Senator Kerry, who met with her and with other Irish-American activists concerned by the potential damage this British probe could have on the peace process in the North.
“We’re very heartened. I was in D.C. this week and the reaction that we’ve been getting from Congress is exactly what we need,” said Twomey, who lives with McIntyre and their children in Belfast. “They, unlike the court and unlike the lawyers that are fighting this, understand the seriousness of this issue and the implications of American foreign policy and they know that this subpoena is not the right thing and they’re working to get it stopped.”
Twomey said she expected to return to Boston in March, when a further hearing is expected to be held regarding the release of more tapes from the BC archives. She is fearful that people interviewed by her husband — who did so on the condition that their identities would not be revealed to the public until their deaths— could be in danger of retaliation by extremists on both sides of the political divide in the North. She is also concerned for the safety of her own family.
“It’s affecting us terribly,” Twomey said. “I’m here, on my own, on our credit cards. My husband is out of work so I don’t know how we’re going to pay for this. The stress is unbelievable; I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. The constant fear you’re living with, it’s awful. If the subpoena succeeds and the archives are handed over and used as criminal evidence, we’re in danger now that’ll just kick it into a whole other level. I do believe my husband is being set up for assassination.”
The original subpoena, issued last May and June, sought the records related to two individuals, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, both of whom were alleged to be former IRA members. BC has already handed over documents involving Hughes, who died three years ago.
Court documents indicate that the current British investigation focuses on the killing of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother who was abducted from her home in Dec. 1972. Her body was discovered on a beach in County Louth in 2003. She had been shot in the head, allegedly because the IRA believed that she was acting as a spy for British forces, although an independent investigation in 2006 found no evidence of that charge.
Lawyers for BC sought to squash the subpoena, arguing that the archives should be protected from inspection because they were collected and preserved for academic purposes. However, BC’s arguments were rejected by Judge Young in a decision last year and the university was ordered to supply the evidence to the court.
Twomey continues to press the case that the release of the Belfast Project tapes and related documents will do more harm than good.
“I came here because I felt that the reality of this was not being paid attention to: academic freedom, the protection of sources, the fact that the British government is raiding academic archives – these are all important issues but the human part of it, the fact that there are people’s lives, children’s lives, and in mine and my children’s case, American lives, are at stake here. I came here to impress upon people the very real dangers that this is posing to very real people. I felt that that was getting lost in the shuffle.”
Twomey was joined in her protest of the court decision by a trio of Irish-American organizations that have been outspoken in this case from the beginning: the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Brehon Law Society, and the Irish American Unity Conference. In a joint statement issued Jan. 24, the groups criticized the British use of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty as “contrary to the Treaty’s purpose” and “to American cultural and justice values.”
“The request for Attorney General Holder to issue a sealed subpoena for select records held by Boston College is intended to intimidate academic and journalistic freedom of inquiry and to insure that the British version of the conflict in Ireland is unencumbered,” read the statement.