Boston tapes were never meant to be part of current affairs – they're a history project

tags: Boston College tapes



Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

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.




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