The Belfast Project: oral history’s chance to grow up
Students of either Irish or oral history are probably already aware of the controversy and rancour surrounding the Boston College oral history project investigating the Northern Irish Troubles. The affair has been simmering in the media for over three years, with new details regularly emerging of the mistakes made by the project’s researchers, the legal difficulties in which they, the College and their interviewees have become entangled, and the threats of physical violence that some participants have received as a result of their involvement.
From an academic standpoint, much of the commentary has centred on what this ‘fiasco’ and its fallout mean for the future of oral history, but a related and equally worthwhile question is what they suggest about the current state of the field. In particular, it seems clear that the disastrous consequences of the project were primarily due to the methodological immaturity of the discipline (in comparison with traditional documentary history, for instance). While well developed theoretically, oral history still lacks many of the widespread and consistently enforced professional standards taken for granted by other branches of history—an unnecessary and potentially damaging hindrance to its development.
What has become known informally as the ‘Belfast Project’ began in 2001 as a collaboration between Boston College library staff and senior academics, researcher and journalist Ed Moloney, and former paramilitary soldiers from both sides of the divide. Conceived in the ‘heady days’ following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the project was envisaged as a contribution both to scholarship and to the peace process, with the aim of giving voice to a wider range of views and experiences of the Troubles than was permitted in the dominant public narrative. Forty-six former nationalist and loyalist paramilitary members were interviewed by Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA soldier turned academic, and Wilson McArthur. All interviewees were given comprehensive guarantees of confidentiality and control over their testimony, and the interviews were sealed in the College’s Burns Library after the project’s conclusion in 2006.
Four years later, however, a series of media revelations alerted the Northern Irish police (PSNI) to the possibility that some of the Boston College tapes could provide evidence to advance several investigations dating from the Troubles—most notably the murder of Jean McConville in 1972. In 2011, the PSNI applied through the US authorities for subpoenas to gain access to the tapes, and after a two-year legal tussle on both sides of the Atlantic, succeeded in acquiring transcripts of two interviews. This, in turn, seems to have opened the floodgates: though the US court judgement made it clear that police would not be able to go on ‘fishing trips’ in the archive without a specific, named crime in mind, the PSNI has since launched a broad investigation into various crimes committed during the Troubles, in the course of which it has returned to the Boston College tapes. Most recently, it has attempted to access the testimony of Winston Rea, a former loyalist paramilitary, in a struggle that has come to a head in the past week.
These investigations, and the exposure they have given the project, have been to the considerable detriment of the project and its participants. Aside from the distress of their legal battles with the police and the College, some interviewees face potential physical danger after being publicly revealed as ‘touts’ (a term used in the paramilitaries to refer to traitors to the cause). Unsurprisingly, much of the trust between interviewees and researchers has been lost. The Burns Library archive, meanwhile, has suffered the material loss of some of the interviews, either to the PSNI or to those interviewees who requested that their tapes be returned to them, many of whom subsequently destroyed them.
Dissecting a disaster
Several incidents of misjudgement and mismanagement have been blamed for the derailing of the project from its original objectives, which point up several current issues relating to oral history as a discipline.
Most importantly, the extent of the guarantees given by researchers to the interviewees is now known to have been far broader than should have been allowed by the College. The ‘ultimate control’ promised to each interviewee in the consent forms was beyond what US law would allow in the event of any criminal investigation. As a number of oral history organizations have pointed out, this is not a case of the law being ambiguous in any respect; testimony concerning criminal activity cannot be withheld if requested by law enforcement. Many oral history practitioners, including the Boston College researchers, seem unclear on this point, however, assuming the existence of an ‘archival privilege of confidentiality’ that in fact has no legal basis.
Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that the consent forms were written by the researchers without the input, or even the scrutiny, of the College’s legal department. This was partly due to poor communication between the two parties, but also suggests that the College either had no legal or ethical research guidelines in place, or chose not to apply them to this project. This highlights a more general deficiency in the project’s implementation: the limited involvement of the College’s academic staff. Thomas Hachey, head of the College’s Irish programmes, has explained this as recognition of Moloney’s and McIntyre’s more detailed knowledge of contemporary Northern Ireland than anyone based at the College. It is possible, however, that academic staff might have been better versed in the legal and ethical concerns that need to be addressed in a project of this sort.
This last point requires some measure of qualification. As mentioned earlier, McIntyre holds a PhD in history from Queen’s University Belfast, and does have advanced historical training. Moreover, the employment of former paramilitary members as interviewers was undoubtedly crucial in gaining the trust of interviewees and securing their participation, and was therefore almost a prerequisite for getting the project off the ground in the first place. Indeed, the need to establish and maintain this trust can be seen as the motivating factor behind most of the mistakes outlined above; along with the researchers’ general enthusiasm for the project, it led to their promising, in the College’s name, more than they could deliver.
A methodological dilemma
This points to a dilemma that has been at the heart of modern oral history since its emergence in the late 1940s. On the one hand, the field’s greater appreciation for the more subjective dimensions of historical study has become its greatest strength. Its emancipatory remit and potential, its ability to use this subjective insight to record and publicize those experiences and social groups excluded from mainstream historical discourses, has become what Alistair Thompson refers to as one of its ‘primary justifications’. Its rejection of ‘narrow professionalisation’ has led to its acceptance of non-academic, often community-based practitioners, a step that has immeasurably enriched the field. This, along with its emphasis on intimate, personal connections between historians, their subjects, and the communities in which they live has given it a singular role in the Northern Irish peace and reconciliation process in particular. On the other hand, this same inclusivity has made it a rather loose and unwieldy discipline, while also preventing it from being taken seriously by the wider academic establishment until, arguably, the 1980s. As a consequence, it is not always considered a full-fledged academic discipline even today, an image problem that may lie behind Hachey’s admission that he did not view the Belfast Project as a ‘traditional work of scholarship’ during its conception.
In short, it ought to be possible for oral history to devise tighter ethical and methodological standards—and, more urgently, disseminate existing standards more widely to practitioners—without sacrificing those qualities that make the discipline unique. Organizations such as the UK’s Oral History Society or the US Oral History Association (OHA) have produced extensive ethical guidelines; the problem, it seems, is simply that the field is too diffuse to ensure that all practitioners are aware of them.
Cause for optimism
Certain oral historians, however, have expressed the hope that the mistakes of the Belfast Project will go some way to rectifying this. Cliff Kuhn, executive director of the OHA, has described the case as ‘something of a wake-up call’, and suggested that it may lead universities and archives to reassess their ethical procedures. Historians Mary Marshall Clark and John Neuenschwander, meanwhile, have welcomed the wider methodological debates that the case has opened in the oral history community, as well as the greater caution on the part of future researchers that it will encourage.
If the predictions of these academics are borne out, therefore, the project may become precisely the sort of catalyst for change and maturation that the discipline has needed for so long. In this respect, it can be viewed as the latest manifestation of the discipline’s difficult, but by no means terminal, growing pains.