The Belfast Project and the Future of Oral History Projects

Brooke Gladstone interviews Anthony McIntyre and Jack Dunn. The transcipt initially featured in Boston College Subpoena News on 4 February 2014.

On The Media
National Public Radio
31 January 2014

Begun in 2000, the Belfast Project was an oral history project that aimed to document combatants’ stories in the clashes between the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force in the 1970s through the 1990s. But the charged nature of what interviewees told the project has brought immense pressure on the project’s organizers to release records of the interviews, which they’d promised to keep secret. Brooke talks with Anthony McIntyre who recorded many of the interviews for the project.


Brook Gladstone: It seems that oral histories are generally ignored unless they make history. The Belfast Project is an archive of taped recollections of members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Irish Loyalist Army [sic] who warred against each other from the 70s into the 90s.

News Report: The bomb blew apart the Horse and Groom pub in Guildford killing five people and injuring 50 more. An hour later another pub 200 yards up the road was also bombed. Then a month later at Woolwich in South London another soldiers’ pub was bombed and two people were killed.

BG: They were promised that their stories would stay secret until after their deaths. That promise was broken this month aggravating a wound that has never healed despite 15 years of peace. Some thirty five hundred people were killed in Ireland’s so called time of troubles. The Belfast Project intended to preserve the IRA stories inside the Boston College Library. But when reports emerged about the substance of two of the interviews the British government used the Mutual Legal Assistance between the US and the UK to obtain them and much more. In particular the British authorities wanted access to interviews that touched on the unsolved murder of Jean McConville.

News Report: Jean McConville’s abduction, torture, murder and secret burial by the IRA nearly 40 years ago leaves many unanswered questions. The mother of ten’s body was dumped on a County Louth beach and despite extensive searches was only found in 2003 by a passing walker.

Beth McMurtrie, whose magisterial piece about the Belfast Project ran recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, called McConville’s case a uniquely tragic atrocity. The widowed mother of ten was dragged from her house in front of her then kids in 1972 and murdered as a suspected informer. Among the interviews archived in the Belfast project are some that implicate Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein party, often called the IRA’s political wing.

Anthony McIntyre whose credentials include a PhD in political science began recording the oral histories in the spring of 2001, for nearly six years collecting 26 interviews with IRA members, people who had every reason to trust him.

AM: I served a life sentence for IRA activity including the killing of a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force. And I have been involved … in the hunger strikes back in 1981 and 1980. And on the blanket protest along with Bobby Sands. I first went to prison when I was 16 and released when I was 18. I returned to prison when I was 18 and was released when I was 35. And I was known to these people to be trustworthy.

BG: What promises did you make to them?

AM: that these interviews would not be released until their death or with their consent prior to that. And that neither the Provisional IRA nor the British state would be allowed to access those interviews.

BG: One of your interviewees, Brendan Hughes, died and a book came out by your collaborator on the project, journalist Ed Moloney. In the book Brendan Hughes figured prominently. He told you that Gerry Adams was involved in the murder of Jean McConville, something that Adams has denied. Here is a little bit of Brendan Hughes’ tape.
I never carried out a major operation without the OK or the order from Gerry. And for him to sit in his plush office in Westminster or Stormont or wherever, and deny it … I mean it is like Hitler denying that there was ever a Holocaust.
AM: Well, during the course of the interview, Brendan revealed a lot of his life in the IRA. Gerry Adams was his operational commander in Belfast, and that Gerry Adams had ordered the killing of Jean McConville, had ordered the London bombings and had ordered a lot of IRA activity. Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams were very close comrades in the IRA back in the day.

BG: Boston College having been confronted with this order to turn over the entire archive calls it a victory that it doesn’t have to turn the whole thing over, only eleven documents.

AM: What Boston College secured was a minimising of the defeat. That is what we secured. The state seemed to have a view that ‘we were dealing with pushover professors and we will get anything we want out of them.’ And they weren’t far wrong.

BG: Pushover professors?

AM: Yes.

BG: And they weren’t very far wrong you were saying?

AM: No, they weren’t very far wrong. There should never have been a discussion about whether we do this or we don’t. They should have been straight out of the traps and said ‘We will face this head on.’

BG: Hmm Hmm.

AM: Rather Boston College were transmitting messages to the Justice Department and law enforcement that ‘we are willing to fold if you give us the right opportunity.’ But unfortunately for Boston College, myself, my wife, and Ed Moloney decided to stand and fight. And because we fought Boston College then were embarrassed.

BG: Okay. Let’s, let’s consider the arguments on both sides of this issue. The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said in a special on CNN that nobody is above the law:
News Report featuring Owen Paterson: We have been quite clear as a government there can be no concept of an amnesty. So, we have to support the police in bringing those who committed crimes to justice.
AM: That’s fine. What he actually means is that nobody outside law enforcement is above the law. Because the British authorities have withheld vital information from the relatives of the murdered human rights lawyer, Pat Finucane, murdered by agents of the British state. The British state have withheld vital documents from the victims and families of the people killed in the Dublin Monaghan bombings in May 1974.

BG: I hear what you are saying. That they are, they are having a double standard.

AM: Well, absolutely. But I mean people in Boston and America should know about British double standards from the War of Independence out there …

BG: (laughs)

AM: So I don’t think you should be too surprised about British double standards.

BG: Okay then. The argument for the lawyer for the McConville family says that the wounds of the troubles can never heal while injustice like the murder of Mrs McConville is allowed to fester.

AM: I have a great deal of sympathy for the lawyer’s sentiment and I have enormous sympathy for the family of Jean McConville and the family of any person killed. But it is not the task of a researcher to become a gatherer of evidence for law enforcement. Even for clergy men – now one can argue that researchers produce knowledge and clergymen produce nonsense …

BG: (laughs)

AM: …, yet clergymen are allowed to maintain confidentiality and researchers aren’t. It seems to me to be a bizarre situation. There are certain obstacles that have to stand in the way of the state for the betterment of society. And I think that academics and journalists need to be protected from this sort of encroachment and incursion. If the only view of society that we have, the only view of the past is that of law enforcement we will learn very little from it.

BG: But how can it really effect policy and improve somebody’s life if you don’t get to look into it until thirty years hence and the people who committed the wrongdoing on both sides of the struggle are never brought to account.

AM: Well, I mean we have a situation in the North where the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that the Criminal Justice system had to be turned on its head in order to bring about the Good Friday Agreement. Basically politics in the North of Ireland did trump justice. And it has also trumped truth.

Truth in the North of Ireland is used for recrimination not for reconciliation. They want to use it to – yesterday’s issues to fight the political battles of today.

This information wasn’t gathered by ourselves as researchers to hand over to relatives. Because people are simply going to clam up. All the knowledge that could have been brought to the families at some point under a variety of processes about truth recovery and the past has now been sabotaged by this issue.

It is very sad that the McConvilles cannot get the truth. I think that the McConville family are behaving nobly and honourably. It’s just that I represent a different constituency of knowledge and ‘ne’er the twain shall meet.’

BG: Ed Moloney, your colleague in the Belfast Project, has said that the release of the tapes could endanger your life. Do you really think that’s a realistic concern?

AM: I am going to see people coming for me even when they are not coming for me...

BG: (laughs)

AM: ... because I am in the eye of the storm and I am sensitive. Former colleagues can be very vitriolic and bitter. Some of them with great audacity and chutzpah …

BG: (laughs) …

AM: ... who many of us have for a long time suspected of being informers are now calling the participants of the Boston College project informers. It’s a load of old hooey. But we must be very cautious. But if you are asking me do I live under the bed fearful that I am going to be attacked imminently? No I don’t.

BG: Anthony McIntyre is an independent scholar. 


Brooke speaks with Jack Dunn, the Director of the Boston College News and Public Affairs office about what Boston College has done to protect the tapes from the Belfast Project and the future of academic oral history projects.

BG: Jack Dunn is the director of the news and public affairs office at Boston College. He says Boston College did everything in its power to protect the interviews.

JD: We hired the best lawyer available to fight the subpoenas and we won a significant court case that reduced the number of recorded materials from 85 to 11 interviews that were ultimately required to go over to the Police Services of Northern Ireland.

BG: McIntyre says that rather than lobbying politicians to protect the manuscripts the College instead set about undermining him and Moloney. Now you claim, I think, that the comments by McIntyre and Moloney hurt your efforts to protect …

JD: Oh they did.

BG: … the manuscript.

JD: What happened is the first subpoena occurred shortly after Ed Moloney published his book Voices from the Grave and after his video of the same name was released in Ireland. There is no doubt in our mind that the children of Jean McConville – who are victims themselves in this – they heard that there was a university that had in its archives recordings of conversations with IRA members that could shed light on their mother’s murder. So they apparently sought the help of the Police Services of Northern Ireland to issue a subpoena to the United States. And then to our astonishment Ed Moloney said in interviews in American newspapers that Boston College should burn the tapes and that sort of rhetoric that we might somehow burn materials which is something no university would ever consider, no doubt prompted the second subpoena.

BG: McIntyre says that the loss to history of this whole episode is very grave: it irreparably harms the possibility that people will really know what happened during the Troubles. And Boston College should have had the courage to stand up and engage in an act of civil disobedience.

JD: It is just a clash of cultures between an American university that is obviously going to be respondent to a US court subpoena and an individual from Northern Ireland with a long, criminal record who just seems to have a utter disregard for the legal process and a suspicion of any authority.

BG: What about the issue of the loss to history?

JD: The shame of it is that Anthony conducted the interviews with the IRA members and those who have heard the tapes said his work was very weak. Kevin O’Neill Boston College said that he was stunned by how leading the questions were.

BG: You feel he conducted shoddy interviews?

JD: A lot of critics such as Danny Morrison, a former IRA member himself, have been critical of Anthony McIntyre suggesting that he interviewed only people who held the same viewpoint that he did, people who would be critical of Gerry Adams.

BG: McIntyre has pushed back and said that the efforts by the Irish police to get the tape is part of a campaign against Gerry Adams. So everyone is charging this is a campaign against Gerry Adams. But perhaps not admissible as evidence. Right?

JD: Probably not. I think Mr McIntyre and I would agree on that, that the information would probably not have value in a court of law. As we all have pointed out one of the great ironies is that Boston College in this very Burns Library holds the recordings of the conversations that led to the various paramilitary groups laying down their arms. And the condition is they will not be available to anyone for thirty years. The Police Services of Northern Ireland have gone after the tapes of the IRA members but never requested the tapes of UVF members.

BG: Has Boston College changed its procedures for gathering oral histories?

JD: I think everyone in the world will change the way they undertake oral histories. When this project began in 200o everyone followed the Colombia University model which said oral histories really wouldn’t be subject to Institutional Review Board. I think that has changed. There would certainly be a heightened scrutiny today. All of the participants entered into this agreement with good intentions. Some good came of it. Clearly mistakes were made on all four of the parties involved. And the reality is that the promise of the Belfast project has been lessened. The political reality clearly got in the way and now I think we have all learned a need for heightened caution as anyone embarks on such a project.

BG: Jack, thank you very much.

JD: Thank you for having me.

BG: Jack Dunn directs the News and Public Affairs office at Boston College.


  1. AM, I don't know you but I greatly admire you, without coming across as a sycophant, it takes a great deal of balls to do what you do, and if it wasn't for yourself Tommy McKearney and Gorman, Gerard Hodgins and others fuck knows were we'd be.
    I 've got to ask you however regarding Jean mcConville what else could be done with her? The whole disappearing lark is counter-productive nonsense acting more like the mafia than a revolutionary army, but regarding touts what else could be done? We all know now the one ordering the executions were the biggest touts, but back then how where the volunteers who carried out their orders supposed to know that?
    while as a human being I have greatest sympathy with any grieving family members, I just think given the circumstances your generation faced you all had to face serious moral dilemmas, which for what its worth I thought the p.i.r.a volunteers handled well.
    Volunteers will always be heroes in my eyes and i think in the quest for justice noble as it is, we could demonise our own. Cause lets face it mein furher will never be held accountable.
    It is a thorny issue which I think on the whole you handle well and bravely, I just worry that in our quest to show what the leadership was actually like we could make problems for past volunteers who I think should be treated with the greatest respect, that's my bit for what it's worth

  2. Important and valuable work Anthony. No doubt some bias may have slipped in but overall from my perspective your integrity is in tact on this historical project.

  3. David,

    you are right. In conflict of this type spies get killed. Although we now know that the spy catchers contained more than a few spies in their midst. And many of those killed on the basis of what real spies judged them to be, can no longer be regarded as spies. Or at least they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Could republicans ever risk relying on that treacherous combination of Stakeknife and P O'Neill?

    Given Jean McConville's circumstances they could as easily have put her out of the country.

    The war crime dimension of it lies in the process of secretly burying her and keeping her disappeared for decades. So there is no way the allegation of war crime could be levelled at all involved.

    Outside of wanton cruelty I can think of reasons for that, but none that would be compelling.

    And there is always the dilemma that comes with applying a peace time moral calculus to actions carried out during a war.

    On this type of matter I have never reached a position I am comfortable with. I put out views here and people come along and challenge them and if I find them as having merit they act as a form of corrective to my thinking. There are no gurus here nor do we want there to be.

    While I might have arrived at it very late in the day I think there is an onus on us to avoid war rather than seek to wage it just because we can.

  4. Will Danny Morrison now be so stupid as to cite Jack Dunn to back up his own hatred of the oral history project?

  5. HJ,

    on the matter of bias, while your point is sound, there will be more shortly that will help explain this and give the lie to the Dunn rubbish.

  6. Boyne Rover,

    you mean as stupid as Jack Dunn to have ever cited him to begin with? Of course he will be that stupid. I will bet my house on it. And then I will watch his house fall like a deck of cards.

    But keep watching this space!

  7. AM

    You and Ed must feel a terrible sense of betrayal at the hands of Boston College with its "pushover professors" and O'Neill, the head librarian who forgot to make some rather essential enquiries. Protected clergy you certainly are not, just unholy historians and journalists. I wonder if any American institution of higher learning would have had the guts to reject attempts by the PSNI to snatch tapes from your highly sensitive collection. Doubtful. If Boston College was embarrassed, as you say, so be it. Boston, and the whole country for that matter, has all but forgotten the arrogant grip of the British and the sacrifices necessary to create a republic: a highly flawed, unwieldy republic, but a republic nonetheless. As for Northern Ireland, politics has indeed trumped justice. Would that it were otherwise, but that's the reality, and maybe the necessity, at this juncture, at this time which allows more dispassionate consideration of what was most definitely a war.

  8. I look forward to the next instalment AM.

    It's extremely difficult to avoid a certain bias in qualitative research. It's only in the last year or two since 'Clean Language' techniques have been adapted and applied in research interviews that the potential to avoid all bias has been achieved, I'm of the opinion some bias is unavoidable unless 'CL' is used.
    With regards to the featured article, there is some bit of 'ad hominem' misdirection in JD's comments, not so skilled in masking his own biases or prejudices, is he?

  9. Morrison and Dunn = Bangers and Mush

  10. Michael,

    and to add insult to injury Dunn is now calling us criminals. What a cretin.

    The Canadian academics could teach them a lesson. Some good work coming out of there. If you don't push back in these issues you will get pushed under the bus as my wife says.


    I wonder if too much is lost as a result of clean language. My view of oral history is that it should be a conversation and ultimately the listener has to be able to hear it all rather than just a sanitised version of what the researcher wants to put out. The listener can then decide how much the interviewer shaped the interview. I think any question by definition has to be leading. It must lead somewhere or there is little point in asking it. That would be different from a loaded question. I think you are right to say it is 'extremely difficult to avoid a certain bias in qualitative research.' I wonder should we even try.

    As for JD, when you and other readers read these so called leading questions and what Kevin O'Neill actually wrote you are free to make up your own mind about Dunn's use of Kevin O'Neill.

  11. I posted this on the On the Media comment page.

    I was dismayed and disappointed that Brooke Gladstone never challenged Jack Dunne when he labeled Anthony McIntyre a criminal.
    It was made clear in the interview that McIntyre was imprisoned for his IRA activity. Federal courts have ruled that the IRA campaign was a political conflict over who should rule Ireland. On the basis of this finding they have refused extradition (Desmond Mackin) and withheld deportation (Sean Mackin.)
    I find it very difficult to believe that Brooke Gladstone would have let a similar charge against a Cuban or even Palestinian prisoner go unchallenged.
    I believe On the Media needs to correct this misstatement on the air.
    Feb. 03 2014 04:45 PM

  12. Michael,

    Bangers & Mush

    what a title for an article that would make. Must plunder it on you!

  13. Anthony,

  14. AM

    These titles just fall from the sky, feel free to put it in your pocket for future use. All for the cause of pushing back a little, if not a lot. Ain't no fun getting thrown under the bus, that's for sure.

  15. Funny Robert!


    it will be used, believe me!!

  16. Something comical about Jack Dunn and his obvious lack of knowledge on the subject he feels free to condemn and at the same time props up the fiasco of the Boston College defense.
    Jack you are right there is cultural differences but with the amount of information on the web that hardly allows for your ignorance.

    You mouth off that Anthony has a long “criminal” record but offer no explanation as to why an esteemed college would hire and manipulate one of disrepute in the first place.
    You go on and perhaps it is through your own stupidity cite that Danny Morrison is a reliable source to back up your criticism.
    Did you are your colleagues do a wee bit of research into Danny Morrison or since Anthony and Morison belonged to the same group are you calling Morrison a more trust worthy better class of criminal?
    Did you read Morrison’s shite about “touts” if not I suggest you do as your nervous interviews wreaks of cowardice as your College tucked its tail between its legs and ran off before the legal battle begun.
    Your copout conspiracy theory could be put to bed by a simple look at those involved and if there had have been anyone from the Adams camp willing to participate without being found out and executed then they would have been more than welcomed to tell their story.

    Gerry Adams himself neither was nor is worried about the project so why try and state it was just some grand conspiracy to bring him down.
    What is criminal is the damage your college has done to oral history projects and if there is any lesson learned any future projects should give a wide birth to American academic institutions and seek out a safer harbour elsewhere.

    Happy for America that your ilk where not around at the time of the Boston Tea Party it wouldn’t take much to suggest if so the Union Jack would be flying over America today.