For 40 years, police in Northern Ireland have been unable to solve the murder of Jean McConville, one of the most notorious in the long years of conflict that gripped the province from the 1960s until the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Accord. In 1972, the widow and mother of 10 was abducted from her Belfast home and never seen alive again. Authorities suspected the Irish Republican Army, and the group admitted to the murder in 1999, saying McConville was suspected of being a British spy (a claim her family has denied). But no individuals have ever been convicted of the crime, not even after McConville’s remains were discovered in 2003 on a remote beach outside Belfast. Her body bore marks of torture and a gunshot wound to the head.
Now the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) believes it may finally get a break in the McConville case—though not one of its own making. After the Good Friday agreement brought the conflict to a close, dozens of former IRA members and their loyalist rivals sat in front of a tape recorder and gave their accounts of some of Northern Ireland’s darkest times. The interviews were part of a groundbreaking oral-history project overseen by Boston College, in which researchers worked to create a firsthand narrative of the period known as the Troubles from combatants on both sides. To get them to talk, the project’s two lead researchers, journalist Ed Moloney and academic Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member, assured their subjects, with the university's backing, that the interviews wouldn’t be released until they died. But the PSNI wants to use the transcripts as evidence now—and the United States government looks ready to comply.
On Friday a U.S. appeals court ruled that Boston College must hand over at least one of the confidential interviews to the PSNI: that of convicted IRA bomber Dolours Price, which is believed to contain information about the McConville case. McConville’s family rejoiced at the news, with one of her sons telling the BBC he was ready for answers. Though additional legal recourses remain on the table, the transcript could be released to authorities as early as next month.
But critics of the U.S. government’s decision to subpoena the Price file—as well as for interviews with seven additional people whose fate has yet to be determined—warn that more than an unsolved murder is at stake. “We are not informants. What we’ve done is produced a valuable academic enterprise and a work of history,” McIntyre tells The Daily Beast. “If this goes to the British police for the purposes of evidence, it would be very foolish to rule out a form of repercussion—for myself, my family, the people I’ve interviewed, my research participants. I feel they’re all at risk.”
For McIntyre and his colleagues, the project has been risky from the start. Though the IRA officially laid down its arms more than a decade ago, an offshoot of the group, the Real Irish Republican Army, remains active and has been designated as a terrorist organization by the American and British governments. And while Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland enjoy relative peace between the former enemies, tensions from the old conflict remain. Lawyers from Boston College, in a court filing last year, argued that releasing the interviews would break the IRA’s “code of silence,” with the possibility of “punishment by death.” After parts of the Boston College research were published in a book authored by Moloney, local media reported death threats against McIntyre, who lives in the Irish City of Drogheda with his wife and children.
Since the subpoena battle became public, McIntyre says, he’s become “increasingly nervous”—even taking such precautions as telling his children not to pick up items in the yard, lest they turn out to be disguised explosives.
One of the complicating factors in this case is the fact that there’s been no real precedent for it in U.S. law. There have been few U.S. court cases in which academic researchers were ordered by the court to disclose their sources, says John Lowman, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who has studied research confidentiality for the past 15 years. And the Boston College case is the first to involve a series of interview transcripts that detail possible criminal actions from contentious times that are still fresh on many people’s minds. In its decision Friday, the court wrote that "[t]he choice to investigate criminal activity belongs to the government and is not subject to veto by academic researchers.”
The sensitive nature of the case, Lowman says, may have contributed to what he considers a weak-willed legal response by the university to the U.S. government’s subpoena requests, which were made under the terms of a mutual legal assistance treaty with the United Kingdom. “Ultimately this is an issue where you have the discovery of information about the Troubles, which included criminal offenses, and so you have the notions of terrorists lurking in the background,” he says. “What you have to remember is, they had nothing to gain from this other than trying to set the record straight.”
But with so much on the line, Lowman adds, “What they needed to do was fight like hell and go the distance.”
Instead, Boston College did not appeal the Price case, which was appealed instead by Moloney and McIntyre. When the new documents were subpoenaed, meanwhile, the college handed the researchers’ work over to the government before beginning its legal fight to get them back, which now includes an appeal on the disclosure of the remaining files. After Friday’s ruling, Jon Albano, an attorney who filed a brief with the American Civil Liberties Union in support of the appeal by Moloney and McIntyre, told the Associated Press that the ruling was “not a good sign” for Boston College’s appeal against the release of the additional files.
The university did not respond to a request for comment.
Other researchers have worried about a possible chilling effect from the case. Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported earlier this week that a proposed project that would have run parallel to the efforts at Boston College at a London-based university was scrapped as a result of the U.S. legal fight.