Belfast to Boston: Oral History Goes Awry

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The Boston College oral history project begun in 2001 was an attempt to record and document for history’s sake the voices and the motivations of the men and women who fought during Northern Ireland’s 30 years of brutal sectarian strife. More than 40 former republican and loyalist paramilitaries shared the stories of their personal involvement in Northern Ireland’s so-called Troubles. They believed their interviews with the project’s researchers were confidential and would never be released without their permission or until they had died, but they were wrong.

Following a legal fight, Boston College relinquished some of its archive to authorities, and earlier this year the police in Northern Ireland used the contents as grounds to arrest Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in connection with a brutal murder dating back to 1972. Adams was eventually released without charge, but in Belfast the academic project has unintentionally opened old wounds with some former IRA members who participated being labeled “touts” or informers by their fellow republicans. 

The Takeaway speaks with Boston Globe columnist, Kevin Cullen, about how Boston College's well meaning attempt to promote truth and reconciliation backfired on the ground in Belfast. Jack Dunn, a spokesperson for Boston College, discusses his concerns about how BC’s experience might impact other oral history projects.