US Court Rules Boston College Researchers Can't Keep IRA Records Sealed

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Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: The sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades ended with a peace treaty. That was in 1998. But now, one specific part of the troubles, as they were called, is the focus of a court battle that has former militants of the Irish Republican Army worried. It has to do with what happened to a group of people know as the "Disappeared".

Andy Martin: In 1972, the IRA took a decision that it was going to try to remove people that they suspected of having passed information to the British Army from nationalist areas, in Belfast particularly. Anybody they suspected of having being an informer was kidnapped, interrogated, murdered, and secretly buried.

Mullins: That's the BBC's Andy Martin in Belfast. He's been following the court case about the disappeared. The case involves an archive of interviews with former IRA members. The interviews were collected by researchers at Boston College. Prosecutors in Britain want access to the records and last Friday an US appeals court in Boston ruled that the researchers do not have free speech protection to keep those interviews private.

Martin: The researchers, of course, are extremely upset. They are anxious at the idea that the details of these interviews could be handed over to the police in Northern Ireland because they feel that in so doing that their lives would be at risk because, after all, they were interviewing paramilitaries people who had been involved in the conflict. And they feel that there would be those within the republican movement particularly who may be extremely upset at having their rather candid confessions, as we believe them to be, eyed at in a public arena.

Mullins: So just to be clear on this, the information that's contained in these interviews, is it about to be disseminated to the public? Does it have to be requested one by one? Is there reason for those people who testified or are named in the testimony to either keep their heads down or just want to get out of town?

Martin: There is only one person named at the moment and that is Dolours Price. Dolours Price, who was one of the IRA gang that traveled to London in 1973 and blew up the courthouses, the Old Bailey, was one of the people who has said that she gave an interview to Boston College and allegedly in that interview she elaborated on her role within the Disappeared. Now, there are seven other interviews which a federal judge in Boston has had the opportunity to view because they apparently relate to the Disappeared, which is what the subpoena from the police in Northern Ireland is requesting, information from the interviews that relate to the Disappeared.

Mullins: Are there any more appeals, Andy?

Martin: Yes, there is an appeal in Belfast. There's a judicial review taken by the republican researcher, Anthony McIntyre. He's saying that his life is in danger as a result of the potential release of these documents, and therefore he is taking a judicial review at the high court in Belfast under the European Convention on his right to life. There is an ongoing appeal from Boston College to suppress the release of seven further interviews that are deemed to relate to the Disappeared. And indeed the researchers themselves intend to continue and to appeal again in Boston and, if not in Boston, at a higher court elsewhere.

Mullins: Is it known at this point how many either current of former members of the IRA might be implicated here?

Martin: It's not known how many may be implicated in the Disappeared. I mean we know that it was a team of perhaps ten people at the most, but in terms of how many people may have given interviews to Boston College, we think it's somewhere between seventeen and twenty-seven.

Mullins: It sounds like it has seismic potential in Belfast. Is that how you see it?

Martin: I think it has the potential to be because there may be information in there that may in some way lead to a reopening of old cases and that could be very, very difficult for some people because you have to remember that some of the people involved in the conflict are now politicians, and therefore if they were to be brought before a court then that could be difficult for the peace process. I don't think the peace process is stoppable at this stage, but I think there are all sorts of stones that could be put in the spokes of this carriage that's hurtling towards peace in Ireland, and I think that anything that destabilizes it would be viewed by the governments as certainly undesirable. But, as I say, I don't think anything really will hold up the peace process in the long run and I would be surprised, frankly, if this lead to any prosecution. I think it's potentially more about settling old scores.

Mullins: The BBC's Andy Martin in Belfast. Thank you.

Martin: You're very welcome.