Scholars at Boston College have found themselves in the midst of an international dispute involving shadowy guerrilla fighters, gruesome murders, and threats of retribution.
At issue are dozens of secret interviews the college conducted with former paramilitary fighters on both sides of the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland. The British government is demanding access to those files, and Boston College is fighting back in U.S. federal court.
For nearly a decade, the college has gone to extremes to keep the interviews secret. The former paramilitaries were identified by just a single initial. The master code of who was who was locked away and seen by only two people. Total secrecy was the only way to persuade these former Irish Republican and British Loyalist fighters to talk.
And they talked.
Those who had never even admitted being paramilitaries opened up about everything, from how they grew up to what they blew up.
"We were robbing banks, robbing post offices, planting bombs, shooting Brits, trying to stay from getting arrested," Brendan Hughes told an interviewer for the Boston College project.
Like the others, Hughes, a former leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, was promised his interviews would be kept confidential until he died. When he died, three years ago, his tapes were used in a book and film called Voices from the Grave.
"I think a lot of the stuff that I am saying here, I am saying in trust, because I have a trust in you," Hughes said.
But today, Boston College may be forced to break that trust. Police in Northern Ireland are demanding the taped interviews as part of an investigation into unsolved murders and disappearances during the so-called Troubles, a period of ethnic, religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to 1990s.
Officials say they have a responsibility to "pursue any and all lines of inquiry for the victim, for the next of kin and for justice." And they want not only the public interview with Hughes but tapes of another IRA member, Dolours Price — who is still alive.
Tom Hachey, who directs Boston College's Center for Irish Programs, says drudging all this up now threatens the lives of the interviewees, who broke the "code of silence." It also threatens the ongoing peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland, he says.
"In the post-Good Friday Agreement era, when general amnesty has been accorded to dozens and dozens of people guilty of most heinous crimes, it is so counterintuitive. It will be accomplishing very little and setting back a great deal," Hachey says. The Good Friday Agreement, signed by Northern Ireland's political parties in 1998, served to end much of the area's conflict.
Boston College is asking the U.S. District Court in Boston to consider the "important competing interests" in this case. But the college may have little ground to stand on since even doctors, lawyers, priests, spouses and journalists can be compelled to break confidences. The law is even less clear on any privilege oral historians might have.
Juliette Kayyem, a Boston Globe columnist and a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official, says the British government has every right to information it needs to investigate unsolved crimes.
"We shouldn't be too romantic about this," Kayyem says. "Some of the unsolved murders include the 1972 death of a widowed mother of 10. I mean, these are horrible cases. And now, [Boston College] can't wrap itself around academic freedom, and say, 'Well, we don't want people to investigate these cases.' "
As the college's case works its way through court, it's already sending chills through the world of oral historians.
Doug Boyd, head of the Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, says this is a wake-up call. Academics need to make sure they're not promising more confidentiality than they can deliver, he says, and they need to make subjects understand the risk they're taking, especially in sensitive cases.
"It's very different when talking about rural farmers in Kentucky," Boyd says. "[You] might say something bad about a brother or neighbor that they don't want on the record. But when you're talking about stories that are going to contain criminal confessions, I think we need to take a very realistic look at what we can and cannot do."
The worry, of course, is the chilling effect that may have on future projects. It is a fine line, Boyd says, between telling it like it is and scaring off potential interviewees.