As reported in this article in the Guardian
, a US appeals court recently ruled that confidential oral history interviews given by former members of Northern Irish paramilitary groups to researchers from Boston College are not confidential.
As part of the conditions of agreeing to the interview, subjects were told that these tapes would not be released until after their deaths. This agreement arose primarily out of concerns for the subjects’ and researchers’ personal safety, since sectarianism is still a really powerful force in Northern Ireland.
Here’s an excerpt from a posthumously-released recording, as reprinted in the New York Times
“Do you have a problem with committing all this to a secret tape to be used only after you have died?” the interviewer, Anthony McIntyre, asks.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Mr. Hughes replied. “If I did have a problem with that, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking into the microphone. I think a lot of the stuff I’m saying here, I’m saying it on trust, because I have a trust in you. I have never, ever, ever admitted to being a member of the I.R.A. — never — and I’ve just done it here.”
The Guardian’s Ireland correspondent, Henry McDonald, has already responded
, saying that this may make discovering the truth about the Troubles impossible. Additionally, many historians and other academics (myself included) are concerned about the precedent this has set for presumed-confidential oral history interviews and what this might mean for future researchers. Historian Richard English sums up these concerns succinctly in the first article when he says, “The key thing when interviewing ex-combatants or ex-paramilitaries is that they trust the interviewer and trust the process of research, and so tell you what they actually think and what they actually did. After this episode, that trust will be a rarer commodity.”
This has already had repercussions for those researching Northern Ireland. Because of the courts' attempts to obtain the transcripts and recordings from these interviews, members of various loyalist paramilitary groups as well as former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the predecessor to the current Police Service of Northern Ireland) have already withdrawn from an oral history project being organized by a London-based university.