The Belfast Case: Information for SAA Members


Archives, Oral History and The Belfast Case: A Re-focused Discussion

Background information aggregated by the SAA Oral History Section, for SAA Members

Updated March 2013


Between 2001 and 2006, Irish researchers conducted forty oral histories with Irish paramilitarists active on both sides of the violence between loyalists and unionists of Northern Ireland, otherwise known as “The Troubles.” The recordings were housed at Boston College’s Burns Library, with the understanding that each interview would remain closed until the subject’s death. However, as part of an investigation into the 1972 murder of an alleged British informant, the Police Service of Northern Ireland sought to access two of the interviews, and in March 2011, the US Justice Department issued a subpoena on behalf of the British government. Though the confidentiality agreement allowed each subject to provide an honest and detailed record of their involvement in The Troubles, the legality of such agreements is now being challenged, and the outcome could have lasting and serious effects for oral history programs and archival collections across the country.

As the case is still pending, the OHS Steering Committee’s continued interest around the Belfast Case centers on the opportunity the case provides to consider questions that may and do come up in our work as archivists working with oral histories, and, as members and participants in various professional associations. Questions such as:

  • What are our responsibilities to our interviewees and donors, especially with regard to informed consent prior to oral history interviews?

  • In our workplaces: do we fully understand our institutions’ access policies, and our abilities to offer restrictive/confidentiality agreements to donors? Do our practices match our policies?

  • In our workplaces: as archivists, do we know and have access to our institution’s legal team?  

  • In our networks and professional associations: What is, or should be, the role of professional associations in speaking out about legal cases?


If you have thoughts about any of these questions, please do start a discussion on the Oral History Section email discussion list, or feel free to log in to the SAA website and comment directly on this page. To subscribe to the Section email lists, or to edit your delivery settings, login to your SAA profile, and choose Email Discussion List Subscriptions from the drop down menu. To log on to the SAA website to be able to read and post comments, see the login page here.

We will continue to keep our selected list of readings available. Please contact Steering Committee member Rachel Telford if you have suggestions for additional sites or articles.


1. Major Legal Challenges Facing Oral History in the Digital Age (Oral History in the Digital Age Essay)

A very good essay by past Oral History Association President and Oral History and the Law expert John Neuenschwander, who is also a Professor of History at Carthage College and the Municipal Judge for the City of Kenosha, Wisconsin.


2. Boston College Subpoena News

This weblog seems to be the go-to site for the latest news about the case, though the authors clearly have a strong bias towards keeping the interviews closed to police investigation. It offers background information, aggregated links to media about the case, an AAUP petition, as well as numerous court documents available to download, including a copy of the recent Amici Curiae Brief to the US Supreme Court.


3. The Belfast Project and the Boston College Subpoena Case

An account of the case by journalist Anthony McIntyre, former IRA volunteer and ex-prisoner, and co-founder of The Blanket, an online magazine that critically analyzed the Irish peace process. Anthony McIntyre was one of the interviewers/researchers for the Belfast Project.


4. Oral History and the Troubles

Oral historian and Austin Community College Adjunct Professor Virginia Raymond provides a lengthy and opinionated piece on the challenges that oral historians face when interviewees may divulge sensitive information, and offers recommendations for those collecting such interviews.


5. Defending Research Confidentiality “To the Extent the Law Allows:” Lessons From the Boston College Subpoenas (Journal of Academic Ethics, Volume 10, Issue 4, December 2012, pp. 271-297)*

*requires journal subscription


6.  College Fights Subpoena of Interviews Tied to I.R.A.

We call attention to this NYT piece, because Oral History Association (past) President Mary Larson makes a statement in support of fighting the subpoenas.


7. SAA Core Value Statements and Code of Ethics for Archivists

The former is a statement of what archivists believe (adopted May 2011); the latter is a framework for archivists' behavior (revised and updated January 2012).


8. Oral History Association Principles for Oral History and Best Practices for Oral History


9. SAA Position Statements and Resolutions

Read about past moments in SAA history when Council has voted to take a position on an issue of importance.  Of particular note are cases that show SAA's precedent for speaking out on legal cases: for example, in 2004 (Cheney v. United States District Court) and 2007 (Letter regarding Guantanamo detainee records; Hebrew Academy of San Francisco v Goldman).


10. **SAA Council Discussion Document re: the Boston College/IRA Oral History Situation**

This Agenda item for SAA Council was prepared by the Government Affairs Working Group, as a discussion document. This piece includes background information, a timeline of legal actions, a discussion of the merits of the case, and a draft resolution reaffirming Council’s stance that at this time it is inappropriate for the Society to take a formal position on the concept of archival privilege. Following its Janaury 2013 meeting, SAA Council requested that the OHS link to this document, which was also posted on the SAA main website feed here.

The document is currently under review by GAWG members, following criticism by both Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre (oral historians, former Belfast Project interviewers). We leave our link here so that members may see what was originally posted.


11. SAA Leadership and Member Commentary

The Belfast Case has drawn the attention of individuals, Sections, and Roundtables across SAA. 

Should a legal right to “archival privilege” be established? by SAA past president and chair of the Government Affairs Working Group, Frank Boles, by way of SAA President Jackie Dooley's blog.

Calling Privilege a Right is Just Plain Wrong and Blog Entry 5: The Belfast Project from the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

‘Twould be an Honor to Have Archival Privilege from the Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable.


12. Boston College Wins a Victory in Legal Fight Over Oral-History Records

A June 2013 update from the Chronicle of Higher Education.