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The Gerry Adams Arrest and the Future of Oral History

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From a historian’s perspective, the most interesting thing about the arrest of Gerry Adams on murder charges is the central role of oral histories given under an understanding of confidentiality. The interviews were stored as Boston College as part of the Belfast Project but the British government managed to undue their confidentiality in court. This is a real threat to the future of oral history projects of controversial matters. If these histories are not confidential, who is going to give them?

But what began as an oral history archive designed to promote reconciliation in Northern Ireland in the future is now tearing open old wounds.

For the last four years the agreement to keep the tapes secret unto death has been the subject of intense controversy, academic dispute and international litigation.

A federal court forced Boston College to hand over some of its sensitive archive after British authorities invoked a treaty with the U.S. requiring the exchange of information in violent criminal cases.

Now, after another tape was released implicating Sinn Fein President Adams in an IRA murder he denies, Boston College has had a change of heart and is changing the rules for the oral history project, says Dunn.

“If individuals contact us who desire to have their specific interviews returned then we will accommodate them once we verify their names, but there will never be a disclosure of people who participated in the project,” Dunn said.

But that guarantee is not iron-clad. The troubling archive could potentially be subpoenaed again. Dunn won’t speculate.

“You know that’s something that we’ll just see what happens down the road,” he said.

More than 60 nations have signed the international agreement that was used to force BC to give up some of the oral archive. The case sends a message oral historians have heard ’round the world.

“Researchers will always have to be aware of this precedent,” Dunn said. “So if they’re recording information on criminal or violent activities, you’re gonna have to be aware of this precedent.”

I’m not saying this the most important issue at play here. I am saying it is an important issue for how future people will understand their past. Former IRA members are now suing Boston College. This is all pretty chill-inducing for historians.

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