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May 14, 2014

A republican wall mural in Belfast (Courtesy of Burns Library, Boston College).

Boston College is being sued by a former Irish Republican Army soldier who contributed to the university's oral history project about civil unrest in Northern Ireland, raising questions about international contract law.

Over the years, more than 40 catholic and protestant combatants told their stories of civil unrest and political violence to academic researchers from the Belfast Project. After a protracted legal battle, police investigating the 1972 murder of Jean McConville gained access to some of the tapes and documents.

Boston College resisted release of the material, but eventually the college was ordered to surrender the files to the US Department of Justice. 

Last month, material from Boston College triggered the arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. After four days of questioning about the murder of McConville, Adams was released. 

"I am innocent of any involvement and any conspiracy to abduct, kill or bury Mrs. McConville," Adams said upon his release.

Now, former IRA member Richard O'Rawe alleges Boston College breached its contract by not advising him that his testimony might be released. O'Rawe says the college should be held responsible.

"This has become a complete mess from BC's perspective," said Noah Feldman, a constitutional law professor at Harvard.

Feldman points out that the contract signed between researchers Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre and IRA members did not mention the possibility that their tapes could be turned over to authorities.

"It's not surprising that this suit would be brought in Ireland because, as it appears, in the US all the legal avenues have basically been exhausted and the courts have spoken," said Feldman.

So is it likely that Boston College could lose in Irish courts? Feldman says it could go either way. It all depends on Ireland's interpretation of contract law.

"On the other hand it's a general principal of contracts that you can't promise to do anything illegal and it would have been illegal for BC not to hand over these tapes," said Feldman. 

In Chestnut Hill, Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn insists that research librarians never guaranteed confidentiality to the Belfast Project's participants.

"Our contention all along has been that if the interviewees were under the assumption that they had protection, it was never issued by Boston College," said Dunn.

Dunn admits mistakes were made, and the college regrets hiring Irish-born journalist Ed Moloney to oversee the project.

"The smear campaign that he has undertaken to deflect blame from himself and assign it to Boston College is childish at best," Dunn said. "Clearly, the interviewees who may be considering legal action should direct their attention at Ed Moloney."

Last week, Boston College offered to return the tapes to any participants who feel threatened or compromised. In declaring his innocence, Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams has said much of his interrogation stemmed from 'hearsay' gathered in the Belfast Project. 

increasing access and success, Boston College, higher ed, Belfast Project, low-income students

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