Mary E. Daly writes about why academics in Ireland – and any country that relies on oral history – are closely watching a fight over access to testimonies held at Boston College.
Irish historians have watched the legal case relating to the witness statements from participants in the conflict in Northern Ireland held by Boston College with great interest and with no little trepidation.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case, there are real fears that the controversy has already jeopardized the collection and preservation of historical material relating to the conflict in Northern Ireland.
One friend, who was instrumental in helping University College Dublin Archives to secure a significant collection of private papers that includes material relating to the Northern Ireland peace process, remarked recently that it would have been more difficult to convince the donor to preserve his papers and donate them to an archive if the controversy at Boston College had previously been known.
The great difficulty here is that any comprehensive history of the Northern Ireland conflict will be very dependent on statements from the men and women who were directly engaged in the events: republicans, loyalist paramilitaries, police, British army personnel, politicians, public servants, and the ordinary people whose lives were shaped by the conflict. The nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland was such that no existing archive can expect to stand as sufficient sources for the writing of plausible history; the words of the people who lived through (and participated in) the conflict need to be preserved to allow for the creation of a more meaningful historical record.
The Boston College interviews are one of several series of interviews that currently exist, or are now being collected. Oral history is especially important if we are to tell the story of everyday life during these years, and the motivations and reflections of men and women who did not hold positions of leadership.
Irish historians are very conscious of the importance of such testimonies, because a comparable archive exists relating to the 1916 Rising and the Irish war of independence. In the 1940s and early 1950s the Bureau of Military History – funded by the Irish government – collected statements from men and women who participated in these events. Some of those men and women engaged in violence or other acts about which they might not have been willing to speak publicly. The statements were finally released in 2004, 50 years after they were collected, when all the witnesses had died.
Although this delay has been criticized, it shows a respect for the witnesses and indeed for all who were affected by the events narrated in these testimonies. These statements, and the anticipated release shortly of thousands of Military Pension Files, containing further firsthand statements from those involved in the War of Independence, provide a permanent and valuable record of a critical period in the emergence of contemporary Ireland.
These firsthand accounts have transformed the understanding of these years, bringing it to life in a manner that more formal records cannot do.
The oral statements of participants in the conflict in Northern Ireland offer a similar potential to provide a rounded account of these years. This will only happen, however, if those making statements can trust the record-taker, and trust the place where these records are deposited.
This trust requires firm assurances that the statements will not be released prematurely, or divulged other than under the terms agreed. The witness statements should be collected with the intent of creating a long-term historical record; while there may be an understandable eagerness to gain access to them, in order to be first with the story – they are best left undisturbed for a significant period of time. Essentially, they should be collected and protected for posterity – not for the present.
University College Dublin (UCD), in common with other research universities, has a clear code of ethics that applies to all material that relates to identifiable individuals; securing their consent to any use that permits them to be identified is a key requirement.
In addition researchers and archivists must observe the requirements of the Data Protection Act, which precludes the revealing of personal information – relating to matters such as health, family circumstances or financial records, and these regulations are strictly enforced. Many of the private collections deposited in UCD Archives can only be accessed with the permission of the donor.
While testimonies relating to paramilitary activities are obviously of a particularly sensitive nature, there are recognized laws and procedures in place that protect the witness, the archive, the archivist and the researcher – provided that they are observed.
The issue may become more complex when records are transferred from one country to another, if the legal framework relating to data protection and disclosure is different, but again, a robust protocol and clearly-determined governance – agreed before any records are compiled – should reduce these risks.
Oral histories are extremely valuable sources for posterity, and they are becoming of still greater importance in an age when communication increasingly takes the form of telephone conversations, e-mails, texts, tweets and other means; these are obviously less easily preserved than letters or written memorandums.
Ultimately, there will be lessons to be learned from the specifics of the Boston College case. The overarching ambition must remain unchanged: to ensure that a trusted record of the past can be compiled and preserved for posterity.
Mary E. Daly is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.
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