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Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams arrives at the funeral of veteran British Labour politician Tony Benn at St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey in London, in this file picture taken March 27, 2014NEIL HALL/Reuters

It was an endeavour that started with lofty academic aims and the hope that it would be the first step in a reconciliation process after decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Instead the confidential oral history known as the Belfast Project has now brought more volatility to the Irish peace process after its content contributed this week to the arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Mr. Adams was being questioned over allegations that he ordered the killing by the Irish Republican Army of a Belfast woman in 1972.

On Friday, a judge granted investigators of the Police Service of Northern Ireland a 48-hour extension to interrogate him.

The victim, 38-year-old Jean McConville, was wrongfully suspected by the IRA of being a British spy. She was shot in the head and her body hidden in an unmarked grave near a beach south of Belfast.


The investigation was bolstered by an unlikely source: scores of tape-recorded interviews of Irish republic and loyalist fighters, stored in a secure vault inside the Gothic-style walls of a Jesuit campus outside Boston.The recordings are part of an oral history held in the special collections of Boston College's John J. Burns Library.

They were supposed to remain confidential until the death of the interviewees, unless they wished it to be published while they were still alive.

British authorities went to court to seek access to interviews that implicated Mr. Adams.

The ensuing court records provide intriguing details about the project.

According to court affidavits, the project's audio files, transcripts and floppy disks are kept in a climate-controlled area called the Treasure Room.

The room is monitored by cameras and can be only accessed with a combination of key and security code.

Only project director Ed Moloney, Thomas Hachey, the head of Boston College's Center for Irish Programs, and Robert O'Neill, the director of the Burns Library, have full access to the archive.

Two other academic specialists were given some of the transcripts to review, but only with coded numbers, rather than names, attached to them.

The promise of confidentialy and the location of the archives in Boston rather than Belfast or Dublin, "prompted more involvement by paramilitary

veterans than we might otherwise have expected," Prof. Hachey explained in an affidavit.


The project was conceived 16 years ago, in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, where the British and Irish governments and the major political parties in Northern Ireland signed on to a blueprint for peace.

The agreement led Paul Bew, a historian at Queen's University Belfast, to propose an oral history to preserve the memories of the decades of conflict known as The Troubles.

Lord Bew was at the time a visiting scholar at Boston College.

The researchers wanted to record the recollections of the combatants before they were dead or too old to remember clearly.

Mr. Moloney said it was important to document the experience of foot soldiers, not just leaders, to understand how ordinary people end up picking guns and setting off bombs to kill their fellow human beings.

"This was not a simple war of national liberation but a difficult and complex inter-community conflict superimposed upon a fight for independence," Mr. Moloney wrote in an affidavit. "This would make the compiling of an oral history archive devoted to those who took part much more difficult but also much more important to do."

Also, they felt that an oral history archive would be an early version of a truth reconciliation process similar to the one in post-apartheid South Africa.

Mr. Moloney noted that a key aspect of the Good Friday Agreement was that it would grant amnesty to paramilitary prisoners, which researchers felt could help unlock the IRA's code of silence.

"The effective amnesty granted to IRA and other paramilitary prisoners signaled that it was now safer to talk frankly about the conflict and what had happened than ever before," Mr. Moloney said.

For five years, interviews were conducted, first with former republican members, then the project was expanded to include loyalists of the Ulster Volunteer Force.


One of the project's interview was Brendan Hughes. A one-time associate of Mr. Adams, Mr. Hughes was a former IRA commander in Belfast.

After his death, Mr. Moloney published in 2010 "Voices From the Grave," a book weaving some of Mr. Hughes' interviews with those of David Ervine, a former UVF member.

The following year, the British government sent a mutual legal assistance to the United States, seeking access to all materials from interviews conducted with Mr. Hughes and with Dolours Price, a member of the Provisional IRA.

Faced with a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice, which was acting on behalf of the United Kingdom, Boston College released the Hughes interviews because he was already deceased.

However, the school challenged the rest of the request, citing academic independence and safety concerns.

One of the two interviewers who took audiotaped depositions was Anthony McIntyre, a scholar and former IRA member.

"It was necessary, in order to produce raw material of serious historical value, to violate the IRA's code of secrecy. This was not a venture that I as a researcher, nor the interviewees I spoke with for my research, could approach without the strongest sense of gravitas," said Mr. McIntyre, who conducted about 10 interviews with Ms. Price.

For security reasons, neither he nor Ms. Price kept records of the interviews and Ms. Price was not given copies of the tapes or transcripts.

Nevertheless there were death threats, after "Voices from The Graves" was published, revealing that Mr. McIntyre had interviewed Mr. Hughes.

The house and car of Mr. McIntyre's neighbours were vandalized in a case of mistaken identity.

After a lengthy court battle, the college was ordered by an appeals court to release part of 11 interviews in May 2013, a few months after Ms. Price's death.