By Ross Kerber and Carmel Crimmins
BOSTON/DUBLIN (Reuters) - - A legal dispute in Boston pits researchers' academic freedom against a police quest to solve one of the most notorious killings of Ireland's sectarian "Troubles."
The case centers an archive of interviews with participants in the conflict gathered from 2001-2006 kept at Boston College. Known as the Belfast Project, the interview materials sat quietly until May when, at the request of Northern Ireland's police, the U.S. Justice Department subpoenaed many interviews with figures from the Irish Republican Army guerrilla group.
Officials say they want help solving the death of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972 whose body was recovered in 2003.
But their actions have drawn criticism that authorities are overreaching and questions whether Boston College has done enough to stand behind the promises of confidentiality given to the interview subjets.
In Ireland, the Boston case is closely followed because of allegations that Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA and a key player in the 1998 peace deal in Northern Ireland, led the IRA unit responsible for McConville's execution and secret burial.
Adams has always denied he had anything to do with her disappearance or that he was ever a member of the IRA. But the revived controversy comes as Sinn Fein is trying to establish itself as a major political force in the Republic of Ireland. Last year Adams won a seat in Ireland's parliament. His constituency is in Louth, where McConville's remains were discovered in 2003.
Adams said Sunday he has nothing to fear from the college's material. "They have been saying this for years, for decades," Adams told Irish state broadcaster RTE. "I learnt a long time ago not to worry about things you have no control over."
Neil Jarman, the director of the Institute for Conflict Research in Belfast, said the case highlights the difficulties of trying to establish a truth and reconciliation process, never nailed down as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
"There is a recognition for some need, for some means, of addressing some of the issues of the past but I am not sure there is a clear agreement as to what that should be," Jarman said. "I don't think there is a clear model to meet the situation of Northern Ireland."
The Boston case's trans-Atlantic implications were on display on Tuesday when the wife of one of the researchers, Anthony McIntyre, appeared at a hearing on an action that he and Irish journalist Ed Moloney filed seeking to end the federal probe of the records. McIntyre is a former IRA member who spent 18 years in prison and conducted interviews for the project, while Moloney served as project director.
Ironically, the hearing was held at Boston College's own law school where U.S. District Court Judge William Young sometimes sets up a remote courtroom for law students to watch legal proceedings.
Though extra security was deployed for the hearing, held in a classroom packed with several hundred law students, the 20-minute proceeding was uneventful.
Carrie Twomey, McIntyre's wife and an American citizen, observed the hearing. She said in media interviews the government's actions are sure to anger many former partisans who believed the archive's interviews would remain secret. The police probe of one family's loss could lead to more tragedy, she said, by giving rise to revenge attacks.
"I'm only here because I'm frightend and concerned for the safety of my family," she said in an interview on Monday. "I feel like the human side of this case, the real lives involved in this case, has been completely overlooked."
She also alluded to a split that has formed between the researchers and Boston College over how strongly to oppose the government's motions. The researchers say they had arranged for the university to promise strong confidentiality; the school says it could only promise that as far as U.S. law allowed.
When Twomey tried to speak with a university spokesman in front of journalists after the hearing, he was shielded by security officers. "He's putting my family in danger!" Twomey yelled as she was led away.
FULL DECISIONS TO COME
Tuesday's hearing was held on just one strand of the matter, in which Judge Young ruled Moloney and McIntyre lack standing under international treaties to bring their own suit to block the subpoenas. The ruling does not affect a broader case brought by Boston College and due for an appeals court hearing in March.
It stems from interviews granted by IRA member Brendan Hughes, who died in 2008. According to Moloney, Hughes discussed how he warned McConville about her suspected activities as an informant for the British Army, something her family denies.
In an interview broadcast on Irish TV in 2010, Hughes said Adams commanded a unit called "The Unknowns" responsible for making McConville disappear. "I had no control over this squad. Gerry had control of this particular squad," he said. Another former IRA member, Delours Price, the same year gave interviews connecting herself and Adams to the crime.
The revelations set off the moves by prosecutors to gain access to the Belfast Project. Boston College has already released the Hughes interviews, free to do so after his death. It also agreed to release the Price interviews, citing her talks with other media. And it allowed Judge Young to confidentially review the archive.
On Jan 20 Young ordered the school to turn over at least parts of interviews with a half-dozen people out of the 24 initially sought. He added that having read thousands of pages, "It's very clear to the court this was a bona fide academic exercise of considerable intellectual merit."
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said it is weighing its options and may appeal Young's Jan 20 order, "given the effect that it will likely have on future oral history projects."
The school declined to comment on Tuesday's hearing, to which it was not party. Moloney and McIntyre afterward said in a statement they will appeal Tuesday's ruling, an action they expect to be heard by the appeals court in March, "when we expect a much more positive outcome."
Assistant U.S. Attorney George Henderson said Young ruled correctly on Tuesday but declined to comment further.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)