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Earlier this year, the British Government requested the audio recordings and transcripts of interviews from a Boston College-based oral history project documenting the history of conflict in Northern Ireland. The oral history narrators who participated in the project originally granted interviews on the condition (agreed to in writing) that the interviews remain sealed until after their death. English officials are arguing that the interviews are required as part of an ongoing criminal investigation and claiming that the United States government is under treaty obligation to obtain the materials from BC and hand them over.

After initially resisting the request, Boston College appears to be on the brink of complying with a Judge’s order to hand over select interviews. This decision not only represents a breach of promises made to human beings whose lives (and the lives of countless others) will now be under renewed threat, but will have a widespread chilling effect on the practice of oral history in situations where, perhaps, the oral historical record is particularly vital: sites of conflict where normal modes of documentation are lost or never created.

You can listen to an interview with the former director of the Belfast Project, Ed Moloney, on WBUR’s Radio Boston.

You can read more about the lawsuit at Boston College Subpoena News (a blog set up to follow the story, which is unaffiliated with BC), as well as access many of the publicaly-available legal documents related to the case.

Neither the Oral History Association nor the American Historical Association have weighed in on this issue recently — at least that I can find — although the AHA did acknowledge back in May that the issues are “murky” and raise complex ethical questions about the practice of oral historical research.