Lessons from the Belfast Project

Intro: Current OHMA student Anne Cardenas discusses Patrick Raden Keefe’s book, Say Nothing, and issues of security in oral history and journalism, inspired by Dr. Sam Redman’s April 4 workshop “Oral History and Archives: Voice, Storytelling, and Narrative in Historical Research.”

During his OHMA workshop talk, Dr. Sam Redman, History professor at UMass Amherst, spoke about collaborations between oral history and journalism, also mentioning identity and security being big issues that the oral history community needs to take more seriously.

These ideas have been on my mind lately, as I’ve been taking a course at the Columbia School of Journalism, and as I’ve read journalist Patrick Raden Keefe’s latest book, Say Nothing: A true story of murder and memory in Northern Ireland. The narrative nonfiction book gives a general background of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and tells the story of Jean McConville, a mother of ten who was accused of being an informer for the British and “disappeared” by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in 1972. Her killers were never caught or prosecuted, and her death became emblematic of The Troubles. After decades of conflict, the Good Friday Peace Agreement was created between the British, the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitary groups in 1998.


In 2001, The Belfast Project, an oral history of The Troubles, was created under Boston College’s Burns Library. Members of paramilitary groups from both the Catholic Republicans and Protestant Loyalists were interviewed and the project was intended to serve as a future archive of The Troubles. The project was meant to be kept secret because being outed as a former member of any paramilitary group was still a crime, even after the Good Friday Agreement. Interviewees were promised that their interviews would be closed and sealed until their death, with no one even knowing that they participated or that the project even existed. However, after the death of one narrator in 2008, when subsequent books and articles were released, the Belfast Project was no longer a secret. Because it was said that two narrators had mentioned Jean McConville, many people began to think that the taped interviews could provide knowledge of her death and burial.

In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department, acting on a request from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, subpoenaed Boston College for copies of the tapes. After many appeals the university released transcripts of Belfast Project tapes to the British government.

For a deeper dive into Say Nothing, listen to the New Yorker’s David Remnick interview Patrick Raden Keefe on the February 25, 2019 episode of the Politics and More Podcast:

In his talk, Redman used the example of the Boston College tapes scandal to illustrate how oral history projects can intersect with issues like libel and slander. Journalists have standard practices in place for working with sources and interviewing on and off the record, yet oral history is a different discipline, choosing to place emphasis on shared authority and collaboration. Since the Belfast Project was not a work of journalism, its interviewers could not protect its interviewees, like a reporter can try to protect a confidential source. As Keefe points out, the legal releases were not reviewed by Boston College’s legal office and they did not give specific stipulations on how and when the interviews would be shared. While it did not violate the agreements to release Brendan Hughes’s interview upon his death in 2008, the release of his tapes alerted the world to the Belfast Project’s existence and piqued interest regarding anyone he mentioned in his interviews. A stronger agreement would have released the interviews upon the death of the last remaining interviewee, protecting the identities of all involved.

Additionally, when working with interviewees who could be harmed by the content of their interviews, an oral historian can take steps to ensure the safety of their narrators. The Belfast Project did employ pseudonyms and kept a separate key which linked the pseudonyms with the narrator’s true identity. While it can sometimes go against the goal of a project, interviewees can also be advised to omit information in their interview that would incriminate them. Because the Belfast Project interviewers were aware of the sensitive information being shared in the interviews, they did occasionally advise their narrators to censor themselves, yet the decision as to what to share was ultimately left up to the interviewee. They had no real reason to think that there was danger in speaking as everyone believed the interviews would be kept closed for years to come. The interviewers in the Belfast Project were not trained oral historians, but rather paramilitary veterans turned researchers. Their backgrounds ensured that they came into the interview with a level of trust with their narrators that an outside oral historian could not have reached. However, training these interviewers in oral history best practices and ethics might have helped avoid some of the issues that led to the release of the interviews.

In this modern era, most oral history projects have an online component of some sort. As Dr. Redman emphasized, the oral history community needs to focus on the security of our narrator's personal information in the digital age. Publishing transcripts that could contain narrators’ maiden names and names of first pets could leave oral history participants open to identity theft and financial fraud. While this might be the extreme end of consequences, the Boston College scandal was also an extreme case that unfortunately deflated some views of oral history as a discipline. Moving forward, we as oral historians should closely consider worst-case scenarios while planning our projects and build in safeguards for our interviewees when possible. It’s possible to protect our narrators and continue to preserve important stories, all while maintaining the trust that’s created during the oral history process.

Anne Cardenas is a current OHMA student interviewing 2008 Obama Campaign staffers about their experiences and reflections a decade after the historic election. A proud Obama Administration alum herself, Anne worked in the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence and DHS before moving to New York in 2016 to work for VICE Media and later, the UN Development Programme.