New Discussion of the Belfast Project Case

A new commentator on the Belfast Project case, Dr. Virginia Raymond, has emerged! Dr. Raymond has written a long post on the case at her blog, Wire Cutter. I post the link here without comment in the hopes that others interested in the case from the oral history perspective rather than the strictly legal perspective may get a conversation going at Dr. Raymond’s blog (or here, if you like!)

By the way, I am happy to note that this post is the 400th on Letters Blogatory!

8 responses to “New Discussion of the Belfast Project Case”

  1. Chris Bray

    I saw Virginia Raymond’s post yesterday, and I was appalled by it. i thought it was ignorant and half-cocked, and I’m being generous. Start with this:

    “Despite my work as an oral historian, support of liberation struggles, and a steady childhood diet of hefty Irish Catholic propaganda, I’m not disappointed with the British government or the PSNI. Law enforcement officials investigate murders, even “cold cases,” and they certainly pursue the people they believe to be criminals, murderers, and terrorists. Courts are more likely than not to grant these agencies the information or potential evidence they seek.To imagine that the British wouldn’t attempt to obtain interviews that contained potentially incriminating evidence would be something like expecting a branch of mesquite to act like a polar bear.”

    This is nonsense, and there’s no particular secret about it. There were more than 3,000 murders in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and the PSNI is not interested in most. They’ve made it very clear that they aren’t going to investigate police and army collaboration with loyalist paramilitaries, which is a well-known reality of the Troubles, and their performance with regard to some of the highest-profile murders of Catholics and republicans is a public joke. It’s simply amazing to see a trained historian look at a politicized investigation in a political setting and just see good solid police work — they’re getting the murderers, yay!

    Any consideration of these subpoenas must begin — *must* begin — with the Police Ombudsman’s report of 2006, acknowledging that the murder of Jean McConville was ignored by the police in Northern Ireland for decades. Suddenly they care — because they can nail Gerry Adams, a longtime enemy of the British state. This is not a murder investigation. Historians view events in their historical context, for crying out loud.

    Then there’s her conclusion about what lesson to draw:

    “If you promise confidentiality, and your narrators start to tell you about crimes or actions (whether you think they’re ‘criminal’ or not) for which the narrators could still be held responsible, turn off the tape recorder.

    “Turn off your camera. Listen. And then be quiet.

    “Don’t write a book. Don’t make a documentary.”

    Turn off your tape recorder and don’t write a book — a knife in the heart of the culture of inquiry. Quisling ethics: Whatever you do, don’t ask anything or write anything that would risk a conflict with government.

    What’s the point of research, under this standard? What can it do?

    1. Thanks, Chris, for the comment. I will leave the question of professional ethics to those in the profession, like you and Dr. Raymond, to dispute. I linked to her article because I thought it was useful to hear a contrary view from an historian. I think regardless of the professional ethics questioned involved, Dr. Raymond makes some points that show some good common sense: (1) don’t promise confidentiality unless you can guarantee confidentiality; (2) you can guarantee your own silence but not someone else’s silence; and (3) at the time of the Belfast Project interviews, the law on an “oral historian’s privilege” was not well established, even if the courts in this case ultimately set a precedent for such a privilege in the First Circuit. I’m not sure you would disagree with any of these points, though I am sure you would disagree about what an historian should do in light of them.

      1. Chris Bray

        I would just say that you can always guarantee confidentiality if you’re willing to pay the price. There’s a long history, here: Academics, and academic institutions, have refused to comply with subpoenas of research material — at any cost. They have prevailed against fishing expeditions by taking that stance.

        For a good and brief history of these conflicts, and the debates over the professional ethics of refusal, see John Lowman and Ted Palys, “The Ethics and Law of Confidentiality in Criminal Justice Research: A Comparison of Canada and the United States,” International Criminal Justice Review 11: 1 (2001). Virginia Raymond is late to the party, and she’s wrong.

        1. I don’t disagree with your basic point. I think her point was that M&M promised confidentiality on behalf of BC, and they couldn’t compel BC in the end to honor the promise. That, by the way, may be why reporters don’t disclose their sources to their editors (remember Deep Throat)?

  2. Chris Bray

    BTW, Virginia Raymond is not the first scholar trained in human subjects fieldwork to comment on the case. Rik Scarce, who does research involving the often plainly criminal activities of environmental activist groups like the ELF, has spoken about the Belfast Project subpoenas:

    1. Thanks for that link!

  3. Chris Bray

    How perfect is it that this story appeared in a British newspaper the same day we were having this discussion:

    “Among the documents that appear to have been destroyed were: records of the abuse of Mau Mau insurgents detained by British colonial authorities, who were tortured and sometimes murdered; reports that may have detailed the alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by soldiers of the Scots Guards in 1948; most of the sensitive documents kept by colonial authorities in Aden, where the army’s Intelligence Corps operated a secret torture centre for several years in the 1960s; and every sensitive document kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policies were heavily influenced by successive US governments and whose post-independence leader was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the CIA.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Thank you for commenting! By submitting a comment, you agree that we can retain your name, your email address, your IP address, and the text of your comment, in order to publish your name and comment on Letters Blogatory, to allow our antispam software to operate, and to ensure compliance with our rules against impersonating other commenters.