‘Don’t do a Duffy on me’, a senior politician once remarked when I interviewed him for my research. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a quip. And while it was meant as a joke, the very fact that the remark was even passed — more than two decades after the event — was revealing. I’d almost forgotten about it until Gerry Adams was questioned this week by the PSNI about the murder of Jean McConville in 1972, and questions were raised about the already controversial Northern Ireland Peace Process oral history project conducted under the auspices of Boston College. The episode has produced a fresh challenge for oral history.
For those who are unfamiliar, the ‘Duffy’ in question is Jim Duffy whose recorded interviews with Brian Lenihan scuppered Lenihan’s chances of becoming president of Ireland. Duffy had conducted an interview with the then Tánaiste as part of the research for his MA thesis, being undertaken at the politics department of University College Dublin. The 1990 presidential election afforded him the opportunity to publicise his research on the powers of the Irish presidency, and he approached the Irish Times with a proposal to write a series of ‘historical context’ columns.
For anyone unfamiliar, during the presidential campaign, Brian Lenihan was questioned about what happened the night Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael-Labour government collapsed in January 1982 and Lenihan denied having any knowledge of phone calls placed by or on behalf of Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey to the then president, Patrick Hillery, requesting time for Haughey to form an alternative government without recourse to a general election. But Duffy had also asked Lenihan the same question — and received a different answer. As the archives have officially confirmed, not only did Lenihan know of the phone calls, but he actually made several himself. (The phone log from Áras an Uachtaráin [the president’s residence], now stored at UCD Archives, is available to view on HistoryHub.ie).
Duffy was faced with a dilemma: release the tapes or remain quiet. Had he taken the latter option, his MA dissertation in which he had written about the interview would have been publicly accessible via UCD library once the standard embargo of two years, which authors can request, had expired. Lenihan, who appeared to have been on course to win the election, would have been president by the time the dissertation entered the public domain.
Emily O’Reilly has recorded in Candidate: the Truth Behind the Presidential Campaign (1991) that Duffy sought advice from UCD academics, who, in accordance with academic practice, advised him not to release the content of the tapes. But, under pressure, he did the opposite.
In doing so, he created difficulties for future generations of researchers hoping to conduct elite interviews as part of their work.
But that was twenty-four years ago, and while some might still joke about it and certain figures are cautious of interviews (for reasons beyond the Duffy tape scandal), it’s hardly likely to still present problems for researchers today.
So why bring it up?
Coverage of Gerry Adams’ questioning this week has been accompanied by reference to Boston College’s oral history project. See Irish Times, The Guardian and New York Times, for example. Reading the commentary, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Duffy case. Only this time, the implications are far greater.
Oral testimonies are typically sought in an attempt to capture a flavour of what life was like at a particular time in history, to get a sense of what people felt or to understand why they acted as they did. We as historians are not aiming to create sensational headlines, or to cause embarrassment. The ability to secure a research interview — whether it is with public figures or non-elites — depends on our ability as researchers to offer certain assurances to our interviewees. This can vary from agreeing to show them how their words will be used before any work is published or made public, to guaranteeing that information provided ‘off the record’ remains strictly between the interviewer, the interviewee and the sound recording.
Ed Moloney, one of the lead researchers and author of Voices from the Grave, which emerged from the Boston College project, has distanced himself from Boston College, which was forced by court order to hand over the recordings and transcripts of interviews with paramilitaries from both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland. Quoted in the New York Times, he was critical of the University’s handling of the legalities of the oral history project:
It was on the basis of assurances from Boston College that their lawyers had vetted the contracts to be signed by the interviewees that said the final say in disclosure of any of this material was in the hands of the interviewees.
The controversy that has surrounded the Boston College project — for more information, see this piece from History Ireland magazine — along with the public criticisms of it, particularly from Sinn Féin in recent days, has much greater ramifications for the practice of oral history. Sensitive interviews have always been difficult to secure, but it is probable that they will become even more so now. And while ethics approval for such projects has always been challenging — and rightly so — the process is also likely to become more stringent.
Historians have been discussing the matter for the last few days on twitter. There are definite lessons to be learned, but it is possibly too early to fully comprehend the true impact that the Boston College / Gerry Adams saga will have for academics and oral history.