Detectives in the PSNI have until Tuesday to defend their attempt to gain access to Boston College's Belfast Project Archive of the taped testimonies of IRA and loyalist figures.
Their attempt has shocked academia, particularly those in the field of oral history. It has also caused embarrassment to the British government, which had praised the archive in the American college as a model for Northern Ireland to follow.
Only last month, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), which oversaw loyalist and republican disarmament, deposited its records in the archive with the proviso that they would not be disclosed for 30 years.
College lawyers have handed over recordings of Brendan Hughes, a former Belfast IRA commander, but he died in 2008. Police believe they contain material relevant to an investigation into the death of Jean McConville, a Catholic mother of 10 abducted from Divis flats, shot and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972.
The US attorney is bringing the case for access on behalf of the British authorities, who are in turn processing the PSNI application.
American courts have given them until June 21 to justify their application for tapes made by Dolours Price, a former bomber and hunger striker who talks about the McConville case and other people who "disappeared" when she was an IRA member in the early 1970s. The difference between Hughes and Price, of course, is that she can still be charged or called as a witness against other people, including Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, who was implicated by Hughes's testimony.
Price has told me she will not make a statement or speak to the police. She has been in a fragile psychological state since she was caught returning to Ireland after a bombing mission to Britain and her subsequent hunger strike. Her co-conspirators included her sister Marion and Gerry Kelly, now a senior Sinn Féin figure.
Price has been involved in alcohol and substance abuse, and has received psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress. She is tortured by her past. In conversation, she veers between pride in her IRA involvement and the feeling that she was trapped into the republican movement by her family background and was not cut out for it psychologically.
Her parents were IRA veterans but her most disturbing early memory was of her aunt Bridie Dolan, who died in 1975. She had been blinded, facially disfigured and lost both hands in 1938 when several grenades she was attempting to move from an IRA arms dump blew up. As a child, Price had the task of holding cigarettes for Dolan, and was upset by her instinctive distaste for her aunt's injuries. She says this impelled her to show loyalty by getting involved in the IRA.
Her mistake was to give a long interview, parts of which appeared in the Irish News and Sunday Life, in which she said she had deposited tapes at the Boston archive, and then recounted some of their contents. Police say they are duty-bound to pursue such evidence in a murder case, but there must be grave doubt about its evidential value. Price is a disturbed woman, with a history of psychological disorder, and is unwilling to co-operate.
What she has to say may eventually be of interest to historians, who will compare it with other evidence. But can it really be of assistance in a criminal case, where a charge must be proved beyond reasonable doubt? The same goes for Hughes's account, which has been published in Ed Moloney's book Voices from the Grave.
Danny Morrison, a former Sinn Féin press director, has pointed to some alleged inaccuracies in Hughes's testimony. For instance, it is claimed that Morrison's uncle Harry White, a former IRA chief of staff, threw Morrison out of his house because of disagreements over the peace process. Morrison says that, although they did disagree politically, he remained friendly with his uncle and often stayed with him. Lawyers feast on such anomalies, and would certainly pounce on such details if Hughes's taped recollections were used for prosecution against Adams.
The repercussions in academia are seismic. The archive is a blue-chip affair, set up on the initiative of Moloney and Lord Bew, a professor of Irish politics at Queen's University in Belfast and a former adviser to David Trimble, the former UUP leader. The idea was that paramilitary activists could give a full account of their deeds on the strict understanding that it would not be published in their lifetimes.
Professor Tom Hachey, the Boston academic in charge of the archive, believed it would never be subject to court orders. In a court document, the college says it presumed there was an effective amnesty following the Good Friday agreement. The college believed this meant "the British government was going to close this chapter of history and not seek to pursue criminal investigations into events that occurred during the course of the Troubles".
This was not the case, but there was every sign of official approval for the Belfast Project. Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland secretary, praised its work and said it should be imitated in Northern Ireland.
Peter Sheridan, a former RUC assistant chief constable who heads Co-Operation Ireland, said: "There should be an opportunity for individuals to record their stories, as David Ervine and Brendan Hughes did in the Boston College Archive." He spoke of the need to organise something similar on the site of the former Maze prison.
Sheridan is one of the sponsors of an oral history project unveiled at Stormont last week with the support of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. It has received €1.1m in EU funding, and is part of a larger project called Peace Process: Layers Of Meaning, a three-year initiative led by researchers at Queen Mary, London University, in association with Trinity College Dublin and Dundalk Institute of Technology.
It aims to record the memories of 100 people involved in peacemaking since the early 1970s. The organisers refuse to confirm any identities, except to say "many of these people were once household names". Nothing will be revealed for 40 years and participants are forbidden to give accounts of criminal activities.
Fears expressed by Hachey that his life would be in danger in Northern Ireland appear misplaced, but there is no denying that the PSNI application has created a dangerous precedent and raises worrying issues about how we will deal with the troubled past. The police do have a duty to follow every lead in a murder investigation, but unless there is protection for academic archives we will be denied the opportunity to create a full historical record.