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Republic of Pain | The Nation

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Republic of Pain

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Quick, name a recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate accused of colluding in a program of mass murder. No, not Henry Kissinger--that's old news. Try David Trimble, leader of Northern Ireland's Ulster Unionist Party and First Minister-designate of the newly devolved power-sharing government resulting from last year's historic Good Friday Agreement. The charges against Trimble, leveled by reporter and TV documentary filmmaker Sean McPhilemy in his book The Committee, are indicative of the problems besetting the peace talks in Northern Ireland. Together with Peter Taylor's Loyalists and Eamon Collins's Killing Rage, The Committee reveals the depth of mistrust between the Catholic and Protestant communities.

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Roane Carey
Roane Carey
Roane Carey, managing editor at The Nation, was the editor of The New Intifada (Verso) and, with Jonathan Shainin, The...

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This is a critical moment in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which has been stalled for months because of Trimble's demands (no doubt stiffened by his party's hard-line opponents of power-sharing) that the IRA "decommission" its huge stock of weapons before Sinn Fein, the republican movement's political arm, is allowed to take its position on the new Northern Ireland Executive. As Alexander Cockburn pointed out in these pages on May 24, the demands are a clear violation of the Good Friday accords. Even if many of the allegations made by McPhilemy don't hold up under further investigation, the sordid history of collusion between loyalist death squads and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland's police force), the Ulster Defense Regiment (Britain's military arm, now folded into the Royal Irish Regiment) and indeed British intelligence and regular army units is all the justification the IRA needs to be wary of giving up weapons before Sinn Fein takes its share of power on the new Executive and before the RUC is entirely overhauled. (Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, is heading a commission examining the need for RUC reform; its report is due later this year.) Both the UN Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International released reports last year finding strong evidence of collusion.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, frustrated at the lack of progress in the talks, launched a mid-June verbal assault on Protestant leaders for undermining the Good Friday Agreement in their insistence on decommissioning. Blair has declared June 30 to be the final deadline on settlement of the impasse. This deadline was set in acknowledgment of the approaching summer marching season, when the Protestant Orange orders parade triumphally through Catholic neighborhoods, usually provoking riots (a rough US equivalent would be the Ku Klux Klan marching through Harlem every year loudly proclaiming the virtues of slavery). Meanwhile, this spring and summer have seen an alarming campaign of loyalist bombings and shootings against Catholics--no doubt a strategy of tension intended to provoke the IRA into breaking its cease-fire and to kill the Good Friday Agreement.

One might wonder why loyalists are so intransigent--after all, the accords are grounded on a bedrock principle of unionism: that there will be no constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland, hence no unification with the Irish Republic, without the agreement of the majority, which is still Protestant and will probably remain so for a few decades. In Loyalists, Peter Taylor follows the general format of his excellent Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein, interweaving history and interviews to convey the Protestant community's centuries-old siege mentality and to show why it's so hard for unionists to give up on the belligerent claim of Sir James Craig sixty-five years ago: "All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State." The slogan "No Surrender!" is the oldest in the loyalist lexicon, and it's as resonant in the community today as it was during the Catholic siege of Derry in 1689. Taylor lets loyalists speak for themselves; through his interviews, we gain some understanding of--though hardly sympathy for--why a Protestant would be driven to join a paramilitary organization after gazing at the corpses of neighbors incinerated by an IRA car bomb.

Protestants have for a long time been both fiercely loyal to the Union with England and deeply suspicious that London is going to sell them out. McPhilemy and Taylor point out that nothing brought this paranoia to a boil more than the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, in which Britain for the first time acknowledged that the Republic should have a say in the affairs of the North. The sense of betrayal among Protestants was overwhelming, and there arose a new and particularly virulent wave of organizing to make a last stand against the feared Dublin takeover. Groups like the Ulster Clubs, Ulster Resistance and the Ulster Independence Movement sprouted, with a prominent role taken by a rising young star of unionism, David Trimble.

If Sean McPhilemy's The Committee is to be believed, Trimble was involved in the unionist ferment on a much more sinister level. McPhilemy alleges that in the years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a tightly organized group of Northern Ireland's most powerful Protestant businessmen and professionals, together with loyalist death squads and leaders of the RUC--the "Committee" of his title--began a yearslong campaign of murder against republicans and others they considered a threat to Protestant control of Northern Ireland, sometimes killing people merely because they were Catholic.

Charges of collusion between the RUC (as well as the Ulster Defense Regiment) and loyalist murder gangs are not new; in fact, paramilitaries bragged publicly about such connections in the late eighties, which led to an official investigation by the British government. That inquiry concluded that some collusion had occurred but that it was a case of a few bad apples--as an institution, the RUC was given a clean bill of health. McPhilemy's allegations, originally aired in a 1991 documentary for Britain's Channel 4 and based primarily on interviews with a man who claims to have been a member of the Committee, go much further. McPhilemy claims that as much as a third of the RUC was involved in the campaign and that it was run by, among others, an executive of Northern Ireland's largest bank, a prominent Protestant minister, lawyers, multimillionaire businessmen and a former assistant chief constable and head of the RUC Special Branch. Now, in his book, McPhilemy claims that Trimble was in close contact with leaders of the Committee and when meeting with them was aware that they were sanctioning murders.

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