Republic of Pain
According to the publisher, Trimble wrote "an angry cease-and-desist letter" in an "effort to threaten Roberts Rinehart Publishers into dropping the book." When that failed, he took the outrageous and unprecedented step of suing Amazon UK merely for selling it in Britain. Now Amazon UK has appended a "statement" to its Web site listing of The Committee, announcing that "it will not be accepting further orders" because "under current UK defamation laws, we could be compelled to defend in court defamatory allegations (if any) made in the book." Meanwhile, two of the businessmen alleged to have been members of the Committee have slapped Roberts Rinehart with a $100 million libel suit in Washington, DC, Superior Court.
How believable are McPhilemy's accusations? Much of his case stands or falls on the testimony of one man, James Sands, the formerly confidential source and self-described Committee member. McPhilemy, a veteran journalist, knew from the beginning that if his source was lying or part of a sting by the security forces--a common enough occurrence in Northern Ireland's dirty war--his credibility and career might be ruined. But after cross-checking Sands's claims with eyewitnesses to the various killings he talked about, McPhilemy and his team, which included cautious lawyers at Channel 4 who knew British security officials would be breathing down their necks if the program aired, became convinced that Sands was telling the truth.
More than a year after the documentary was shown, Sands's identity was discovered by the RUC, which immediately began to interrogate him, whereupon Sands recanted the charges. But this May, Sands signed a sworn affidavit saying the recantation was a lie forced upon him by the RUC, which threatened prosecution. Sands also says "RUC officers told me that if I did not 'recant,' I could be assassinated by loyalist paramilitaries."
Given the history of collaboration between security forces and loyalist gunmen, Sands's allegations sound plausible, and McPhilemy presents a web of circumstantial but tantalizing evidence showing connections between members of the alleged Committee and known killers. Moreover, in certain respects the RUC's own testimony and denials are flimsy or actually support some of his arguments. Months into the RUC's grandly announced investigation of the allegations, for example, a detective chief inspector claimed under oath that some members of the Committee, as well as places where they allegedly met to plan the killings, didn't even exist--this after McPhilemy had supplied the RUC with a detailed dossier on the people and locations in question. In an unrelated extradition case, an RUC officer acknowledged under oath that a vehicle identified by independent witnesses as being at the scene of one of the murders was part of an RUC "surveillance operation."
Unfortunately, McPhilemy too often accepts what is merely asserted as proven, and then assumes that anything contradicting those claims is ipso facto false. And the detailed explication of his court battles with the British government and media vipers is a bit wearying. But the claims should certainly be taken more seriously than the government has so far. The RUC, which is about as capable of investigating itself as the New York City Police Department, predictably granted itself full absolution after its inquiry.
Taylor, who's been reporting on Northern Ireland for close to three decades, does not discuss McPhilemy's charges, and he's much more cautious in assessing general claims of collusion between security forces and loyalist death squads. But McPhilemy's allegations would explain the loyalists' new and deadly effectiveness in identifying and assassinating members of the IRA. (Until the late eighties, loyalists didn't much care whether their victims were republicans; a common refrain, using the anti-Catholic slur, was "any Taig will do.") Both authors make note of the increase in loyalist murders that began in the late eighties and continued until the 1994 cease-fire. Indeed, by the early nineties loyalist killings were for the first time outnumbering the IRA's.
The ghosts of those IRA victims have come back to haunt the republican movement. One source of bitterness in the run-up to Blair's June 30 deadline is the search now being carried out all over Ireland for the bodies of people executed by the IRA. The organization promised to reveal the locations of those bodies as part of the Good Friday Agreement, but the tons of dirt and peat bog excavated in the mostly fruitless search have only soiled the IRA's reputation. It has been soiled in another way by one of the saddest and most riveting books published about the Troubles.