Republic of Pain

Republic of Pain

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.


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.

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.

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.

Killing Rage is the autobiography of Eamon Collins, who joined the IRA at the height of the “blanket protest” by H-block prisoners in the late seventies. (At that time, in a change of policy it defined as “criminalization,” the British government withdrew recognition of political status from IRA prisoners and tried to force them to wear prison clothing. In response, the inmates refused to wear anything and went “on the blanket.” One striking prisoner famously declared that if the authorities wanted him to wear a convict’s uniform “they’ll have to nail it to my back.”) Collins went on to become a high-level volunteer before breaking under the strain of brutal RUC interrogation and quitting the IRA.

Like thousands of young Catholics who entered their teens in the late sixties, Collins was simultaneously outraged at the upsurge of loyalist violence–at a time when the IRA had given up the gun–and inspired by the peaceful Catholic civil rights movement. He chafed at the oppression of the nationalist community by the Orange statelet but for years resisted the temptation of joining the IRA, scorning green republicanism as too right wing for his brand of ultraleft Marxism. Not even the mistaken arrest and beating of him, his brother and his father by British Army paratroopers–a method of policing that produced a steady stream of IRA recruits–could convince him to join. What did was the socialist, people’s-war strategy of the new young leadership centered around Gerry Adams and the mass movement inspired by the blanket protest. “I regarded myself and my comrades as history’s vengeful children,” Collins says, “come to exact the price for a society built on injustice.”

Henceforth Collins devotes his hours to the grim and ruthless business of plotting the assassination of security force officers, relentlessly gathering intelligence and tracking his prey. He has qualms at times–after taking part in the assassination of a man who turns out to be a retired UDR officer, and thus off limits by IRA rules, Collins is plagued with guilt and berates his comrades for their sloppy intelligence work. But he warms to the deadly task and does his best to stop up the access and passage to remorse. “I felt this savagery was the necessary price of our struggle to create a more just society,” he says. “We were involved in a war of attrition and even then I knew that my participation in that war had changed me: I knew I no longer existed as a normal human being. Every aspect of my life was dedicated to the purpose of death.”

Collins’s disillusionment comes in stages, in an agonizing and confused journey from dedicated volunteer to harsh critic of the armed struggle. Although he works with some dedicated and honorable volunteers, he’s disgusted by some of his new comrades. “Should cowards, opportunists and half-wits have the right to decide who should live or die in the cause of Irish freedom?” he asks. He also realizes that the Belfast leadership, by elevating the importance of Sinn Fein, is gradually supplanting armed struggle with electoral politics; like the Belfast boys, Collins comes to believe the war is unwinnable and that the killing is becoming pointless. Yet he still can’t bring himself to quit. He touches bottom when, after a civilian is killed because of his own mistaken intelligence work, he feels nothing at all.

Arrest forced the change. After days of constant interrogation and beating, Collins briefly turned state’s witness and ratted on his comrades before recanting, but by now he’d had it with the organization. In keeping with IRA policy, the army pardoned him after his recantation, but some of his old comrades never forgave Collins’s refusal to bow down: “Without explicitly rejecting the republican movement, I had made plain my independence from it. That was what annoyed them.” Even worse, after a brief period abroad, he insisted on moving back to his home base of Newry and publicly criticizing the IRA whenever he thought it appropriate. In January, Eamon Collins was murdered after having received numerous death threats. A sad end to a life that one is tempted to conclude was a waste, but I think not. A few years before his murder Collins had a heart attack, at which time he realized he “did not want to die knowing that nothing worthwhile had come from my actions. My hope is that someone somewhere might learn something useful from the story of my life.”

The republican movement has come a long way from the days of physical-force purism. In signing the Good Friday Agreement, Gerry Adams and his colleagues (and the IRA, which allowed this to happen with its cease-fire) have essentially recognized the state of Northern Ireland, thus ripping out a major plank of the old republican creed. Of course, it’s a state that guarantees Sinn Fein a role through power-sharing and the Irish Republic a role through the North-South Ministerial Council. Leaders of the republican movement have decided that political struggle is the best way to fight for a united Ireland. They also understand that, for better or worse, some 800,000 Protestants make the province their home and that it’s time to make an accommodation with them. It’s time for loyalists to come to the same realization and give up the gun and the bomb–and accept the fact that an unused weapon is as good as a “decommissioned” one. Most important of all, they must reconcile themselves to power-sharing. Northern Ireland can no longer be a Protestant state for a Protestant people.

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