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The Committee


Guest David Guyatt
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Guest David Guyatt

The surround-sound of writing an incisive book of British policy (and actions) in Northern Ireland

http://www.smithdornanshea.com/RealTime.cg...ases%7Cdocument

A Powder Keg Of Accusations

Prentice v. McPhilemy

Financial Times (London) - 6/26/99

DISCLAIMER:

As a part of the settlement of Prentice v. McPhilemy, Sean McPhilemy has withdrawn all statements or charges made against David and Albert Prentice. Any reference to the Prentices in these documents is reprinted purely for historical and archival purposes and does not reflect any current position held or taken by Mr. McPhilemy.

The stakes are high for the players in an explosive tangle of terrorism and video tapes, involving the RUC, politicians, several lawsuits, a TV producer and a book now banned in the UK.

John Plender reports

Does the British government have another Spycatcher affair on its hands? That was the book by a former British security service officer whose sensational revelations could be read perfectly legally outside the UK, but were suppressed by law at home.

Now a similar case has arisen over allegations of state-sponsored terrorism in Northern Ireland - but with a cyberspace twist. Solicitors for David Trimble, Northern Ireland's first minister, have issued a writ against the UK subsidiary of Amazon.com, the US internet bookseller, for distributing The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland by television producer and journalist Sean McPhilemy.

The book, which sprang from a television documentary transmitted by Channel 4 in 1991, alleges that members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary were helping a terrorist organisation - "the Committee" - to assassinate republicans, nationalists and innocent Roman Catholics in an attempt to prevent any moves towards a united Ireland.

But while Amazon has withdrawn the book in the UK, it remains available elsewhere. And the rapid development of the internet since Spycatcher means that no one now has to leave the UK to buy a book like The Committee. Amazon.com actually sells it more cheaply on its US site than it did in the UK.

Much has been written about the internet's potential to damage undemocratic regimes with poor human rights records such as China. But the idea that the internet could cast the behaviour of the British and other governments of the developed world in an unflattering light has been less frequently aired.

Yet the saga surrounding The Committee shows how the stringency of British (and Irish) libel laws, especially when compared with the US, no longer offers the government full protection from unwelcome scrutiny in the most sensitive and embarrassing part of its own back yard: Northern Ireland.

And as McPhilemy's book has gone from a hardback best seller to a new and revised paperback this month, the web site of his publisher, Roberts Rhinehart, throbs with details of new allegations, while reporting on the legal actions brought against the author and publisher.

Behind it all lies an extraordinary journalistic odyssey. For McPhilemy's livelihood has been largely destroyed by what he claims has been a dirty tricks campaign by the RUC and its supporters in the British press.

A friend and colleague who helped McPhilemy with research on the book, the Catholic lawyer Rosemary Nelson, from Lurgan in Northern Ireland's notorious "murder triangle", was murdered in March. Having represented the families of many Catholic murder victims, this wife and mother of three was herself killed in a car bombing.

Last year she told a US Congressional committee that she had been threatened by the RUC for representing republicans and nationalists, and spoke about collusion between the RUC and loyalist gunmen.

The stakes for all concerned are extraordinarily high. Trimble, who vehemently denies the allegations in the book, is, after all, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He argues that the existence of such a committee is implausible and says that "the magnitude of the horrendous allegations made about me in the book are such that I cannot ignore them . . . they belittle the peace process and mock all those who have been a part of it".

Meantime The Sunday Times in Britain has accused McPhilemy of bribing witnesses, fabricating evidence and duping Channel 4 and the viewing public. He is suing the paper for libel.

Yet the paper was probably not far off the mark in saying in a recent editorial that if McPhilemy proves his case, he will possibly be one of the most successful investigative journalists in Irish history; and that if he loses he will be shown to have produced one of the most irresponsible programmes in the history of television.

The caveat is that if he does lose, he will not drop a story to which he has given the last eight years of his life.

At this point I should declare an interest. I was a director of the company, Box Productions, that made the original documentary in 1991. At that time Box had established a good reputation in current affairs and investigative programmes.

I was not involved in making the controversial documentary. But I remember much of what happened at the time - not least, McPhilemy trying to dissuade a talented researcher, Ben Hamilton, from looking into loyalist terrorism and the upsurge in assassinations of republicans and Catholics in the province at the time.

McPhilemy, a Catholic who is married to a Northern Ireland Protestant, had deliberately made no programmes on sectarian strife in his native province because he was pessimistic about political progress and disinclined to immerse himself in the intransigence and bigotry that prevailed on both sides of the sectarian divide.

He tried to divert Hamilton on to other things. But in the end, acknowledging the potential importance of the story, McPhilemy made a concession to an employee he was anxious not to lose. He agreed to ask Channel 4 for a research budget.

That was the start of an investigation that ultimately led to a welter of allegations, legal actions about press freedom in both the UK and the US, and to a book that has already affected the political climate in Ireland despite the legal constraints on its sale.

The background to the investigation was the disillusion in the Protestant community of Northern Ireland after the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, in which Dublin was granted a say in affairs north of the border.

By the end of the decade newspapers were reporting on loyalist terror groups dedicated to resisting any attempt to force the province into a united Ireland. Stories alleged that senior police officers were routinely involved in helping people running a loyalist assassination campaign.

John Stevens, a top English policeman brought in to investigate, concluded that while some individuals in the RUC had gravely abused their positions of trust, such abuse was not widespread or institutionalised.

In the aftermath of the Stevens inquiry, the loyalists stepped up their murder campaign, with the numbers of Catholic dead rising from 19 in 1990 to a record 41 in 1991. This provoked fear in the Catholic community, together with the suspicion that the high number of unsolved murder cases undermined the credibility of Stevens' findings.

The research funded by Channel 4 looked into seven of these killings. The prospect of a programme crystal lised when Ben Hamilton found a source who offered an astonishing account of a secret and continuing murder conspiracy supported by members of the professions, the business community and even the Church.

It was said to involve many members of the locally recruited security forces in Northern Ireland. And it was organised, so the witness alleged, by a body called the Ulster Central Co-ordinating Committee, made up of representatives of various loyalist groups.

The witness was Jim Sands, a political activist in the Ulster Independence party in Portadown. He alleged that loyalist police officers in the RUC belonging to an "Inner Force" and an "Inner Circle" were giving operational assistance to hit squads by guiding them to their victims and escorting them away. That, he added, was why these murders remained - and would continue to remain - officially unsolved.

The assassins appointed by the Committee, he said, were Robin Jackson, known in the province as "The Jackal", and Billy Wright, whose nom de guerre was "King Rat". Wright was at primary school with Sands.

In exchange for an undertaking that his identity would not be revealed, Sands provided Box Productions and Channel 4 with seven half-hour video tapes in which, suitably disguised for the camera, he explained the nature of the conspiracy to kill people deemed to be "enemies of Ulster".

His motive, he said, was to attract publicity for the cause of an independent

Ulster. A number of members of the Committee felt the time was ripe to demonstrate that there were people in Northern Ireland ready to fight for independence.

Sands' revelations, which included the names of 19 members of the alleged Committee, were then subjected to extensive investigation by the programme makers to see whether they could be well enough substantiated to justify broadcasting.

In due course sufficient independent corroboration emerged on the existence of the Committee to convince McPhilemy, senior executives at Channel 4 and its lawyers, that Sands' account was largely accurate. There followed a tortuous production process, in the course of which death threats were received by Hamilton and McPhilemy.

A security expert brought in by Channel 4 advised McPhilemy to move out of his remote farmhouse in the Oxfordshire countryside and to rent a safer house in Oxford at the channel's expense.

The programme was finally broadcast in the autumn of 1991, complete with its devastating allegation that the RUC, the British government's police force in Northern Ireland, was secretly running death squads.

The RUC's initial response was to say that the programme was a slur on the good name of the force. It then announced an inquiry into the allegations. To some, the two pronouncements seemed to come in the wrong order - an impression that was reinforced when it emerged that the investigation into the RUC was to be carried out by the RUC itself.

Channel 4, meantime, handed over documents to the authorities that included the 19 names of alleged members of the Committee. But it felt obliged to honour the programme makers' commitment to protect Sands, arguing that without that protection the likelihood of the murderers being brought to justice would have been lessened.

The RUC's response was to use the draconian powers available under the Prevention of Terrorism Act to require production of papers revealing the identity of the key witness, who came to be known as Source A. Channel 4 and Box refused. For this breach of the law they were jointly fined L75,000.

The difficulty for Box and Channel 4 was that the act never envisaged that terrorism might be perpetrated by the police authorities themselves. And the two judges in this High Court case both assumed without question that the RUC investigation was genuine.

Within 24 hours the RUC, whose lawyers had argued in court the day before that it was of paramount importance for them to have the identity of Source A, declared that the programme was a hoax. Yet this was on the basis of interviewing a witness other than Sands.

But in due course, after raiding Hamilton's home, the police found material that did lead them to Sands. And while under arrest, Sands retracted his statements on the programme and declared that he had hoaxed the producers.

Meantime a solicitor in the province called Richard Monteith launched a rare, criminal libel action against McPhilemy and Channel 4. When this was thrown out by a Belfast court, he continued with a civil action.

At the same time McPhilemy found himself dealing with a hostile press campaign. The Sunday Express accused him of stealing money from Channel 4 and of continuing to use the farmhouse he had abandoned for a safer house in Oxford. In The Sunday Times the programme was alleged to be a complete and deliberate fabrication.

McPhilemy was left with limited means of defending his reputation in public since Channel 4 had no appetite for a follow-up programme. Eventually it reached an out-of-court settlement with the solicitor Monteith, in which McPhilemy refused to participate. At this point, his future looked bleak.

But not completely. While British law on defamation is highly restrictive, some British lawyers remain highly liberal. McPhilemy enjoyed support from the radical lawyer Brian Raymond; then on Raymond's premature death, from his partner Geoffrey Bindman. Not only did they have total faith in McPhilemy's integrity. Their services came free.

With their support he launched libel actions first against the Sunday Express, then against The Sunday Times. Others who support him include leading libel barrister James Price QC. McPhilemy was fortunate, too, in enjoying theunstinting support of his wifeand family.

Because he was obliged to conduct research for his defence, he then found himself uncovering more. Like John Stalker, the English policeman who was smeared while investigating the RUC over an alleged "shoot- to- kill" policy in the mid-1980s, he decided to put it all into a book.

As he proceeded, things started to go his way.

The turning point came with the success of his action against the Sunday Express. The paper retracted its allegations and apologised. Sheer persistence turned up more leads.

Finally The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland emerged in the US last year. Since the US libel laws are more liberal than in the UK and public figures have to prove malice against them to win a case, McPhilemy and his publishers felt they were on firm ground.

The book produced further evidence to support Sands' original statement. Thanks to material provided by the Lurgan lawyer Rosemary Nelson, it also printed verbatim transcripts of Sands' recantation to the RUC. McPhilemy points to textual evidence that the recorded interview was rehearsed.

He has also provided sensitive information to the English police inquiry into Nelson's murder, having collaborated with her in investigating murders of Catholics.

Sands still finds himself under intolerable pressure over his earlier revelations. But other witnesses, including former and serving RUC officers, have provided McPhilemy with evidence on many more unsolved murders between 1973 and 1997.

And the new paperback edition of the book, out last month, claims that Robin Jackson, "The Jackal", who died in 1998, pursued his terrorist career for more than two decades with the approval and support of sponsors within the security forces.

If true, this would explain why no charges were brought against Jackson after a bizarre case in which a murder victim's wife had picked him out in an identity parade as her husband's killer. McPhilemy documents more than 100 murders committed by Jackson and his associates.

These include the May 1974 bomb attacks in Dublin and Monaghan, which left 33 dead and many others injured.

From this, McPhilemy concludes that the Committee was merely a formal expression of something that had been going on for years. All sides in the conflict, especially the Provisional IRA and the RUC, he believes, engaged in naked terrorism and occupied the same moral terrain. This the RUC and the British government will obviously be reluctant to accept.

A spokesman for the RUC said this week that there was no conspiracy, cover-up or collusion. Such allegations, he added, had been "a constant and disgraceful thread of anti-RUC propaganda down the years.

"This organisation would not tolerate it and will deal effectively with any member who falls well below the high standards expected of police officers - of that the public can be fully confident," he said.

This plea for trust in the RUC comes eight years after the original programme, since when there has been no independent public inquiry, or statement from the British government. McPhilemy wrote last year to offer evidence to Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong who was appointed to review policing in Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday agreement. Patten did not reply.

In January next year, when McPhilemy's action against The Sunday Times is due to be heard, all of this may descend from the internet ether into the UK public domain. A libel case against him in the US may reach the courts soon after.

The British and Irish, who alone in the world have been denied conventional access to McPhilemy's book, may then find out more. And those named in the book as members and associates of The Committee may find themselves under scrutiny in an English court.

At the same time David Trimble's writ against Amazon UK will test the applicability and effectiveness of the UK libel laws in relation to the internet. But while the libel lawyers grind away, a bigger question of criminal justice remains.

Until this week all seven of the murders investigated by the original documentary remained "unsolved". Yet now, albeit after 10 years, a man has at last been charged in connection with the murder of Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane, one of the seven.

This follows the reopening of an investigation into his death under Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner John Stevens.

Why, you might ask, does McPhilemy persist at such a sensitive time in the Northern Ireland peace process? His all-too-convincing answer is that there will be no reconciliation and lasting peace in Northern Ireland unless the truth about crimes committed on both sides of the sectarian divide comes out.

What is clear is that in the absence of a wider public inquiry, McPhilemy's odyssey will continue.

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Guest David Guyatt

Peter, I would also recommend www.themcgurksbarmassacre.com.

The McGurks Bar Massacre kick-started the Irish "troubles". That it was a British Army engineered operation should make us ask the question why the British state wanted a 30 year internal war?

I also recommend: http://www.geocities.com/capitolhill/senate/1922/ which provides much important inside information.

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Guest Gary Loughran
Peter, I would also recommend www.themcgurksbarmassacre.com.

The McGurks Bar Massacre kick-started the Irish "troubles". That it was a British Army engineered operation should make us ask the question why the British state wanted a 30 year internal war?

I also recommend: http://www.geocities.com/capitolhill/senate/1922/ which provides much important inside information.

Hi David,

You're using phrasologies normally used by Chappers - I hope this isn't a Chapman 'booby trap' - my suspect device filter is on high alert. Anyhow, I've no time now, but I've an interesting and yet funny (at least in the sense that I was there when it happened) story on McGurks...being born and living in the same street at the time (months old though).

It didn't, though, in any way, 'kick start' the troubles, war period of disturbance staging and testing ground for British 'anti - insurgency' tactics in built up areas, ad nauseum. The rest of your post though is very interesting and legitimately bothersome...especially when one considers what Republicanism/The Brits ended up accepting for resolution.

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Guest David Guyatt
Hi David,

You're using phrasologies normally used by Chappers - I hope this isn't a Chapman 'booby trap' - my suspect device filter is on high alert. Anyhow, I've no time now, but I've an interesting and yet funny (at least in the sense that I was there when it happened) story on McGurks...being born and living in the same street at the time (months old though).

It didn't, though, in any way, 'kick start' the troubles, war period of disturbance staging and testing ground for British 'anti - insurgency' tactics in built up areas, ad nauseum. The rest of your post though is very interesting and legitimately bothersome...especially when one considers what Republicanism/The Brits ended up accepting for resolution.

Gary, I woudn't dream of posting for anyone else without acknowledging that fact. Not my style.

Therefore... all errors or misunderstandings are solely my own. :secret

British anti-insurgency tactics were honed as sharp as can be in Kenya against the Mau Mau and in Malaya, Aden and Cyprus well before bringing them "home".

I don't pretend to be particularly knowledgeable about the Irish troubles, I must confess. But over the years I have been contacted by people more versed in that subject after writing about the Chinook helicopter "crash" - Zulu Delta, plus an earlier piece about a particular assassination squad. The names Fred Holroyd and Nairac come to mind. Fred lives near to me (or used to anyway) and Nairac's wife contacted me several years ago in regard to his murder. There are others too.

Strange story about Zulu Delta don't you think?

Wicked, devious old me started this thread with you in mind, Gary.

I look forward to your insights with great anticipation.

David

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