By Jack Holland
Jim Sands seems an unlikely candidate to be linked to the violent world of the loyalist paramilitaries. He is a 40-year-old charity worker on a government-funded scheme. According to his own account, he has never been a member of any loyalist paramilitary group. He has never been charged with a terrorist offense. He has never been cited in any trial of any loyalist gunman or bomber as a loyalist activist. Yet, since 1991 he has been at the center of a controversy involving allegations that a disparate conspiratorial group consisting of RUC men, Protestant businessmen and political leaders, including David Trimble, are part of a "Committee" coordinating a vicious sectarian assassination campaign in collusion with UVF and UDA killers.
The allegations come from Sands himself, though he now says he was put up to it by a journalist working for the tabloid Sunday World. They formed the basis of Sean McPhilemy’s 1991 documentary "The Committee" and his 1998 book of the same name. But in a recent interview, Sands stated that the allegations are "a load of nonsense." He said that when he first made them, he did not believe that Channel 4, which commissioned the documentary, would ever broadcast it.
"They should’ve checked the facts," he said.
As an example, he cites his claim that he went to school with Billy Wright, the assassin known as "King Rat," one of the most notorious loyalist killers of the last 20 years who was shot dead by the INLA in 1997. McPhilemy calls Wright Sands’s "school friend," but according to Sands, "We didn’t go to the same school. We went to schools at opposite ends of Portadown." Sands says he was never a friend of Wright’s, though the two may have briefly attended the same technical college. Wright told reporters he had never heard of Sands.
The story Sands told to McPhilemy and his researcher, Ben Hamilton, is full of inconsistencies. In the Oct. 2, 1991 broadcast Sands, at the time identified only as Witness A, claimed that "our aim is to kill ‘hawks’ " in the republican movement. He alleged that "24 republicans" had been killed that year, thanks to the Committee’s work.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
However, when the facts are checked, a rather different picture emerges. Between January and October 1991, the UVF and UDA shot dead three members of the IRA, one IPLO man, and four members of Sinn Fein — a total of eight, an unusually high number of republican fatalities at loyalist hands. Where were the other 16 republican "hawks" claimed by Sands?
"It was a total load of nonsense," he said when asked last week. "I never actually thought Channel Four would put it out."
The discrepancies (large and small) are compounded in the interviews that Sands gave that appear in McPhilemy’s book. In his account of one shooting, at Cappagh, in which three IRA members died as they arrived at Boyle’s Bar, Sands told McPhilemy that the Committee knew there was a big IRA meeting that night at the pub. King Rat and his gang were dispatched to attack the meeting.
"King Rat went in the first car. Just as they were coming up, there was a car coming into the car park, which was men going to the meeting and they fired at those men in the car."
Yet, according to the man who survived the attack, he and the three who died "only decided on the spur of the moment to go to the pub." (Quoted in "Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women And Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles," by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton.")
That is, the victims could not have been the targets of an elaborate plot, as originally suggested by Sands.
Sands goes on to describe how the cars of the loyalist squad were led back to Portadown by members of the "Inner Force," the RUC group that is Sands’s alleged link to the Committee. But according to the "Lost Lives" account, the car used by the gunmen was found abandoned in a quarry.
More discrepancies emerged during the London court case. Sands’s account of the murder of Denis Carville was one example. The UVF shot the 19-year-old Catholic on Oct. 6, 1990 as he sat in a car with his girlfriend in the parking lot of a remote nature reserve on the shores of Lough Neagh. The killing was in revenge for the murder of a part-time soldier who had been shot dead by the IRA on the same spot two weeks earlier.
According to Sands’s account, the Committee sent an "on-duty police car" to check other cars parked there to find a Catholic. They radioed Carville’s license number through to Lurgan police station to check who he was, and when it was confirmed he was a Catholic, King Rat shot him.
The only witness to the killing was Carville’s girlfriend. In her account, they were alone in the parking area. She did not see any police car coming or going. She told the BBC that a masked gunman approached their car and made them open the door. The gunman then "asked Denis if he was a Catholic. He said he was. I didn’t realize the two bangs were bullets."
Sands’s accounts of the various operations as they appear in McPhilemy’s book are vague and often inconsistent. On one page he alleges the Committee meets once a month, and then, a few pages on, every six weeks. He tells us that the UDA, UFF, UVF and PAF are separate organizations when it is a well-known fact that the UFF and PAF are merely fronts for other two and have been since the 1970s. On Page 35, he makes the extraordinary claim that the "Inner Force," which he says exists within the RUC and links up with the Committee, comprises "roughly one-third of the RUC membership." That means it would have about 4,000 members.
That is a conspiracy so vast that the fact it remained hidden until McPhilemy began his research in 1991 is truly amazing.
"They’re very naive," he said last week of those who believed his original story. "They’d believe anything."
When asked if he had ever told McPhilemy he was lying, he says no, he hadn’t. Sands said that he had only spoken with McPhilemy once — in May 1999, long after the documentary and book were completed. The interviews were done by Hamilton.
One thing is certain. The evidence suggests that Sands is far more convincing when he says he is lying than when he claims his story is true.