By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The man who is the primary source for the controversial book "The Committee" has again heaped confusion upon confusion.
Loyalist Jim Sands, in an interview published in the London-based Observer newspaper, claimed he invented stories about a secret committee comprising policemen, business leaders and politicians who directed loyalist violence in northern Ireland.
The Observer story said Sands is behind "one of the most expensive journalistic hoaxes in the English-speaking world."
Sands told the paper that his concocted evidence was central to a TV documentary and bestselling book, "The Committee," by Sean McPhilemy, now the subject of $100 million libel suit in Washington, D.C.
Sands told the Observer that he had made up the entire story of the alleged committee "just to make foreign journalists look stupid."
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After his evidence concerning the alleged committee formed the core of the documentary, broadcast by the British network Channel 4 in 1990, Sands publicly recanted his statements given to McPhilemy.
Later, he claimed that this recanting was forced and was a result of threats against him made by the RUC.
However, in the Observer interview, Sands indicated that he subsequently decided to come clean and deny both the committee and the threats story at a meeting with Russell Smith, attorney for "The Committee" publishers Roberts Rinehart, held at a Belfast hotel earlier this year.
But again, he changed his mind after spotting McPhilemy and a camera crew close to the meeting place.
Sands told the Observer: "I was going to tell Russell Smith the truth, that I made it all up, when I saw McPhilemy and the film crew. So I though to myself, ‘If that’s what they want to do, I’m happy enough. I’ll tell them what they want to hear.’ So I told them basically that the whole thing was true and the police were trying to discredit it."
According to Smith, however, Sands has contradicted himself in the latest interview.
"In his original recantation, Sands claimed he and McPhilemy had made up the story. He now claims he duped McPhilemy," Smith told the Echo this week.
"Sands also claimed, according to a Sunday Times report written in 1993, that McPhilemy had paid him to read to the camera from a prepared script. He now claims his lies were all his own work."
The latest twist to the story is rooted in May of this year when Sands talked to a London-based freelance journalist who in turn contacted the Long Island-based Smith.
What followed afterward was related at the time to the Echo by both attorney Smith and McPhilemy. This is their version of events:
Smith then phoned Sands, who agreed to speak to both him and McPhilemy, suggesting the venue for their meeting should be a hotel near Belfast airport.
A few days later, Sands drove himself to the hotel for an on-camera interview with McPhilemy, in the presence of Smith. Sands then voluntarily flew to London, where he met two other members of McPhilemy’s legal team.
The lawyers sought an explanation as to why Sands had retracted his original allegations in 1992 and why he was now reasserting his accusations against the RUC.
Sands replied that he had been forced by the RUC to denounce the TV program as a hoax but claimed he feared for his life because of mounting pressure for a public inquiry into allegations of RUC collusion in the murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane.
The following day, Sands signed an affidavit in which he said he believed if such an inquiry were held, his life would be in danger anyway, so he might as well tell the truth now.
McPhilemy’s lawyers then contacted the Stevens Inquiry into the Pat Finucane murder as well as Colin Port, the assistant chief constable for Norfolk, who is heading the investigation into the March murder of Lurgan solicitor, Rosemary Nelson.
McPhilemy’s legal team said Sands made his statements to them under no duress and with no inducements offered. According to the legal team, Sands states in the affidavit: "Over the last few months, with calls for inquiries into Pat Finucane’s death, and with a lot of people disappearing mysteriously, such as Billy Wright and R.J. Kerr, I feel I am next.
"I wanted the truth to come out before anything happens to me. I believe that if the public inquiry into the death of Patrick Finucane goes ahead, I am a dead man anyway, so I might as well tell the truth while I can."
An RUC visit
Things had been quiet for him, he said, after he withdrew his story to McPhilemy in 1992, until this April 28 this year, when he was visited by two RUC officers.
"They arrived in an unmarked car [red], a saloon car. They stood on the doorstep, and said I might be getting a visit from people on the Stevens Inquiry team [into the Finucane murder]," Sands testified.
"They said I should follow the line that I had already taken. I said alright and that was all they said." The affidavit ends: "I confirm that the facts in this statement are true."
Sands told The Observer, however, that he did not realize that he was to be the only source for the 1990 McPhilemy TV documentary. He went to an apartment in London where a camera crew turned up and told him he would be interviewed in silhouette.
Sands told the Observer: "I wanted money and thought that by the time they researched all this properly, Channel 4 would conclude that the whole thing was a hoax, that it would not be worth doing. But by then it was too late.
"I knew nothing about any committee or anything like that, but the researchers said it was true. I told them the RUC were helping loyalists to kill IRA men. It was what they wanted to hear. They even fixed my hair and put an actor’s voice over mine during the interview."
Attorney Smith believes that the latest twist to the story only further confirms his view that "every time Sands tries to get away from his original account of collusion, he tells easily disprovable lies."
"There was no camera ambush, and Sands spoke to me calmly for hours, explaining how the RUC forced his recantation, before agreeing to go on camera later that afternoon," Smith said.
But, according to Sands, this testimony to camera was not the only one he would give in London. Sands told the Observer that lawyers acting for the Prentice brothers — Portadown car dealers named as members of the Committee who are plaintiffs in the D.C. lawsuit against Roberts Rinehart — heard what he was up to and sent their own camera crew over to the same hotel to interview him.
"I more or less told them the truth, that I made it up," Sands told the Observer.