By Chris Thornton
BELFAST — Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has been forced once again to deny allegations he was involved with loyalist paramilitaries in the years before he became a central figure in the Northern Ireland peace process and went on to claim the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.
Trimble described the claims in a newly published biography as "pure fantasy."
"It is simply not true to say that I acted as a political and legal adviser to loyalist paramilitaries," he said. "Any contact there may have been was of a casual nature."
But author Henry McDonald stood by his account, which places Trimble in the ranks of the Vanguard Service Corps, a shadowy but legal organization, in the early 1970s and alleges that he later gave legal and political advice to the Ulster Defense Association.
McDonald emphasized that he was not suggesting Trimble was involved in any violence. He said Trimble "discouraged and criticized" terrorism.
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McDonald’s book, "Trimble," was published days after other accusations against the Ulster Unionist leader were withdrawn in a London court. Sean McPhilemy, author of "The Committee," said he could no longer stand over a claim that Trimble knew who was behind a series of loyalist murders in the Mid-Ulster area.
McPhilemy, who is suing the London Sunday Times for libel, admitted that he had no evidence to support the book’s claim that Trimble was part of a widespread conspiracy that saw loyalist gunmen directed to kill Catholics by a group of business, political and police leaders. But he said he still believes Trimble knew what was going on.
The trial, which has lasted more than three weeks, has seen strong attacks on McPhilemy’s credibility as a journalist by the newspaper. He is suing the Sunday Times for claiming that a television program that preceded the book was a hoax.
McPhilemy has been forced to concede that he did not attempt to question Trimble or others named in the book about the allegations against them in the book, which has been published in the U.S. but not in Ireland or Britain. Threats of libel action by Trimble forced internet bookseller Amazon UK from stocking the book in England.
In one exchange during McPhilemy’s seven days of testimony, Andrew Caldecott, the Sunday Times lawyer, said to the author: "You did not leave your U.S. readers in any doubt as to whether Mr. Trimble was guilty or not?"
"No," replied McPhilemy. "If I had any doubts, I would not have put in it."
Caldecott asked: "Why did you not ask him before the book was published?
"I did not think he would enlighten me," McPhilemy said.
The newspaper has also pointed out discrepancies between the accounts of several killings by McPhilemy’s main source, Jim Sands, and actual eyewitnesses to the killings.
However, the broadcasting company Channel 4, which showed the original documentary in 1991, has defended McPhilemy.
"In no circumstances is Mr. McPhilemy a hoaxer," said David Lloyd, the station’s head of news and current affairs. "I have always regarded him as a decent, honest and truthful person."
In a further development in the case, several Irish and British Sunday newspaper printed apologies to Portadown car dealers Albert and David Prentice, who have filed a multi-million-dollar libel action against McPhilemy in the U.S.
The newspapers said they accepted "that Albert and David Prentice are respected members of the Northern Ireland community who have not and never have been involved in any activities of the type alleged in `The Committee.’ "