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A small publisher outside Boulder has placed itself in a heap of trouble by publishing a controversial book no one in the United Kingdom wanted to touch. And even as British journalist Sean McPhilemy's The Committee has become the talk of the editorial pages in Great Britain, it can't be found on any Irish bookseller's shelves.
Thanks to British libel laws, which are far more restrictive than those in America, McPhilemy found it difficult to get his book published in England or Ireland. But he received a much warmer reception from Roberts Rinehart Publishers, a Niwot-based company that was eager to print his claims about a widespread conspiracy against Catholics.
The Committee, released earlier this month, is based on McPhilemy's 1991 documentary for Britain's Channel Four. That program featured veiled sources who claimed the existence of a secret terrorist organization that targeted Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland with the help of the local police and others in the Protestant establishment. The book goes further than the documentary, revealing the names of people who McPhilemy claims are associated with the covert operation.
In The Committee, McPhilemy claims that not just police, but British intelligence operatives, Protestant business leaders, lawyers, politicians and even some clergy members aided and abetted death-squad assassins such as Billy Wright, also known as "King Rat." Wright's own assassination in a Northern Irish prison earlier this year sparked violent conflict that threatened to derail gains made by both sides in the peace process.
Though no one is distributing McPhilemy's book in the U.K., those who want it can easily purchase the book via the Internet using virtual bookstores such as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble's Web site. (Those companies then mail the books to interested readers.)
David Trimble, the leader of Northern Ireland's Unionist party, attacked McPhilemy's book in a letter to Roberts Rinehart last month. According to a Roberts Rinehart press release, Trimble said in his letter that the people described as murderers in the book are in fact innocent. Trimble called the book "very grave libel" and insisted that the "alleged Committee is a myth."
It's not the first time Roberts Rinehart has found itself stewing in Irish controversy. Van Zandt, who attended graduate school in Cambridge and befriended several Irish writers while living in the British Isles, opened a Dublin office for Roberts Rinehart in 1989. Since that time, the company claims, it has become the leading publisher of Irish-related titles in the United States. Its imprint appears on everything from Irish cookbooks to travel guides, in addition to general-interest tomes.
By targeting the estimated 42 million people of Irish descent who live in the U.S., the Colorado firm has been able to tackle tough topics when authors couldn't find a backer in their home country. It was the first American publisher of the biography of Michael Collins, which was later made into a film of the same name starring Liam Neeson. The company has also drawn the ire of British loyalists by publishing books by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, Nationalist party leader John Hume and noted journalist Tim Pat Coogan, the former editor of the Irish Press and the author of Michael Collins. According to Van Zandt, it was Coogan who persuaded a wary McPhilemy to use the American publisher.
"We understand Irish material," says Van Zandt. "The book had been kept secret because it was dynamite. The author was very guarded when he approached us."
Besides Trimble's angry letter and condemnation from conservative British papers (London's Sunday Times has called McPhilemy's book "bizarre"), Van Zandt claims to have received crank phone calls from people who feel Roberts Rinehart is sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army.
"These are from people who don't support the First Amendment," says Van Zandt. "We're not supporters of the IRA. We're supporters of the truth. We should be able to hear what Gerry Adams has to say and decide for ourselves."
The peace process in Northern Ireland moved forward this past Friday when voters approved a long-awaited peace accord. And far from being an impediment to that process, says Van Zandt, works such as McPhilemy's book are necessary to air the kind of dirty laundry that has been kept secret for too long in that country.
"People need to know this in order to know what comes next," he says.