Wiki-wiki-wild: Why researchers of loyalism (and republicanism, or anything really) shouldn’t trust Wikipedia

Any exceptional claim requires multiple high-quality sources.[11] Red flags that should prompt extra caution include:

-surprising or apparently important claims not covered by multiple mainstream sources;

-challenged claims that are supported purely by primary or self-published sources or those with an apparent conflict of interest;[8]

-reports of a statement by someone that seems out of character, or against an interest they had previously defended;

-claims that are contradicted by the prevailing view within the relevant community, or that would significantly alter mainstream assumptions,

especially in science, medicine, history, politics, and biographies of living people. This is especially true when proponents say there is a conspiracy to silence them.

Wikipedia, as everyone reading is doubtlessly aware, is the online encyclopedia which anyone can edit. Launched in January 2001, it now boasts over 21 million registered users and approximately 4.5 million English-language articles. The above is extracted from Wikipedia’s own rules and is particularly pertinent regarding the sourcing of the more contentious of these articles. If anything is contentious it is the history of the Troubles, a history that is not just only partly written, but continuously rewritten and revised.

In contrast to the voluminous products of republican self-examination, loyalists have tended not to write books about the conflict and their part in it. Partly this can be put down to the different emphasis the Calvinist and Roman Catholic cultural and teaching traditions place upon arts and the written word – although it would be a mistake to overstate this factor – but in many instances they simply don’t particularly care about their image. They assume that most journalists and writers dislike or at least dismiss them, and in this instance their paranoia is at least somewhat justified. As noted by Steve Bruce in his preface to The Red Hand:

“My guess is that loyalists are neglected because few academics and serious journalists are unionists. The university-educated middle classes have difficulty understanding why anyone would fight for something as insubstantial as patriotism. They can almost understand Irish nationalism, because the geography of the place would suggest that everyone here ought to ‘live together’. If, as many are, they are also left-leaning, they will sympathize with what can be portrayed as an anti-imperialist movement (…) the lack of serious books about the UDA and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is probably explained by the unpopularity of their cause among the writing classes”

In an example of a journalist making a more active contribution, in the 1980s Guardian editor Paul Greenslade wrote for An Phoblacht under the pseudonym “George King”, a fact only revealed years later by journalist Nick Davies, while the paper’s cartoonist Steve Bell was active in the campaign calling for the withdrawal of British troops from NI. While the list of writers with confirmed republican leanings is not extensive, it is certainly true than none appear to have sympathetic views regarding loyalists. The closest living thing to this sort of creature is perhaps Ruth Dudley Edwards, whose vocal support for unionists is based around a rather idealised view of the northern Prod and which therefore most certainly does not extend to the loyalist working class (she has written of her dislike for David Ervine, of all people).

Similarly, many more people are active in editing and contributing to Wiki articles related to republicanism than are active in those on unionism or loyalism. Some of these are conscientious and knowledgeable people who are genuinely dedicated to the concept of a free, impartial, open-source reference. Others are internet cranks, self-appointed “experts”, and riders of hobby-horses with agendas to promote. The inbuilt flaw of Wikipedia with its “wisdom of crowds” philosophy is that those most attracted to a particular topic are apt to be the very same people who have strong and often partisan views on the matter. This does not pose a problem when one wishes to look up something like the melting point of caesium (28.5 C, by the way), or some other uncontroversial matter, but when the subject is often factious and the subject of continued heated debate, and the conflict in Northern Ireland is certainly that, there is an observable tendency to draw in individuals less scrupulous or benignly-motivated.

Pages dealing with the Provisional IRA receive detailed and regular attention, but its articles relating to the Official Republican movement and the IRSP/INLA or IPLO are woefully under-sourced and neglected. Although this can partly be excused by the relative lack of good sources dealing with these organisations, it illustrates the flip-side of Wikipedia’s contribution bias – topics less popular among the general public will generally receive far less attention.

Avoid stating opinions as facts. Usually, articles will contain information about the significant opinions that have been expressed about their subjects. However, these opinions should not be stated in Wikipedia’s voice. Rather, they should be attributed in the text to particular sources, or where justified, described as widespread views, etc. For example, an article should not state that “genocide is an evil action”, but it may state that “genocide has been described by John X as the epitome of human evil.”

While unionists may often feel that Wikipedia’s pages present a strongly republican slant, there is no apparent systemic bias in favour of republicanism and any which appears is not nearly as pronounced as might be the case, although it would be tempting fate to say this will always be so.  Until very recently, the page for the Battle of the Diamond qualified for perhaps the most biased article on the site. Neatly exploiting Wikipedia’s inbuilt flaws on sourcing requirements, which in practise amount to little more than “if you can find it in a book, it’s true”, the extensive and highly detailed page provided numerous references whilst lambasting “Orange propaganda” and its “myth-version” of the battle. These “myths” were countered with what was presented as a more factual, revisionist narrative, complete with inline citations, in which the unarmed Defenders were ambushed by a vicious and cowardly Orange gang. The main references for the page turned out to be three figures from the 19th Century: the noted republicans John Mitchel and Richard Robert Madden, and Irish nationalist publisher James Duffy! Thankfully this slanted analysis has been revised to a more neutral version thanks to the work of a conscientious editor demonstrating that, in some cases at least, the system works.

The worst manifestation of any possible tilt is to be found in certain pages relating the the Provisional IRA. The page detailing the PIRA’s campaign states “it has been speculated that this assassination programme against Loyalist leaders helped convince the leadership of both the UDA and UVF, to call ceasefires at this point”, when in fact several authors and academics have written about how these killings nearly led to the CLMC postponing or even cancelling their planned ceasefire (an editor has flagged this statement, yet over a year later it remains unsubstantiated). It quotes a bogus figure of 45 loyalists killed by the IRA, citing Tony Geraghty’s The Irish War as a source (Geraghty himself gives no source for the number). Geraghty’s book appears numerous times in Troubles articles on Wikipedia. A fine writer when dealing with strictly military matters, on which he is widely published, his work here leaves a great deal to be desired. Along with a a tendency toward hyperbole and drama he regularly makes contentious claims and accusations, yet no sources are given for any of these except the occasional anecdote – this is a book-length opinion piece, not a work of reference. In one passage he goes beyond bad taste when he all but states that the Protestants shot by the IRA during the so-called “Battle of St Matthew’s” in 1970 had it coming to them.

More worrying though is the fact that the IRA’s involvement in sectarian killings – which included random assassinations and pub bombings – is often absent from the chronologies of their actions, whether as a result of suppression or omission. A look through the entire timeline of the IRA’s armed campaign shows that certain incidents of this nature are unmentioned, despite their other actions being meticulously detailed. A casual browser looking up, say, the timeline of IRA activities in 1975-77 would find a log of events whose sanitary standards would surely find favour with the revisionists within Sinn Fein. In these years of awful sectarian violence from both sides the IRA comes out with relatively clean hands. Civilians are killed either simply by mistake, due to unheeded telephone warnings or in attacks intended for the security forces, or because they are part of the British state apparatus. One of the most notorious incidents of the time, the horrendous Whitecross massacre in January 1976, is completely absent from the listing for the year.

No mention is made, for example, of the killing of James McColgan, burned to death by the IRA after it planted incendiary devices at his place of work on January the 21st 1977. The death of community worker Nicholas White in March ’76, murdered at the youth club disco he ran in Ardoyne, is described simply as the shooting of an “ex-soldier”, a palpable attempt to whitewash or even justify the killing (as is that of John Lee, an Ardoyne Catholic murdered in a similar incident a year later). No such attempts are made with the death of Brian Smith on April 21st ’77, another random shooting, as the incident is simply not listed despite its entry in the article’s main source, Lost Lives. The sectarian killing of Hugh Clarke on April 2nd ’77 is omitted, while in the case of George Wilson, killed later in the year, it states “the motive for the killing remains unclear”. In fact, the entry in reference Lost Lives quotes the police as describing it as an “indiscriminate sectarian … attack” by the IRA. The listing for a bomb attack on November 11th ’77 which killed a 53yr old Catholic man reads: “a warning was given to evacuate the area although one civilian was killed”, without noting that the warning was inadequate and that the IRA lied about when it was given, as Lost Lives details. The car bombing of a bar in Sandy Row on January 30th ’76 is seemingly justified by labelling it “a pub frequented by loyalist paramilitaries”, even though neither Lost Lives nor Malcolm Sutton’s index refers to it as such.

Taking 1976 as an example, incidents omitted include:

  • an indiscriminate IRA gun attack on a Lisburn pub on March 10th which killed one and left six injured.
  • the killing of two brothers at their family-owned business in Moy on May 15th.
  • in an incident remarkably similar to the murder of Eileen Doherty, a Protestant taxi passenger was shot dead by two IRA youths on the Crumlin Road on June 4th. The driver was also seriously injured.
  • the no-warning bombing of the Times Bar in North Belfast a day later, which killed two Protestants.
  • a shooting massacre in Walker’s Bar, Templepatrick, on June 25th which left three Protestants dead.
  • another gun massacre at the Stag Inn, South Belfast, which killed four Protestants.
  • yet another “spray job” on September 24th, this time at the Cavehill Inn.

In addition, Lost Lives lists another 17 deaths that year attributed to the IRA which are not featured in the timeline, and almost all were random sectarian killings.

While it would be unwise and paranoid to impute some sinister Shinner plot for the absence of these incidents, the omission of sectarian killings and other incidents embarrassing to the republican movement is nevertheless so consistent that it cannot be accidental. Certainly as an example of passive bias, as opposed to active, it is an interesting example of how the past and its presentation can be manipulated. One can hardly imagine the same situation pertaining for long if loyalists or sympathisers of the UDA and UVF pruned their timeline in a similar way for the sake of public relations. It would not be a very long article for one thing.

One might point out the obvious and say “why not correct the pages yourself?”. Unfortunately, an inspection of the talk and history pages shows that certain editors have come to dominate the loyalist articles in particular so totally that any attempt to remove suspect information and so alter “their” work is almost immediately reverted or shouted down. The rot is not by any means confined to pages dealing with loyalism. Anyone visiting Wikipedia in search of information on the less-studied republican groups such as the Official IRA, Irish National Liberation Army, or IPLO will also find poor sourcing, unsupported statements, etc., although not the strident POV-pushing that characterises the loyalist articles.

Avoid stating facts as opinions. Uncontested and uncontroversial factual assertions made by reliable sources should normally be directly stated in Wikipedia’s voice. Unless a topic specifically deals with a disagreement over otherwise uncontested information, there is no need for specific attribution for the assertion, although it is helpful to add a reference link to the source in support of verifiability. Further, the passage should not be worded in any way that makes it appear to be contested.

The most common charge against Wikipedia is that since anyone can edit its pages it is open to vandalism, error, and impartiality. In response to these criticisms, it points out a number of checks and balances against this, chiefly that a collaborative process will act as a safeguard by inevitably filtering out any bias through debate and revision. That might be true to a certain degree, but the case of Wiki’s loyalism articles, which are almost entirely the work of a tiny number of individuals who aggressively vetoe any alterations to “their” text, demonstrates what can happen when people appoint themselves de facto editor-in-chief and are allowed to shape an entire subject according to their own opinions and beliefs. Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia but a huge online social experiment, where policy and content are decided upon (or not) through debate, haranguing, interminable arguments, networking, and the building of alliances of convenience, where an individual who proves skilled at playing the system can quite easily set themselves up as unofficial arbiter of a niche topic.

Early in 2013 an individual on the internet came into disagreement with the well-known author, former IRA prisoner, and republican activist Anthony McIntyre. The nature of the disagreement and exactly what caused it is hard to describe and in any case is essentially irrelevant. What is relevant is that the individual was also a prolific Wikipedia editor, and it was around this time that they made a number of edits to McIntyre’s Wikpedia page. The nature of these edits is unknown as another, more senior, editor took the unusual step of irrevocably erasing them on the grounds that they were highly inappropriate and in breach of the site’s policy on biographies of living persons. Having failed to alter McIntyre’s Wikipedia page they apparently then authored an obnoxious and deeply personal attack upon him which was uploaded to another website. This “essay” also targeted his wife, Carrie Twomey, who was described as an “Irish-American mail order bride”. At the same time, the individual also began trolling the comments section of McIntyre’s website, The Pensive Quill. McIntyre is no stranger to harrassment: after a seemingly minor disagreement with the mainstream republican movement, he claims that he and his then-pregnant wife were subjected to a rather worrying real-life campaign of intimidation, and eventually he felt compelled to move south of the border.

Largely as a result of this person’s online activities, McIntyre was moved to create a page on The Pensive Quill which could be used as a sort of “dumping ground” for these types of comments. No writer or activist should find themselves the subject of online harassment as the result of a dispute or perceived slight, particularly when it extends to their family. Defenders of Wikipedia might point out that the malicious edits to McIntyre’s page were quickly reverted and that little or no permanent harm resulted. However, the same editor has also been highly active in writing and editing articles relating to loyalism where, in common with its unpopularity in academia and professional journalism, participation is far lower and consequently editorial oversight much less rigorous or frequent. It is here where one or two individual’s contributions can shape virtually the entire encyclopaedia’s content relating to loyalism.

One of the biggest problems with Wikipedia’s paramilitary articles as they presently stand is that they take a distinctly authoritative tone when detailing events that are at best hazily understood – even by those who participated in them – and personalities whose biographies amount to nothing more than thumbnail sketches. This poses a particular problem when dealing with an organisation such as the UVF which by its very nature was a furtive, conspiratorial enterprise. Unlike the UDA it has never – even during its brief period of legality in the mid-1970s – published the names of those on its executive body. Jim Hanna and Ken Gibson are both named as Chiefs of Staff of the UVF based in each case on a single weak source. The citation for Hanna, a Brigade Staff member who was shot dead by his own organisation in April 1974, comes from a website article by Joe Tiernan (of whom more later). In Gibson’s case a single passing reference – less than a whole sentence! – in Tim Pat Coogan’s The Troubles suffices (and even then Gibson is simply called “the leader of the UVF”). Coogan’s knowledge of the inner workings of loyalist paramilitaries can be said to be rudimentary at best, and remains that of a writer who has moved steadily toward republicanism, or at least a very green form of nationalism, during the latter part of his career. In fact, neither Hanna nor Gibson ever held the rank of Brigadier of the UVF, as the group’s overall leader is also known.

Many of these pages are superficially convincing and for the casual researcher present an air of authority. Closer study however reveals a patchwork of amateur research, guesswork and, frequently, a reliance on dubious references. Books emanating from vanity presses and fringe publishers, Sunday tabloids, partisan publications, and blogs are all “cited” in spite of Wikipedia’s own rules making it clear that a blanket prohibition exists regarding the use of such “sources”. In some cases even the anonymous comments left on websites appear to have been used to “fill in the blanks”.

Avoid stating seriously contested assertions as facts. If different reliable sources make conflicting assertions about a matter, treat these assertions as opinions rather than facts, and do not present them as direct statements.

One of the worst examples of POV pushing and suspect sourcing is to be found in the page covering the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. For good or ill, these days Wikipedia is the likely first port of call for anyone researching the atrocity. Written in the pseudo-academic style that so characterises the site, complete with footnotes and “citations”, the imprudent browser or anyone unfamiliar with the bombings is apt to take for granted its account of the events of 17th May 1974 which, without declaring such in so many words, all but endorses the latter-day conspiracy theory that the British state directed or carried out the attacks. At first glance the numerous inline citations lend credibility to its claims, but a closer examination reveals just how weak the supporting references are.

While the article makes extensive (and frequently selective, as we shall see) use of Judge Henry Barron’s report, its most contentious and controversial assertions are almost entirely sourced from a single work, Joe Tiernan’s The Dublin & Monaghan Bombings. The mere presence of this self-published work is in contravention of several of Wikipedia’s most fundamental rules which, among others, state that exceptional claims must be supported by “multiple high-quality sources”, and prohibit the use of self-published works. Unable to find a publisher willing to accept his manuscript (his only work), Tiernan resorted to vanity publishing, usually regarded by those in the writing and publishing world as the domain of cranks and eccentrics, more likely to feature paranoid screeds about the dangers of fluoridation or bad erotic fiction than serious, scholarly work (some might say the same about blogging). With an initial print run of only a few hundred copies and unavailable even in many specialist outlets let alone mainstream booksellers, it is by any sensible measure an obscure volume rather than the “mainstream” source demanded by Wikipedia’s putative standards. If these accounts are to be believed, Tiernan has even been reduced to the undignified practise of selling his tome door-to-door via cold-calling – hardly the sign of a mainstream work.

Many of those Tiernan accuses or quotes are dead and therefore unable to refute or support his allegations or, more pertinently, sue for libel. Yet even when dead men speak their words may be challenged. In the similarly slanted and Tiernan-reliant page on the November 1972 bombing of Dublin carried out by the UVF, a large tract from Tiernan’s book detailing an alleged conversation between senior UVF officer Jim Hanna and Cathal Goulding of the Official IRA is noted, which Tiernan claims was later related to him by Goulding:

“Throughout 1972/73 he [Goulding] and a number of his Official IRA colleagues held a series of meetings with UVF men, both in Belfast and Dublin, to discuss mutual working-class issues such as poverty, unemployment and bad housing in August 1973 a meeting to discuss such issues was held in the “West County Hotel” outside Dublin, attended by high-powered delegations from both organisations … Towards the end of the evening, according to Goulding, Jim Hanna pulled him to one side and told him he wished to speak to him in confidence. ‘He asked me if we, the Official IRA, would be willing to carry out bank robberies here in the South, and they, the UVF, would claim them. Then, if we wished, they would carry out similar robberies in the North and we could claim them. He said Army Intelligence officers he was in contact with in the North had asked him to put the proposition to us as they were anxious to bring about a situation in the South where the Dublin government would be forced to introduce internment. When I refused to accept his proposition, as we were already on ceasefire, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Look there’s no problem. You see the car bombs in Dublin over the last year, well we planted those bombs and the Army provided us with the cars. There’s no problem’. When I asked him how the bombings were carried out, he said the 1972 bombs were placed in false petrol tanks in both cars. He said they travelled down the main road from Belfast to Dublin and were stopped at a Garda checkpoint at Swords [North County Dublin] but because the cars were not reported stolen and the Gardai found nothing suspicious in them they were allowed to proceed.”

The passage also appears in the Barron Report and it is this which is given as the source. Yet crucially the response to this alleged conversation by Goulding’s close associates in the Official IRA and Workers Party, Tomas Mac Giolla and Sean Garland, is not detailed, for reasons which will immediately be obvious. In evidence to the inquiry sub-committee, Mac Giolla and Garland, who were also present at the meeting, flatly deny that Hanna said any such thing. Their replies are worth quoting fully:

Sean Garland: “I have no knowledge whatsoever of any such conversations. It is a crazy situation. Certainly, if Cathal Goulding had been told that, he would have repeated it to us, but I never heard of it.”

Tomas Mac Giolla: “When I saw that, the first thing I did was contact people like Seán to find out if he had heard about it. I knew Cathal very well, particularly in his last years when we had very close conversations, yet he never mentioned that. I think that is extraordinarily odd because it is something he would have told me at the time. However, he never mentioned it at any time”

Later, Tiernan also made allegations relating to interviews he claims to have conducted in the 1990s with the late Billy Mitchell, one of the most senior UVF commanders during the early history of the organisation. As with Goulding, these interviews did not surface until after the interviewee’s death (Mitchell died in 2006). It seems strange that Mitchell, a man deeply troubled by his terrorist past and usually unwilling to discuss his career in the UVF in any sort of detail, would open his heart to a stranger in such a way, much less an obscure journalist attempting to prove a conspiracy theory beloved of republicans. An examination of the tapes and Tiernan’s views on the subject is not possible as a result of his refusal to give evidence to the Barron Inquiry and to allow others access to his tapes. Whatever the truth, Garland made his views on the matter clear, stating “the idea that Cathal Goulding would give such an interview and not mention it to his friends or close associates is beyond belief”. With this in mind, it is worth noting the official line taken by the inquiry with regards to Mr Tiernan’s work which, of course, Wikipedia does not note: “Joe Tiernan has not responded to requests from the Inquiry to discuss the information. In those circumstances, the Inquiry is unable to assess the veracityof the allegation”.

The rest of the article is riven with weasel words, highly selective quoting, and presentation of external material that is disingenuous to put it kindly. For example, in reference to YTV’s Hidden Hand, while the page notes “(t)he government ordered the Gardaí to assess the information in the television programme”, it does not record the conclusion of that investigation, which found that the allegations did not warrant further investigation! (p.135, UVF, McDonald & Cusack) Time and again extracts from inquiry reports and books which support, or appear to support, the views of the editor are favoured over ones which do not, which are simply left out. Often sources are quoted in such a way that distorts the original intent.

Reading the article one is left with the definite impression that the collusion thesis is the mainstream, indeed authoritative, viewpoint. The weakness or partisan nature of its proponents is unacknowledged. The fact that the theory is not accepted and is even dismissed by mainstream writers, such as David McKittrick, Jim Cusack, Ian S Wood, Henry McDonald, Professor Steve Bruce, and Peter Taylor (who in Provos refers to it simply as a “conspiracy theory”) among others, is not noted. The views of these independent and respected figures are simply ignored.

In the case of Ray Smallwoods, Wikipedia claims claims that his death was in retaliation for the UVF massacre at Loughinisland and gives page 231 of Peter Taylor’s Loyalists as a source – a reputable book by an esteemed and well-informed journalist. However, such a statement does not appear in the page given, nor in fact does it appear anywhere in Taylor’s book. Similarly, the claim on the Young Citizens Volunteers page that the YCV leader became Chief of Staff in 1974 is not in fact in the book given as the source. Victims campaigner Raymond McCord’s article is sourced almost entirely from his ghostwritten autobiography. Another ghostwritten, and distinctly unreliable, autobiography, Michael Stone’s None Shall Divide Us, is cited 35 times in Wikipedia’s page for him. The page for slain UVF “lieutenant-colonel” Trevor King labels him as a drug dealer based on a single sentence from a 100-word article in the low-grade Sunday tabloid The People, and the trashy newspaper is cited no less than eight times in the page for Robin “Billy” King. Self-published websites also appear as references, in spite of the ban, on the pages for Ivor Bell, Michael Stone, Rosena Brown, and Ronnie Bunting. It incorrectly identifies RHC member Billy Elliot, shot by his own organisation in 1995, as the 2IC of the Red Hand. He was not. He was a minor local commander in South Belfast. On the main UVF page the Chief of Staff in 1975 is named as leader of the YCV based seemingly on a claim by a contributor to the comments section of a blog (I could find no other similar claim in any book, paper, or website), and it uses disallowed sources such as the People (again), indymedia.ie, the Daily Mail, and Slugger O’Toole for important and/or contentious assertions.

No other loyalist paramilitant, save perhaps the grenade-throwing egomaniac Michael Stone, has so fully developed a notoriety as Robin “The Jackal” Jackson, yet almost nothing concrete is known about his activities or personal life. In spite of that, Jackson is treated to the most voluminous biography of any loyalist on the site, clocking in at a massive 7200 words. In comparison, Gerry Adams merits just 3836 words, and a figure as regrettably important as Ian Paisley is treated to a page barely half the length (to put it into further context, it is longer than those of John Hume and David Trimble combined). In assembling the article the editor appears to have scoured the internet and libraries for even the briefest mention of Jackson, without discrimination or selection. Consequently everything from low-grade tabloid newspapers – such as the Daily Mail, The Mirror, Sunday Life, and the ubiquitous Sunday People – to personal blogs and websites, Pat Finucane Centre and PFC-sponsored Cassel inquiry, and the Troops Out Movement is thrown at the wall. Rumours and contested or unsubstantiated claims are presented virtually as fact. At one point a brief tabloid article is referenced in relation to an allegation that the SAS even trained the “Jackal” in South Africa. Despite noting that “Joe Gorrod is in fact the only journalist who has made these allegations” – which prompts the question of why such unsupported claims even appear given Wikipedia’s clear rules on the issue – it goes on to “back up” this claim (to use the contributor’s words) by sourcing Guardian journalist Henry McDonald on the matter. A Guardian article by McDonald does indeed mention, purely in passing, that Jackson had visited South Africa. Yet a more in-depth treatment of the subject by the very same author in his book UVF, of which the editor in question is no doubt aware given their use of it as a source, gives a rather different view:

“The South African connection to the UVF has been grossly exaggerated. In 1992 the visit of the UVF’s mid-Ulster commander, known as the Jackal, sparked a wave of media hysteria. There were reports that the Jackal was linking up with racist extremists to establish another arms shipment. The reason in fact for his trip was more prosaic. He had made two previous journeys to South Africa in 1983 and 1984 to visit relatives who had emigrated there…”

So much for “backing up”. As in so many other cases information that would contradict the editor’s pet theory is simply ignored.

It compounds things by quoting The Committee, which it refers to as a “banned book”. It is in fact not banned anywhere, except perhaps in its publisher’s North American promotional material. It was withdrawn from sale by its UK publisher as a result of a successful libel suit by David Trimble who, along with a number of others, brought its author, Sean McPhilemy, to court over allegations that they were involved in running a shadowy murder ring known as “The Committee”, an example merely of the UK’s absurdly outmoded and punitive libel laws rather than state censorship. Preceded by a documentary working on similar lines, The Committee is yet another example of the conspiracy literature which finds so much favour with the self-appointed editor(s) of Wikipedia’s loyalism articles. As it is, there is nothing particularly worth censoring in its pages, for it is a thoroughly discredited work whose principal – indeed, only – source for these extravagant claims was a former police informant named Jim Sands. The only other supporting source used for the book – and I assure the reader that I am not making this up – was an alcoholic Scottish hitchhiker picked up by the programme’s researcher. Following publication, Sands publicly retracted his “evidence”. He then retracted the retraction, retracted that in turn, changed tack once again, before finally admitting that the whole thing was a hoax. By the time McPhilemy decided to take advantage of the very same unjust libel laws used to squash his book in a suit of his own, this time against the Sunday Times, Sands had been so thoroughly discredited that the writer’s own lawyer declined to call him as a witness. Speaking of the affair, Sands said “it was a total load of nonsense (…) I never actually thought Channel Four would put it out (…) they’re very naive, they’d believe anything”.

As it is, The Committee is a book which mixes fact with rumour, fantasy, and outright fabulism. It puts Billy Wright at the scene of the 1991 Cappagh killings (in which three young IRA men and a Catholic civilian were shot by the UVF) when multiple witnesses attested to his presence at a function 60 miles away. Sands claimed to have been a school-friend of Wright, when in truth they had never known each other. Journalists also noted that his account of the murder of Denis Carville was demonstrably false, conflicting with the eyewitness testimony of his surviving girlfriend. Its most fantastic allegation is that a third of the RUC belonged to a secret increment called “The Inner Force”, which supposedly carried out the murder of nationalists and republicans. As the late veteran journalist Jack Holland pointed out with some amusement, “that means it would have about 4,000 members”. It also repeats the story of Billy Wright attending the funerals of his victims incognito – to “make sure they were dead” – a tale which has been attached (with variations) to Robin Jackson, Mark Fulton, and many other prominent loyalist operators over the years.

Indicate the relative prominence of opposing views. Ensure that the reporting of different views on a subject adequately reflects the relative levels of support for those views, and that it does not give a false impression of parity, or give undue weight to a particular view. For example, to state that “According to Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust was a program of extermination of the Jewish people in Germany, but David Irving disputes this analysis” would be to give apparent parity between the supermajority view and a tiny minority view by assigning each to a single activist in the field.

One of the other main sources for Robin Jackson, along with several other articles including the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, are the testimonies of Colin Wallace and Fred Holroyd. Wallace was an information officer for the British Army at Lisburn during the 1970s. But his remit also extended to psychological operations, or “Psyops”, including the dissemination of black propaganda and misinformation. After his dismissal for passing documents on to journalist Robert Fisk, he moved to England where he found himself jailed for the manslaughter of a love rival. His conviction was eventually quashed, and Wallace maintains that he was framed by the British government for “knowing too much” (exactly why the state would go to all the trouble of setting up a man who had not made any allegations against it is a question unanswered by his supporters). Wallace first came to attention in the pages of the esoteric newsletter Lobster, described by its authors as a “journal of parapolitics”. This eccentric, awesomely paranoid, but often fascinating self-published magazine, with articles like “Mind Control in the American Government” and “Occult Thinking in the JFK Assassination”, was one of a number of mimeographed or Xeroxed periodicals through which fringe theorists maintained contact and disseminated their views in the days before the internet led to an explosion in such thinking. Lobster in fact originally reported on Wallace as a somewhat sinister figure, and it was many months later before it performed a volte-face as a result of Wallace making contact with its editors. His considerable charm appears to have worked wonders as Wallace’s allegations were thereafter delivered as gospel.

However, having read every edition of Lobster in which Wallace appeared I can state that not once in his dealings with the magazine did he mention Robin Jackson or the Dublin/Monaghan bombings even in passing. His allegations pertained solely to Kincora Boy’s Home and the supposed plot by MI5 against Harold Wilson which was in circulation at the time. Even a lengthy exploration of the UWC strike of 1974, during which the bombings occured, written with information from Wallace does not mention the attacks once. Surely a man in fear for his life, or at least his liberty, and under persecution by shadowy state forces would use the first opportunity to unburden himself and get his secrets into the public domain before the overcoat men showed up and croaked him in a telephone box? Nor could the possibility of legal threats have weighed upon the participants: Lobster was a publication singularly unworried about potential libel suits or state attention, regularly publishing lengthy lists exposing those it believed to be MI5 or MI6 agents. Wallace did not join the collusion bandwagon until the early 90s, and since then the only supporting documents he has supplied are his own diaries and letters, which he claims were written in the 1970s.

Fred Holroyd is a former British Army officer who by all accounts served with distinction during his tour of Northern Ireland as a liaison officer acting as a go-between with army intelligence and special forces. After apparently suffering a nervous breakdown – a diagnosis he disputes – during a personal crisis, his wife initiated an intervention which briefly led to his being hospitalised. Years later, having left the army, he published what he claims is a true record of his time in Northern Ireland, War Without Honour, which among other things is the origin of many allegations relating to Captain Robert Nairac. He quickly teamed up with Colin Wallace and since that time both men have mutually supported each other’s allegations and supplied forewords for many collusion-related books. Although Holroyd’s accusations remain unproven they are, like those of Wallace and Weir, given great weight by particular contributors to Wikpedia and take centre stage in several articles.

A few years after War Without Honour was published a development took place which appeared to validate Holroyd once and for all. In 1996 a former SAS operative in Northern Ireland released a book which seemed to back up many of his claims. Holroyd was fulsome in his praise for The Nemesis File, writing another foreword.

“Having read The Nemesis File, it recalled in stark reality my years in Northern Ireland. It seemed to me that finally here was a man confirming what I had known for many years, based on the research that I and others had carried out. Now here was confirmation from an SAS soldier, who was prepared to go public, revealing to the world that he had been a member of an SAS unit responsible for executing IRA suspects. Over the years, I have spoken to a number of former SAS soldiers who not only confirmed such killings but were eager that I should try and continue to bring knowledge of such executions into the public domain. But not one, until Paul Bruce wrote this book, would admit to taking part in the killings…I salute Paul Bruce. His decision to reveal the brutal truth is the act of a truly brave man.”

Unfortunately, Bruce’s account was almost immediately revealed to be fabrication. The hoax lasted just a few days before he was arrested by the RUC and compelled to admit that he had never served in the SAS. Instead it turned out that the sum of his army career amounted to a spell in the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers, a decidedly un-elite regiment. Both author and publisher were forced into an embarrassing retraction, and future pressings were displayed, appropriately, in the “fiction” section.

What is most surprising about the affair is not just how Holroyd seemingly failed to recognise this hoax, but how the manuscript even made it to publication, given the number of glaring errors and inconsistencies such as Bruce’s inability to give even a correct six-figure grid reference. The press and public’s unending appetite for collusion scandals and tales of undercover desperadoes account for how someone like Bruce, an alcoholic misfit with a less than spectacular military record, was able to hoodwink a publisher into believing that they had something more than the usual SAS soft-porn airport lounge material. The closest thing I could find to real-world testimony to any SAS skills he might possess comes from the website of his American ex-wife who writes that he once dislocated the hip of her Pomeranian.

A number of writers including David McKittrick, John Ware, Steve Bruce, and even Martin Dillon have written critical appraisals pointing out errors or inconsistencies in Holroyd’s allegations. As Bruce notes, “he names so many people as part of this conspiracy that one is left with the impression that he must have been a major threat to MI5 interests in Ireland, or he was seriously in need of psychiatric treatment”. It is not necessary or possible to relate all of their points here. However, in my own research I have encountered a few implausibilities in Holroyd’s account which I will detail.

In War Without Honour Holroyd writes that he personally saw a tray of spare firing pins, extractors, and barrels (parts which would leave tell-tale forensic marks on ejected ammunition cases and bullets) held by the SAS for their Browning pistols to allow them to commit deniable extra-judicial killings, ie. murder. However he does not mention the presence of spare ejectors, another critical component which also leaves unique marks on expended cases. Let’s be generous and assume he missed that part out. Unfortunately, one more component of this weapon which leaves prominent and unique marks on fired cases is the breech block and this is not replaceable, being milled into the weapon. Simply put, it is not possible to forensically “sanitise” a Browning pistol by changing certain parts in the manner Holroyd claims. Unique markings from the breech face would still be left on expended cases, a fact which presumably would be known to any rogue SAS man.

Holroyd slips up again on another technical point when speaking of the incident which led to his hospitalisation. His wife alleged to his army superiors that he kept an “unattributable”, and therefore illegal, handgun at home. Holroyd countered this by saying he only possessed a spare barrel for the pistol, his army-issue PPK. Again, unfortunately for Holroyd, the PPK series does not have a replaceable barrel, so this claim also cannot be true. Why then did Holroyd say he did?

These are admittedly minor points, but they do prove that on both of the occasions when Holroyd made specific allegations relating to weaponry he was saying things which simply could not be true.

Another document used as a source is the affidavit of disgraced RUC Sergeant John Weir. Weir’s affidavit features prominently and repeatedly in at least half a dozen articles about or relating to loyalism, as well as the killing of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, each time cited in the manner of an authoritative source. Remember that these are the words not of a noted academic or respected author, but of a convicted murderer whose first priority upon arrest was to attempt to gain immunity in return for giving evidence against his accomplices. A sworn affidavit carries no more historical or evidential weight than any other unsupported statement made by an individual. It simply means that if the declaring person is found in court to have lied in their statement then they are open to prosecution. Since Weir’s allegations are virtually impossible to prove or disprove, being that they relate to the clandestine activities of terrorists or people long since dead, this is extremely unlikely to occur. As with Holroyd and Wallace, Weir did not begin making these allegations until many years after he first had an opportunity to do so. Why he did not is inexplicable – if, as he claims, he was acting under orders from above, they had the potential to keep him out of prison or at least reduce his sentence. In any case, the bulk of his “revelations” turn out either to be straight lifts from Holroyd/Wallace, or matters which were well-documented and long in the public domain by the time he authored his affidavit in 1999, such as the case of a man arrested for operating a secret loyalist weapons factory, a fact which had been splashed across the NI papers and TV at the time of his arrest and subsequent trial! Yet Wikipedia uses words such as “confirmed” and “proved” when citing Weir’s screed, lending them an authority they do not deserve and in doing so betraying the views of the editor.

Wallace did not mention Jackson until hooking up with Holroyd. Holroyd had nothing to say about plots against Wilson until meeting Wallace. Neither man made statements regarding the bombings of Dublin and Monaghan until the Hidden Hand programme by YTV, despite having more than a decade to do so (Holroyd appears to have first encountered such a notion when he attended a 1989 press conference where the allegation was made by journalist Frank Doherty who himself was only repeating claims made by Albert Walker Baker). Holroyd even briefly mentioned Robin Jackson in War Without Honour, but made no reference to any involvement in Dublin/Monaghan.

In general, any tabloid newspaper, television show, or site, such as The Sun, The Daily Mirror, The Register, and so on, should not be used when a more respected, mainstream source exists.

Even the Sunday World and Sunday Life find their way into a number of articles. The tabloids are used as sources on the pages for Jim Gray, Bunter Graham (for whom a wrong date of birth is given), and Harry Stockman in addition to a number of others. Indeed, Stockman’s page is made up in considerable part from quotes taken from them, a contravention of the site’s rather strict policy on biographies of living persons which, had they appeared on the page of a prominent republican, would no doubt have been quickly dealt with by one of the number of editors who are highly active in that field.

Sometimes the slant of sources is inarguable. Another author frequently cited on pages relating to loyalist paramilitaries, such as the Loughinisland Massacre, Robert McConnell, and Robin Jackson, to name a few, is anthropologist Jeffrey Sluka, who spent a total of two years in field research in Belfast during the early 80s and early-mid 90s. While Sluka himself describes his discipline as “new anthropology”, an analysis of his work in Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror shows that the author is sipping some very green beer. On occasion his writing reads like a direct lift from some Sinn Fein statement from the 1980s, such as when he states:

“As has always been the case in Northern Ireland, as far as the state is concerned, the provocation has been all one-sided; when Catholic-Nationalists resist Unionist oppression and British state terror, they are provoking their oppressors to kill them”

Or, in an even more blatant example:

The truth is that almost all of the sectarian killing in Northern Ireland has been one-sided. Unlike Loyalist ideology, a cornerstone of Republican ideology is antisectarianism, and the IRA do not select targets on the basis of religion. Sectarian killings – that is, killing people simply because of their religion – is the hallmark only of the Loyalist death squads”

One wonders if this fact has been communicated to the families of those killed at Whitecross.

Sluka’s entire stint in Northern Ireland was spent among the nationalist community of Belfast, with no contact with unionists let alone working-class loyalists. “Going native” in itself is not uncommon or even unusual among anthropologists. However, while it might be acceptable for the academic to don a loincloth and bamboo penis sheath when studying the habits of Amazonian tribes, adopting and even promoting the politics, myths, and outlook of a politically sophisticated Western constituency, as Sluka does, is dangerous and unprofessional. If an academic begins extolling the benefits of hallucinogenic toad venom at a cocktail party one will generally realise that they have perhaps spent a little too much time in the field for their own good. If on the other hand they start talking chapter and verse of the “brutal imperialist occupation of the Six Counties” and the government’s use of “unionist death squads”, observers might not be aware that such viewpoints were developed as the result of a less than objective analysis. Objectivity is a concept that is supremely elastic to Sluka, who in one paragraph admits his reliance on republican narratives for information, then goes on to state “if the essence of objectivity is gathering the available evidence and letting it lead to the conclusions, than the ethnographic overview of Loyalist death squads in the culture of terror presented here is an objective view consistent with the facts on the ground in Northern Ireland”.

Further analysis reveals serious issues regarding Sluka’s methodology. He rubbishes and rejects mainstream and governmental sources and instead relies on what he considers to be sounder references. When one checks on these sources the findings are dismaying. An Phoblacht, statements from the IRA, Sinn Fein propaganda (like The Ulster Defence Regiment – the Loyalist Militia), and nationalist victims groups like Relatives For Justice and the Pat Finucane Centre are all cited in the manner of official or academic sources, with no caveat to state that they are less than impartial, to put it mildly. Even that notorious hoax The Nemesis File finds its way into his footnotes. So, for example, when Sluka states “(I)n 1988 the Loyalist paramilitaries were rearmed with South African supplied weapons under the direction of British intelligence” and “(Brian Nelson) organized the largest-ever shipment of Loyalist arms, obtained from South Africa and other countries, with the full backing of his British intelligence handlers” he, like any good academic, gives his sources. These turn out to be “Adams 1986:85-86;Sinn Fein 1994a;Saoirse 1996, pp.3-4”!

It is practises such as these which have led his work in Northern Ireland to be widely criticised not just by neutral observers of the conflict but by fellow anthropologists, including David W Kriebel who notes that Sluka, who was closely involved with groups such as Silent No More and Relatives For Justice, “deploys propaganda in his analysis”, flatly describing his findings as “biased”. No shit. The use of such work in a purportedly neutral encyclopedia is incomprehensible and wrong.

For their part, The Pat Finucane Centre and Relatives For Justice are both frequently cited in articles on the Troubles and especially loyalism, being introduced simply as “the human rights group…”, as if one were speaking of the Red Cross or Anti-Slavery International. Someone unfamiliar with Northern Ireland will probably be unaware that the issue of human rights and justice for victims can be a highly political affair. Can one imagine for a moment the prospect of Willie Frazer’s eccentric one-man-band FAIR being used as an authoritative source on IRA violence? FAIR is of course a far less professional outfit than either the PFC or RFJ, and much less skilled in its use of the media, but in other respects it is a startling mirror image of them, with its freedom to approach the issues of the past and human rights being severely restricted due to the political implications of certain cases. To give an example, the decision by the PFC and associated groups to challenge the supposed violation of the human rights of armed IRA men ambushed by security forces, as at Loughgall,  would hardly endear them to the families of victims of the IRA in search of resolution. In these circumstances, and with the perennial inability to formulate a cross-community strategy on such matters, the caseloads of these groups assume an politically monochrome makeup by default, a few isolated exceptions notwithstanding. If impartiality in all matters were really enforced on Wikipedia no such group, on either side of the political divide, would appear as a reference. A sensible person would no more expect the archive-raiders of the Pat Finucane Centre to publicise documents embarrassing to Sinn Fein or the IRA discovered during their trawls of the Public Records Office than they would Willie Frazer to go digging into links between the Ulster Defence Regiment and the UVF during the 1970s, and as such neither can be relied upon as an impartial source.*

Prefer nonjudgmental language. A neutral point of view neither sympathizes with nor disparages its subject (or what reliable sources say about the subject), although this must sometimes be balanced against clarity. Present opinions and conflicting findings in a disinterested tone. Do not editorialize.

Why is it so necessary, as the rules state, to gather multiple credible sources for a particular claim? If one “good” source is authorative on a certain matter, surely the odds are that it will be correct? An edifying example that demonstrates the importance of checking the integrity and weight of sources is illustrated in the case of the US author Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose, a writer of bestselling Second World War histories including D-Day, June 6, 1944 and Band of Brothers, which was later adapted into the HBO series of the same name, was for many years respected as a widely-read if sometimes populist historian, contributing to the mammoth BBC series World At War and acting as technical consultant on Saving Private Ryan. Since his death in 2002 however, Ambrose’s reputation and credibility as a historian has suffered repeated and devastating blows. As well as countless errors and examples of inadequate research being discovered in many of his works, not to mention the fact that he appears to have turned his immediate family into a ghost-writing operation for his benefit, he has been exposed as a prolific plagiarist who even resorted to fabricating source material, such as the notorious “British coxswains” affair, and in his biographies of Dwight Eisenhower where it was found that the “hundreds” of hours of interviews claimed to have been conducted with the former president in fact amounted to no more than two or three on a single afternoon. In light of such revelations it is clear that Ambrose’s work is unsuitable as a serious reference – and would no longer be accepted as such by academic institutions – although it must be noted that many Wikipedia pages continue to use them, in spite of the various controversies being covered in detail on Ambrose’s own Wiki page: as often on the site, “good” sources frequently amount to no more than “good enough for me”.

With all of the above taken into consideration there is no doubt that Wikipedia’s treatment of the Troubles is deeply flawed. Its articles on loyalism in particular show strong editorialising, the use of weak or biased sources, digression into pet theories, and numerous other breaches of the site’s own rules. In researching I found many, many other examples similar to the above, and judging by the prior efforts of others (viewable on talk and history pages) it seems almost impossible to change them. What happens when you have a collaborative process that involves people who refuse to collaborate? Ultimately, those who can shout the loudest or gather the most allies win by default.

An encyclopedia must, by definition, take a strictly neutral viewpoint on all matters. This is much less fun to write, and the temptation to in a sense commentate, by selecting of certain sources and leaving out others, is clearly too strong for some contributors. There are those who would argue that journalism without political conviction is bloodless and stale, and there is merit in this argument – to a point. Subjective journalism, when in the hands of writers with the necessary force of personality to carry it off – practitioners of “life as art” such as George Plimpton or Hunter S Thompson – is exciting and edifying, and has the potential to call attention to injustices which might otherwise be overlooked. Wikipedia is not journalism and the people who write it are not professionals.

It is also important to point out that in criticising the sourcing of collusion claims in the articles on the Dublin & Monaghan bombings and others I should not be misunderstood as being in denial about the facts regarding this very real type of crime perpetrated by the state. In spite of the weakness of the sources discussed, it remains an uncontested fact that in certain instances the security forces collaborated with loyalists to kill republicans, nationalists, and indeed unconnected Catholics – the matter of Brian Nelson proved this beyond doubt. Yet the Nelson case was brought to light not by fringe figures or agenda-driven campaigners, but by the hubris of the UDA itself, at first, and thereafter by established writers. Much of the real leg work was carried out by people like John Ware and Chris Moore, well-known and respected writers operating firmly in the mainstream of journalism.  The sources questioned here are done so on the basis of their weakness, obscurity, or impartiality – all things that Wikipedia itself forbids.

Nor should this be taken as a criticism of those seeking to uncover new information regarding incidents that occured during the conflict. If established, and indeed Establishment, narratives are to be challenged and complacent certitudes pierced, writers may have to travel beyond the boundaries of the mainstream. Leads may be tenuous, sources will occasionally be patchy, and some degree of speculation is often necessary. Investigative journalists do this all this time. Without it, no leaps in understanding are possible. Encyclopedias are not the appropriate medium through which to accomplish this. Nor are they the place to showcase pet theories. They must play it safe.

As under-researched as loyalism is, there are academics working in the field who have put together a highly creditable body of research, including Prof Steve Bruce, Dr Sarah Nelson, Prof Tony Novosel, Dr Gareth Mulvenna, Dr Graham Spencer, Dr Aaron Edwards, Prof Pete Shirlow, and Dr Lyndsey Harris. Their labours have produced everything from discussion pamphlets and articles, to theses and full-length books. With such references freely available there is no excuse for the profusion of tabloid garbage, conspiracy literature, and oddities from vanity presses. Many good and trustworthy journalists have also produced worthwhile books in this underwritten field. Who is to be trusted more: accredited researchers with impeccable sourcing requirements, or self-published, doorstepping authors who come calling in the middle of the night to sell books from the boot of their car like knock-off aftershave and DVDs? Which is the more reliable or plausible source: a 40 year veteran of Troubles reporting like Peter Taylor, or the hacks of The People and Sunday World?

The inherent limitations and indeed dangers of this wisdom of crowds philosophy which rules on Wikipedia and the internet in general were no better demonstrated than in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Totally innocent men like Sunil Tripathi and Salah Eddin Barhoum were wrongly identified as the bombers by posters on Reddit and 4chan seemingly on the basis of nothing more than crowdsourced opinion. The consequences of this activity were devastating for the family of the first man. Yet the negative ramifications of amateur reference-writing may ultimately prove more long-lasting and widespread than those of amateur detective work.

Much of this criticism could also be applied to blogging, with one important difference: most sensible people recognise blogs to be, by definition, a subjective and individual expression of opinion. It is stating the obvious to say that nothing on this site, no matter good the sources appear, should ever be taken as incontrovertible fact or used as a reference in an academic work, pseudo or otherwise. It is the product of an amateur, albeit an enthusiastic one, not an academic or serious journalist. If you want to be sure of your facts, there are better places to get them.

Wikipedia is the product of a cargo-cult approach to reference writing gone amok, with amateur versions of “citations” and “peer review” in place of coconut headphones and landing strips drawn in the sand, where the practises of academia are imitated with none of the oversight or rigour that institutions of learning demand of their students and staff. A feeling of dread and dismay should visit all rational and cautious researchers when encountering the phrase “citation needed”, which is really just polite in-house terminology for “this looks like and may indeed be bullshit”. It would be wise for readers to treat it as such.

* this passage was edited 06/07/2014

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One comment

  1. James

    Amateur or not, I – and no doubt others – think that your writing is utterly brilliant. Thanks for providing an online space where that oft-neglected and oft-abused topic of Ulster Loyalism can be presented and discussed in a way that is fair and plain. I salute you, Sir.

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