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Intrigue and investigation in Ulster

The Stalker Affair, by John Stalker. New York: Viking. $19.95. It's April 1986 in Northern Ireland. The Anglo-Irish accord has withstood five months of Protestant fury. But the deal has trapped the province's police force in a brutal triangle.

On one side, the embattled Royal Ulster Constabulary faces its old archenemy: the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army. Closing in on another side is a new foe: Protestant extremists armed with bricks and petrol bombs. And a lone figure completes the triangle: He's a senior police officer near the end of an inquiry that seems sure to shatter the RUC's reputation.

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But before the senior officer can deliver his final judgment, he is yanked off the case, suspended from duty, and subjected to a humiliating investigation of charges brought against him by a paid RUC informant.

That's the climax of John Stalker's account of the ``Stalker affair'' - a story that dominated British headlines for months.

When this book was released in Britain and Ireland in mid-February, it soared overnight to the top of best-seller lists. It's easy to see why. Like ``Spycatcher,'' this book cuts to the heart of vital debates, including the impartiality of British judicial standards and the conflict between government secrecy and freedom of speech in a democratic society. But the book is free of the repetitiveness, inaccuracy, and resentment that mar ``Spycatcher.'' Better still, it reads like a ripping good thriller as it races from one disturbing revelation to another.

The story begins in April 1984. The British government is under pressure from charges that the RUC is using a ``shoot-to-kill'' policy against Roman Catholics suspected of IRA involvement. The first rumors of such a policy emerged in late autumn 1982, when RUC officers shot six unarmed Catholic men dead in three separate incidents. Now new court evidence has turned suspicion into allegation. An outsider is needed to investigate the deaths. The man chosen is Stalker, a rising star of the English police force with 22 years of service.

But his inquiry is fraught with trouble from the outset. On the day he arrives in Belfast, Stalker meets John Hermon, the RUC's chief constable. Sir John makes it clear that he thinks Stalker's job is merely to ``review'' the investigations that RUC detectives have already made. Sir John warns Stalker that he's ``in a jungle now.''

But Stalker does not take the hint. Instead, he ferrets into the RUC's darkest recesses with the determination of a terrier that has scented a fox. He finds a web of police perjury, cover stories, evidence tampering, and agents provocateurs. In the process, he shows us Northern Ireland's cast-iron prejudices, its lopsided judicial system, and the RUC's sweeping authority.

Time and again, Stalker says, his best efforts to pin down what happened to the six unarmed men in 1982 are thwarted by senior RUC officers, including Sir John. The book bogs down at this point, but this is no flaw: It's a case of art imitating reality. The reader feels the frustration that Stalker felt.

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Stalker appeals for help to the British Home Office (which administers Northern Irish affairs), to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (which reviews the performance of police forces), and the MI5 (Britain's counterintelligence agency). But all his appeals fail to budge Sir John. In the end, Stalker runs out of patience, Sir John runs out of red herrings, and London runs out of time. Stalker pushes his case hard at the exact moment when the RUC faces the 1986 Protestant onslaught. If the RUC falls, it could well take the Anglo-Irish accord with it. Somewhere ``at the highest levels'' (Stalker claims), the government decides to stop his probe. That decision costs Stalker his career and saves Sir John's. ``The truth,'' Stalker says, ``is that I was expendable; he was not.''

Although Stalker was eventually exonerated, his book offers no happy ending. His conclusions force us to reevaluate Britain's image as a democratic society. He shows us a country where a man can be denied the right to know of what and by whom he is accused. A country where some police shoot first and ask questions later. A country where secrecy and short-term political goals may be put before freedom of speech and due process. If what Stalker says is true, Britain has paid for the Anglo-Irish accord by selling out its most cherished ideals.

James Pressley is on the Monitor's staff.

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