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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

'If Denis is a tout, anybody could be one'

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

As grassroots Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin activists look at their leadership, they could be forgiven for becoming uneasy.

For following Denis Donaldson's outing as a long-standing informer, the question now is who else at the highest levels of the republican movement is working for British intelligence?

The Provos have always acknowledged infiltration by low-level informers, but they've taken pride in their ability to speedily weed these out, and to have a leadership widely regarded as beyond reproach.

"We're shell-shocked," admitted one west Belfast IRA member. "Over the years, there have been rumours that certain people were touts but there were never any about Denis. He was trusted 110%. Volunteers are angry and there are plenty of thoughts whizzing about in people's heads - some of them so dreadful, you don't even want to go there.

"Denis was a republican for nearly 40 years. He'd done his whack, he'd been friends with Bobby (Sands), he didn't have a flash lifestyle. If Denis is a tout and he got that far up the ranks, then anybody could be one."

For years, republicans have ridiculed loyalists for being heavily infiltrated. The 2003 outing of Freddie Scappaticci (Stakeknife), the former head of IRA internal security, coupled with Donaldson's admission, shows that British intelligence has spent just as much time and money penetrating the Provo leadership, and has found willing recruits.

There is no reason to suspect there aren't as many informers sitting on the IRA Army Council as on the UDA Inner Council. Both Donaldson and Scappaticci achieved hugely powerful positions within the republican movement which gave them access to its innermost secrets. Questions will be asked as to who promoted both men and who were their strongest internal supporters.

A veteran republican said: "Denis was sent to take charge in America 15 years ago when America was the important place. When Stormont became important, he's put in to run it. Now that's no coincidence. He didn't appoint himself. So I want to know who ensured he got two key posts at the right times and who were they taking instruction from?"

Donaldson (55) comes from a well-known "blue blood" Short Strand republican family. He was close to Sinn Féin strategist, Jim Gibney, and to Seanna Walsh (P O'Neill for the IRA's final statement), also both from "the Short Strand clique".

He was sentenced to 10 years in Long Kesh for explosive offences in 1971. Released after five years, he became heavily involved in Sinn Féin but was also a senior IRA intelligence officer, travelling all over the world to meet guerrilla organisations like the PLO and ETA. Information he gained during this period would later have proved invaluable to the British.

He used his Hezbollah contacts in 1987 when he visited Lebanon to try to free hostage Brian Keenan. He was once arrested in Paris on a false passport. As he played an increasingly significant role in Sinn Féin from the 1990s, he met many Irish and British government officials and political figures.

"He was good company, very affable," one recalled. "He liked a pint. He was right in the centre of things and very close to Adams. I wouldn't say he was intelligent, but he was cute."

Gerry Adams has down-played Donaldson's role, stressing he wasn't a member of the ard comhairle or Sinn Féin's negotiating team. But several sources insist he was part of Adams' "inner circle", attending key strategy meetings and having access to a wide range of information. He was said to be Adams' eyes and ears at Stormont.

"Denis never hogged the limelight," says one veteran republican. "He was a backroom boy but he was well in there. Before Stormont, he seemed to live in Connolly House (Sinn Féin HQs)."

After one stay in the US, Donaldson boasted he had become friends with actor Mickey Rourke, but generally he kept a low profile. "Denis never stood on any toes, never made enemies," the source says.

"He was everybody's friend. He always had a smile. If certain things were being discussed and he was there, nobody minded. The attitude would be 'talk away, it's only Denis'."

While he wasn't an original thinker, Donaldson was influential from 1994 onwards. "I remember him at one republican 'family' meeting at the Rodai MacCorlai club after the ceasefire," says a republican.

"There was unease from the floor about the direction of things but Denis just kept saying 'trust the leadership'." Donaldson said he compromised himself, becoming an informer at a vulnerable time in his life in the 1980s. A married man, he was a well-known womaniser.

He could have been blackmailed over personal activities, according to an IRA source: "It's most likely a combination of that, the threat of being sent back to jail, and undoubtedly being offered large sums of money for turning." Despite British payments, he didn't have an affluent lifestyle, living in a very ordinary house in West Belfast.

The fact his spying went undetected for two decades is hugely embarrassing for the Provisionals and raises questions about their internal vetting procedures and the leadership's judgement. Former Noraid publicity director, Martin Galvin, raised doubts about Donaldson's behaviour in the US but says these were instantly dismissed by the Sinn Féin ard comhairle.

Only last week, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Donaldson, presenting him as a loyal party servant and securocrat victim.

Sinn Féin's damage limitation exercise now involves blaming 'Stormontgate' wholly on the intelligence services. Adams has even insisted there was no Stormont spy-ring. This is supported by Donaldson. But his outing, and the fact his family continues to live in the North, means he's in no position to dispute Sinn Féin's version of events.

Sinn Féin's argument that the spy-ring didn't exist is accepted by no other Northern party, and there are huge holes in the thesis. Over 1,000 stolen documents were recovered in police raids. These documents weren't invented by the PSNI. The Sunday Tribune has learned that their existence has been independently confirmed by unionists and the SDLP.

The documents included names and addresses of a wide variety of individuals, correspondence to government, and SDLP and Ulster Unionist papers. An SDLP source says: "The IRA wasn't planning to kill anyone, this was a political intelligence-gathering operation."

He cited the case of Niall Binead, a former Sinn Féin activist and close associate of TD Aengus O Snodaigh, who was last year convicted of IRA membership. Gardai found documents in Binead's home relating to the movements of TDs, including where they drank and gambled.

"There is a history of Sinn Féin gathering intelligence on its opponents in the South, so it's hardly surprising it's doing the same in the North" the SDLP insider said.

In Stormontgate, documents were found in Donaldson's home. Sinn Féin has been aware of this since the 2002 raids. Had Donaldson taken the documents without sanction, he would have been immediately expelled from the party. Even if Donaldson was an agent provocateur, such an operation would have required Army Council or GHQ (General Headquarters Staff) approval.

The DPP's announcement that proceeding with prosecutions in the case wasn't in the "public interest" has been interpreted as an attempt to protect Donaldson. But it had the opposite effect, creating media and political speculation about an informer.

One security source insists Donaldson wasn't the mole who disclosed the spy-ring. Both SDLP and some republican sources suspect Donaldson was sacrificed to protect a second, more senior informer within Provo ranks. The police visited Donaldson, warning him he was about to be named as an informer. He could be definitively named only if his handlers had betrayed him.

The SDLP source says: "History suggests that when one informer is sacrificed it's to protect someone higher up." A veteran IRA activist agrees: "When somebody outlives their usefulness, the Brits are ruthless. They don't think they owe the person for years of service, they just get rid of them - one way or the other."

The IRA ceasefire and the publicity surrounding this case means Donaldson's life should be safe. But there is no guarantee individual republicans wouldn't take revenge. "I've known him since I was a nipper and I'd knock his teeth in if I saw him," said one west Belfast activist.

Donaldson will certainly not continue living in the North, and perhaps not even on the island. Freddie Scappaticci, who is living with relatives in rural Italy, is said to be homesick. A former comrade predicted the same for Donaldson: "He's a people person. He likes to be in the middle of the craic. He'll find being out of the North hard."

The whole affair shows that 11 years into the peace process, the spooks haven't gone away and a very dirty war is still being fought in Northern Ireland.

An SDLP source said Sinn Féin and the British had "a lot of explaining to do" on the matter. "They both have reason to fear the truth about the dirty war. It's becoming increasingly noticeable how their agendas can dovetail.

"All the parties in the North oppose the on-the-runs legislation, only Sinn Féin and the British support it. In the SDLP we now talk of 'Hain-Adams' and 'Sinn Féin/NIO". Denis Donaldson is surely not the last surprise. Over coming years, more uncomfortable truths seem inevitable for republican grassroots.

December 19, 2005

This article appeared in the December 18, 2005 edition of the Sunday Tribune.