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
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
"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
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
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
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
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