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How a friend of republican icon Bobby Sands became informer

(Barry McCaffrey, Irish News)

Denis Donaldson was famously photographed arm-in-arm with the republican movement's greatest icon Bobby Sands.

Speaking 20 years later about his inclusion in one of the most famous photographs in the world Donaldson said: "It brings back memories every time I look at it, personal memories. It reminds me of the way he was."

Recalling his friendship with Bobby Sands, Donaldson said: "Bobby wouldn't have seen himself as a hero. Of all the people I was in prison with he would have been the last that I imagined would have become an icon."

After a 30-year rise to the highest ranks of the IRA, Donaldson's status within republicanism was last night (Friday) that of a Judas.

Born and reared in the staunchly republican Short Strand in east Belfast Donaldson was a childhood friend of future senior republicans such as Jim Gibney and Seanna Walsh, the man who publicly announced the disbandment of the IRA earlier this year.

In 1971 Donaldson was jailed for four years in Long Kesh on explosives charges.

Donaldson and Bobby Sands met in Cage 17 in Long Kesh in 1973 and became firm friends.

Over the next three years they would spend time together in Cages three and 11.

The photograph of the future hunger striker was taken in Donaldson's cell in 1974 by another prisoner who had smuggled a camera into the jail.

The photograph would later be broadcast around the world when Sands died on hunger strike in May 1981.

After his release from prison Donaldson became a key strategist in the development of Sinn Féin in the mid 1980s.

However, he was also a senior IRA intelligence officer who travelled extensively throughout Europe, South America and the Middle East building up contacts with the likes of the PLO and ETA.

In 1981 he was arrested at Orly airport in France travelling on a false passport.

He is alleged to have told French police that he was travelling on a false passport because he had just spent a number of months in a training camp in the Lebanon.

By 1983 Donaldson was back as the official Sinn Féin representative in his native Short Strand unsuccessfully standing for council election in 1983 when he received 682 votes. It is understood it was at this period that he was recruited as an informer.

In 1987 Donaldson and then Sinn Féin councillor Joe Austin flew back to the Lebanon to try and secure the release of Belfast hostage Brian Keenan.

The two republicans held talks with the Amal and Hezbollah groups but failed to secure Keenan's freedom.

In the early 1990s Donaldson claimed that he had approached by MI5 to become an agent while on a foreign holiday.

In 2003 when Donaldson was charged with involvement in the Stormontgate affair Brian Keenan sent a letter of reference to the court stating: "For the whole period of my incarceration, only two human beings put their lives at risk on my behalf. One was Terry Waite and the other was Denis Donaldson."

Another character reference, Clonard Monastery's Fr Gerry Reynolds, said he believed Donaldson was a "republican through and through" but was committed to the peace process.

However, it is believed that it was in the early 1990s in the run up to the IRA ceasefire that Donaldson was of most benefit to MI5 in its efforts to spy on the Sinn Féin leadership.

At that point Donaldson had been given the key task of running Sinn Féin offices in Washington.

The American government had granted him a special visa to enter the US despite his previous conviction.

It was Donaldson's job to co-ordinate the first visits of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to the US.

It was while in America that Donaldson met American chef Larry Zaitschek, the man police would later allege was involved in the 2002 raid on Special Branch offices at Castlereagh.

When Donaldson's home was raided in 2003 detectives found photographs of the two men and an invitation to Zaitschek's wedding.

Donaldson was a key Sinn Féin aid during the talks that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

When Sinn Féin was elected to the assembly in September 1998 Donaldson was appointed as Sinn Féin's head of administration. It was a key position where Donaldson would be privy to the inner working of Sinn Féin.

However he is also understood to have still been a senior member of the IRA's intelligence gathering unit.

It would later emerge that just weeks before his arrest Donaldson had become the first Sinn Féin official to be granted permission by the PSNI to carry a gun for his own protection.

The move was seen as highly unusual as republicans had been consistently been blocked from carrying personal protection weapons.

It is understood republicans began to suspect a high level informer within its ranks after details of the police investigation 'Torsion' into IRA activities revealed that documents had been removed from Donaldson's house, photocopied and then returned.

Less than 24 hours after the case against him and two others collapsed last week Donaldson returned to Stormont alongside Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to deny that he had been an IRA spy.

It was last night even more unclear who Donaldson's ultimate spymasters were.

December 18, 2005

This article appeared first in the December 17, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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