Denis Donaldson: 'He had charm, buckets of it'

This is an edited version of a piece by Marie Mulholland published in Village just after Denis Donaldson was outed as a British agent on 22 December, 2005

Had it been almost anyone else other than Denis Donaldson revealed as an undercover British agent at the heart of Gerry Adams's inner sanctum, I doubt that the sense of shock and disappointment amongst republicans would have been quite so numbing.

From the same area as Robert McCartney and his sisters, Donaldson was born in the Short Strand in 1950. His early commitment to armed struggle and a prison sentence in the early 1970s spent with a group of radical young republicans, including Bobby Sands, who became the architects of modern Sinn Féin, prepared Donaldson for key, trusted positions in the republican movement that was emerging under Adams's leadership.

In the early 1980s, long before Sinn Féin members were accused of swapping armalites for Armani, Denis cut a dapper figure in his suits or tailored jackets matched with impeccably neat jeans, fashionably narrow ties, and button-down shirts with matching gold cufflinks and collarpins.

Denis stood out, all five foot nothing of him. Yes, he was a small man but somehow it never seemed to matter because he had charm – buckets of it. Not the smoozing of an operator, but real charm, a blend of wit, generosity, mischief and that capacity to make you feel like you, your problem or your request were the most important thing to him right at that moment.

And he loved a challenge. I was about 22 years old when he paid me a visit one evening, just as I was about to serve up my supper. Ostensibly, he came to inform me of a meeting I might be interested in attending but, with some panache, he produced a bottle of wine and suggested he join me for supper.

I told him I didn't "vote that way" and he replied to the effect that he knew that but thought he would give it a shot anyway.

It was impossible to be offended, indeed I may even have been a little flattered. We were both laughing. I have liked him ever since.

He spent much of the 1980s travelling abroad as director of international affairs for Sinn Féin. It was widely known in republican circles that Denis's expertise lay in his familiarity with and his contacts in Libya and the Middle East.

He became a Who's Who of armed militias and revolutionary organisations from those regions but his knowledge was never confined to the merely academic. It was practical and personal. Consequently, Donaldson was central to republican efforts to negotiate the release of hostage Brian Keenan in Lebanon. As Adams's leadership took hold, Donaldson became synonymous with Sinn Féin's electoral strategy. If it didn't work as it should, he fixed it.

The rumour mill is already grinding out theories as to why Denis Donaldson turned traitor; one I heard whilst writing this is that he did it to save a relative from doing jail time. Others believe that his incorrigible womanising may have led to his being compromised. Whatever the circumstances of his Judas moment, the fact that it was he that succumbed is what has hurt so many, so much.

Marie Mulholland