'A hard man not to like'

  • 21 December 2005
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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.

It is the charm of the man we knew that has made his treachery so painful, for he was a man hard not to like.

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. It worked wonders with women and Denis loved women – lots of them.

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.

His political standing based on his republican credentials and the mystique of his forays abroad, combined with a reputation as a seducer, often jarred with his physical stature.

The Falls Road Women's Centre hosts an entertainment event every year at the West Belfast Festival. Its most successful event was a piss-take of the then highly popular television show Blind Date, hosted by Cilla Black. A number of senior republican figures were invited to take part as invented personas and potential "dates". Denis threw himself into the spirit of the show, appearing in full army fatigues and introducing himself as Action Man, a persona not far from the truth but one barely believable as "Cilla" clutched the top of his head under her armpit. We were both laughing again. He, the pocket-sized action doll, and me, playing Cilla as feminist anti-matchmaker.

My last contact with Denis Donaldson took place just a few months before the PSNI played to the unionist gallery in its melodramatic raid on Sinn Féin's Stormont offices. In 2002, Denis gave his attention to what was a very minor request, an invitation from me to Bairbre De Brún, then Minister for Health in the Stormont Assembly, to a book launch in Dublin. In the end, her schedule could not accommodate the event, but it was not for want of trying on Denis's part as he called and emailed over a period of weeks offering compromises and suggesting alternative dates.

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