Sabotage concealed

The murder of Denis Donaldson is a further macabre twist to the sabotage of a constitutional settlement. By Vincent Browne

Denis Donaldson was central to what may have been the most egregious instance of constitutional sabotage in the history of Anglo-Irish relations for generations. This was the events which led to the collapse of the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland in October 2002 and, effectively, the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement, which had been approved in a referendum throughout Ireland in 1998.

Bertie Ahern accorded these events particular significance. Speaking on 17 December last, after Denis Donaldson had been "outed" as a British agent, he said "It doesn't get bigger than bringing down democratically elected institutions that people voted for".

Now the murder of Denis Donaldson adds a further twist to this extraordinary story, causes further damage to what is known as the "peace process" and raises yet more questions about what went on in October 2002 and the motivation of the main "players".

The crucial point is that on 4 October 2002 the PSNI "discovered" documents in the home of Denis Donaldson, the head of the Sinn Féin office at Stormont, which, it was alleged, "proved" there was a Sinn Féin spy ring at Stormont.

This episode led directly to the resignation, first, of the DUP from the power sharing executive, then to the resignation of David Trimble, the First Minister.

Had it been disclosed then that Denis Donaldson was in fact an agent of British Intelligence and of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), perceptions of the significance of this "discovery" would have been radically different. Yet the authorities who had knowledge of the role of Denis Donaldson as a British agent failed to disclose this fact. They did so, knowing the virtual certainty that by refusing to disclose that the person in whose house these "sensitive" documents were found was in fact a British agent, there would be major political consequences. They knew it would cause the Northern Ireland power sharing arrangement to collapse. They must also have anticipated that the Good Friday Agreement would be fatally damaged (see PSNI account on the next page).

In addition, they allowed Denis Donaldson to be prosecuted, knowing the prosecution could never go to trial (because it would result in the "outing" of their agent), and allowed the process to drag on for over two years, during which time possibly fatal damage was done to the Good Friday Agreement.

The contention is that while he was a British and PSNI agent, Denis Donaldson was also spying for Sinn Féin and the IRA and that at no stage during this activity did he ever inform his "handlers". There is the further contention that when the PSNI and British intelligence first suspected Sinn Féin was engaged in spying (apparently they had been investigating this matter for 13 months before the "raid") they did not go to their own agent, right at the heart of the republican movement, and ask him what was going on.

Sinn Féin has been surprisingly vague about the information Denis Donaldson imparted to its representatives in a series of prolonged interviews on 14 and 15 December last. The two people who conducted the interviews were Declan Kearney, the chairman of the Six County division of Sinn Féin, and Leo Green, a member of the Sinn Féin negotiating team. Almost certainly both were (are?) senior members of the IRA as well.

When Denis Donaldson was contacted by one of his PSNI "handlers" on Saturday 10 December around 5pm and informed he was about to be identified in the media as a British and police agent, he contacted Declan Kearney. On the basis of his knowledge of the republican movement, obviously he had confidence that he would not be harmed, as other "informers" had been, by disclosing his record as a British agent.

But he may have underestimated the degree of outrage the disclosure of his "betrayal" (as republicans would have seen it) would caused among many of those who had trusted him and confided in him over 20 years, including his own family, many of whom remain "loyal" republicans.

His "exile" in Donegal could not have been to hide from would-be republican assailants. It was widely known within the movement that he had that cottage in Donegal and it was known where the cottage was. Almost certainly it was to avoid the embarrassment and scorn on meeting former associates on the streets of Belfast, rather than to escape possible retaliation. But his murder will do further damage to his former republican comerades and to the movement generally.