Evidence that the British sabotaged Irish constitutional settlement. By Vincent Browne

Bertie Ahern has been the most outspoken about what has happened. Speaking in Brussels after the EU council meeting in the early hours of Saturday, 17 December, he said: "It doesn't get bigger than bringing down democratically elected institutions that people voted for... This was a huge case". He said the security forces initially had said there was "irrefutable evidence" of a Sinn Féin spy ring at Stormont but "when I asked Tony Blair, having waited for three years for what was irrefutable evidence, he had absolutely no detail on it".

As Bertie Ahern said himself at that press conference in Brussels, the saga began on 4 October 2002 with "storm troopers charging up the stairs with heavy armoury to collect a few files". The scene was captured on television because the security forces had tipped off the television companies in advance, which was the first indication of something being amiss.

Then it emerged that when the "storm troopers" piled into the Sinn Féin offices at Stormont, they in fact showed little interest in the 24 Sinn Féin offices, which, anyway, remain open throughout the night. They took away two computer disks which they returned a few days later.

One of the disks contained an electoral register, the other a Microsoft Windows software package. The disinterest on the part of the raiding party in the Sinn Féin offices and material that might have been found there suggests that the high-profile raid was merely a piece of theatrics. Indeed it, more than the supposed "discovery" of documents subsequently in the home of Denis Donaldson, did the most political damage.

It was in the home of Denis Donaldson that the 1,000 plus documents were found. The claim was that the documents included information on the British army General Officer Commanding in Northern Ireland, General Sir Alistair Irwin, a sketch of the castle building at Stormont, secret communications from the British Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the UK Ministry of Defence, the Police Ombudsman and police documents.

The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, said he had had advance knowledge of the police raid on the Sinn Féin offices at Stormont since the previous July. David Trimble said the raids were a vindication of his stance on the IRA. He said the affair was "bigger than Watergate". Ian Paisley said the raids were confirmation of his party's view: "IRA/Sinn Féin is not and never was committed to peaceful, democratic and non-violent means".

The Irish Times reported on 5 October 2002, the day after the raids: "Not only can (the IRA) breach Special Branch security at Castlereagh but it can penetrate right to the political heart of the British government in Northern Ireland (according to police sources)".

Other reports claimed that confidential White House information, including transcripts of telephone calls between the US President and Tony Blair, had been acquired by the IRA. The Daily Telegraph claimed Sinn Féin had used intelligence during the negotiations at Weston Park in the summer of 2001. It was further claimed (according to the Irish Times of 9 October, 2002): "memos, documents and minutes involving figures such as Mr Tony Blair, Dr John Reid, Ms Jane Kennedy, the security minister, Lieutenant Gen Sir Alistair Irwin, head of the British army in the North, Mr David Trimble and Dr Ian Paisley are said to be in IRA hands".

According to information supplied to the then leader of the Conservative party at Westminster, Iain Duncan Smith: "It has subsequently emerged that the police investigation, involving some 200 officers, has been ongoing for 13 months (prior to the raid) after it was discovered that a Northern Ireland Office employee was copying official documents to pass to outsiders".

It is unclear how the police "investigation" could have been ongoing for any appreciable time, given that they had at the centre of this alleged spy ring one of their own informers, Denis Donaldson. Some media have been briefed to the effect that Donaldson felt compromised and went along with the Sinn Féin spying operation, without informing his security handlers. But once the intelligence services had become aware of the "spying" operation would they not have raised it with their own mole? And if they had become aware from other sources that Donaldson was involved in a Sinn Féin "spying" operation, isn't it almost certain they would have raised it with him and questioned his bona fides generally as an informant?

Also, how credible is it that Donaldson would have continued with the "spying" operation once he had become aware the security services knew about it? How credible is it that he would have retained hundreds of "sensitive" documents at his home?

The claim that another "mole" within the IRA tipped the security services off about the alleged spy ring also stretches credulity. If the security services have or had another high-level "mole" within the republican movement, would it not be in their interests to keep that secret, lest their revelation of another "mole" spark off an investigation within the republican movement and the identification of the "mole"?

But whatever the background to all this was, it emerges that nothing at all of consequence was found anywhere but, allegedly, in the possession of Denis Donaldson, who was a serving British intelligence spy and the PSNI Special Branch "mole" at the time. Nobody in Sinn Féin had any incriminating material except the British security services "mole", who, alone in the republican movement, very likely had some prior knowledge that the police raid was about to take place.

Had it emerged at the time that Denis Donaldson was a Special Branch agent it is unlikely much attention would have been accorded the material allegedly found in his possession. However at no stage were the courts informed of this crucial information nor, apparently, was the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and certainly not the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, nor any of the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland, who were most disturbed by the "revelations".

The Ulster Unionists, led at the time by David Trimble, would have had a very different perception of "Stormontgate" had it been communicated to them that nothing of consequence was found anywhere concerning an alleged Sinn Féin spying operation, outside the possession of a British intelligence "mole" in the republican movement.

But nobody in the security services, who had full knowledge of all this, and nobody in the British government, some of whom may have had knowledge of this, thought fit to disclose information that would have profoundly changed perceptions of the alleged spying operation.

It may be that there was a Sinn Féin spying enterprise under way at the time but its significance would have been understood in a very different way had the full facts become known. The Executive may well have fallen anyway because of growing unionist unease over decommissioning, but, alternatively, it may have survived, or at least the same level of damage to trust between the parties would not have occurred.

A few days after the Stormont raid, the DUP withdrew from the Executive and ten days after the raid, on 14 October 2002, in anticipation of a withdrawal from the Northern Ireland Executive by the Ulster Unionists, the British government suspended the executive, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. Direct rule from London was re-imposed.

Intelligence withheld

A further curious factor in all this is what the security forces said about Denis Donaldson in court in the course of various bail applications. Several senior members of the police and security services must have known that what the courts were being told was false or at least seriously incomplete.

In one of the hearings a senior detective told the court that Donaldson had formed close links with worldwide terror organisations. It was feared that if granted bail, he could use his contacts to flee Northern Ireland or could continue spying for the IRA. The judge at that hearing, Lord Justice Nicholson, said the evidence against Denis Donaldson was based on "intelligence sources" who could not be cross-examined at that stage. The same "intelligence sources" knew Denis Donaldson was spying for the intelligence services and also knew that the prosecution could never go to trial because of that fact.

So we know for certainty that the intelligence services withheld crucial information both from politicians in Northern Ireland and probably from senior members of their own government, and also the courts, that would have transformed perceptions of the alleged Sinn Féin "spying" operation, a perception that contributed to the collapse of the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreements which was endorsed by over 80 per cent of the Irish people, and, in addition, added significantly to the soured relations between Sinn Féin and the other parties in Northern Ireland as well as its relations with the two governments for over three years.

Charges are withdrawn

The first concession that "Stormontgate" was not what it was purported to be came when February 2004 charges against the men for possessing "documents of a secret, confidential or restricted nature" were withdrawn. They remained charged with possessing documents useful to terrorists.

At that stage it is difficult to understand how the Prosecution Service would not have been aware that Denis Donaldson was a Special Branch "mole" and that a case against him and his co-accused could not possibly proceed. Anyway, once they had been forced, for whatever reason, to drop the charges that had got such prominence in October 2002, how was it the Prosecution Service did not begin to enquire into what was going on here?

Much play is made of the fact that on 1 August, 2004, Nuala O'Loan, the Police Ombudsman, found that the Stormont raid was not politically motivated. But she did not know then that the person allegedly at the centre of the Sinn Féin spy ring was a British agent nor could she then have anticipated that all charges against the accused would be dropped.

The sequence of events

The sequence of recent events, from 8 December, is as follows, as recounted by Sinn Féin sources:

Thursday 8 December: The prosecuting counsel in the case told the Court in Belfast that the Director of Pubic Prosecutions Services would not be offering any evidence in the case. He said "the prosecution for the offences in relation to the accused are no longer in the public interest". Outside the court, Denis Donaldson said: "charges should never have been brought. It was political policing and political charges and the fact that we wee acquitted today proves that".

Friday 9 December: Denis Donaldson, along with the others who had been prosecuted, appeared at Stormont for a photo opportunity with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. There was no hint that Denis Donaldson must have been a spy all along.

Saturday 10 December: At around five pm, uniformed police officers called at the home of Denis Donaldson and informed him he was about to be named as a Special Branch "mole" within the republican movement by the media and he had better regard his life as being in danger. No offer of police protection was made.

Later that evening, he telephoned the chairman of the Six County division of Sinn Féin, Declan Kearney, and told him what the police had said but did not acknowledge then he was a Special Branch "mole". Declan Kearney advised him to speak to his solicitor, Peter Madden, of the firm Madden and Finucane, the firm of which the murdered solicitor, Pat Finucane, had been a partner. Donaldson attempted to make contact that evening and left a message on Madden's answering service.

Later again that evening, a Special Branch contact of Donaldson, a person who called himself "Lenny", phoned Donaldson and left a message on his answering service to say he had understood the "uniform boys" had been around and leaving his mobile phone number. Donaldson phoned back but again got the answering machine. Donaldson phoned Declan Kearney and told him of this exchange. Around 9.30 pm on the evening of Saturday 10 December, uniformed police again called at Donaldson's home but he was not there at the time.

Kearney appears to have informed others in Sinn Féin of what Donaldson had told him and, according to Sinn Féin sources, Gerry Adams reacted cautiously, realising that any misstep could result in a determination by the International Monitoring Committee that the IRA was still active.

Sunday 11 December: There was further contact between Denis Donaldson and Declan Kearney.

Monday 12 December: Denis Donaldson saw his solicitor, Peter Madden.

Tuesday 13 December: Following discussions within the republican movement, Gerry Adams instructed Declan Kearney and Leo Green, a member of the Sinn Féin negotiating team and also formerly, and maybe still, a senior member of the IRA, to interview Denis Donaldson, the following day. Kearney contacted Donaldson and a meeting was arranged at the Sinn Féin offices on the Falls Road for 11 am the following morning.

Wednesday 14 December: Kearney and Green met Donaldson and asked him straight away if he had been working for the British. Donaldson asked for a break, went to make himself a cup of coffee and then returned to say he had been working for the British. There then took place a prolonged debriefing session, lasting until around five pm that evening.

Sinn Féin are evasive and vague about what Donaldson told his interviewers. No tape recording of the interview was made but Kearney and Green took copious notes. Almost certainly Donaldson was asked about IRA secrets he divulged over 20 years to British intelligence and RUC Special Branch. Throughout, Donaldson seems to have been composed. Indeed, one Sinn Féin person to whom Village has spoken said he saw Donaldson in the foyer of the Sinn Féin offices around five pm that day; he was chatting to an acquaintance and did not seem at all perturbed.

However it seems Donaldson did not stay at his own home that evening. He may have remained in the company of his solicitor, Peter Madden, until Friday, when they both travelled to Dublin to issue a statement in front of RTÉ cameras.

During the course of the debriefing on Wednesday, Donaldson was informed he had been expelled from Sinn Féin.

A curious feature of this is the reluctance of Sinn Féin to disclose what Donaldson told his interviewers about "Stormontgate". One would have thought this would have been a central focus of the debriefing and that Donaldson's account of his role in that affair would have been communicated to the leadership virtually instantly.

However the leadership profess not to know what Donaldson said on the issue. This suggests either the Sinn Féin leadership did not need to be told about the inside story of "Stormontgate", for they already knew (having themselves been involved) or that "Stormontgate" did not seem to the republican movement to be the most significant of the issues that Donaldson could tell them about. Perhaps the focus was more on what information Donaldson disclosed concerning IRA activities and the possible involvement of Sinn Féin leaders in such activities.

Friday, 16 December: Gerry Adams called a news conference in Dublin at short notice and revealed that Denis Donaldson had been a British agent working within his (Adams's) own office. Donaldson made his statement to RTÉ later that evening.

Sinn Féin believes Donaldson is somewhere on the island of Ireland with his family. They expect to have further contact with him, to be arranged through his solicitor.

Bertie Ahern at first said he would consider seeking an inquiry into this whole affair once he had spoken to Tony Blair, However the Government position has now changed and there are no calls for an inquiry. Mary Harney said: "the last thing we need right now is some form of inquiry, which may not get very far".

David Trimble has called for a special Parliamentary inquiry into the whole affair.

Next month the Independent Monitoring Commission is expected to confirm the IRA is inactive and not engaged in criminality. This might well have been very different had Denis Donaldson sought police protection and gone into hiding because of fear for his life.p