23 December 2005
British Agent Tells (a Bit) of Years Undercover in Ulster
New York Times
By ALAN COWELL
Published: December 23, 2005
Click to view - In Long Kesh prison, Northern Ireland, in the 70's, four I.R.A. stalwarts, from left: Tomboy Loudon, Gerard Rooney, Denis Donaldson and Bobby Sands. Mr. Donaldson proved to be something else: a spy for Britain. -Press Eye-
BELFAST, Northern Ireland, Dec. 21 - For decades, Denis Donaldson was a prominent insider in the Irish Republican movement in Belfast. He served in prison with Gerry Adams, leader of its political arm, Sinn Fein, and Bobby Sands, the hunger striker, who died in 1981. He trained in Lebanon with Hezbollah militants.
Mr. Donaldson at his news conference last week, when he admitted he was a double agent. Friends said he did not fit that mold.
So it was all the more stunning last week when he held a news conference in Dublin and declared himself a British agent. No one had even a slight suspicion.
"He was affable, humorous, unassuming, intelligent," said Danny Morrison, a former Sinn Fein associate who is now a novelist. "He didn't lead a lavish lifestyle; I doubt if he even owned own his own house. He didn't drink too much. He didn't gamble. He didn't drive a flashy car. His wife never wore fur."
Mr. Donaldson's double life told a story of awful choices familiar to readers of John le Carré. Behind the open conflict of the Troubles, as the long Northern Ireland conflict is called, lay a war of shadowy handlers pressing informants to the worst of betrayals.
"There had to be a moment when he was compromised," Mr. Morrison said in an interview. "He would have had to make a choice - between living with the consequences of what they were going to expose about him, or deciding to enter into a pact with people who had inflicted so much suffering on his own community, his friends, himself."
In the beginning, it must all have seemed much simpler.
According to accounts pieced together from former associates, journalists and scholars, Mr. Donaldson's early career followed a familiar trajectory in Ulster.
He volunteered for the I.R.A. and in 1971, as a young adult, was caught trying to bomb a distillery and government buildings. He was sentenced to four years and shared prison accommodation with Mr. Adams, establishing a bond that made the betrayal all the more poignant.
Mr. Donaldson, now 55, also featured in a jail-cell photograph of the hunger striker, Mr. Sands, adding to the credentials that underpinned his career in the Republican movement. It also made him an attractive target for the British to turn.
Mr. Donaldson was arrested again, in 1981, in France while returning with a false passport from a Hezbollah training camp in Lebanon, said Brian Feeney, a historian and author of a recent study of Sinn Fein. He was held briefly and released.
This incident was evidence of his role in fostering the international ties that the I.R.A. built up with supporters in the Middle East, including Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya.
Some time during this period, Mr. Donaldson, by his own account, became a spy for the British. The details of his recruitment are unclear and he was not available for an interview. Former associates said they believed that Mr. Donaldson was in hiding in the Irish Republic.
"I was recruited in the 1980's after compromising myself during a vulnerable period in my life," Mr. Donaldson said at the news conference in Dublin. Offered a choice of being exposed or informing, he said, "I have worked with British intelligence and R.U.C./P.S.N.I. Special Branch," referring to the Northern Ireland security police. "Over that period I was paid money."
Once he had taken a first step into the world of secret intelligence, many people here said, retreat would have been difficult.
"The handlers would start off slow," said Richard English, a professor of politics and the author of a history of the I.R.A. "They would say: every so often you will give us a bit of something and you will get a bit of money." But, once he had taken the money, "it was difficult for him to get out" without risking execution by the Irish Republican Army.
Mr. Donaldson's later work as an agent coincided with a critical period when the armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland was giving way to a political drive by Sinn Fein.
After the 1998 Good Friday agreement, the cornerstone of peace efforts, Mr. Donaldson also became Sinn Fein's administration chief at Stormont, the provincial parliament.
"As Sinn Fein became more important than the I.R.A., Sinn Fein also became more important to the Special Branch," said Professor English. From the point of view of the intelligence agencies, "they had a man at the heart of the key bit of the Republican movement, which was the political movement."
Sinn Fein officials dispute Mr. Donaldson's importance. "He was in the middle leadership," said a spokesman for Sinn Fein, who spoke in return for anonymity under the organization's rules covering contacts with reporters. "He was never a member of the negotiating committee. He wouldn't have been a senior figure. He wouldn't have had access to confidential papers."
For all that, he emerged abruptly into the limelight when the police raided the Sinn Fein office at Stormont in October 2002 and arrested Mr. Donaldson and two other men, accusing them of spying for Sinn Fein and the I.R.A. - a remarkable charge against a man who now says he was a British agent at the time.
Prosecutors dropped those charges without explanation two weeks ago, and Mr. Donaldson insisted last week that the entire episode at Stormont was a conspiracy by intelligence agencies to undermine the Good Friday agreement.
"The so-called Stormont-gate affair was a scam and a fiction," he said in Dublin. "It never existed. It was created by Special Branch."
Such allegations have deepened the mystery around Mr. Donaldson.
Was he used by dissident British intelligence as an agent provocateur to torpedo the Good Friday agreement, as some Republicans insist? Had he now been sacrificed to protect the identity of a more senior British mole in the Republican movement? Or was he the reluctant spy, compromised in the 1980's but never happy to do his secret master's bidding, as he now claims.
"He has got into this because of a personal situation," Professor English said, suggesting a possible course of events. "He has not given up his ideas and he is leading a tortured double life. He doesn't tell them everything."
Indeed, in the treacherous world he entered, he could barely have afforded to be too open with his handlers. Until its cease-fire in the mid-1990's, the I.R.A. dealt summarily with informers, known as touts.
"He was someone with iron nerves," said Mr. Feeney, the historian. "If he had been exposed even five or six years ago, he would have been found in a plastic bag on the South Armagh border with a bullet in his head."
Moreover, his cover could easily have been blown if the I.R.A.'s internal security agents came to suspect a link between operations of which he had knowledge and operations betrayed.
"If an informer informs at a particular frequency, he's going to come under suspicion," said Mr. Morrison, the former Sinn Fein official, who also spent time in prison in the 1990's.
There would, of course, be routine ways to protect him.
David Shayler, a maverick former officer in MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence agency, said, "He would lead his normal life as a member of Sinn Fein and he would occasionally disappear to meet his handlers."
Those meetings, according to several people interviewed here, were usually held in wealthy Protestant areas where surveillance by the I.R.A. would be more difficult.
But finally it was his handlers who brought the double life to an end. Mr. Donaldson said police officers visited him at home last week - a sure sign of trouble in Northern Ireland - and told him he was about to be exposed in a newspaper report as a British agent. He faced one more hard choice.
"He had to make up his mind: fleeing into the arms of his handlers or throwing himself on the mercy of the Republican community," Mr. Morrison said. Reflecting a shift from its more violent past, the Republican leadership chose to use Mr. Donaldson's confession as further evidence of British perfidy.
Or was it all perhaps one more play in a shadowy game?
"Espionage, double dealing and dirty tricks have been rife on all sides in Northern Ireland for years," the journalist Niall Stanage wrote in The Guardian. "The peace process did not bring an end to the dirty war."