25 December 2005

Donaldson was key man for Sinn Fein in US

Sunday Business Post

25 December 2005
By Niall O'Dowd

“My name is Denis Donaldson.

“Since the 1980s, I have worked for British intelligence.”

With those words last week, the latest Irish republican unveiled as an informer dropped the equivalent of a dirty bomb among Irish-Americans who had come to know him as a key Sinn Féin representative in the US.

“I had to sit down when I heard it,” said one leading republican in New York, who, like most people interviewed, did not want to be named. “I was gobsmacked.”

Another said he felt like he had been “hit on the head with a plank'‘.

The news was true, however, and the grainy image of Donaldson sitting in a Dublin hotel confessing that he was a paid informer was soon flashing around the internet, as well as becoming a hot topic of discussion wherever activist Irish-Americans were gathered.

Some claim to have suspected something all along, though they were the exceptions.

“Denis could be sent anywhere; he was a diplomat, a smiler, anxious to engage everyone,” said one republican. “He was the last person you would have suspected.”

Donaldson first came to the US in 1988 at a time when the republican movement was undergoing severe strains there.

In 1986, Republican Sinn Féin had split from the Provisionals over the issue of taking seats in the Dáil.

The dispute was mirrored in Irish-America and a Republican Sinn Féin support group, Friends of Irish Freedom, was set up with the specific task of bringing Irish-America over to their view.

It was a dangerous time for Provisional Sinn Féin, as the loyalty of Irish-America was clearly up for grabs. Back home, there were stories about threats on the life of Gerry Adams by former disgruntled comrades. Feelings everywhere were running high.

Before long, Donaldson was charged with ensuring that the Provisionals' grip on American support was maintained.

He arrived from Belfast with impeccable credentials. Diminutive and heavy-smoking, he possessed a quick wit and a disarming manner, which ensured that tensions rarely boiled over.

He was a native of Short Strand in Belfast, a republican who had served five years in prison and was a personal friend of republican icon Bobby Sands.

After his release from prison, he had quickly become an important player in Sinn Féin.

Donaldson lived in the Bronx on Bainbridge Avenue, and soon became noted for his love of the nightlife. Often business was done in bars, with the affable Donaldson winning someone over to his view over a pint or two, though no one ever remembers him being drunk.

He travelled extensively throughout the US, holding meetings in key cities. His message was the same everywhere he went. Irish Northern Aid (Noraid) - headed by Martin Galvin - was the only organisation endorsed by Sinn Féin and the IRA in Ireland.

His meetings came at a time when Friends of Irish Freedom was attempting to develop fund-raising on behalf of IRA prisoners and to proclaim that they were the true inheritors of the republican standard.

By the time he returned to Belfast, Donaldson had smoothed out the personal rivalries, made clear that Noraid was the chosen group and helped dispatch the Friends of Irish Freedom to history's dustbin. It was a job well done.

By 1995, Irish-America was in need of Donaldson's services again. The 1994 IRA ceasefire had transformed the political landscape in the US and created an entirely new group of dissidents, this time led by Martin Galvin, who had severe doubts about the new political path.

In the run-up to the ceasefire, Gerard McGuigan, a Belfast native and elected councillor, had played a major role in preparing the way in the US for the Adams visa and then for the IRA ceasefire.

When the latter happened, the IRA's most famous ex-soldier, veteran republican Joe Cahill, came to the US to convince the faithful that the dream of Irish unity would never die, despite the new tack.

It was a message Adams himself strongly repeated on several visits.

But there was still major unrest. Donaldson addressed the internal dissidents, making it clear that he spoke for Sinn Féin and that he had the full power of the organisation behind him. At a time when hotter heads were calling for widespread expulsions, Donaldson held his cool and slowly waited out the dissidents, chief among them Galvin.

Donaldson and other Sinn Féin leaders made it clear that Sinn Féin would not make Galvin a martyr and expel him, and that he could make up his own mind.

The former Noraid chief eventually did, quitting the organisation but failing to ignite a major opposition group.

Lacking a major figure to coalesce around, the Real IRA movement in the US soon sputtered. One by one, Donaldson dealt with the dissidents across the country, getting many to stay onside and leaving others with little choice but to step aside.

In 1996, Bernadette Sands, the sister of Bobby and the wife of Real IRA commander Michael McKevitt, who had led a split from the Provisionals, paid a visit to the US and tried to gather support for her position that the IRA ceasefire had betrayed Irish republicanism.

Her pleas fell on mostly deaf ears. Sinn Féin and Donaldson had done their job well.

“There were known agents provocateurs in the ranks of Noraid at the time and we figured we knew who they were,” said one senior republican source, “but the notion that Donaldson was one never crossed our mind.”

Donaldson, by everyone's account, did a good job steadying the Sinn Féin ship in the US and smoothing the path for the formation of a new organisation, Friends of Sinn Féin, which now raises up to $1 million a year and has a far larger membership than Noraid ever had.

That remains the essential dilemma. Although a self-confessed British agent, Donaldson dampened down dissension in the US, rather than causing it to flare up, as the British surely wanted.

“No Sinn Féin representative would have done anything different than Donaldson did,” said a Sinn Féin source in Ireland.

Like everything else about this puzzling affair, the real motives of Donaldson may forever remain a secret.

The little man with the big smile and smooth talk has turned the republican movement upside-down, and no one in Irish-America knows quite what to make of it.

All further developments are anxiously awaited.

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