22 December 2005

The Soldier, The Spy, the U.S. Connection

Irish Abroad -

By Niall O' Dowd

“My name is Denis Donaldson. Since the 1980s . . . I have worked for British intelligence.”

With those words last Friday, 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 Fein representative in the U.S.

“I had to sit down when I heard it,” said one leading Republican, who like most interviewed insisted on anonymity. “ I was gobsmacked.”

Another stated that he felt like he was “hit on the head with a plank,” while another leading figure was “flabbergasted” by the news and found it so incredible that he seriously doubted the veracity of the report at first.

It 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 the hot topic of discussion wherever activist Irish Americans were gathered.

Some claimed to have suspected something all along. Speaking on Radio Free Eireann, a local New York dissident Republican radio show, Martin Galvin, former head of Irish Northern Aid, who broke with Sinn Fein over the peace process, said he and other leading Republicans always suspected that Donaldson had a “secret agenda” and that Donaldson had undermined many Republicans such as himself during his time in America.

Galvin stated that Donaldson had told Irish American activists that “I (Galvin) had to be got rid of,” and that he had tried to compromise other “strong minded Republicans.”

But Galvin himself had a checkered past with Donaldson, relying on him for support during a critical period in the late 1980s when his own position in Irish Northern Aid was under threat from more extreme elements.

Another man with grave suspicions about Donaldson was Republican veteran Gabe Megahey, who had been arrested and jailed in America for IRA activities. Donaldson and he would often disagree and Megahey also claimed Donaldson had a hidden agenda.

Galvin and Megahey were the exceptions however. Most, even those who have broken with Sinn Fein over the peace process and the unarmed strategy, stated that they were totally unaware of Donaldson’s duplicity.

Radio Free Eireann host John McDonagh told his listeners on Saturday that he had “worked very tightly “ with Donaldson, went “drinking with him,” stayed in his house in Belfast and never suspected a thing.

When the news first broke that Sinn Fein were going to expel Donaldson, McDonagh stated that he thought it was because he had broken with the leadership over the peace process and joined the dissidents.

On the same Radio Free Eireann show Brian Mor O’Boyle, another dissident, stated that he was “as shocked as ever I was” by the Donaldson confession.

It was a common refrain. “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.”

DENIS Donaldson first came to America in 1988 at a time when the Republican movement was undergoing severe strains in the U.S.

In 1986 in Ireland, Republican Sinn Fein had broken off from the Provisionals over the issue of taking seats in the Irish Dail (Parliament). As always, the dispute was mirrored in Irish America, and a Republican Sinn Fein support group, Friends of Irish Freedom, had been set up with the specific task of bringing Irish America over to their point of view.

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

In previous splits in the Republican movement, dating back to the foundation of Sinn Fein, the hardliners had usually won out. Sinn Fein first sent to the U.S. party official Brian MacDonald, who based himself in the Irish Northern Aid office in upper Manhattan to try and prevent any split.

Soon MacDonald found himself embroiled in personal disagreements, making little headway. He returned home.

Donaldson was then the man charged with ensuring that the Provisional Sinn Fein grip on American support was maintained. He arrived from Belfast with impeccable credentials.

The diminutive, heavy smoking Donaldson also had a quick wit and a disarming manner, which ensured that tensions rarely boiled over.

He was a Short Strand Belfast native, a Republican who had served five years in prison, and was a personal friend of Republican icon Bobby Sands. After his release from prison, Donaldson was a man who had quickly become an important player in Sinn Fein politics.

At the time Martin Galvin was sticking with the Provisionals but “badly needed street cred,” in the words of one activist, to hold his position. Donaldson provided it.

Donaldson lived in the Bronx on Bainbridge Avenue and soon became noted for his love of the nightlife as well as the ladies. Though married, it rarely seemed to bother him.

Often times business was done in bar settings, the affable Donaldson winning someone over to his situation over a pint or two, though no one ever remembers him being drunk.

He travelled extensively throughout the U.S. holding meetings in key cities. His message was the same everywhere he went. Irish Northern Aid was the only organization endorsed by Sinn Fein and the IRA in Ireland.

It was a time when Friends of Irish Freedom had attempted to develop fundraising 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 has smoothed out the personal rivalries, made clear Irish Northern Aid were 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 had need of Donaldson’s services again. The 1994 IRA ceasefire had transformed the political landscape here, but also created an entirely new group of dissidents, this time led by Martin Galvin, who had severe doubts about the new path to politics.

In the run up to the ceasefire Gerard McGuigan, a Belfast native and elected councillor, had played the major role in preparing the way in the U.S. first 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, had come here to convince the faithful that the dream of Irish unity would never die, despite the new tack. It was a message Gerry Adams himself strongly repeated on several visits.

Still, there was major dissension. Donaldson addressed the internal dissentions, making clear that he spoke for Sinn Fein and that he had the full power of the organization 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 was Galvin who, in addition to his distress over the slew towards politics, was also upset that he was being upstaged by newer faces in the movement and was not getting the access to Adams, especially when it came to introducing him at events.

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

The former Irish Northern Aid chief eventually did, quitting Irish Northern Aid but failing to ignite a major opposition group. Lacking a major figure to coalesce around, the Real IRA movement 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, sister of Bobby and wife of Real IRA commander Michael McKevitt, who had led a split from the Provisionals, made a visit to the U.S. and tried to gather significant support for her position that the IRA ceasefire had betrayed Irish Republicanism.

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

“There were known agent provocateurs in the ranks of Irish Northern Aid at the time and we figured we knew who they were,” says one senior Republican source, “but the notion that Donaldson was one never crossed our mind.”

Indeed Donaldson, by everyone’s account, did a good job of steadying the Sinn Fein ship in America and smoothing the path to the formation of the new organization, Friends of Sinn Fein, which now raises up to $1 million a year for the political party and has far greater membership than the old Irish Northern Aid ever had.

That remains the essential dilemma. For an admitted British agent, Donaldson actually dampened down dissension in America rather than causing it to flare up, as the British surely wanted.

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

Like everything else about this puzzling affair, the real motives of Denis 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. Any further developments will be anxiously awaited.

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