18 December 2005

The spy at the heart of the IRA

Sunday Times

Denis Donaldson climbed his way from Belfast’s streets to the top of the republican movement. Yet on Friday it was revealed that for the past 20 years he had been passing secrets to London. Liam Clarke tells the story of his double life as a British agent in a dirty war

The Sunday Times
December 18, 2005

As a young man, Denis Donaldson was good at getting out of scrapes, both as an IRA volunteer and as a legendary seducer. Last week he found himself in a dilemma that tested his plausibility to the limit.

For nearly 40 years this diminutive charmer has been at the heart of the republican movement, first as a teenage gunman and later as Gerry Adams’s most trusted fixer — the clever little man doing the hard work while the big names enjoyed the limelight.

In 2002 he was arrested and accused of being a key figure in what the police claimed was a Sinn Fein spy ring at Stormont, the seat of British government in Northern Ireland. The ensuing scandal caused the collapse of power sharing between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists.

Donaldson also had a hidden life. Last Tuesday, as the winter rain swept through Belfast, his past caught up with him. He was spirited to a furtive meeting with his Special Branch handlers who warned him that his secret was out: he was about to be unmasked as a long-standing British agent.

To his credit he took charge of his own fate. Three days later he confessed at a press conference in Dublin that he had been working for British intelligence and the Northern Ireland Special Branch for at least 20 years.

Reporters were startled. To some it was like a scene from Monty Python. Here was a republican veteran, regarded as one of the Sinn Fein leadership’s most trusted apparatchiks, a man who had been accused of spying against the British, telling them incongruously: “My name is Denis Donaldson . . . I was a British agent.”

He confessed: “I was recruited in the 1980s after compromising myself during a vulnerable time in my life.”

Donaldson’s pre-emptive “outing” of himself is more than one man’s personal drama. For Northern Ireland’s politics it is a huge shock that has unleashed a wave of conspiracy theories. For republicans it is yet more proof that their leadership has been penetrated for years by British intelligence.

For Adams it is a humiliation. The Sinn Fein president said he had suspected that an informant was at work but that Donaldson had never occurred to him as a likely candidate.

People who had known Donaldson for years were stunned by the revelation. A Sinn Fein colleague told Daily Ireland, a pro-Sinn Fein newspaper: “No one, I mean no one, ever pointed the finger of suspicion at Denis Donaldson. He was a loyal party servant. No task was too small for him, no obligation too onerous. He was at the heart of every election campaign.”

Who was this helpful little man and where did his true loyalties lie?

DONALDSON was born in 1950 into a traditional republican family in the nationalist enclave of Short Strand in east Belfast. A beleaguered area surrounded by larger loyalist communities, Short Strand has produced many republican legends.

He joined the IRA in the mid-1960s while he was still in his teens, well before the start of the Troubles. When the IRA split into Marxist Official and traditionalist Provisional wings in December 1969, Donaldson went with the Provos and quickly became involved in their urban bombing campaign. (He served alongside Seanna Walsh, who was chosen by the IRA to read out its statement ending all offensive activities earlier this year.) In 1971 Donaldson was caught during an attempt to bomb a distillery and government buildings and was sentenced to four years in the Maze prison, his first and only jail term.

In 1974 a camera was smuggled into his cell and a famous picture emerged. Intended as a joke to boost the morale of relatives and supporters, it shows four prisoners standing beside a mock-up of a Belfast street, pretending to have escaped from the Maze.

Among them is Donaldson, a slight bearded figure, with his arm stretched up to encircle the broad shoulders of Bobby Sands — who would be the first of 10 republican prisoners to die on hunger strike in 1981.

Donaldson and Sands spent three years in jail together and became close friends. This link helped to establish Donaldson’s credibility within the close group of former prisoners who would reshape the IRA and Sinn Fein under Adams’s leadership during the 1980s.

After he was released from jail Donaldson became a key Adams ally against the previous generation of IRA leaders. He also built up links with foreign revolutionary groups which would supply the Provos with weapons and training.

In August 1981, three months after Sands’s death, Donaldson and William “Blue” Kelly, a leading IRA gunrunner, were arrested by French police at Orly airport in Paris. The duo, who were travelling on false passports, told the French authorities that they were returning home after spending several months in a Lebanese training camp.

Donaldson was allowed to go home despite the admission and some suspect that this may have been the moment when he was turned by intelligence agents, but by his own account it is too early.

He continued to build republican links with groups such as Eta (the Basque terrorists) and Yasser Arafat’s PLO, travelling widely in Europe and South America as Sinn Fein’s director of international affairs.

By 1983 he was back in Short Strand where he stood unsuccessfully as a council candidate and reorganised Sinn Fein and the IRA in the area. Richard O’Rawe, who was head of the Sinn Fein press office at the time, remembers him as “a nice enough wee guy to talk to.

He represented Short Strand and would come into headquarters to report what was going on. He always took an interest in what was happening, but I can’t say I was suspicious of him.”

If, as Donaldson himself suggests, he was first persuaded by the security forces to work for them “in the 1980s after compromising myself”, then the reason may lie in an embarrassing incident in his personal life.

Former IRA colleagues point to an occasion when the police raided a house in the Ligoniel area of west Belfast and found Donaldson, a married man, in bed with a local woman. Even that may be a cover story, however, because Donaldson's wife Alice was told about what had happened by the police. Like many senior republicans in the mid-1980s, Donaldson seldom spent the night at home for fear of arrest or loyalist attack, and this provided many opportunities for extramarital liaisons.

One former IRA member said that he was a well known “chaser”, as it was known in Belfast. If so the police may have threatened to disclose other affairs; or perhaps this is yet another cover story thrown up by Donaldson to hide the deeper secrets of his double life.

Former Special Branch and military intelligence officers say that a grudge or an ideological change of heart is a more common lever for recruiting an agent than blackmail or money. One said: “If you want someone to work for you for several years you have got to look for a better motivation than catching him with his pants down. A guy who you are blackmailing can’t be trusted in the long term.”

As events were to show, Donaldson would indeed prove an unreliable agent.

IF this was the period when he was recruited, Donaldson initially brought a rich dowry to his handlers, including a full account of the Provos’ international allies and arms links.

He remained highly thought of within the republican movement and in 1987, when he was undoubtedly a police agent, he was dispatched by Sinn Fein to his old stamping ground in Lebanon to try to secure the release of Brian Keenan, the Belfast hostage.

His mission was unsuccessful but on his return he said that he had secured meetings with both Hezbollah and Nabi Beri’s Amal militia.

After that he sank into the background as part of the Sinn Fein bureaucracy, at one point claiming that MI5 had tried to recruit him as an agent during a holiday abroad.

By the early 1990s he was emerging as a key supporter of the peace process and was involved in the preparation for the IRA ceasefire, which came in 1994. This was a time when the British government was in secret contact with the IRA. Having someone like Donaldson in place would have given it an invaluable read-out on the true intentions of Sinn Fein and the IRA. Donaldson was later moved to America, after the Clinton White House overlooked his explosives convictions to give him a visa. He set up Sinn Fein’s first office there and organised the groundbreaking first trips to the United States by Adams and Martin McGuinness.

He had an invaluable listening post not only on the IRA’s US support network but also on the US administration, which was at loggerheads with the British government on many aspects of Irish policy. Donaldson met State Department officials regularly, carrying messages back and forth from the republican leadership.

He also met Larry Zaitschek, a New York chef who later travelled to Ireland and who is now wanted in connection with an IRA raid on Special Branch headquarters in Castlereagh.

Although Donaldson was an important agent to the British during these years, former intelligence officers doubt that he passed on all the information to which he had access. Otherwise he would not have survived for two decades.

As the peace process began to provide political dividends in the form of the Good Friday agreement and power sharing, Donaldson became head of the party’s administration in the parliament buildings in Stormont.

Police believe that he knew of an IRA spy ring at the heart of the British administration at Stormont but kept quiet about it for fear that his role would be exposed.

Donaldson apparently did not know that the spy ring was revealed to the RUC Special Branch by a lower-level agent whose information sparked a three-month surveillance operation known by the codename Operation Torsion.

A mass of intelligence material gathered by the IRA at Stormont was removed from a house in Belfast by the police, copied and returned in the vain hope that Bobby Storey, the IRA’s head of intelligence, would eventually take possession of it and expose himself to arrest.

This entrapment and surveillance operation took place against strong advice from MI5 who urged the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to seize the papers and leave it at that. It reasoned that this would be enough to halt the spying operation and bring Donaldson into line.

In the end the police decided to recover the IRA intelligence cache and make what arrests they could — including Donaldson and his son-in-law Ciaran Kearney. The affair led to the collapse of power sharing and the fall of David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, who was blamed by loyalist voters for being too trusting of Sinn Fein. In the continuing political fall-out, Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party ousted the Ulster Unionists as the majority party at the last general election.

Sinn Fein claimed that the whole “Stormontgate” affair had been designed to collapse the power sharing executive, but this was dismissed by Nuala O’Loan, the Northern Ireland police ombudsman, who said the police operation had been fully justified.

Just over a week ago, however, charges against Donaldson, Kearney and a former civil servant called William Mackessy had to be withdrawn when the police were refused a public interest immunity certificate, which would have protected the identity of the agent who tipped them off in the first place. A court hearing was told that the director of public prosecutions felt that proceeding was “no longer in the public interest”.

Events then moved fast. Summoned by his Special Branch handlers on Tuesday, Donaldson was told that they had been tipped off by yet another source within the IRA and Sinn Fein that the net was closing in on him. They were there to offer him protection under their “duty of care” to informants.

Instead of taking up the police offer, Donaldson decided to face the music. Resettlement and a new life would have meant losing contact with his family, many of them active republicans.

Ten years earlier Donaldson would almost certainly have taken the chance to get out of Belfast. The alternative then would have been interrogation, torture and execution by the IRA’s internal security squad.

The moles who pentrated the IRA:


A west Belfast republican, he was a senior figure in the IRA’s internal security division responsible for rooting out informants. He was also an agent, codenamed Stakeknife, for a British special forces unit.

Scappaticci agreed to change sides in 1978 after becoming disillusioned with IRA violence. He was trusted by senior republicans and was a friend of Gerry Adams, so his unmasking by the press in 2003 was a huge embarrassment to the republican movement.

He is now being investigated by police who are reviewing all unsolved murders during the Troubles.


Had a similar role to Denis Donaldson but at a lower level. From a nationalist area but a member of the British Army, Carlin was sent back to Derry in 1984 to spy on Sinn Fein. His handlers never asked him to join the IRA. Instead he reported to London on political thinking in Sinn Fein and was an invaluable asset in the early 1990s when he was able to confirm the bona fides of Martin McGuinness and Adams. Carlin’s cover was blown after a drunken MI5 agent described him to IRA prisoners. He has now resettled in Britain.


This agent reached a more senior position within the IRA and Sinn Fein than any of the others. He was a member of the IRA’s GHQ staff, a Sinn Fein councillor and a member of Sinn Fein’s ruling council, all the time working for the gardai. It took MI5 a full year in Holland to debrief him. O’Callaghan’s biggest success was in 1984 when his information led to Martin Ferris, now a Sinn Fein TD, being arrested on board a trawler with seven tons of weapons. He now lives in London.


Known as Agent Carol he infiltrated the IRA in west Belfast in the early 1990s. He claims to have saved about 50 lives by tipping off the police about attacks. After his cover was blown, he escaped an IRA interrogation squad by jumping out of a third-storey window. After being resettled in Britain, he was tracked down by the IRA and shot. He survived and has moved again.


The RUC convinced him to join the INLA; after he wrecked its operation in Derry, Gilmour was then encouraged to join the IRA and repeat the method. His supergrass evidence was the centrepiece of the largest criminal trial in British legal history, but was ultimately rejected by the court. He now lives in England and is one of several IRA agents to tell all in a book.

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