25 December 2005

Stormont inquiry appears unlikely

Sunday Business Post

25 December 2005
By Paul T Colgan

Calls for a public inquiry into the 'Stormontgate' affair have fallen on deaf ears in London and Dublin, because the two governments are intent on making political progress in the new year and believe an inquiry would damage the peace process.

Following last week's startling admission by Denis Donaldson, Sinn Féin's former head of administration at Stormont, that he had worked as a paid British informant for 20 years, the SDLP and the two unionist parties have demanded a full inquiry.

The British and Irish governments believe that an inquiry would only jeopardise moves towards the restoration of the power-sharing government in Belfast. Serious issues surround the investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) into an alleged IRA spy ring that brought down the government over three years ago.

Donaldson has said there was no such spy ring and that the PSNI operation was conceived by elements opposed to the peace process in order to collapse the Stormont executive. The former senior Sinn Féin official had been arrested along with two other party workers, Ciaran Kearney and William Mackessy, in October 2002, and subsequently charged with collating information likely to be of use to terrorists.

The case collapsed two weeks ago after the North's Director of Public Prosecutions withdrew the charges, citing “public interest'‘.

With a report from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) on IRA activity due next month, the two governments are keen to generate momentum towards a deal between Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.

The IMC is widely expected in government circles to give the IRA a clean bill of health and confirm that it has ceased activities since July. It is thought that a public inquiry into Stormontgate would make political movement practically impossible.

Hugh Orde, the chief constable of the PSNI, briefed Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, Minister for Justice Michael McDowell and Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy about the case on Thursday.

Orde was confronted by republican protesters on his arrival at Government Buildings in Dublin.

The PSNI still maintains that a substantial amount of documents, including a transcript of a telephone conversation between British prime minister Tony Blair and US president George Bush, were recovered in the operation. The vast bulk of documentation was discovered at Donaldson's west Belfast home. Ahern called for more information to be made available to the public, but he said he was not prepared to talk about what Orde had told him.

The North's Police Ombudsman's office, which looked into the affair last year, may be called upon to reinvestigate the case following Donaldson's admission that he worked for Special Branch. Nuala O'Loan concluded that the police investigation into the alleged spy ring had been justified, but that the raid on Sinn Féin's Stormont offices was heavy-handed.

O'Loan would be obliged to reexamine the events if she received a complaint accompanied by compelling evidence of wrongdoing.

Donaldson's public confession of his role is regarded by many as strong grounds for a fresh inquiry.

Sources close to O'Loan remained tight-lipped about whether her investigators knew of Donaldson's agent status when compiling last year's report.

“We saw all the [PSNI] intelligence relating to the raid on the [Donaldson's] house in west Belfast,” a source said. “On the basis of that, we decided that the subsequent raid on Stormont had been justified. Nuala will never say whether we saw intelligence relating to Donaldson being an agent or not. We just can't discuss intelligence publicly or we would never get to look at it again. We've reviewed our investigation in the past few days, and we still believe the raid on Stormont was justified.”

Republicans have dismissed claims that a second British agent may have been working for Sinn Féin at Stormont.

The party said that the claim was designed to cause panic within republican ranks and create the implication that the IRA had been operating a spy ring.

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