21 December 2005

The strange collusion between Downing Street and Sinn Féin

Guardian

The multi-layered truth behind the exposure of a British agent in the Irish republican leadership must be uncovered

Jonathan Freedland
Wednesday December 21, 2005
The Guardian

The loudest noise in these islands should be the sound of Irish republicans chanting I told you so. For years, Sinn Féin leaders have banged on about the "securocrats" who pull the secret strings of Northern Ireland. These men, skulking in corners of the army, MI5, Special Branch and the Northern Ireland Office, form, say republicans, a "shadow government", bent on forcing its own, reactionary agenda on the province. In this view, their driving purpose is the defeat, discrediting and humiliation of Sinn Féin and the IRA - regardless of the policy pursued by Tony Blair and his "official" government in Downing Street.

Yeah, yeah, whatever, journalists in London would say, stifling a yawn. Not only was the "securocrat" speech a broken record, it also sounded vaguely unhinged: a conspiracy theory that belonged in an airport thriller rather than the real world.

Yet last Friday brought news that showed republicans' worst nightmares were no fantasy. Denis Donaldson, the party's chief administrator at Stormont, outed himself as a spy: for 20 years, he revealed, his real masters were not his Sinn Féin colleagues, but the despised "securocrats" of the British state. Donaldson had sat in inner circle meetings with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness since the mid-80s, but all that time he had taken his orders from unnamed, unknown "elements" within the British security establishment.

That was dramatic enough, but Donaldson is especially significant. For he was one of three officials charged with spying on other political parties at Stormont: an alleged plot whose discovery in October 2002 so offended unionists and others that Northern Ireland's brief experiment in self-rule was shut down. The democratically elected Stormont assembly was suspended, frozen in a limbo that endures to this day: day-to-day power reverted back to London, as if the Good Friday agreement had never happened.

That connection made Donaldson's confession explosive. For if he was a servant of the British state, the charge that Sinn Féin was spying on political rivals was, in all likelihood, bogus. It could well have been Donaldson's British handlers who were behind the Stormont plot, in a bid to discredit the republican cause. On this logic, unionists in their outrage in 2002, and London in its acquiescence to that fury, were merely following a script laid out by a few spooks in the Belfast dark. Everything Sinn Féin had said about the securocrats was true: they had indeed plotted to bring down a democratic body - simply to keep republicans away from power.

All of which makes a kind of sense. Some republicans have long suspected that, while hardline Brits can just about stomach Sinn Féin and the IRA taking part in the peace process - grateful for the end to violence that entails - they balk at the thought of them in government. What Donaldson called the "fiction" of Stormontgate ensured they got their way. Others say that even the outing of Donaldson was probably engineered with the same aim: to keep republicans out of power. What the men in the shadows imagined was that once Donaldson's cover was blown, he would flee for his life - fearing the wrath of IRA punishment. His panicked flight would itself prove that the Provos still represented an armed threat - thereby obliging the international monitor on decommissioning to deliver a negative verdict on the IRA, so keeping republicans away from power a bit longer.

Viewed like this, the implications are enormous - and not just for Northern Ireland. For what this reveals is a rogue element within the British state, a return to the late-1980s Spycatcher allegation, when Peter Wright confirmed that a cell of intelligence operatives had once operated as a law unto themselves, "bugging and burgling" their way across London. How would the prime minister explain that, yet again, agents of the British state are out of control?

Well, so far he hasn't had to - because no one is really asking the question. And that is the strangest aspect of this strange saga. Sinn Féin, who should be climbing the roof of Belfast's Waterfront Hall screaming their vindication, are oddly muted. Alone among Northern Ireland's parties, they are not calling for an inquiry into the Donaldson affair. McGuinness has spoken of learning lessons, rather than pointing a wild, admonishing finger at London. The rhetorical dial has been set on cool.

Why might that be? A first explanation is embarrassment: it is mighty awkward for the Sinn Féin leadership that a traitor could have got so close for so long. It plays to the most toxic of republican hardliners' accusations against the Adams-McGuinness peace strategy - that it's all a British plot to still the IRA's guns.

There are other reasons for republicans to be wary of delving any deeper into this murk. I'm told that, internally, Sinn Féin folk are asking the Donnie Brasco question. In that Al Pacino movie, about an FBI infiltrator in the mafia, the mole's sponsor is told: "You brought him in here, you're responsible." Whoever initially brought Donaldson into Sinn Féin will be feeling the heat. I also understand that when Donaldson confessed - under an interrogation led by his own son-in-law, Ciaran Kearney - he named some other Sinn Féin names as fellow British agents. Things could get very nasty.

Alternatively, it's possible that the Stormont spy ring was not a fiction or even British-inspired, but a genuine IRA scheme - as Northern Ireland's chief constable insisted yesterday - and that Donaldson had to go along with it in order to preserve his cover. Confirmation of that would also be a disincentive for Sinn Féin to seek any further inquiry, for it would vindicate their enemies.

Or, more complicatedly, it's conceivable that Donaldson was a double agent - that he had "turned" back to Sinn Féin after his initial betrayal. Standard IRA operating procedure in the past was for an informer to receive a bullet to the head on a lonely country road - and then for an amnesty to be offered to any others. Message: come back to us, or you'll get the same treatment. Donaldson may have been one to take up the offer. If he was, that would explain the tenor of his Friday statement, when he spoke in the language of an avowed, ideological republican rather than someone who had crossed sides.

No one, save a few key players, really knows what happened (and most I spoke to do not include Blair as one of those privy to the truth). But this episode does reveal three things quite clearly. First, that for some people the war in Northern Ireland has not ended. There are still more British troops there than in Iraq; and there are still "securocrats" consumed with fighting the IRA, even if that organisation has officially stood down. Second, that though peace has held, more or less, for seven years, self-government for the province has been thwarted time after time. And, lastly, that a strange kind of common interest, if not collusion, has evolved between Downing Street and Sinn Féin.

For a long while Northern Ireland's other parties, unionist and nationalist, have resented the direct relationship between Blair and Adams - as if the real negotiation comes down to the two of them - and now, once again, they see the interests of those two men converge. Both seem reluctant for the truth to come out - but on this shared goal, if no other, they should fail. Northern Ireland has lived in the dark too long.

freedland@guardian.co.uk

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