02 January 2006

US republicans find their struggle was run by an informer


(by Seán O'Driscoll, Irish Times)

Irish republican activists in the US are still coming to terms with the outing of Denis Donaldson, although some note that their suspicions were justified, writes Seán O'Driscoll in New York

Patricia Megahey was driving to the Archway pub in the Bronx with her husband, Gabriel, in the passenger seat and Denis Donaldson in the back. As happened so often in 1989, Gabriel Megahey, the US commander of the IRA in the 1980s, was locked in furious argument with Donaldson, who had been sent from Belfast to restructure the US IRA and the republican fundraising group, Noraid.

Donaldson had clear instructions from Belfast to depose Noraid's leader, Martin Galvin, who was considered out of step with Sinn Féin's growing political aspirations.

But for Megahey, something clearly didn't fit with Donaldson. He had seen him buying a round of drinks for FBI men in the Phoenix bar in the Bronx. "That was an eye-popper," he says. "I just had a feeling from that moment that something wasn't right."

Megahey's suspicions that Donaldson might be an informer grew when he saw him socialising with an Irish-American couple who suddenly joined Noraid and disappeared as quickly as they came.

"At that time it was mostly Irish-born people that you wanted because you knew where they were coming from, but there were a few people knocking around at Donaldson's time that we had doubts about. People just thought I was a hothead and I was venting my anger," Megahey said.

As Patricia parked the car outside the Archway, Gabriel Megahey suddenly turned back to Donaldson. "You're here with some secret mandate," he said. "I don't know what it is!" Last week Donaldson's secret mandate exploded on to the world's media when he admitted that he had been a paid British spy for 20 years.

News that Donaldson was an informant has stunned New York republicans, who had seen him almost single-handedly restructure the US movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s at the request of Gerry Adams and the Sinn Féin leadership.

"I'm too devastated to talk. I'm numb. I just cannot believe it," said Michael Shanley, Donaldson's closest friend from his New York days.

Maureen McCullough, a Noraid supporter in charge of distributing the republican newspaper An Phoblacht, was equally shocked. She remembers the excitement of such a prominent republican arriving in New York in 1988.

"There had been a bad split in Noraid at the time, and he was here to sort it all out," she recalls. "We begged, borrowed and loaned furniture for the family. I remember the first night he arrived, I bought chicken and steak for the family."

It is not lost on his political enemies, however, that Donaldson, a known IRA member, never faced deportation charges when so many other Irish republicans were being arrested in New York at that time.

"When you look at all the other former prisoners who faced deportation orders in the US at that time and yet Donaldson was never touched. He came and went whenever he wanted and he was never stopped," says former Noraid leader Martin Galvin, a fierce opponent of Donaldson who later sided with dissident republicans.

According to Galvin, Donaldson's initial arrival in New York was a big deal for Noraid, who paid for his apartment in Bainbridge in the Bronx and a stipend for his work at the borough's Noraid office.

Donaldson's apartment on Decatur Avenue was just a block from the main commercial strip on Bainbridge Avenue, which was then one of the most populated Irish neighbourhoods in New York.

"He loved the Irish neighbourhoods but also the diversity of New York," said one of his closest friends. "I remember taking him down to jazz clubs in Greenwich Village. He revelled in it, and he loved the Italian neighbourhoods and all the types of food from all the different ethnic groups."

He recalled that Donaldson would walk for an hour from the Bronx to Noraid's Manhattan office and walk back in the evening just to take in the sights of New York.

Gabriel Megahey had strong republican credentials when he first met Donaldson. As the US commander of the IRA, he had been caught in an FBI sting operation while trying to buy surface-to-air missiles in Florida.

He and Donaldson met for the first time at a function in an American Legion Hall in the Bronx, organised by the Noraid newspaper, the Irish People. At the outset, "I had no problem with him at all," recalls Megahey.

"He was smiling away, very easy to talk [ to]. I thought he was all right."

However, Donaldson soon tried to plant division in Noraid, he said. "He was always saying things like: "Oh, Ireland doesn't like this person, Ireland doesn't like that person. These were very hard-working people in Noraid being sidelined. Everyone was saying that he had directions from Ireland. But I was from Belfast myself; I wasn't going to let him push me around".

The worst dispute between the two erupted after Donaldson told Megahey that the Belfast leadership gave him permission to work "on the side" with two republicans who were considered to be untouchable because of their reputation for starting bar fights in Belfast.

As soon as Megahey began working with the pair, Donaldson told the IRA army council that Megahey was working with undesirables, putting Megahey's life at risk, according to a source.

Megahey confirms that he had to talk over issues with "the army", meaning the IRA. Afterwards, he confronted Donaldson at the Noraid office.

"I shouted and screamed. I never insulted any man like I insulted him that day," recalls Megahey. "What struck me was his stillness. I was hoping he would raise his head and say something but he didn't. He just remained motionless. No reaction. I thought that was strange."

Patricia Megahey recalls that Donaldson had an Irish newspaper clipping about his arrest on subversive charges proudly hanging on the wall at the Noraid office.

"He had this thing up there like he was some kind of hero, after all that everyone else had been through. I used to say: 'So, Denis. Is that your resumé?' I didn't like him and he didn't like me," she says.

While some of Donaldson's directions were clearly coming from the Sinn Féin leadership, other decisions seemed to baffle New York republicans, such as his decision to withdraw support for a film project with Mickey Rourke, who was then a major movie star and a very strong Noraid supporter.

Elizabeth O'Hara, whose brother Patsy had died on the 1981 hunger strikes, had agreed to allow Rourke to tell her brother's story in what Noraid hoped would be a major propaganda coup for Irish republicanism.

"The idea was that some of the money would go towards republican prisoners, and Elizabeth would approve the script, but Donaldson did everything to disrupt it," recalls Galvin.

"It dragged on, and the film people got impatient. Then he insisted on bringing another family out to inspect it and eventually the film people just walked away."

Gabriel Megahey recalls that Noraid organised a big night for Rourke on a cruise ship called the World Yacht. "Donaldson was dead against it," he said. "Just totally against it. He put everything in the way. I think we have a better idea now why that happened."

Denis Donaldson came back to Ireland after more than a year but returned frequently to New York to steer the US organisation as the peace process developed, despite his IRA membership and criminal convictions.

For the Megaheys, Donaldson's increasing insistence on discipline to Belfast was stirring more resentment.

"There was resentment there because everyone was coming to the same conclusion that we had to move more into politics," says Patricia Megahey. "We had been politically active for a long time, and it was moving more that way with campaigns and protests and letters and phone calls to the White House.

We knew that republicans couldn't go on killing and hurting people, couldn't keep going to prison. It had to end at the negotiation table."

"Nobody explained anything to us. We were just told: this is what's happening. It would have beenfar better to have a discussion," says Gabriel Megahey.

"When I think about what we know about him, it's something you look at in a very, very different light."

The Megaheys have moved away from militant republicanism to suburban New York family life, with Ms Megahey now working with autistic children.

As they spoke to The Irish Times this week, their answering machine was full with messages from republican supporters across the US who now concede that the Megaheys' suspicions were correct.

"There's about a hundred messages on there from Florida, Connecticut, Michigan, everywhere," says Gabriel Megahey. "I'm getting people saying, 'Oh, you said it back then and we didn't listen. All right, we get it now. Now we understand.'"

Maureen McCullough, however, believes that Donaldson's full story has yet to be told. "I knew him as a gentleman, a straight-arrow kind of guy who wanted the best for everyone. I don't know what happened. I just know that it's going to take 50 years before this story is fully told."

January 2, 2006

This article appears in the December 24, 2005 edition of the Irish Times.

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