09 April 2006

Dead man walking

Sunday Times

Liam Clarke
April 09, 2006

Why did Denis Donaldson wait for the assassins to get him? Liam Clarke unravels the mystery

It was probably under cover of darkness that the killers’ car approached the remote cottage where Denis Donaldson was holed up on Monday night. Did he hear the low purr of the engine as the car crawled up the lightless country road? Or was the first sound that wakened him the brittle crash of glass as a brick smashed through the window? Either way, as he rushed to bolt the front door, above which was nailed a lucky horseshoe, it was kicked open and shotgun blasts sent him staggering back into the room.

There was no back door and nowhere to run as the gunman reloaded his weapon, dropping the two spent cartridges in his haste. Two more blasts almost severed Donaldson’s right hand and hit him in the chest and face. The killers ran, leaving the two cartridge cases behind them. Donaldson’s body, dressed in pyjamas, was found the next afternoon by a neighbour who tooted her horn as she drove by and was alarmed when he did not come out to wave.

She, like everyone else living around Glenties, in wild, rocky Donegal, near the west coast of Ireland, must have suspected that Donaldson was living on borrowed time. Last December the once-senior IRA man — most familiarly seen in a photograph with his arm around Bobby Sands, the iconic republican hunger striker — revealed that he had worked for British intelligence and the police Special Branch for 20 years.

It was a stunning confession which threw the republican world into confusion. There is traditionally only one punishment for “touts” — death. But Donaldson might have believed that as the IRA had officially declared an end to its “armed struggle” by the time he confessed, he would be spared. The IRA denies killing Donaldson but, even if the murder was not sanctioned by its leadership, the finger of suspicion points firmly at republicans furious at what they see as his betrayal of their cause.

Since January Donaldson had lived quietly in self-imposed exile at a holiday cottage that his family had owned for many years, drawing water from a well and curling up by a wood-burning stove at night as the freezing Atlantic winds raged across the hills. He was apparently calm but Raymond Gilmour, a supergrass and police agent who was resettled in England under a false name provided by MI5, knows the terrible haunting fear that he must have felt.

“I am lucky if I get two hours’ sleep a night. I am just waiting for someone to creep up the stairs, always aware of my surroundings,” he says. “I have nightmares constantly. I dreamt of Martin McGuinness (the Sinn Fein leader) a couple of weeks ago. He was with a group of guys putting the hoods on just ready to come and get me like someone got Donaldson. Poor guy.” Gilmour suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and has a psychiatrist paid for by MI5.

Did Donaldson think he could get away with it? His whereabouts were widely known in republican circles and he shopped in the nearby village. Two weeks before he died, a reporter visited him. Donaldson told him: “I am not in hiding, I just want to be left alone . . .”

Donaldson had a long and, until last December, illustrious history with the IRA. Born in 1950 in Short Strand, a beleaguered nationalist estate in loyalist east Belfast, he was one of the Provisional IRA’s first recruits in 1969. He had become a local hero after he took part in a gun battle with marauding loyalist gangs outside St Matthew’s chapel.

An active participant in the IRA bombing campaign that paralysed the commercial heart of Belfast in the early 1970s, he served four years in prison alongside Sands. His friendship with Sands, a republican martyr, made his eventual betrayal all the more bitter.

After he was released from jail, Donaldson became an IRA intelligence officer and was entrusted with the delicate task of contacting foreign revolutionary groups including Eta, the PLO and Hamas. 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. Some suspect that this might have been the moment when he was turned by intelligence agents, but in a press conference he stated that he had become a British agent after “compromising myself” in the mid-1980s.

Theories abound as to how this happened. A charming, witty and popular man, he was a notorious “chaser”, Belfast slang for a philanderer. On one occasion the police caught him in bed with another woman and told his wife. Could they have used this weakness to blackmail him? Former IRA comrades dismiss the possibility. “If you chase like Denis chased then you don’t need the police to tell your wife, someone else will,” one said. Others say that he was caught in a fraud involving a city centre store and feared being sent back to jail.

Security sources say that he was a “walk in”, that is, he volunteered to work for them and the most likely explanation is that he did so to get charges dropped against a relative. He was potentially a good recruit: he had extensive knowledge of the IRA’s foreign networks and while he was an agent he was sent to Lebanon by Sinn Fein to try to negotiate the release of Brian Keenan, the Beirut hostage.

One officer who had knowledge of his intelligence output since the mid-1990s said: “It was always political information. He was very much into giving you the way the Provos were thinking, the way they were going forward and changing and the way he believed they were moving away from violence. You don’t get big money for that.”

After the 1994 IRA ceasefire he was moved to America where he set up Sinn Fein’s first office and began sidelining hardline supporters of violence. But there were doubts about his reliability.

One nugget which Donaldson did not pass on to Special Branch was his friendship with Larry Zaitschek, a New York chef who later came to work in Special Branch headquarters at Castlereagh in Belfast. Police believe Zaitschek may have provided inside help for an IRA break-in at Castlereagh that netted secret documents including the codenames of all the police informers in Belfast, the names of their handlers and the addresses of houses where Special Branch listening devices and bugs were hidden.

The mastermind behind the whole operation was Bobby Storey, the IRA’s head of intelligence, and the raid endangered the entire informer network in Belfast. Dozens of police officers had to move home and Special Branch became determined to nail Storey.

Little guessing Donaldson’s involvement, Special Branch initially planned to get him to go to America to spy on Zaitschek, but when officers contacted the FBI it became apparent that it was Donaldson who had brought Zaitschek to Ireland in the first place.

At that point, did Donaldson’s treachery become known to Storey and the IRA? And did they use him as a double agent? Did his true allegiance lie with the IRA, the police or with himself?

Then, four years ago, another west Belfast republican walked into Grosvenor Road police station, asked to speak to Special Branch officers and offered to work for them. He wanted to get even with a senior republican who he believed had wronged him.

He told police of a spying operation inside Stormont, the seat of the suspended Northern Ireland assembly, which was being run from the Sinn Fein offices where Donaldson was head of administration. He was able to identify a house where more documents were being held, including transcripts of telephone conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush. Special Branch saw this as its chance to catch Storey. Officers burgled the house where the documents were being held to see what damage had been done and then returned them and watched, hoping Storey would be caught in possession of them.

Donaldson told his handler nothing, presumably fearing that his role as a British agent could be exposed in any police investigation. He might also have feared that his son-in-law, Ciaran Kearney, another Sinn Fein worker, would be caught up in the investigation.

MI5, the British security service, strongly advised that the papers should simply be recovered and no arrests made because of the possible fallout. At least two agents, Donaldson and the “walk in”, were at risk. However, Special Branch and the Police Service of Northern Ireland pushed on. They seized papers that were in a bag in Donaldson’s home, raided the Sinn Fein offices in Stormont and arrested Donaldson, Kearney and two other people (charges against them were subsequently dropped). The immediate political fallout led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland power-sharing assembly when David Trimble, the unionist leader, pulled out.

In mid-December Donaldson’s handlers summoned him to one last meeting and told him his cover was about to be blown. A story was put about that his name was likely to be published in a Sunday newspaper but the truth was that the IRA had worked out what was happening, according to republican sources.

Legally, the police had a duty of care to Donaldson and were obliged to offer him a new identity and a new home in England, the sort of deal that Gilmour had accepted. Instead Donaldson opted to handle it himself. He went to see Declan Kearney, the brother of his son-in-law Ciaran, who is a senior Sinn Fein strategist as well as the party’s Northern Ireland chairman, and agreed to appear at a press conference where he would reveal his double life. “My name is Denis Donaldson . . . I was a British agent . . . I was recruited in the 1980s after compromising myself during a vulnerable time in my life,” he told the press at a Dublin hotel, refusing to answer questions.

In a republican debriefing he put his total earnings over 20 years of working for police and MI5 at only £40,000. A republican who has been involved in the questioning of informers said: “Some of them seem to like it better if they don’t get too much money. It makes them feel more moral about it.” Afterwards Donaldson was asked by a friend what deal he got from the Provos and replied: “I didn’t get any.”

After all of this, why did Donaldson risk his life and stay in Ireland where he could be easily found? He might have counted on the IRA campaign being over but he might also have believed — erroneously — that he had done enough for both sides to ensure his survival.

A stronger motive was probably his love for his family. He was not as isolated as has been made out in some reports. His wife Alice had stayed with him in the cottage, which is owned by Ciaran Kearney. The desire to protect his family had motivated a great deal of what he had done, perhaps even his decision to become an informer. He had withheld details of the Stormont spy ring which would have implicated Kearney and he had taken responsibility for the Stormont documents found in his house to avoid any difficulty for his family. He also had several grandchildren.

When Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland secretary, heard that Donaldson had been murdered, one of the first people he rang was Gerry Adams. In his death, as in his life, both sides had a problem on their hands. It fell to Adams to pass on word to Donaldson’s family — they cannot, surely, have been too surprised. The Sinn Fein leadership is trying to distance itself from Donaldson. Adams writes that “he was not a member of our leadership” and McGuinness insists that “he was never a friend of mine”, but Adams himself praised Donaldson in his autobiography, Before the Dawn, for his energy and good ideas. Adams also consistently promoted and trusted Donaldson over the years — raising questions about his own judgment. Who killed Donaldson? Nobody is above suspicion.

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