09 April 2006

Isolated Donaldson was easiest of targets

Sunday Business Post

By Colm Heatley
09 April 2006

Denis Donaldson had two choices when he was ‘outed’ as an informer last December. He could either get protection from his MI5 handlers or go it alone and hope that he would be safe in self-imposed isolation.

When he went to his party leaders in Sinn Fein to admit his activities and later gave a press conference stating that Stormontgate was MI5 and Special Branch fiction, he effectively ended his relationship with his former paymasters.

If they hadn’t been already, all ties were then cut. Donaldson was on his own and could expect no support from British intelligence, who believed he had double-crossed them.

Republican sources said they had had nothing to do with Donaldson since late December. His only contact was with his family. He received assurances from the IRA that it had no interest in him and he was free to do as he wished.

After giving his press conference, Donaldson decided to live a secluded existence in the pre-famine cottage owned by his son-in-law.

The land around the cottage has been abandoned for years because of high levels of naturally occurring pollutants, according to locals.

Few people in the town of Glenties met Donaldson. He was an infrequent visitor and on his occasional forays into the town he was brief and kept a low profile.

The once chatty, charming and affable Donaldson, who travelled around the world as a Sinn Fein ambassador, cut a lonely and isolated figure.

His whereabouts were, according to republicans, an ‘open secret’ within the republican movement, certainly among seasoned activists and the ‘middle management’ of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

‘‘No one particularly cared where he was; it was barely even a secret,” said one republican. ‘‘People knew he was living there and were content to let him get on with it, things were moving on [in the peace process] and there were more important concerns than Denis Donaldson.”

However, had Donaldson studied the fate of other exposed informers who decided to stay in Ireland, he would have had cause for concern.

Eamon Collins, an IRA man from Newry who briefly agreed to turn ‘supergrass’ against his former friends in the IRA in the mid-1980s returned to live in the town when the peace process took effect. He was beaten to death in a laneway close to his home on January 27, 1999.

Republicans were the chief suspects in the murder, although it is not believed to have been sanctioned by the leadership.

Unlike Collins, who became a media ‘celebrity’ with his views on the IRA and the peace process, Donaldson remained quiet. He had finally taken a vow of silence, after more than 20 years of informing.

Billy Stobie, a UFF quartermaster who was also a Special Branch agent, was shot dead at his home in north Belfast in December 2001, after he also admitted his role as an informer.

Like Collins, he too had made the mistake of talking about his activities and, following his acquittal on charges of murdering Pat Finucane, he went so far as to pledge support to the Finucane family in any future inquiry. Within weeks he was dead.

However, Donaldson was saying nothing and he was living in post-IRA Ireland. Moreover, the information he passed on was political, not ‘military’ in nature, and unlike past informers he was less likely to have set up IRA men for jail sentences or death at the hands of the SAS.

Even so, most people who knew him agree that his existence in Donegal was poorly thought out.

Aside from the security risk, friends questioned how long he could continue living the life of a hermit on an abandoned Donegal hillside. One former friend said it was as though Donaldson was living out his own version of exile in Siberia. Although he had once rejected a witness protection scheme, his options were limited.

However, by far the most puzzling decision of Donaldson’s life, following his exposure as an informer, was his refusal to move away from the cottage once his whereabouts, along with pictures of him, had appeared in a Sunday tabloid newspaper last month.

What had been an open secret among republicans was now in the public domain.

Few people in Ireland could have acquired quite so many potentially deadly enemies as Donaldson, yet he refused to budge and rejected offers of Garda protection.

The list of suspects includes dissident republicans, although their only reason to carry out the murder would have been to gain publicity and, as yet, they have not claimed responsibility.

Furthermore, such a disruption to the peace process would be a serious challenge to mainstream republicans, something dissidents don’t have the appetite for.

A lone disgruntled republican with a belief that Donaldson’s activities had directly affected his life, perhaps a jail sentence, would certainly have motive to kill. The IRA has denied involvement, something which even the Irish and British governments seem to accept.

Donaldson’s murder, like his outing, occurred at a pivotal point in the peace process, suggesting that, if the murderer was acting alone, he displayed an uncanny sense of timing.

When his murderer arrived at the farmhouse some time last Tuesday, the final chapter in Donaldson’s life had been written. Neighbours discovered his body later that afternoon outside the cottage, suggesting Donaldson had tried to run away. The choice of weapon - a shotgun, a widely available firearm - makes it more difficult to assess the origins of his murderer.

It was reported soon after the killing that Donaldson’s hand had been severed, leading to speculation that the former senior Sinn Fein member had been tortured. However, a postmortem examination later showed that all his injuries were consistent with being hit by shotgun blasts.

The motives behind his puzzling decision not to leave the country may never be fully understood.

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