06 April 2006

Waiting for his killer to come, the ex-spy had reached end of a bloody road

Times Online

By David Sharrock

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Click to view - Police forensic experts gathered at the house, rumoured to have served as an IRA safe house during the Troubles, **Note: house is also said to be owned by Mr Donaldson's son-in-law. (ALAN LEWIS)

Irish police had warned Denis Donaldson about the risk of retribution, but he refused to run

THE biggest mystery surrounding the murder of Denis Donaldson yesterday turned out not to be who killed him, but why he didn’t run when he still had the chance.

Irish police had recently visited the former British agent at his remote cottage to warn him that his life was in danger. They gave him security advice and the telephone number for the nearest Garda station in the town of Glenties, five miles away.

Given the opportunity to keep one step ahead of his legions of enemies — the bitterest of whom were undoubtedly his erstwhile comrades in the Provisional IRA — Mr Donaldson, 56, seemingly sat back and waited for the inevitable to happen.

It must have been a constant agony, never knowing if the next knock at the door of his basic, one-storey dwelling — a relic of the pre-famine era in a Gaelic-speaking area of Co Donegal — was the executioner’s call. A lifetime republican, he knew the price to be paid by informers.

As a murder inquiry began, police said that a window at the cottage had been broken and the door, above which is nailed a lucky horseshoe, forced open. Mr Donaldson’s body was found inside with two spent shotgun cartridges lying by his body.

The results of a post-mortem examination confirmed that he died of a shotgun wound to the chest. He had also suffered severe injuries to his right hand in the attack.

Chief Superintendent Terry McGinn said that police were aware the cottage was being used by Mr Donaldson when he moved into the area in January, the month after he admitted that he had worked for British Intelligence and the police Special Branch for more than 20 years.

“We would have been paying passing attention to the cottage,” she said. “When we became aware that Mr Donaldson was there we made ourselves known and offered him our support and assistance. We introduced ourselves and exchanged telephone numbers.”

He was also visited at least twice by journalists in the past weeks, from the BBC and the Sunday World, a Dublin tabloid newspaper. On both occasions Mr Donaldson was polite but reserved, declining the opportunity to go beyond what he had already said on the day he outed himself as a British agent within Sinn Fein at a Dublin press conference four months ago.

On that day, when senior republicans must have felt their world collapsing around them as one of their most trusted comrades admitted the worst heresy imaginable, he did not take questions but read from a prepared script in which he admitted to having worked for British Intelligence and Special Branch for money since the 1980s and denied there had ever been an IRA spy ring at Stormont, calling it “a scam and a fiction”.

He had been Sinn Fein’s head of administration at Stormont in October 2002 when police arrested him, his son-in-law, Ciaran Earney, and a civil servant, William Mackessy, on charges that they were operating a republican spy ring in the Northern Ireland Office.

The arrests resulted in the collapse of power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists and a hardening of minds in the Protestant community against trusting the republicans.

After a three-year legal battle, the Public Prosecution Service in December dropped the charges against the men, claiming that the case was no longer in the public interest.

However, within a week Mr Donaldson appeared on Irish television admitting that he had spied on his colleagues in the republican movement for two decades after being compromised at a vulnerable time in his life.

It was the lack of conviction in his words that made an interview with Mr Donaldson the most sought-after scoop in years. There were just too many contradictions, too many unanswered questions. In the space of a few days Mr Donaldson had gone from being lionised by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as a victim of British Intelligence to being denounced by the same Sinn Fein leaders as an instrument of it.

So when Hugh Jordan, of the Sunday World, tracked him down to a grim cottage without electricity or running water in the Doochary hills, there was admiration and envy of his exclusive. What Mr Jordan found surprised even him. “He was living in appallingly basic conditions,” he told The Times. “He looked haunted, a shadow of the man I knew from his Stormont days.”

The journalist discovered that Mr Donaldson seemed to spend his days making the most of his meagre resources to survive. Water had to be drawn from a well, heating and cooking were from a peat-burning range.

His only communication with the outside world was a battery-operated radio. At night, with the temperature dropping below zero and the Atlantic gales howling across the hills, his only source of light was a Tilley lamp. His only luxury was a petrol-driven log-cutter.

Local people said it was generally believed that Mr Donaldson owned the cottage, which had remained derelict for many years. Some said it was rumoured that for many years during the Troubles it had served as a safe house for IRA members on the move or on the run.

After the mass breakout from the Maze prison by IRA inmates in 1983 a number hid out in the area.

Terence Slowey, the Donegal councillor with the opposition Fine Gael party, said: “It’s up a very isolated bog road — you wouldn’t be on it unless you had cattle.

“There were certainly many visitors from Belfast, you’d hear the accents. People did come and go to the house. It’s on a very bad road but it’s my understanding that senior republican people would have known about the house for years.”

Mr Donaldson’s last days did not seem to deviate from the routine he had been following since his disappearance after the Dublin press conference. He occasionally drove into Glenties to pick up a few provisions, buy credit for his mobile phone and take a spot of lunch alone at the bar of the town’s only hotel.

“He certainly didn’t make his presence felt in this town,” Mr Slowey said. “He was so low-profile, dishevelled; he was a broken man. A broken man with a lot of enemies.”

It was the same story in the neighbouring town of Doochary, where Mr Donaldson also ran a few errands. In the post office Margaret confirmed that she had seen him. “It was the day after the story appeared in the Sunday World. He came in on business.”

She wouldn’t elaborate. “He wouldn’t have associated at all in this town. Maybe he was afraid to.”

Alone, shunning company, Mr Donaldson seemed like a man caught between his secret past and an uncertain future. “I couldn’t understand why he was living as he was,” Hugh Jordan said. “In the winter months you can pick up a house for rent with the comforts of heat and electricity for next to nothing.

“Yet there he was living in those squalid conditions. It made me think he was being made to live like that, as if it were part of his penance, like he had been sent to the Provo gulag.”

That certainly seemed to chime with remarks made by Mr Donaldson in the brief interview at the door of the cottage. He said that he was not in hiding, but nor was he in contact with any of his old party colleagues.

The straggly beard, combat trousers and walking boots were a far cry from the sharp suits and fashionable clothes he once favoured.

Asked how he felt about his public dismissal by his former friend Mr Adams, Mr Donaldson shrugged and said: “I don’t want to be in touch with anyone. As you can see, I’m in the middle of nowhere.”

He concluded his brief interview by saying: “All conflicts end in political solutions — it’s the only way.” Asked about his future, he replied: “This is it.”

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, confirmed to the Irish parliament yesterday that Mr Donaldson knew his life was in danger.

“Garda visited him in the light of the public attention that he received and advised him that because of his circumstances, there was a perceived element of threat to his life,” Mr Ahern said. “Perhaps it was blind and bitter retribution. Whatever the reason, it was a foul murder. The investigation will have to go on.”

But just where the threat came from remains undefined. Inevitably the strongest suspicion will be that bitter former comrades killed him. The IRA immediately denied involvement.

The use of a shotgun is not the Provisisionals’ traditional weapon of dispatch for a traitor but it leaves no scientific trail. The IRA announced that its “armed campaign” to end British rule in Ireland was at an end last summer and it decommissioned its weapons.

The international body in charge of monitoring paramilitary ceasefires has since said that it believes it is possible that the Provisionals held on to some of their weapons. But there will be no admission of responsibility for Mr Donaldson’s murder because, if the Provisionals did kill him, it would be fatal to their political ambitions.

Nevertheless, the Government believes that the timing of Mr Donaldson’s murder is not coincidental, pointing to the meeting between Tony Blair and Mr Ahern in Armagh today at which they will announce what could be their last best effort to revive the power-sharing architecture of the Good Friday agreement. In spite of Sinn Fein and IRA denials of involvement, describing the perpetrators as “enemies of the peace process”, the Democratic Unionists remonstrated that the republicans lied about their involvement in the Northern Bank £26.5 million cash raid in December 2004 and the murder of Robert McCartney a month later. It means that trust between Unionists and republicans remains at rock bottom.

It has also been suggested by republicans, not surprisingly, that elements within the British “securocracy” may be responsible. This appears to be based on the contention that it was the same elements that exposed his role as their agent.

But even if that dubious claim were true — Mr Donaldson was warned by police that he was about to be exposed and was offered assistance in relocation and starting a new life, which he refused — it would still not provide a motive for the murder.

His family was at Letterkenny hospital last night, awaiting the release of his remains.

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