December 23, 2005

Irish Spy's Revelations Cause an Uproar

Filed at 3:41 p.m. ET

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) -- For 20 years, Denis Donaldson says he worked both as an important backroom official for Sinn Fein -- and, to the public dismay of his closest party colleagues, as a paid informer for the British.

His Dec. 16 declaration to have been a turncoat sent shock waves through Northern Ireland's peace process. It raised fresh doubts about why the province's power-sharing government really collapsed three years ago -- an event triggered by Donaldson's own arrest as a suspected Irish Republican Army spy -- and whether any trust remains to build a new one.

Donaldson, 55, today is in hiding somewhere in Ireland, leaving the IRA-linked Sinn Fein and British officials to push rival conspiracy theories about what ''their'' man was really doing. Moderate politicians and analysts say the truth probably lies in the middle, but they question Sinn Fein's claim of a plot by British ''spooks,'' or intelligence officials, to scuttle power-sharing.

''The Sinn Fein conspiracy theory -- that the spooks are out to destroy the peace process -- suffers from a fundamental flaw. Not only is it rubbish, but the exact opposite is the truth,'' said Ed Moloney, author of ''A Secret History of the IRA.''

''The peace process represents the wildest fantasies of the security establishment come true, and the last thing the spooks want is to see it destroyed.''

Yet the central achievement of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace deal, a four-party government that included Sinn Fein, fell apart in October 2002 because of the arrest of Donaldson, an IRA veteran who was Sinn Fein's administration chief in the power-sharing government.

Police charged Donaldson, his son-in-law and a British civil servant with pilfering piles of British documents and records that included transcripts of confidential discussions between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush; negotiating papers of Sinn Fein's political rivals; and the personal details of more than 1,000 potential IRA targets, including police and British army officers and prison guards.

Police said most documents were found in a backpack in the west Belfast home of Donaldson, who served several years in prison for plotting to bomb British government buildings in 1971, then was detained in 1981 by French police while traveling on a false passport from Lebanon.

On Dec. 8, Northern Ireland was stunned when prosecutors dropped all charges against the three men, obscurely citing ''the public interest'' and refusing to explain further.

Protestant leaders accused Britain of cutting a secret deal with Sinn Fein to remove a potential obstacle to resumed power-sharing. They said such duplicity demonstrated why they would not cooperate until the IRA disbanded, something the underground group refuses to do despite handing its weapons stockpiles to disarmament chiefs in September.

A week later, people got an even bigger shock. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams announced that Donaldson -- a veteran diplomat for Irish republican efforts ranging from Libya to the United States -- had confessed to Sinn Fein officials he was on the British informer payroll.

Within hours, Donaldson made a surprise appearance on Irish state television to confirm this. Mirroring the Sinn Fein line, he accused Britain of concocting the spying scandal.

So far, Britain has refused all Northern Ireland parties' demands to explain why it charged an alleged British informer with IRA spying, then dropped the case. Sinn Fein cites this as proof that the alleged ''spy ring'' was a British production, not an IRA one.

On Wednesday, Blair told lawmakers in London he wanted ''to state rather more clearly what had happened'' but warned that any disclosures must ''be done within the right legal procedures, because otherwise we will all get into trouble over it.''

Sinn Fein's moderate rival for Catholic votes, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or SDLP, said Sinn Fein had at least as many questions to answer because its version made no sense, and its public claims to be surprised by Donaldson's duplicity ring hollow.

''Everybody agrees that a rucksack with a mound of documents was found in Denis Donaldson's house over three years ago,'' SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnnell said Friday.

''If there never was an IRA spy ring, why did Sinn Fein not expel him immediately when these were found?''

The probable truth, said Moloney, was that the IRA spy ring did exist, Donaldson was part of it, and his ''handlers'' in Special Branch, the intelligence-gathering arm of the Northern Ireland police force, had disowned him because of it.

Moloney cited as evidence a little-analyzed part of Donaldson's Dec. 16 admission: He had no contact with his British intelligence contacts between his 2002 arrest and this month's outing by Sinn Fein.

He said Sinn Fein may be trying to cover up the possibility of more British agents within its ranks, a deeply embarrassing prospect for Adams.

A senior Northern Ireland detective, speaking on condition of anonymity because police officers have been ordered not to discuss the case, said Sinn Fein was managing an internal crisis by pinning the blame elsewhere.

''If we had wanted to stage an event as Sinn Fein claims, you'd have found those documents in Connolly House, not in Donaldson's house,'' he said, referring to Sinn Fein headquarters. ''We found the documents in Donaldson's house because we'd been tracking his involvement in an IRA intelligence-gathering operation for many months.''

However, the detective refused to discuss why the charges were dropped.

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