What’s one less IRA grass to the government?
Jenny McCartney says that the murder of Denis Donaldson is a matter of supreme indifference to the authorities in London and Dublin The final miserable weeks of Denis Donaldson — the former IRA man, Sinn Fein official and selfconfessed British agent — were spent in dramatically abject surroundings, huddling alone in a freezing cottage built before the Irish famine and bereft of running water or electricity. He had secluded himself in remotest Donegal, but politically it might as well have been a Siberian gulag: in the dead of night, with the wind howling over the charred wreck of a wood fire, it must have felt like one, too.
Last December, Donaldson — until recently one of Gerry Adams’s most trusted aides haltingly revealed at a press conference that he had spent 20 years working for British intelligence, having been recruited after ‘compromising myself during a vulnerable time in my life’. Donaldson wore the shaky, doomed air of a participant in a Stalinist show trial, the difference being that his confession was true. Perhaps he nurtured wild hopes that if only he played ball with Sinn Fein and blamed the blackmailing Brits, he might somehow be forgiven.
Instead, his annihilation was coldly enacted in several phases. First he was publicly expelled from Sinn Fein, although Adams assured him that he was not under any threat from the ‘republican movement’. Then he was ordered out of Belfast, and magnanimously permitted to shiver for a while on the verge of a nervous collapse in Donegal. And then, on Tuesday, he was blasted to bits with a shotgun: it was reported that one of his hands had been almost severed. It rather appears as though Adams had unfortunately underestimated the risk to Donaldson’s life.
Who killed Denis Donaldson? No one seems to know. Gerry Adams has flatly denied the involvement of Sinn Fein. The IRA has denied the involvement of the IRA. Assembled media pundits obediently issued the obligatory hints that this was the dark work of republican ‘dissidents’ determined to sabotage the sterling political progress of Messrs Adams and McGuinness. On BBC’s Newsnight, the presenter Emily Maitlis suggested to Hugh Jordan — the reporter who had tracked Donaldson to his penitential retreat two weeks earlier — that ‘rogue elements’ in republicanism were responsible. Jordan couldn’t quite suppress his scepticism: ‘Not just rogue elements.... ’ he responded. Was it the IRA, then? Well, like everyone else, Jordan couldn’t say for sure. The primary purpose of those who murdered Denis Donaldson was not to undermine talks on restoring Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. It was to exact the bloody, visceral revenge for Donaldson’s intimate betrayal of republicanism in general and the Sinn Fein leadership in particular. Donaldson, a man of impeccable republican credentials, had been a friend of the legendary IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands. He was a central party strategist, confided in by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. When his career as a British spy was revealed, the Sinn Fein leadership was both shellshocked and intensely angry.
There is no more richly loathed figure in IRA circles than the ‘tout’, and the penalty is made explicit in the IRA’s Green Book, to which recruits swear allegiance: ‘Volunteers found guilty of treason will face the death penalty.’ The IRA’s enactment of vengeance upon ‘touts’ is essential to the organisation’s self-esteem, which is why it has gone to extraordinary lengths to murder so many informers over the years. A live informer is a walking insult to the IRA leadership, and an informer of Donaldson’s magnitude was a greatly amplified insult.
The machinations of the Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ have never prevented the IRA from murdering, or trying to murder, informers. Nor have such killings ever incurred any serious political sanctions for Sinn Fein. In January 1999 the corpse of Eamon Collins was discovered, rent by stab wounds, in a country lane near his home in Newry. Collins was a former IRA man who had turned police informer and written a book, Killing Rage, which exposed the unlovely workings of the organisation. His murder excited barely a whimper of protest from the British government or the media: the political waters silently closed over Collins as though he had never existed. In June of the same year, the IRA made a second effort to murder Martin McGartland, an exceptionally courageous police agent who had succeeded in infiltrating the IRA and saving many lives. McGartland had already survived one murder attempt by the desperate means of hobbling with bound legs to a window in the Belfast tower block where he was being held by an IRA interrogation squad, and blindly propelling himself through the plate glass.
He was supplied with a new identity and relocated to the British mainland, where he lived until his original name was clumsily revealed in court during a speeding charge brought by Northumbria police. The diligent representatives of the IRA, taking a minibreak from their official ceasefire, then tracked him to his house and shot him six times at close range. McGartland miraculously survived after a long spell in intensive care. The political fortunes of Sinn Fein emerged in even better shape: completely unbruised.
The IRA’s specialist ‘Nutting Squad’ is notorious for the brutality of its reprisals against informers — so much so that one formerly zealous IRA tout-hunter, Alfredo ‘Freddie’ Scappaticci, knew better than to trust any reassurances from Gerry Adams when he was exposed as an informer himself. Scappaticci first vigorously denied allegations that he was a British agent nicknamed ‘Stakeknife’ and then bolted to an undisclosed location in Italy.
What motivation would there have been for republican dissidents such as the Real IRA to murder Donaldson? From a dissident perspective it might have been preferable to let Donaldson hang about, as an embarrassing testimony to how gullible and toothless the soft saps in Sinn Fein had become. And unless such dissidents are exceptionally dim, they will have realised by now that while the murders of IRA informers might generate bad faith with Unionists, they leave the British and Irish authorities supremely unbothered.
Indeed, the very day after Donaldson was murdered, and before any identification of his killers by the Irish police, the British and Irish governments blithely insisted that this unhappy event would not affect their struggle to restore Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. Since Sinn Fein is viewed as an essential participant in this government, this amounts to a preemptive statement of forgiveness. The British authorities may even be quietly relieved that Donaldson is no longer around to lift the lid on his murky career in their employ.
In 1986 the dead body of a Catholic man named Frank Hegarty was found on a road in County Tyrone, with his eyes taped shut. Hegarty was a suspected IRA informer who had fled to England. He had been encouraged home to Derry — so his mother Rose told journalists — by impassioned assurances from Martin McGuinness that he would not be harmed. In 20 years, it seems, not that much has changed, except that now the British authorities are even more indifferent to the squalid, lonely death of an IRA informer.
Jenny McCartney is on the staff of the Sunday Telegraph.