On October 4th 2002 lines of armoured police vehicles came screaming up the drive to Parliament Buildings at Stormont. As the heavy doors clanged open scores of PSNI officers, some wearing riot gear, jumped out and rushed into the building. They were there to raid the Sinn Féin offices.
Because those in the Special Branch who were responsible for the operation had alerted the media the whole exercise was carried out in the full glare of publicity.
The spin to the press was that a republican spyring had been uncovered in Stormont! According to the PSNI itself the Stormont raid, with all of the attendant armoured vehicles and police officers, was to enable them to search “one desk and immediate surrounding area".
The room was the administrative office for the party and the desk belonged to Denis Donaldson, who was the administrative manager for the Sinn Féin team in Parliament Buildings. The PSNI took away documents and computer discs.
The television images and snapper’s pics were flashed around the world. When the media disappeared the discs and documents were handed back.
There were also raids elsewhere, including on the Donaldson family home in west Belfast where the PSNI claimed it found sensitive documents.
The new English Chief Constable of the PSNI was not told of the raid before hand by the Special Branch who orchestrated it.
Within a short time the Special Branch and British intelligence had told sections of the media that: “The security operation which uncovered alleged republican intelligence gathering in government in Northern Ireland was triggered by a police source within the IRA”.
Subsequently it was revealed that nothing of any incriminating or illegal nature was found in the Sinn Féin office. But then that wasn’t the point. The Special Branch never expected to find anything there.
The raid at Stormont was to give the media and public the impressive visuals that were needed to enhance the claim of a spyring and to subvert the democratically elected power sharing government at that time.
It worked. David Trimble lost his nerve and pulled his Ministers out of the Executive. And within 10 days John Reid, the then British Secretary of State, suspended the political institutions.
On December 8th 2005, three years later, the case against Donaldson, who had been charged with possession of documents at his home, and several others collapsed. Two days later he was visited by the PSNI and warned that members of the media had information that he was an informer and that he should consider his life to be in danger.
The only source for such a story could have been Special Branch.
This warning was disputed by some, including sections of the media. However, the Donaldson family have since released an internal PM1 document which had been created on Saturday, 10 December 2005, by the Regional Assessment Unit (Castlereagh) of PSNI Special Branch.
The document confirms that the PSNI told Donaldson that ‘members of the media believe that Denis Donaldson is an informer.’
The warning clearly unnerved Donaldson and led to him admitting to Sinn Féin officials that he was a British agent. He was suspended and then expelled from the party.
On the Thursday December 16th he received a telephone call from his former handler, ‘Lenny’, and following that he left Belfast. At a press conference in Dublin the next day Donaldson confirmed that:
• He had worked for British intelligence and the RUC/PSNI Special Branch since the 1980s, and that he was paid money.
• That his last two contacts with the Special Branch were two days before his arrest in October 02 and the previous evening.
• That he had not been involved in any republican spy ring at Stormont
• That this spy ring was a fiction created by the Special Branch.
Four months later on April 4th 2006 he was shot dead in Donegal in an attack subsequently claimed three years later, in April 2009 by the anti-peace faction describing itself the Real IRA.
Since then the Donaldson family has been involved in a legal battle to ensure that an inquest is held and that it is compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has been a frustrating process which has taken a lot of determination on their part. Thus far, the southern state has refused them any support to have legal representation to make their case to the Coroner, in contrast to representation for Gardai.
The Inquest in Donegal has been adjourned 5 times at the request of the Gardai. Each time, the prospect of bringing criminal proceedings in the case has been held out by Gardai as a reason to prevent the start of the inquest. On May 5th , the inquest will be reconvened for the sixth time.
However, the arrests last week of two men in Donegal could mean that once again the Gardai may seek an adjournment.
The Donaldson family have also raised concerns about the role of British intelligence agencies and what information the PSNI Special Branch have in respect of the killing of their own agent. The family also have concerns around the Gardai investigation, and the failure to hold an inquest.
Sinn Féin shares the family’s concerns.
This blog raised these matters on a number of occasions with the last Minister for Justice in Dublin without resolution.
For the Donaldson family this is about truth but they are also very conscious that this case raises broader concerns over accountability and cross-jurisdictional issues to do with policing and justice on the island of Ireland.
Last Thursday they issued a lengthy statement pointing to “serious discrepancies and anomalies in accounts relating to the circumstances leading up to Denis' murder”.
And the family say that in order to be effective “thorough, independent and compliant with our family’s rights under Article 2 of the ECHR, any investigation of Denis’ murder must examine the identities, motivations, activities, links, communications and movements of ‘Lenny’ and their Special Branch associates. ‘Lenny’ is intimately informed about the events surrounding Denis’ murder. ‘Lenny’ holds the answers to many questions.”
Notwithstanding the five year delay in the holding of the inquest it is possible to draw some conclusions from this affair.
The decision by the Special Branch to arrest and implicate their own agent in 2002 in a nonexistent spyring was about collapsing the power sharing government to which senior members of the old RUC Special Branch were implacably opposed.
The decision to expose Donaldson as an agent in December 2005 was intended to have a destabilising impact also and his murder in April 06 was for the same purpose.