Hullabaloo over Donaldson and Connolly has nothing to do with national security
Breathtaking – that’s the only word. I normally approach political life with a healthy cynicism, at the back of my mind the deathless words of Jeremy Paxman: ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ But this past week has still left me empty of breath.
I’m not talking about the revelation that Denis Donaldson was a spy. It may be hard to grasp how Donaldson lived as he did for 20 years and why he lived as he did. The notion that the ranks of Sinn Féin should contain a long-term informer (and for God’s sake stop saying ‘informant’, would you, Hugh!) is easily comprehended – could have been predicted, even.
As Damien Kiberd pointed out on this page earlier this week, the men who executed Robert Emmet were spies. The supergrass trials of the 1980s are still fresh in the minds of many, and the stale smell of people like Sean O’Callaghan still lingers in the nostrils. To be surprised that a Denis Donaldson could exist is to be starry-eyed. Prostitution is the oldest profession, treachery a close second.
What is puzzling is what status Denis Donaldson held within the republican movement. Some reports – many, in fact – have him as director of communications in the Sinn Féin offices at Stormont, privy to every important republican decision and strategy for the past ten years or more. I find that hard to believe.
I met Denis Donaldson on two occasions, the first when I went to Stormont to interview Gerry Adams some eight years ago, the second about four years later when I interviewed Martin McGuinness. On both occasions, having cleared security, I was left waiting at the bottom of the stairs while word was sent to the Sinn Féin offices; and on both occasions it was the small, friendly figure of Denis Donaldson who came down, greeted me and brought me up. That done, he disappared until it was time to see me back to the main door again.
Now maybe Sinn Féin is different, but in any other organisation I’ve visited – the Orange Order, the Ulster Unionists, the BBC – the person who comes down and greets the guests and brings them up to their appointment is invariably a junior member – a gofer, a runner. That was the impression I got of Denis Donaldson on both occasions. But hey, maybe I misread the signals. Or maybe Sinn Féin were playing a merry prank on me, leading me to see Denis as less important than he was. Or maybe the spy rose through the office hierarchy at some speed over the last four years or so. But I doubt it. So when I read of him as being a top Sinn Féin person and the huge damage his treachery will do to that party, I remember the little man who brought me up the Stormont stairs.
No, it’s not Donaldson’s existence that’s breathtaking; rather it’s the reaction to it.
Consider the facts. In 2002 a boots-and-baseball-caps PSNI raid takes place at Stormont, a republican spy-ring at the heart of government is announced, and the elected government of this constipated corner of Ireland is collapsed on the grounds that republicans have been pretending to engage in politics while in fact engaged in spying. They are a shower of no-goods, the institutions must fall.
Spin forward to 2005. Now we discover that far from there being a republican spy-ring at the heart of government, there really was a British spy-ring at the heart of government. Rather than republicans spying on the British, it’s been the other way round all the time. While pretending to engage in politics, the British government has in fact been engaged in spying.
What is the reaction to this among other political parties and many sections of the media? Do they give republicans an apology for the unfounded bad things that were said about them and is the all-clear given for the re-establishment of the institutions? Hah. Perish the thought, my little one. What we have is Ian Og Paisley addressing the microphones and declaring that this has set back ANY prospect of a restoration of the power-sharing institutions, since it shows that republicans are not to be trusted. Reg Empey says me too on that one. Mark Durkan says me too, ah… too.
Eh? Am I hearing aright? Breathtakingly, it seems so.
It’s not just politicians. Hugh Orde, head of the same PSNI that thundered into Stormont to expose the non-existent spy-ring – Hugh comes on TV and says wait a minute, we can’t say if Donaldson was or was not a spy, mum’s the word, company policy and all that. But we can say we the PSNI, found hundreds and hundreds of documents, transcripts of private phone calls including Bush chatting to Blair, details of prison officers’ lives – God knows what. It was very very serious, Hugh says. We had to spend millions moving people to new safe addresses. There was a republican spy-ring, Hugh says these documents were found in a house in west Belfast. You must decide which you trust. Hugh says my word as the chief constable of the PSNI, or a bunch of lying republican paddies. All right, he didn’t say the last bit about the paddies. But he looks so neat and white-collared, with his hair freshly-combed after another long run in the Mournes or maybe at that PSNI sports club where they found the Northern Bank money – he looks so respectable, you think he might have something. If hundreds of documents were found in somebody’s house in west Belfast, that does look like republicans were doing a bit of spying, doesn’t it?
But whoa. Steady. Hold on. Did you say in somebody’s house, Hugh? So could you maybe tell us, Chief Constable, in whose house in west Belfast these hundreds of documents were found? Er um, cor blimey, well stone the crows and would you Adam and Eve it, they found these documents in DENIS DONALDSON’S HOUSE in west Belfast!
Well now. Either Hugh Orde believes what he is saying, that finding confidential documents in the home of a British spy proves there was a republican spy-ring, in which case the dimmest Constable Plod would look like Einstein beside him; or the Chief Constable doesn’t believe what he’s saying, in which case he has a view of the intelligence of his listeners which is breathtaking in its contempt.
I’ll tell you what the whole Donaldson thing is about. And the Frank Connolly thing. And the hullabaloo about the drafting of the on-the-runs bill. Nothing to do with national security, north or south. Nothing to do with ending criminality. Nothing to do with developing trust between the parties. The tripartite commotion has one determined purpose: to damage a successful political party called Sinn Féin, preferably mortally.
DID O’LOAN KNOW ABOUT DONALDSON?
The Soldier, The Spy, the U.S. Connection
An Appalling Vista in North
People are disgusted with PSNI, says CRJ
Half-truths and spin from Orde
Was O’Loan in dark over spy?
No one’s asking ‘what really happened?’
Proconsul doesn't sound like a man in charge