Stormontgate exposes the grip that espionage, double dealing and dirty tricks still maintains on the North of Ireland
When George Bush gets caught spying, at least he admits it. The British state and its agencies in Northern Ireland do not display even that limited degree of candour. The revelation that a British spy was the central figure in an episode that brought down Northern Ireland's devolved administration has been met with evasions and dissembling. Peter Hain, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, told Jonathan Dimbleby on his ITV show that the so-called Stormontgate affair was "turbulent". But he failed to answer any of the fundamental questions that it has raised.
The story has sparked doubt, confusion and rampant speculation; some hard facts are worth emphasising. In October 2002, about 20 police officers raided Sinn Féin's offices at Stormont, which houses the Northern Ireland assembly. The raid was part of a series of operations that, it was claimed, uncovered a republican spy ring. The IRA, it was alleged, had garnered confidential information that could be used to target prison wardens, police officers and others. Four people were charged, but that dropped to three. When the case finally came to court less than a fortnight ago, the prosecution declined to offer any evidence. The three were acquitted.
Last Friday, a bombshell dropped. The key figure in the trio, Denis Donaldson, who was Sinn Féin's head of administration at Stormont, owned up to a double life. He said that he had been a paid agent of British intelligence and Northern Ireland Special Branch since the 80s. His exposure turned the accepted version of events on its head. As things stand, the only proven spying operation at Stormont was run by forces of the state. And a paid agent of the state had been pivotal in the unravelling of a democratically elected administration. It is hard to imagine a graver scenario.
The government has sought to ameliorate the fiasco by claiming that the original police operation did indeed uncover stolen documents and that the Stormont raid was given a clean bill of health by Nuala O'Loan, the police ombudswoman. Neither assertion counters the idea that Donaldson could have acted as an agent provocateur.
Reaction to the disclosure of Donaldson's role demonstrates the hypocrisy that pervades Northern Ireland politics. When blame for spying was being placed at the republicans' door, the mainstream press denounced Gerry Adams and his allies. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader at the time, proclaimed that he did not need to wait for due process because "the smoking gun was now evident"; the alleged conspiracy was "10 times worse than Watergate".
Where is that outrage now? Who seeks to put Donaldson's handlers in the dock for their disdain for democratic principles? Trimble, who resigned last May, now struggles to lay the blame anywhere but where it belongs. "There is a spin going on here, and the spin is going on because actually it's the republican movement that's in a crisis," he mused on Saturday.
There is no doubt that the Donaldson affair has left republicans reeling. Rumours of another "tout" are rife, and the moderate SDLP has called on Adams to resign as Sinn Féin leader. But the most important aspect is the light it casts on the dark heart of Northern Ireland. It shows that factions in the security forces, so keen to condemn others for subversion, have continued to act nefariously to advance their agenda and that of their political allies, as they did throughout the Troubles.
The Stormont raid took place at an amazingly fortunate moment for the Ulster Unionists. Many believed that Trimble was already planning a withdrawal from the devolved executive under pressure from hardliners. The conundrum Unionists faced was how to bale out without having to shoulder the blame for collapsing Northern Ireland's government - then allegations about the spy ring surfaced. Bill Lowry, who was head of Belfast's Special Branch, left the force only weeks after the raid. He later turned up as a guest speaker at a meeting of Ian Paisley's DUP, where he reportedly described Sinn Féin as the "devil incarnate" and warned that if unionists were to lie down "with dogs", they would "get up with fleas".
Espionage, double dealing and dirty tricks have been rife on all sides in Northern Ireland for years. The murder of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989 is only the most infamous case in which very credible allegations of collusion between loyalist killers and the security forces have been levelled. The peace process did not bring an end to the dirty war. Paramilitaries and police continued intelligence gathering. The late Mo Mowlam authorised the bugging of a car being used by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. The most recent revelations make clear why Sinn Féin continues to be reticent about endorsing new policing arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Back in 1999, Tony Blair insisted that "there can no longer be a Northern Ireland based on anything but the principles of justice, fairness and equality". Some members of his security forces evidently had other ideas.
THE GREAT DECEPTION
Having watched his friend Bobby Sands die an agonising death – for a principle, what force could have turned him?
Be guided by principle
Truth from British wouldn’t go amiss
SPY SCANDAL SHOWDOWN
Republicans should insist that Blair and Hain unmask informers as a prelude to any future talks