But Police Ombudsman says a risk assessment should have been made after ex-IRA man’s whereabouts were exposed
The Police Ombudsman has found that there is no evidence that the death of former Sinn Fein administrator and self-confessed police informer Denis Donaldson could have been prevented.
However, Marie Anderson did say that a risk assessment should have been carried out after Mr Donaldson’s general whereabouts were revealed in a Sunday newspaper.
The family of the former IRA internee, who was murdered in April 2006 at a cottage in the Glenties in Co Donegal, complained to the Ombudsman’s office about the PSNI handling of the investigation. Most of their concerns were not upheld.
Denis Donaldson had been a close friend of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, was heavily involved in the party’s policy development, and had been a regular face at negotiations with both the British and Irish governments during the peace process.
However, his double life was revealed in 2002.
The Ombudsman’s report noted this began following a chain of events that started in March of that year, when the IRA broke into the offices of Special Branch at Castlereagh police station in east Belfast and stole sensitive documents.
That July, the PSNI commenced an operation “targeting PIRA’s intelligence-gathering network in the Greater Belfast area”, Ms Anderson’s report notes. It “included investigation of thefts of sensitive material from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) at Castle Buildings”.
In October, police carried out a number of very public searches of Sinn Fein’s offices at Stormont, seizing large amounts of material. Four people were arrested, including Mr Donaldson and his son-in-law Ciaran Kearney, who also worked for the party.
After a judge directed that relevant material in relation to the defendants be disclosed, the PPS reviewed the case and in December 2005 directed that the test for prosecution was no longer met.
On December 10, uniformed police officers visited the home of Mr Donaldson in the Aitnamona area of west Belfast to deliver a threat message that members of the media believed he was an informant.
Following this, Mr Donaldson is believed to have confessed his role to members Sinn Fein.
On December 16, then president of Sinn Fein Gerry Adams gave a press conference in Dublin announcing that his one-time close friend was being dismissed from the party after admitting he was an informant.
Mr Donaldson then read a statement admitting he was a “British agent”. He said he was “recruited in the 1980s after compromising myself during a vulnerable time in my life”.
“Since then I have worked for British Intelligence and RUC/PSNI Special Branch. Over that period I was paid money,” he said.
“My last two contacts with Special Branch were as follows, two days before my arrest in October 2002 and last night when a member of the Special Branch contacted me to arrange a meeting.”
He claimed the Stormont spy ring did not exist and said he regretted his activities.
Shortly after this Mr Donaldson moved to a family owned cottage in the Gaeltacht area of Donegal. In a complaint to the Ombudsman, the family said they believed that the warning the media was about to expose the double agent’s activities was bogus. Ms Anderson said that she was of the view the threat message was “reliable and emanated from a credible source”.
“I have found no evidence that this information was ‘bogus,’ artificially manufactured,’ or maliciously released’ by police as a result of the discontinued criminal proceedings”, Ms Anderson said.
“My investigators identified a clear audit trail, including a documented Risk Assessment with contingency plans, which detailed police actions, and their rationale for these actions, after the PPS discontinued criminal proceedings against Mr Donaldson and his co-accused. I am of the view that police would have failed in their Article 2 obligations had they not informed him of the relevant information.
“This information was personally delivered to Mr Donaldson in accordance with relevant police practices at the time.”
The report also stated that there were two telephone calls made to Mr Donaldson on December 15, 2005 by the PSNI to assess his safety.
“This investigation has found no evidence that police intended to ‘spook’ or ‘burn’ Mr Donaldson. However, there is evidence that police considered, and acted upon, their Article 2 obligations towards Mr Donaldson.”
The family claimed another informant visited Mr Donaldson in Co Donegal, but the Ombudsman was unable to confirm whether this had happened. The Belfast Telegraph understands that person, who is now deceased, may have been responsible for revealing Mr Donaldson’s location.
On March 19, 2006, the Sunday World published an interview with Mr Donaldson pictured standing outside the cottage in Donegal. The Donaldson family’s complaint included allegations that the police leaked information about his whereabouts to a number of individuals, including journalists, and that a further risk assessment should have been carried out after he was exposed. The family also wanted to know why journalists were not investigated.
Ms Anderson said she was “of the view that there was no evidence that would have justified initiating a criminal investigation against any member of the media”.
The Ombudsman’s office interviewed ‘Police Officer 1’, who denied passing information to the media. A file was sent to the PPS but there was no decision to prosecute, and he has since retired. The family further claimed that the PSNI had withheld information from An Garda Siochana following Mr Donaldson’s murder.
They also claimed the PSNI failed to make Mr Donaldson’s handler available to Garda investigators and sought to implicate members of his extended family in having facilitated, or been involved in, his murder.
The Ombudsman was also given access to extracts from a journal Mr Donaldson had been writing in during his time in exile in Co Donegal that remains in the possession of Garda investigators.
In conclusion, the Ombudsman said: “There are no records of a risk assessment having been undertaken by PSNI after the Sunday World article revealed Mr Donaldson’s location in Donegal”.
She added: “I am of the view that the family’s concerns about the steps taken by PSNI in the management of this threat to Mr Donaldson are legitimate and justified.
“However, I cannot conclude that, if such a risk assessment had been undertaken and shared with AGS, that the murder of Mr Donaldson could have been prevented.”
A spokesperson for the Donaldson family said: “For reasons that remain unexplained, and unaccounted for, it is reported that the PSNI abandoned its routine practice of risk assessments which had apparently followed Denis’s exposure in December 2005.
“This course of action was taken at precisely the moment when the risk to Denis’s life was at its greatest. This is a flagrant breach of Denis’s Article 2 right to life and the PSNI’s duty of care to him.
“There were repeated attempts to close down this inquiry. The key question has always been: did the PSNI do enough to protect Denis’s life. The Ombudsman’s answer today was: no, they did not.”
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said: “I recognise the pain and suffering felt by the family of Denis Donaldson.
“We will continue to offer any support we can to An Garda Síochána as they continue their investigation and seek to bring those responsible to justice.
“We note the findings of the Ombudsman’s investigation and will now take some time to review her comprehensive report.
“We have reviewed our operational policies and service procedure regarding the management of threats to life, and will continue to do so on a regular basis.”