Belfast Telegraph

Anatomy of murder

Denis Donaldson was one of the highest-placed agents inside the Provisionals. But five years after his murder his role is still a puzzle. Suzanne Breen reports

The Real IRA Army Council representative's words were ruthless and unrepentant as he described Denis Donaldson's final moments to me.

As two masked men sledgehammered down the door and forced their way into Donaldson's Donegal cottage, the man who had simultaneously been Sinn Fein's top official at Stormont and a leading British spy didn't scream.

"The look on his face wasn't even one of shock. He seemed to know what was coming. He had no plan to defend himself. He hadn't a baseball, or hurley bat, a knife, or anything like that," the dissident spokesman told me.

"He just ran into the back room. There was a struggle and he ended up on the ground.

"He didn't cry out, or plead for mercy. He remained silent all the time."

One of his attackers then killed Donaldson with a shotgun as he lay on the floor, the Army Council representative stated.

Two men - aged 31 and 69 - were this week questioned by gardai in Letterkenny about the murder.

Donaldson's right hand was almost severed in the shooting, apparently to symbolise the money he'd taken from his handlers.

"That wasn't so," the dissident spokesman said. "His hand was blown away because he'd raised it to protect his head."

The Real IRA had Donaldson under surveillance at the cottage. It had watched as his wife, Alice, who still lived in Belfast, and his grown-up children, visited him regularly.

But the gunmen knew, on the night they struck, that Sinn Fein's former chief administrator at Stormont was alone.

The Real IRA representative gave me these horrific details two years ago. Until then, responsibility for the April 2006 murder had been a mystery.

Provisional IRA members, acting either independently, or with leadership authorisation, were the most likely suspects.

There hadn't been a whisper of Real IRA involvement. Donaldson had been a spy for more than two decades, inflicting considerable damage on the Provisionals.

Alive, he was a huge embarrassment to them. Why would dissidents want, even inadvertently, to ease that pressure?

The Real IRA spokesman said its seven-strong Army Council had debated at length whether to kill Donaldson.

"Some individuals thought it better propaganda value keeping him alive, because it increased grassroots Provisionals' dissatisfaction with their leadership.

"They were angry at Donaldson's treachery and angry at their leadership for not executing him, for letting him slip off to Donegal unharmed.

"The Provisional Army Council did a dirty deal with Donaldson - like they did with Freddie Scappaticci."

The spokesman added: "But the other argument put forward among our leadership was that, by executing Donaldson, we could show - unlike the Provos - that we weren't prepared to tolerate traitors."

So why had the Real IRA waited three years to admit responsibility?

The spokesman said the paramilitary group had always intended to claim the murder "but wanted to wait until we had first executed Crown force personnel".

Donaldson's killing was admitted just weeks after the Real IRA shot dead two soldiers at Massereene.

The admission of responsibility for Donaldson was privately dismissed by garda sources at the time, but detectives now accept it was true.

To prove the authenticity of their statement, the Real IRA had given details of the murder - such as the time of the shooting - which contradicted media reports.

In spite of the dissidents' admission, many questions about Donaldson remain, which can be answered only by the security services and the mainstream republican movement. He confessed to Sinn Fein that he was an informer just hours after police had warned him he was in danger of being exposed in the media. But no journalist ever later came forward to say they were about to expose him.

So was this warning based on genuine information or, days after the dropping of the Stormont spy-ring case, did shadowy forces want Donaldson outed to distract attention from an even more senior, valuable agent?

Post-confession, Donaldson gave at least four 'interviews' to Sinn Fein.

The party has never made public what he said during those debriefing sessions. It seems oddly 'unprofessional' - in republican terms - that one of the two men interviewing him was Declan Kearney, now Sinn Fein chairman and brother of Ciaran Kearney, Donaldson's son-in-law.

The reason Donaldson became a spy and remained one for so long, as well as the information he divulged to his handlers during those two decades - information which possibly played a crucial role in aiding the peace process - still remain shrouded in secrecy.

Neither his former Sinn Fein - nor his Security Service - employers want those secrets spilled.

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