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Mairia Cahill: 'Denis Donaldson took a bite of his chicken pakora and asked me to join the Provos'


Mairia Cahill

Mairia Cahill

Gerry Adams with Denis Donaldson before he was outed as an informer

Gerry Adams with Denis Donaldson before he was outed as an informer


Mairia Cahill

One of the strangest conversations that I had with Denis Donaldson was in his car on the Andersonstown Road. We were working on a Sinn Fein project together and he was collecting me from my parents' house.

He was hungry and he asked me for a loan of some money, which he used to buy some food from an Indian takeaway. He proceeded to light up a cigarette - he had a particular way of smoking, holding the butt between his thumb and his finger, smiling and sucking the smoke in through his teeth, so that it made a noise when he inhaled. He joked a bit, talked about a family occasion coming up ... and then he tried to recruit me into the IRA.

I declined and he asked me to go back to him if I changed my mind. I didn't. He wasn't the only person who asked me to join the IRA and so, when I was giving evidence to police in my own abuse case a number of years ago, I named all the individuals who did to the police, including the name of a current Sinn Fein politician.

Knowing that I would be subject to a background check, lest my credibility be tested in court, I was fully aware that they would check with Special Branch to corroborate the details.

Because Denis Donaldson was a British agent, the likelihood was that his handlers had a note of my declining the IRA approaches and this was one detail which could be corroborated - along with information that recordings of some of the "meetings" that were held when the IRA were "investigating" my abuse existed.

I wanted the intelligence services to turn over any scrap of detail they had which would prove my evidence to be true, knowing that I would eventually come up against a huge smear campaign against me, launched from deep within the highest levels of Sinn Fein and the IRA and carried on by malleable minions.

I liked Denis, he was good fun to be around, smiling on most occasions with a mischievous glint in his eye. He was a family man and clearly loved them. However, it was his involvement with the large, dysfunctional family of republicanism which eventually saw him murdered.

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Why he became an agent for the British remains a mystery, though I've heard the rumours. Like most people, I was shocked to the core when Donaldson was eventually outed; that someone so involved in republicanism, deeply embedded at the heart of both the IRA and the Sinn Fein machine, could have hidden that fact for such a long time sent ripples among republicanism, with more hardline supporters openly saying that he "should be stiffed" for what they saw as betrayal of the worst kind.

That anger was palpable again in the aftermath of BBC NI's Spotlight programme on the intelligence war between the IRA and the state.

If ever you want to test the temperature of the republican movement, have a look at how Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams conduct themselves.

McGuinness lost it on Twitter, stating, among other things, the claims were "as credible as Walter Mitty", while Adams went into the oft-tested deny, attack, paint yourself as a victim of British spooks, then if-all else-fails-threaten-to-sue mode to the media corps.

Spotlight, of course, actually never said the IRA murdered Donaldson, nor did they say that Gerry Adams sanctioned the murder. Rather, they said that security sources had told them that intelligence gathered from covert surveillance and agents contradicted the IRA denial of the murder, that south Armagh IRA leader Thomas "Slab" Murphy "insisted that Donalsdon be killed in order to maintain army discipline and that the IRA in south Armagh commissioned the operation that led to Donaldson's death".

The IRA could not have risked such a high-profile murder in the middle of the peace process, but it is entirely credible that they sent another organisation, or individuals, to do their dirty work for them.

Rather than exploring that angle, the media focused on the assertion from "Martin" that he knew from his "experience in the IRA that murders have to be approved by the leadership ... the political leadership of the IRA ... Gerry Adams, he gives the final say".

Adams, of course, categorically denies this and, of course, he would. But the problem for Adams is that he's been caught being economical with the truth so many times that few people believe him.

A bigger problem, though, is that the Irish public have become so immune to allegations of wrongdoing against him that they are not surprised any longer when heinous acts are linked with him. Though, it was particularly chilling to see video footage of Adams responding to the 1987 murder of Charlie McIlmurray saying: "Mr McIlmurray, like anyone else living in west Belfast, knows that the consequence for informing is death."

So, what was Sinn Fein thinking of when they kneejerked an angry response, feeding the story and ensuring that most media outlets ran with it as a main piece of news?

To focus on just one part of the Donaldson affair ignores what happened before his death, including his debriefing by the IRA and it's possible that Sinn Fein were trying to clamp down on the story to stop others digging.

Likely, also, is their anger at the assertion from security sources in Spotlight that the IRA army council and organisation was heavily compromised by agents of influence, that the British directed key decisions at crucial points, exploding open their narrative that they fought a war, rather than being effectively controlled.

A terse statement from Sinn Fein was immediately issued in the aftermath of the programme. Gerry Kelly was wheeled out to talk to RTE the next day, Mary Lou McDonald to the Irish Times podcast, where she referred to the programme as "a ball of smoke", Raymond McCartney lost the run of himself online, declaring the programme "The Great Fake Off", and Sinn Fein generally went into meltdown on social media.

But it was a tweet from Sinn Fein's Declan Kearney that caught my eye, referring to the BBC Spotlight programme as an "investigation" (his word) and using the hashtag #politicalagenda.

It was eye-catching, given Declan Kearney's own role in the Donaldson affair, which he made no mention of on Twitter. It was Kearney who Donaldson contacted when he was warned that he would be outed as an informer and, according to a 2006 article written by Brian Rowan, Kearney spoke to Adams, who "instructed him to arrange a meeting with Donaldson and to ask him directly was he working for the Brits?" It was at this meeting between Kearney, Donaldson and Leo Green that Donaldson informed them of his double life. He was then expelled from Sinn Fein.

The Rowan report is interesting, because it corroborates Spotlight's details on the Castlereagh documents and Stormontgate - and is the first mention of another agent at the heart of the affair.

Spotlight is renowned for being forensic in their approach to both verifying information and in public service broadcasting. Jennifer O'Leary's programme was painstakingly researched for months and now another agent has come forward.

Paramilitaries have form for lying and Spotlight has form for exposing them. In the fullness of time, the dirty linen of the republican movement will all come out in the wash.

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