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The outing of Denis Donaldson: Britain pursues its interest

John McAnulty

3rd January 2006

The unmasking of Denis Donaldson as a British agent is an earth-shattering blow to the Republican movement. A key fixer and Gerry Adams’ right-hand man, his two decades of action as a British agent calls into question the security and credibility of Sinn Fein as a political movement. 

The belief that their inner sanctum was impervious to British intelligence was a matter of pride. The Provos believed that the morale and political dedication of key figures to the republican cause was unshakeable. That belief is shattered not because Donaldson appears as an informer, but because he, alongside his military counterpart, Freddie Scappaticci, was something much more – an agent. This is not someone who bowed under pressure or who gave information for a time under the compulsion of blackmail, but someone who ‘turned’ and became a willing agent of the British over decades. For both agents morale and republican consciousness had collapsed and they had accepted the imperialist ideology that they had once been willing to fight to the death.

Donaldson’s motivation is unknown, but Scappaticci has spoken of his motives. He ceased to believe that republicanism could deliver on its stated programme of a united Ireland. In addition to personal rivalry and spite, he blamed the republican leadership for this failure and was willing to turn to the British as the instrument of revenge.

The timing is significant. Both agents claim to have lost faith in the period around the hunger strikes, claimed by the republican leadership as a victory, the first of an unbroken line of victories culminating in their recent disarmament. The demoralisation of key figures supports the Marxist analysis of defeat and the inability of republican militarism to defeat imperialism.

Donaldson’s unmasking by the British gives us an insight into a murky world, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction. Donaldson was arrested as a major figure in the so-called Stomontgate affair. He was accused of spying for Sinn Fein and masses of documents relating to political figures and members of the British forces were seized. £30 million was spent on relocating and increasing the security of those listed. Yet, following a major enquiry, it was announced ‘in the public interest’ that no charges would be brought. The ‘in the public interest’ formulation often indicates that agents are being protected. Donaldson was then outed by the British themselves as in reality their agent, spying on Sinn Fein. The outing is a bizarre event and is again taken as indicating that the sacrifice is justified as a means of protecting more valuable sources. 

Dissident republicans have taken the revelations as evidence that republican support for the Good Friday Agreement was actually a British plot, citing the role of British agent Freddie Scappaticci, head of the IRA ‘nutting squad’ in deciding who survived to take up leadership roles, and also citing Donaldson’s role in disrupting the US NORAID organization. Unfortunately for them, politics remains supreme and Donaldson was working directly for Adams, himself reflecting the failure of the republican programme and the new accommodation with nationalism.

The primacy of politics also applies to outside events. Sinn Fein claim that Stormontgate, highly publicised arrests around the Northern Bank raid and the unmasking of Donaldson are all evidence of ‘political policing’. This is the rebranding of a Sinn Fein theory of ‘securocrats’ that is dying on the vine because, openly stated, it lacks all credibility. The idea is that a section of the police and the intelligence services are sabotaging the Good Friday agreement against the interests of British imperialism and that Blair is unable to stop them.

The reality is that Britain pursues its interest, that that interest takes little account of the needs of Sinn Fein and, having signed up to an imperialist settlement, there is nothing the republican leadership can do as the goalposts shift ever further to the right.

This was true of the Stormontgate affair of October 2002. Whatever the ins and outs of the spooks and Special Branch, the truth is that the police raid on the parliament buildings and the search of the offices of one of the government parties, effectively closing down the political structures meant to stabilise the North, could only have been authorised by Blair. It was authorised by Blair because that afternoon David Trimble was preparing to stand up and pull the plug on the coalition government and in the scheme of things the Unionist party was a great deal more important to British interests than Sinn Fein was, so it was politically expedient that the republicans carry the can for the collapse.

The primacy of politics applies today. The republicans have struck their final bargain and disarmed and can expect British help in finalising that bargain – personal weapons, ‘On the Runs’ legislation to allow republicans facing charges to return, rules that make it easier for the republicans to carry out community policing alongside the RUC/PSNI. Outside that they are fair game and can expect a buffeting. There are lots of hidden reasons for the outing of Donaldson, but one cruel fact is that a disarmed republicanism is of less concern to the British and, the more they are kicked, the more the British can hope that the Paisleyites can be persuaded to operate a devolved administration. They can expect more blows from their new allies as the corrupt deal they signed up to continues to unravel.

History will look back on the outing of Denis Donaldson as a significant event. It’s at this point that the fortunes of the republicans begin to slide. 

Internally the whole settlement process has been made possible because a militarist organisation such as the Provos involves very little political consciousness on the part of the fighters. Strategy is based on the credibility of the leadership and relatively unthinking support. Adams’ internal reputation as a master politician and strategist sold the deal. He now looks remarkably foolish with his right-hand man unmasked as a British agent, unlikely allegations by dissidents that he himself is an agent and much more credible allegations that a key figure is yet to be unmasked. The atmosphere of suspicion and demoralisation can only be made worse by the very clear unwillingness of the republicans to look into these allegations – they defended Freddie Scappaticci for a long time because his outing was bound to damage their credibility.

The outcome will be to finalise Sinn Fein’s transformation into a bourgeois party. The last of the rank and file activists will fade away and they will be left with a flaccid electoral base and a structure of paid officials.

Externally Sinn Fein’s clientelist relationship to the British has been made evident by the corrupt fag-ends of the agreement, designed simply to benefit Sinn Fein directly, with no pretence of meeting the concerns of their base. Against a great deal of opposition, some from within their own organisation, they have signed up to ‘Stormont Lite’ – a new structure of local government that gerrymanders the North into seven large council areas decisively split into orange and green control, all with massive sectarian majorities which make political dialogue or the fight to mobilise a working-class vote extremely difficult. This confirms Sinn Fein as the new Catholic party. It doesn’t help that the deal is welded to a programme of rationalisation, cuts and privatisation of council services.

Even more damage has been done by the deal the resolve the ‘On the run’ issue. OTRs are republicans facing charges and unable to return to the North and a special tribunal was set up that would try them and immediately allow their release on licence if found guilty. Only Sinn Fein supported the deal but they came under a great deal of pressure from the families of the very large number of civilians murdered by the state when it became obvious that the legislation would in effect offer amnesty to loyalist agents and state forces. Eventually Sinn Fein made a U-turn and repudiated the legislation.

What does this affair indicate for the future of the Good Friday Agreement? All of the structures are collapsed, the main strategy is to continue the race to the right in the hope that arch-bigot Ian Paisley can be persuaded to became prime minister, the republican movement at the cornerstone of the agreement is discredited internally and externally and the British are now processing the final peace of legislation meant to copperfasten the agreement in the teeth of opposition from everyone, including (at least publicly) Sinn Fein!


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