Denis Donaldson, early 2000s
Belfast, Northern Ireland
|Died||4 April 2006
Glenties, County Donegal, Republic of Ireland
|Known for||Sinn Féin informer|
|Notable work||Friends of Sinn Féin|
Denis Martin Donaldson (1950 – 4 April 2006) was a volunteer in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and a member of Sinn Féin who was murdered following his exposure in December 2005 as an informer in the employ of MI5 and the Special Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary). It was initially believed that the Provisional IRA were responsible for his killing although the Real IRA claimed responsibility for his murder almost three years later. His friendship with French writer and journalist Sorj Chalandon inspired two novels: My Traitor (published 2007) and Return to Killybegs (published 2011).
Paramilitary and political career
Donaldson had a long history of involvement in Irish republicanism. He joined the Irish Republican Army in the mid-1960s while still in his teens, well before the start of the Troubles. According to a former friend, Sinn Féin activist Jim Gibney, writing in the Irish News, he was a local hero in Short Strand in 1970 because he took part in the gun battle between Ulster loyalists and Irish nationalists at St. Matthew's Chapel.
Donaldson was a friend of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, and the two men served time together in Long Kesh for paramilitary offences in the 1970s. Donaldson has been accused, by an unnamed republican source, of being part of the IRA team that carried out the La Mon restaurant bombing in 1978, one of the most notorious bomb attacks of the Troubles.
In 1981, he was arrested by French authorities at Orly airport, along with fellow IRA volunteer, William "Blue" Kelly; the duo were using false passports and Donaldson said that they were returning from a guerrilla training camp in Lebanon. At the 1983 general election, Donaldson was the Sinn Féin candidate in Belfast East, but only polled 682 votes. In the late 1980s, he travelled to Lebanon again and held talks with both Lebanese Shia militias, Hezbollah and Amal, in an effort to secure the freedom of the Irish hostage Brian Keenan.
As the Sinn Féin leadership under Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness turned toward a "peace process" strategy, Donaldson was dispatched to New York City, where he helped establish Friends of Sinn Féin, an organisation that solicited mainstream political and financial support for the new strategy while attempting to isolate hard-line activists in Irish Northern Aid and other support organisations in the US. Martin Galvin, a Bronx-based Irish-American attorney and future "dissident republican", later claimed that he had warned the republican movement's leadership that he suspected Donaldson of being a British government informer.
In October 2002, he was arrested in a raid on the Sinn Féin offices as part of a high-profile Police Service of Northern Ireland investigation into an alleged republican spy ring during the "Stormontgate affair".
In December 2005, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland dropped the espionage charges against Donaldson and two other men on the grounds it would not be in the "public interest" to proceed with the case.
On 16 December 2005, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams announced to a press conference in Dublin that Donaldson had been an agent for British intelligence. This was confirmed by Donaldson in a statement which he read out on RTÉ, the Irish state broadcaster, shortly afterward. According to the British agent known as 'Martin', leading South Armagh republicans blamed him for IRA operations which had been compromised and suspected he had planted covert listening devices which they had found. He stated that he was recruited after compromising himself during a vulnerable time in his life, but did not specify why he was vulnerable or why he would risk his life as a intelligence agent for the British Government in an area such as West Belfast.
Donaldson's daughter, Jane, is married to Ciarán Kearney, who was arrested along with Donaldson in the Stormontgate affair. The couple had two young daughters at the time of the arrest.
On 19 March 2006, Hugh Jordan, a journalist for the Sunday World, tracked him down to an isolated pre-Famine cottage near Glenties, County Donegal. The dwelling had not been modernised and so there was no running water or electricity.
On 4 April 2006, Donaldson was found shot dead inside his cottage, where he had been living for several months, and which was owned by a relative. Chief Superintendent Terry McGinn of An Garda Síochána said they had been aware of his presence since January and they had warned him of a threat to his life. However, he did not ask for special protection. The cottage was located in the townland of Classey, 8 km from the village of Glenties on the road to Doochary. The last person with whom he is believed to have spoken was Tim Cranley, a census taker, who spoke to him in the cottage around 8:30pm on the previous day. His body was found by Gardaí about 5pm after a passer-by reported seeing a broken window and a smashed-in door.
A statement by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain referred to his killing as a "barbaric act", while Taoiseach Bertie Ahern condemned "the brutal murder" of Donaldson. Two shotgun cartridges were found at the threshold of the cottage and a post mortem revealed that he had died from a shotgun blast to the chest. The Republic's Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Michael McDowell initially said that Donaldson had been shot in the head, and his right hand was also badly damaged by gunshot.
The Provisional IRA issued a one-line statement saying that it had "no involvement whatsoever" with the murder. The murder was also condemned by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. The Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley blamed republicans for the killing, saying that "eyes will be turned towards IRA/Sinn Féin on this issue".
In May 2005, Minister McDowell advised a US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland that he believed the outing of Donaldson as an informant was a clear message from the British Government that it had another, more valuable, source of information within the republican leadership. On 8 April 2006 Donaldson was buried in Belfast City Cemetery, rather than at Milltown Cemetery, the more common burial place for republicans.
In April 2016 two men, Patrick Gillespie (aged 74 at the time) another man (in his 40s) were detained under the Republic's Offences Against the State Act. They were held in Letterkenny station and questioned. The man in his 40s was released without charge but Gillespie was charged with having in his possession information regarding the involvement of another person in Donaldson's killing, was granted bail and awaits trial.
On 20 September 2016, BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight aired a programme in which a British spy (known only as "Martin") who had infiltrated the IRA claimed that Murphy and other leading South Armagh Republicans had demanded the killing of Donaldson and that it would have been sanctioned by Gerry Adams. The agent stated, "I know from my experience in the IRA that murders have to be approved by the leadership". When he was asked specifically who he was referring to, he went on: "Gerry Adams, he gives the final say." 'Martin' also dismissed claims the Real IRA was responsible for Donaldson's killing, he said they made the claim "for the kudos, a forlorn hope that someone might take them more seriously these days".
On 23 September the solicitor of the Donaldson family after speaking with senior members of the gardaí said that the allegation was "absolute nonsense" he also said that "It does not marry in any way with the lines of inquiry that have been progressed by the Garda or by the police ombudsman." Adams's solicitor also denied his client had any knowledge or involvement in the killing.
A Real IRA army council member also denied the claim, he said "Let me be clear about this. A claim of responsibility was made by (the Real IRA) in 2009 and it was correct. ... Gerry Adams had absolutely nothing to do with the execution of British agent Denis Donaldson. The Provisional IRA wasn't involved in any shape or form. I don't know why allegations that the Provos did it are now being made but they are totally untrue."
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- Real IRA: We killed spy Donaldson - it had nothing to do with Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams, Belfast Telegraph, 29 September, 2016
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- Sinn Féin British agent shot dead – BBC News reports on his death
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- Dan Keenan, "Real IRA claims responsibility for 2006 murder of Denis Donaldson", The Irish Times, Monday, 13 April 2009.