Irish police arrest 2 over killing of British spy

AP News
Posted: Apr 13, 2011 7:20 AM
Irish police arrest 2 over killing of British spy

Irish police interrogated two suspected IRA dissidents Wednesday over the killing of a top Sinn Fein official who was exposed as a British spy, a scandal that has inspired a legion of conspiracy theories.

Denis Donaldson died when an attacker shot him from close range with a shotgun at the door of his isolated cottage in County Donegal on April 4, 2006.

The 56-year-old Irish Republican Army veteran had gone into hiding after admitting he had served as a British intelligence mole within the Sinn Fein-IRA movement for two decades. He was one of several such spies planted by British intelligence agents.

The arrests Tuesday night of a 70-year-old man and Wednesday morning of a 31-year-old man, both in Donegal in northwest Ireland, were the first in a five-year investigation. They were being questioned at the police station in the Donegal town of Letterkenny, where they could be held for up to three days before being charged or released.

This month, police on both sides of the Irish border have launched a crackdown on IRA dissidents following their April 2 killing of a Northern Ireland policeman _ the first such killing in two years _ and to minimize security risks during Queen Elizabeth's May 17-20 visit to the Republic of Ireland.

The visit, the first by a British monarch in a century, is intended to symbolize the irreversible success of nearly two decades of peacemaking in Northern Ireland.

Donaldson climbed quickly through IRA ranks during the outlawed group's failed 1970-97 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. He took part in an IRA training camp in Lebanon in 1981, then _ after secretly joining the British payroll as an informer _ became a Sinn Fein-IRA ambassador coordinating the activities of IRA supporters overseas from the late 1980s.

Donaldson was the central figure in one of the most destabilizing, and bizarre, episodes of political subterfuge following the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord.

In 1999, Sinn Fein appointed him to be the party's chief of administration inside the Northern Ireland Assembly, the newly created legislature that was to serve as a launching pad for an experimental Catholic-Protestant unity government. But that coalition suffered repeated breakdowns because of Protestant unwillingness to work with Sinn Fein, then the minor of two Catholic-backed parties, while the IRA retained a vast weapons stockpile.

In October 2002, police raided Sinn Fein's Assembly offices and arrested Donaldson, his son-in-law and another man. All were charged with stealing confidential government documents as part of an IRA intelligence-gathering operation, a claim that forced the outright collapse of Catholic-Protestant cooperation for five years. Sinn Fein protested that the accusations were fabricated.

Three years later, with Donaldson and the others yet to face trial, British prosecutors mysteriously dropped the charges without explanation. Suspicious officials from Sinn Fein and the IRA interrogated Donaldson _ who confessed he had been "turned" by the British domestic spy agency MI5 and police Special Branch in the mid-1980s during an unspecified vulnerable moment in his life.

Donaldson appeared alongside Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams at a live-broadcast Belfast news conference, during which Adams called for his long-trusted aide not to be targeted. The IRA usually kills anyone suspected of informing police of IRA activities.

The following month, Irish police went to Donaldson's cottage hideaway across the border to warn him that their intelligence sources suggested his life was in imminent danger. Then journalists tracked him down and publicized his address. He stayed put, apparently resigned to his fate.

A few weeks later, Donaldson was found dead on the living room floor of the spartan cottage. His right arm had been shattered by the first shot _ evidently fired through the door as Donaldson tried to bolt it shut _ while the second hit him square in the chest as he lay prone on the concrete.

Shotguns are favored when the attacker doesn't want to leave forensic clues that would link a particular killing to a particular gun. Whereas guns that fire bullets create distinctive strike marks on the bullet casing and rifling marks elsewhere, effectively leaving the gun's unique fingerprint, a shotgun's cartridge casing and spray of pellets leave no forensic link to the particular shotgun.

Immediate suspicion fell on the mainstream IRA, which had disarmed and renounced violence only the year before. Admitting the Donaldson killing would have undermined Sinn Fein's efforts to resume a government alongside Protestants in Belfast. A splinter group opposed to the peace process, the Real IRA, claimed responsibility in April 2009, but doubts remain about that claim.

Suspicions persist that British intelligence agents used Donaldson as an agent provocateur to bring down the Northern Ireland government in 2002 in circumstances that left Sinn Fein responsible. A rival conspiracy theory holds that Donaldson wasn't the most senior British puppet in Sinn Fein ranks, and he was sacrificed to draw attention away from that figure.

Others believe in the more conspiracy-free version of events: that Donaldson was a British spy, but he was maintaining cover by swiping documents for Sinn Fein-IRA's benefit too, and the rank-and-file police who nabbed him for those thefts wouldn't have known he was actually on their side.