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Adamned if he does, adamned if he doesn’t

Gerry Adams didn’t order spy’s murder, and 'Spotlight'’s agent didn’t even say he did

The news that serial non-litigator Gerry Adams is to sue over allegations he sanctioned the murder of IRA informer Denis Donaldson, cannot surprise. Contrary to what has become the received wisdom, the former security force agent in the IRA did not tell BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘Spotlight’ programme on September 20th that Gerry Adams sanctioned the killing of Denis Donaldson in 2006. His allegation was much more tentative.

Despite this, media outlets have run with the allegation that the decision to carry out the killing was agreed by Adams, and that the IRA carried it out. An example is the Irish Independent headline: ‘Gerry Adams sanctioned the killing of British spy, claims former IRA man’.

This is based on a section of the programme, where reporter Jennifer O’Leary is interviewing ‘Martin’, a former IRA man and police agent. A transcript reads:

Jennifer O’Leary: “Martin also said he told his Special Branch handlers what he had learned about the murder”.
Martin: “Not too long after Denis was murdered I was told by a member of the IRA, an active member of the IRA, that the IRA had killed Denis, and not anybody else. I gave that information to the Special Branch.”.
Jennifer O’Leary: “What was your handlers’ reaction to that information?”.
Martin: “They were just totally mute. There wasn’t any acknowledgement of what I’d said. The subject was changed to something else”.
Jennifer O’Leary: “Are you surprised?”.
Martin: “No. I think they knew themselves. You see I just think you know they and the whole status quo had seen Denis’ death as internal housekeeping and they were happy enough to put up with it. I believe they acted on some information and didn’t act on other information because it was too politically sensitive to do so”.
Jennifer O’Leary: “Martin believes that the shooting of Denis Donaldson was sanctioned by the man at the top of the Republican movement, Gerry Adams. Spotlight understands that by 2006 Gerry Adams had stepped aside from the IRA Army Council but Martin claims that Adams was consulted on all matters”.
Martin: “I know from my experience in the IRA that murders have to be approved by the leadership and they have to be given approval by the leadership of the IRA, the political leadership of the IRA and the military leadership of the IRA”.
Jennifer O’Leary: “Who are you specifically referring to?”.
Martin: “Gerry Adams. He gives the final say”.

Note: there is nothing indicating this IRA man had first-hand knowledge of Adams’ approving the killing.

Note also: the final line is “He gives the final say”. Not “He gave the final say”.

What we may call the alleged allegation runs contrary to the Real IRA’s claim of responsibility for the murder in 2009. After the programme, a former Real IRA army council member spoke to journalist Suzanne Breen of the Belfast Telegraph, and reiterated the claim. Breen is a trenchant critic of Adams and the mainstream IRA, so the claim must be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, Donaldson was cavalier about his own safety. Some time after he was unmasked in 2005, he went to a cottage in Donegal that had been a safe house for the INLA and IRA for years. It was secluded, so killers could stake it out if necessary. It was near a main road, in an area with a lot of holiday homes, so escape was easy and strangers didn’t stand out.

Donaldson had been an informer since at least the mid-1980s. Two groups had particular grudges: families and friends of those killed as alleged informers, people not as well-connected as Donaldson; and families and friends of those IRA members killed or imprisoned because he may have betrayed them.

Crucially, the IRA did not need to kill him. He no longer had their protection, and there were plenty of others willing to do it. The killing was similar to that of Dungannon taxi driver Barney McDonald in 2002. In both cases a shotgun was used, making forensics difficult.
The current story took off because there is a media obsession with Adams, who is a safety-valve for Sinn Féin’s opponents in politics and the media. It must be said that he has left himself open by seeming ridiculous with his denials of IRA membership.

Martin McGuinness receives nothing like the same treatment, despite his admitting having held high rank in the IRA. As Deputy First Minister, McGuinness is central to the political process in the North. The DUP perceive him as a ‘moderniser’ in Sinn Féin. So a media campaign against him might damage the political process.

The episode of ‘Spotlight’ is available on the BBC I-player until October 19th. The relevant section can be watched beginning at 51 minutes.

Anton McCabe