WHAT prompted British spy Denis Donaldson to betray his IRA comrades has been a matter of speculation ever since his murder. But the theories always fitted neatly with Sinn Fein’s post-Agreement narrative. However, an extract from a book published more than a decade ago suggests that Sinn Fein has attempted to bury the truth about one of the IRA’s most famous gun battles, as well as the memory of an innocent man killed by a comrade he never had.
For most, the Donaldson shoplifting story never rung true, and I could not comment about stories about his suspected affairs. However, another story, which emerged at the weekend, has cast doubt on the accepted story – one which explodes the myth of the IRA’s legendary defence of St Matthews church in the Short Strand from a loyalist mob.
The mainstream republican version tells of a heroic defence of the Catholic church by Donaldson and the formative Provisionals, in which ‘IRA Volunteer’ Henry McIlhone (pictured) lost his life and the Provos emerged as a fighting force after previous accusations of cowardice.
But McIlhone was never in the IRA, according to his family. Tirghra (Sinn Fein’s ‘role of honour‘) describes him as ‘Oglach (Volunteer) Henry McIlhone’ but adds that “although not a member of the IRA, Henry McIlhone was included on the Republican Roll of Honour as a mark of respect for a great Irish man by Republican Comrades who fought alongside him in the defense of Short Strand.” It doesn’t say whether it was one of those same comrades who filled him with bullets. An Phoblacht simply referred to him as “IRA Volounteer Henry McIlhone” in an account of the gunfight, and lists him as “Vol Henry McIlhone” of the 3rd Battalion elsewhere. His family’s fight for compensation, mentioned in entry 32 of Lost Lives, in which a judge overturned police evidence, suggests otherwise.
For the five years they could keep the truth hidden, the RUC and IRA found the common lie they shared of mutual benefit. The police may well have used the information to recruit Donaldson. While the IRA must have suspected his vulnerability, protecting the narrative was more important than admitting that Donaldson may have killed his comrade. And so he rose through the republican ranks, all the while helping the other side.
Pete has already blogged the new account from the Historical Enquiries Team, but what hasn’t been revealed before and adds weight to the McIlhone family’s belief that he was neither an IRA gunman nor a victim of the loyalist mob is this important account in Tony Geraghty’s book The Irish War.
Geraghty wrote that “[L]ocal Catholics, close eye-witnesses of events that night, have since told me that McIlhone was actually killed in a battle accident by one of his own side, a diminutive man incapable of controlling the swing of his Thompson sub-machine-gun once he pulled the trigger. The accident apparently occurred as the IRA men were ordered to withdraw tactically. The man with the Thompson was several feet behind McIlhone.”
There is no doubt that Donaldson was a “diminutive” man. Others can say whether Billy McKee was, and I doubt Joe O’Donnell ever was. If a teenage Jim Gibney was ever of such a tiny stature, I’m sure it will form the basis of another anodyne column in the Irish News. But, according to a family friend, McIlhone’s widow “refused an IRA funeral and fought tooth and nail to get his name taken off the republican roll of honour. IRA men told his sons they had fought beside Henry. The family are very pleased that the HET have finally cleared his name”.
So when Gerry Adams mentioned in passing in ‘Before the Dawn’, while leading a “crazy life“, that McIlhone was a volunteer (p140), it would seem that the events being remembered were only in the minds of those concerned with creating a certain republican narrative based on lies. McIlhone was not an IRA man. Donaldson’s motivation for becoming a spy seems more likely to have been to keep his accidental killing of McIlhone a secret, than any other theory put forward.
Like Donaldson, Sinn Fein’s job since 1970 has been to enforce a view that portrays mainstream republicanism in a particular light. As it becomes clearer that their version of events was false, and as new historical narratives like the O’Rawe account of the Hunger Strike emerge, one wonders how long the party line will hold.