In the Sunday Times, Liam Clarke has a comprehensive look at the life and times, so far, of Denis Donaldson, from joining the IRA in the 1960s, through his conviction on explosives charges in 1971, and the 4 years term he served, to his role as Sinn Féin director of international affairs, establishing links with other groups, links which he would later use in efforts to secure the release of Beirut-held hostage, Brian Keenan – who provided a letter of reference for Donaldson at his bail hearing[subs req] – and later establishing their US office, after the US State Department ignored his earlier conviction and granted him a visa, liasing between the US State Department and Sinn Féin locally. Clarke also has one of the more coherent theories about the spy ring and on the police going “against strong advice from MI5”.In the Sunday Times article, Liam Clarke details one incident in 1981 which may provide a clue as to when Denis Donaldson was recruited –
Donaldson and Sands spent three years in jail together and became close friends. This link helped to establish Donaldson’s credibility within the close group of former prisoners who would reshape the IRA and Sinn Fein under Adams’s leadership during the 1980s.
After he was released from jail Donaldson became a key Adams ally against the previous generation of IRA leaders. He also built up links with foreign revolutionary groups which would supply the Provos with weapons and training.
In August 1981, three months after Sands’s death, Donaldson and William “Blue” Kelly, a leading IRA gunrunner, were arrested by French police at Orly airport in Paris. The duo, who were travelling on false passports, told the French authorities that they were returning home after spending several months in a Lebanese training camp.
Donaldson was allowed to go home despite the admission and some suspect that this may have been the moment when he was turned by intelligence agents, but by his own account it is too early.[added emphasis]
He continued to build republican links with groups such as Eta (the Basque terrorists) and Yasser Arafat’s PLO, travelling widely in Europe and South America as Sinn Fein’s director of international affairs.
And it was those links that led to one of the more bizarre details of the court case that collapsed last week, as the Irish Times reported
Mr Donaldson came to public attention in October 2002 after the PSNI raided Sinn Féin’s offices at Stormont as part of an investigation into republican intelligence-gathering.
His arrest, along with that of his son-in-law, Ciarán Kearney, and of William Mackessy, a former Stormont porter, became known as Stormontgate. Two days later he appeared in court on five charges, and exactly 10 days after the raid, devolution collapsed.
During a subsequent High Court bail application, it was claimed that he had risked his life to help free Beirut hostage Brian Keenan. Mr Keenan – held hostage in Lebanon between 1986 and 1990 – sent a letter of reference to the court.
It said Mr Donaldson had talks with an adviser to the Hizbullah group holding him. Mr Keenan stated: “For the whole period of my incarceration, only two human beings put their lives at risk on my behalf – one was Terry Waite and the other was Denis Donaldson.”
In the Sunday Times article, again, Liam Clarke also writes of Donaldson’s role in the spy ring –
Although Donaldson was an important agent to the British during these years, former intelligence officers doubt that he passed on all the information to which he had access. Otherwise he would not have survived for two decades.
As the peace process began to provide political dividends in the form of the Good Friday agreement and power sharing, Donaldson became head of the party’s administration in the parliament buildings in Stormont.
Police believe that he knew of an IRA spy ring at the heart of the British administration at Stormont but kept quiet about it for fear that his role would be exposed.
Donaldson apparently did not know that the spy ring was revealed to the RUC Special Branch by a lower-level agent whose information sparked a three-month surveillance operation known by the codename Operation Torsion.
A mass of intelligence material gathered by the IRA at Stormont was removed from a house in Belfast by the police, copied and returned in the vain hope that Bobby Storey, the IRA’s head of intelligence, would eventually take possession of it and expose himself to arrest.
This entrapment and surveillance operation took place against strong advice from MI5 who urged the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to seize the papers and leave it at that. It reasoned that this would be enough to halt the spying operation and bring Donaldson into line.[added emphasis]
In the end the police decided to recover the IRA intelligence cache and make what arrests they could — including Donaldson and his son-in-law Ciaran Kearney. The affair led to the collapse of power sharing and the fall of David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, who was blamed by loyalist voters for being too trusting of Sinn Fein. In the continuing political fall-out, Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party ousted the Ulster Unionists as the majority party at the last general election.
One of the interesting aspects of this version is that the acting “against strong advice from MI5” may shed more light on another event which took place shortly after the arrests, the abrupt resignation, on November 18 2002, of Detective Chief Superintendent Bill Lowry, formerly Regional Intelligence Advisor, Belfast, and the senior Special Branch officer working on the investigation of the break-in at Castlereagh Police Station which occurred in March 2002.
Following his resignation Lowry made an official complaint to the Policing Ombudsman who, while not substantiating the specific complaints made, issued a report on the complaint which included this time-line of events –
Chronology of Events
The investigation mainly focuses on a period between Tuesday November 12 when Mr Lowry gave a briefing to journalists which was alleged to involve inappropriate and unauthorized disclosures, and the sequence of events which led to his decision on Monday, November 18 to retire. Prior to the meeting on 12 November 2002 two other relevant meetings occurred.
Friday, November 8 2002 and Monday 11 November 2002
Mr Lowry met a senior (BBC) journalist who said he had sensitive details about the Stormont operation, which he planned to broadcast. Mr Lowry believed the information to be “of some concern”. He accepts that during the meeting he inadvertently gave the journalist sensitive information. Mr Lowry reported back to his superior officer. After a second meeting on Monday 11 November 2002 the journalist refused to give an undertaking that he would not use the material he had, but offered the opportunity of a further meeting
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Mr Lowry and the PSNI Director of Media Services met senior (BBC) journalists in an attempt to prevent the broadcast of sensitive material. This meeting was authorized by the PSNI. Mr Lowry acknowledged that during the meeting he discussed further sensitive matters which “should not have been mentioned”. Later that evening, the Director of Media Services briefed the Assistant Chief Constable (Crime) because he was very concerned about what Mr Lowry had told journalists.
That evening the journalist broadcast an item on the news programme, which caused considerable concern among officers involved in the investigation of the Castlereagh raid.
Wednesday November 13, 2002
Mr Lowry was called to a meeting with ACC Crime, and the Head of Special Branch to discuss what had taken place at the BBC meeting. Mr Lowry claims that he was “paraded before the ACC” who said that, “the Chief had felt I said too much” and “had been too open and disclosed Special Branch methodology”. Mr Lowry said he considered himself to have been “admonished” on the direct instructions of the Chief Constable.
No written record was made anywhere of the admonishment. The ACC denied quoting the Chief Constable during the meeting. The ACC and the Head of Special Branch noted the meeting in their journals but did not indicate that an “admonishment” or any disciplinary action had been taken. The ACC, the Head of Special Branch and Mr Lowry all stated in evidence that Mr Lowry had been “admonished.”
Thursday, November 14 2002.
Afternoon In one of their ongoing conversations regarding leaks, MI5 recommended to the Chief Constable that there should be an investigation into the leaks of information, which led to the unwelcome broadcast. The Police Ombudsman has established that this conversation related to the issue of leaks generally and that no discussion took place regarding any individual. Mr Lowry’s name was not mentioned.
4.OOPM: A meeting was held to discuss the BBC Broadcast and PSNI leaks in general. The Chief Constable, the Acting Deputy Chief Constable, the Head of Special Branch, the Director of Media Services and the Senior Investigating Officer for the Castlereagh investigation were all present. The Head of Special Branch did not tell the Chief Constable in this meeting that Mr Lowry had been disciplined in relation to this and told the Chief Constable that Special Branch did not leak. He also told the Chief Constable that ACC Crime was conducting a damage assessment.
6.OOPM: The PSNI Director of Media Services told the Chief Constable of his concerns about what Mr Lowry had said at the meeting with the BBC on Tuesday. He says it was clear that this was the first the Chief Constable knew of the matter.
6.1OPM: The Chief Constable phoned ACC Crime and told him that Mr Lowry would have to be transferred from his post while an investigation was carried out. The ACC told Police Ombudsman Investigators that he told the Chief Constable he had already dealt with the matter. He did not, however, tell the Chief Constable that any disciplinary action had been taken.
Then the Chief Constable established that the Acting Deputy Chief Constable did not know about the concern raised regarding the BBC press briefing. The Director of Media Services then told the Acting Deputy Chief Constable what had happened. He said the matter should be investigated. He also told Police Ombudsman Investigators that he was “stunned and amazed that all this had been concealed from me by Senior Special Branch officers”.
The Chief Constable was totally unaware that disciplinary action had been taken against Mr Lowry and instructed the Acting Deputy Chief Constable to have the matter investigated.
6.30PM onwards – telephone calls were made arranging for an investigation into Mr Lowry’s conduct. Several officers were involved at this stage.
7:15PM: The Chief Constable paged a senior member of MI5 and requested that he call him back. This he did over a mobile telephone at 7.15 pm. He had a short conversation in which the Chief Constable told him that the Met. would be investigating leaks generally and Mr Lowry was to be moved to other duties. This was the first contact between the Chief Constable and Security Service in relation to Mr Lowry. It was important that the Chief Constable inform MI5 of Mr Lowry’s removal from his post given the frequent working contact between Mr Lowry and MI5.
Friday November 15 2002
Mr Lowry was transferred from his job in Special Branch and a disciplinary investigation was started. He was taken to his office in an ACC’s personal vehicle and given the opportunity to clear it of personal possessions.
15 – 17 November 2002
Mr Lowry said that over the weekend which followed he received further phone calls from “friends” claiming that at 7.30 pm on Thursday November 14, the Chief Constable had received a phone call from “people in London” which had left him agitated. Mr Lowry said his friends claimed that the Chief Constable then phoned ACC (Crime) saying that Lowry “had to go” because “they”, by which he assumed the callers meant the Security Service, would not work with him. Mr Lowry did not identify those “friends.” Conversations took place between Mr Lowry and his solicitor and the PSNI in relation to the terms of his retirement
Monday November 18 2002
Mr Lowry says that the manner in which the Chief Constable had dealt with the matter had left him feeling humiliated, degraded, embarrassed and betrayed. He said he believed “outside parties” had influenced the Chief Constable’s decision. He tendered his resignation and the PSNI agreed that he would retire with his full severance payment, his full pension and a Discharge Certificate of Exemplary Service. He could not be prevented from retiring as he had at that point an exemplary service record with the PSNI.