Biter biten: did the British nobble SF?

The Irish Times editorial on the outing of a key Sinn Fein member as being a British spy:

Is it a case of the biter being bitten? Have Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness been exposed again as telling untruths when faced by embarrassing events? Three years ago, when the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) raided Sinn Féin offices at Stormont and arrested three of its members for spying, they claimed the charges were baseless and the raids were designed to bring down the Assembly and Executive and to damage Sinn Féin.

And when the Public Prosecution Service announced last week at Belfast Crown Court that it was dropping all charges against the men “in the public interest” they claimed vindication. Mr McGuinness insisted there had been no evidence to sustain the charges and described the arrests as “a damning indictment of the PSNI”. Mr Adams made similar complaints.

The reason the criminal charges were dropped, it transpired yesterday, was because one of the accused, Denis Donaldson, Sinn Féin’s head of administration at Stormont, had been working as a British agent for about 20 years. Employing such people is part of any intelligence-gathering operation. And, at the time he is said to have been recruited, the IRA was engaged in a bloody campaign of murder and mayhem. However if the cases had gone ahead, his role might have been exposed.

The key question now is the nature of that role: agent or double agent or something else? And the answer goes to the heart of Mr Adams’s and Mr McGuinness’s veracity over the so-called Stormontgate affair. Last night, Mr Donaldson admitted working with British intelligence but denied any involvement in a Sinn Féin spy ring at Stormont which he dismissed as a Special Branch scam. It is worth recalling, however, that the PSNI’s action in raiding Sinn Féin’s office in 2002 and in arresting Mr Donaldson, along with Ciarán Kearney and William Mackessy on charges of collecting information and possessing documents of use to terrorists, has been validated by the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan. She ruled last year, following a formal complaint made by Sinn Féin, that the raid was not only justified but was necessary to protect democracy. Last night, the PSNI denied any political motivation and repeated it had broken up an intelligence gathering operation of use to terrorists.

Sinn Féin is now playing the role of victim by claiming it has been subjected to a police conspiracy. A similar response was forthcoming in the aftermath of the Northern Bank robbery last Christmas, and following the murder of Det Garda Jerry McCabe.

These events took place before the IRA ended its campaign and decommissioned its weapons. Had it been otherwise, it is unlikely that Mr Donaldson would still be alive. That is a positive change. Of course many questions remain about this murky affair and experience suggests the truth may never emerge. The Taoiseach has said he would like to hear both sides before making up his mind. That is wise. But these events must not delay the re-establishment of the Northern institutions.

© The Irish Times

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Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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