Spy case does not touch political fundamentals

When all is said and done, it is hard to see how the spy drama changes any of the fundamentals. So argues Brian Walker in last night’s Telegraph. This one is worth preserving for posterity:

STICKING my neck out a little but not too far, I can’t see how the Stormontgate saga much affects the prospects for restoring the Assembly one way or the other. Whether it was an authentic IRA intelligence gathering operation or a Special Branch sting or a bit of both, the distinction hardly seems to matter much, the more you look at it.

Sinn Fein playing the role of the injured party still wants political talks to start as soon as possible, Gerry Adams having graciously absolved Tony Blair of all personal blame. The DUP and the SDLP are again thrust into alliance over Stormontgate as they are over the OTRs. Whether this can develop into a challenge to Sinn Fein and bipolar politics may turn out to be one of the surprise main themes of the coming year.

For now, the two parties must know their chances of getting at the whole truth are around nil. Just as Sinn Fein must know that even if Tony Blair were to swear on the high altar of Westminster Cathedral that MI5 was being withdrawn, its agents will nevertheless continue to operate, as will the reorganised Special Branch. These are among the enduring if not much talked about facts of any new settlement.

Stormontgate is part of the detritus of the Troubles we need to leave behind after a good rant or few. If anyone were to be found trussed up and dead in a ditch in the coming weeks or so, that would change everything utterly. It would throw us back far further than we were a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Northern Bank raid.

The McCartneys’ visit to Tony Blair yesterday was another reminder of that other piece of unfinished business that must be weighed in the balance before political talks bear fruit. The two Premiers will meet next month to try to kick start the whole process back into life, hopefully without any unsettling shocks or sensations during 2006.

Which brings us to the devolution of justice and policing. Mind boggling as it may seem even after the IRA’s July statement and decommissioning, the Government’s plans include handing over those powers to an Assembly after a May 2007 election. After a Bill is introduced in the Commons in a few weeks’ time, Sinn Fein will sign up to support the police. That’s the theory.

In the aftermath of Denis Donaldson’s outing, we won’t have long to wait before we find out if Gerry Adams tries to up the price of joining the Policing Board. The next step in the crab-like process will be the International Monitoring Commission’s report next month or early February, relying heavily as usual on Special Branch assessments of IRA activity.

How will Sinn Fein respond if the IMC awards them an (almost) clean bill of health, courtesy of the Branch, I wonder? Say thank you?

© 2005 Independent News and Media (NI) a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd

  • kate

    The spy drama does change the fundamentals. It throws the whold Adams project under suspicion. Is everyone and everything associated with it tainted by the hand of the British, or was it a genuine project to achieve their end goal, a United Ireland.

    The spy drama brings the whole political process here to nothing more than political engineering, and if SF want power they need trust and support from their electorate. They won’t get it if they have misled their electorate.

  • You made the point previously that there was a dearth of investigative journalism here, Mick.

    Brian Walker’s article is a prime example of why that is.

    Whichever version of events anyone subscribes to in the Stormont spy-ring case it is a huge story that wouldn’t be dismissed so readily anywhere else.

    The ‘let’s move on’ chorus that is being promoted in several venues is part of the same old narrative that I have heard time and time again – “what does this mean for the peace process?” – That only obscures the intent and the consequences for the participants.

    Brian Walker may want to argue that it’s all in the past.. but the only way that will actually be true is if there is accountability for it when it happens – ‘Let’s move on’ is an attempt to avoid that accountability.. something that too many are too comfortable doing.

  • Lurker

    Sinn Fein lose both ways over the spy scandal.
    If they are a normal healthy political party with the capacity to remake themselves after a crisis then they will change the leadership that brought the vipers into the nest and reassess the political direction that leadership took them in. If they are not, they won’t.
    If they don’t behave like a normal party in this, then other parties will conclude that they are too dodgy to deal with. If Sinn Fein is a personality cult rather than a democratic party, then it can take decisions quickly, of course, but nothing it agrees to will ever be guaranteed by the base. It never has taken quick decisions however, always pleading the need to placate that base. And if the base doesn’t rise up now people will say that it has either no integrity or no voice.
    Of course, nobody wants a coup within Sinn Fein. The job of the spies was to protect the leadership and the project and it was worth that investment because the alternative was war. When the exposure of Brian Nelson produced a coup in the UDA the result was C Company and Adair.
    But it is in the interests of everybody that Sinn Fein should learn to function like a deomcratic party so that ultimately, when Adams goes, a healthy democratic transition will follow.

  • Pat Mc Larnon

    ‘The spy drama does change the fundamentals. It throws the whold Adams project under suspicion.’

    I’d rather approach it from the other side, ie people who you negotiate with in order to seek a political solution have very publicly acted in bad faith. Now, you can sit and scowl in the corner until faith in the British Government can be established beyond redoubt (an impossibility) or you have to make do with what you have got.

    ‘then they will change the leadership that brought the vipers into the nest and reassess the political direction that leadership took them in.’

    Most commentators have stated Donaldson was involved in the Republican Movement since at least 1970, who do you blame for that? By your own reckoning the British can keep the SF leadership in a state of flux simply by implanting agents in SF at any given time then simply give them up, knowing that such an action would lead to a leadership change.

  • Lurker

    Pat, imagine an analogy: Tony Blair discovers that his chief of staff is spying for Israel/Iran/the IRA – and has been for 20 years, and that he, the spy, had contributed towards guiding policy. Would Blair’s judgement as a leader be in question? I think it would.

    If it then turned out that the Labour party offered no criticism of Blair for his misjudgement, would that not damage the credibility of the party? Would people not question whether it was functioning as a proper democratic party that makes leaders answerable to the base.

    And if the party base was wholly content with the policy direction the secret agent had assisted it to move along – then what grounds would the party leadership have for deriding that agent and expelling him?

  • Pat Mc Larnon


    I agree with nearly all of what you say in both of your posts. It is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
    The process behind the implanting of spies is successful in either case.

  • Reader

    Kate: The spy drama does change the fundamentals. It throws the whold Adams project under suspicion. Is everyone and everything associated with it tainted by the hand of the British, or was it a genuine project to achieve their end goal, a United Ireland.
    Hold on. I thought that the standard republican position was that the securocrats were against the peace/political process… Were they in favour of it all along? Did Donaldson spend his 20 years working for a settlement, or a war?

  • Lurker

    Pat, let’s look at this ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ scenario.

    Sinn Fein’s problem is that it has been infiltrated to a degree that is not yet clear. Maybe DD was the last agent, maybe there are others.
    It has a problem of infiltration and a problem of credibility which depends on how it responds to infiltration.
    If it seeks to pretend that the damage caused by infiltration doesn’t really matter – doesn’t rattle the members – then people will think that this is a party of pliant devotees of a leadership – that it is a cult rather than a party. In fact, if the leadership does not make changes after outing DD, the base and others will assume that the leadership has no problem with the damage done by DD.
    But how far can the party go in acknowledging damage? Normally what happens is that the leader falls on his sword and a new leader promises change. That might be party suicide if Gerry Adams is as important as I think he is.
    And then, as you correctly suggest, the new leader could be embarrassed in the same way with another agent being outed, assuming that there are more agents there that can be outed in that way.

    And there is another problem; the agents appear to have been put in place to assist the peace process rather than to undermine it. Therefore to attack Blair and Orde for putting them there would force the party into a more hostile relationship with them than the peace process requires. Already there must be difficulties about going onto the policing board while making the case that the police are riddled with subversive securocrats.

    SF must be anxious about the danger of new agents emerging. It must also be near frantic with worry about the current pervasive gossip in which names are being named.

    It can not flush out the agents and it can not stop the gossip, so all that is left really is for a major political reform against the trend that Donaldson was working in and probably under a new leader. I don’t see an alternative that is nopt ultimately corrosive.

    And anyway, are we seriously to believe that IRA men and other activists who have been manipulated for years by Donaldson and the others have no objection to things continuing as they are, have no sense of their own efforts having been wasted, their own dreams and committments being stolen from them?