Vincent Browne’s conspiracy

In the Irish Times today, Vincent Browne criticises Bertie Ahern for adopting the “move along now” response to the Stormont spy-ring case, and takes a swing at some others in the media too. He’s right that it’s a strange move given the Taoiseach’s previously acknowledged incomprehension about the case. Unfortunately, in Vincent’s conspiracy theory, which he’s promoted on a few occasions recently, not only does he fail to mention that others, including SF, have adopted that “move along now” response, but he has his bare facts wrong.In the article Vincent Browne starts by describing the search of Denis Donaldson’s office in Stormont –

Just remember the bare facts of this case. On October 4th, 2002, members of the PSNI Special Branch “raided” the Sinn Féin offices at Stormont, in the glare of television cameras. It transpired this was merely a photo opportunity for there was no “raid”; they went into only a few of the 24 offices occupied by Sinn Féin at Stormont, made no attempt to search anywhere and took away two computer disks, one with an electoral register on it and the other a Windows back-up disk, both of which they later returned.

These Special Branch officers then went down the road to the home of one of their own agents and there “found” more than 1,000 documents which “proved” Sinn Féin was engaged in a spying operation. The consequence of this disclosure was the breakdown of the constitutional arrangement that had been voted into effect by more than 80 per cent of the Irish people.

Vincent has previously described that search of Donaldson’s office as inexplicable [I’m paraphrasing].. but that’s because he has his timing wrong.

From the Ombudsman’s report on on the investigation following complaints from Sinn Féin about the searchs, as noted previously

The Police Ombudsman said she has found no evidence to suggest that the search was politically motivated, or that it was designed to damage Sinn Féin and the peace process. The search of an office was part of normal police process following the search of a home in circumstances such as this. No proper consideration was given by police to the fact that they were searching the buildings of a legislative assembly. This was a significant failing by police.

Investigators established that PSNI officers had earlier that morning carried out searches at a number of locations in the greater Belfast area in relation to alleged serious criminal offences under investigation. As a result of those searches, the PSNI decided that it would also be necessary to search a specific desk used by one particular individual, and the area immediately adjacent to that desk, in the Sinn Féin offices at Parliament Buildings.

The search of Donaldson’s office was, leaving aside for the minute his role in the spy-ring – and whose instructions he was following – the correct procedure to follow after finding documents in his house. It would have been incorrect, and perhaps evidence of a political bias, to search all of Sinn Féin’s offices in Stormont, although as the Ombudsman report also points out – “No proper consideration was given by police to the fact that they were searching the buildings of a legislative assembly.”

The Ombudsman’s report also dealt with Vincent Browne’s reference to a photo-opportunity –

The Police Ombudsman’s investigators did not uncover any evidence that police alerted the media to the imminent search at Stormont.

While an Ulster Television camera crew was present and filmed the early stages of the search operation, the Police Ombudsman’s Office has found no evidence that the broadcasters had been pre-warned by any police officer. UTV has confirmed that they did not receive advance notice from the police.

Once the police arrived at Stormont, and since a UTV camera crew was present, the rest of the media would have been negligent not to get there as quickly as possible.

For anyone not getting it yet, the role of Donaldson is central in this. If he was an agent-provocateur, as Vincent seems to believe, and as Sinn Féin claim, then the British Government are the main culprits in this and should be held to account.

If he wasn’t passing on information about the spy-ring, and became ensnared due to information from another source, as the BBC’s Brian Rowan, among others, believes then Sinn Féin are the main culprits and, likewise, should be held to account.

In either case, moving along is not of benefit to anyone else.. and neither is getting what facts we are aware of wrong.

Just to add, I tried to put together some facts around a more coherent, but loosely described, theory previously

  • elfinto

    Hello Pete. Was the Ombudsman aware that Denis Donaldson was a British agent? I don’t think so. Does that put a different slant on her report. Absolutely. She wasn’t in possession of the basic facts!

  • Pete Baker

    As I pointed out in the original post, finto – “the role of Donaldson is central in this”, as is the question of whose instructions he was following in his role in the spy-ring.

    Regardless of whom you believe was instructing Donaldson, the Ombudsman’s report confirms the correct police procedure to follow in the circumstances.. and that that procedure was followed.. the important issue of who was instructing Donaldson in this is the question that the ‘move along now’ response seeks to avoid.

    Vincent Browne, however, has based his conclusions on a faulty time-line.. after the correct time-line has already been made public through the Ombudsman’s investigations.

  • elfinto


    VB appears to have got the sequence wrong insofar as the PSNI actually raided Donaldson’s house shortly before they raided SF’s Stormont offices. However, I can’t see how this small inaccuracy invalidates his central thesis.

  • paul devlin

    How ridiculous to argue that because a previouse police Ombudsman investigation into the PSNI raid at Stormont was not political, the same should stand today.
    Presumably, and the Ombudsman’s office has not confirmed this, their investigation took place without the knowledge that Donaldson was a British Agent.
    Donaldosn’s outing has changed all. Clearly the burden of proof is now on the state and their security forces and not Sinn Fein. Isn’t that basic common sense?

  • pauldevlin

    Pete, I relaise you aren’t in full possesion of the facts. If you refer to the Police Ombudsman’s report you will realise that the PSNI were indeed criticised for their relationship with the media and the leaking of information to the media. Check it out. You may also require Hugh Orde apologising for the conduct of his officers in a press interview three days after the raid

  • The issue is an important one, and Vincent is right in raising the question.

    I certainly follow his line. He uses a rightly sceptical series of socratic inquiries, which examine the plausibility of general assumptions made by the media and others.

    But, how did Vincent come to the very precise conclusion that the British were the solely accountable authors of this scenario?

    I don’t think the evidence is yet in (perhaps it is being deliberately witheld) that inevitably leads to that conclusion.

  • Oilbhéar Chromaill

    Surely Mick, the unanswered questions by the British and their protestation that it’s in the ‘public interest’ that they don’t answer these questions places an onus on them that is not being met.
    Sinn Féin, in outing Donaldson in full knowledge of the spin off results of what happened, have not shirked the issues, no matter that they know that this will give critics, external and internal, fuel for attack.
    The British bona fides in this issue are suspect given their past record of dirty tricks, double agents, agent provacateurs etc.
    There’s also the fact that the argument that the IRA had a spyring in Stormont presupposes that republicans and the British government complete with its limitless ‘intelligence/espionage’ budget are on a par. They’re clearly not.
    The Irish government want us to move on and leave all this behind because not to do so would hand Sinn Fein a trump card coming to an election – the party would be able to claim that yet again an Irish government rolled over to the British – cf 1974 and the Dublin Monaghan bombing and the ‘non investigation’.
    As for the Police Ombudsman, the report she issued in August 2004 can no longer stand. Either she didn’t know that Donaldson was an agent for the British – and therefore she could not have issued the report she did in that light.
    And if she did know – well it doesn’t say a lot for her powers of reasoning that she came up with the conclusion she did.