by Tommy McKearney
LEARNING THAT British intelligence has well placed agents within Sinn Fein is as unsurprising as hearing about bookmakers gathering at Aintree for the Grand National.
A service that has in the past tasked its operatives to monitor the activities of Peter Mandelson and the late Robin Cook was hardly likely to neglect infiltrating the Provisional IRA and its near relatives. Predictable though the existence of informers may be, it does nevertheless, send tremors through republican circles when a previously trusted colleague is revealed as a British government agent.
There is little doubt that in the weeks following the exposure of Sinn Fein's former head of administration in Stormont as a spy, the party and its supporters were shaken. That a figure of Denis Donaldson's standing had been working as a double agent for two decades was an unnerving blow to most republicans.
Adding to their jitters was the endless rounds of speculation about other agents and their identities. While the media fuelled many of the rumours, with some newspapers actually naming certain individuals, republican circles were also awash with gossip and tittle-tattle. Few members of Sinn Fein's current leadership were left untouched by wagging tongues and the party's Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, had to go so far as issue a front-page denial of spying, in his local weekly newspaper.
Eventually, however, the utter absence of any tangible proof caused the hysteria to peter out; among the grassroots at least. There are still reports of prominent republicans being warned by the PSNI that the IRA suspects them of treachery. For the most part, though, Sinn Fein is currently more intent on finding a formula to allow it to support policing than uncovering other British agents within its ranks. Questions, nevertheless, remain and it is far from sure that this is the last we shall hear of the 'spies and shinners' saga.
One of the puzzling aspects of the story has been its source. During the press conference convened to expose Denis Donaldson's duplicity, Gerry Adams said that he believed British 'securocrats' intended to reveal their own agent's identity. This would appear to contradict all the rules of espionage if it weren't for the fact that previously, another agent called Freddie Scappaticci was effectively 'outed' by a Sunday newspaper with strong connections among the British establishment.
On the surface it appears strange that any intelligence agency would give away its human assets either carelessly or deliberately. There is a view in some quarters that this might have been done to protect still better placed agents. Yet how many agents in positions more senior than Donaldson and Scappatici, could there be? Moreover, orchestrating a drama of this nature and magnitude is certainly not the best means of helping the concealment of anything.
Another suggestion is that British 'securocrats' and their colleagues in PSNI Special Branch are determined to prevent the establishment of a devolved administration in Belfast, for so long as Sinn Fein is the dominant nationalist party. The problem with this theory is that after the 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' debacle (and the death of scientist David Kelly), the wider intelligence community hardly wants to risk destabilising what many view as one of its success stories i.e. subduing the Provos.
There is of course the simpler explanation that the spooks are acting on cabinet orders and are working to destabilise Sinn Fein. With the DUP unwilling to sit in an executive with this generation of republicans, London must feel tempted to try reshaping the republican party's profile. The latest brouhaha has subsided without undermining that party's upper echelons but that would surely change if further damaging revelations were to emerge.
The clear implication in this is that the British feel they know how to govern Northern Ireland better than the natives. Surely the Brits wouldn't be so arrogant as to believe that, or would they?
Tommy McKearney is a former Tyrone IRA member, a newspaper columnist and president of the Independent Workers' Union in Ireland.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2006 Tommy Kearney