On Tuesday, the Irish current affairs magazine, Magill, held its annual awards ceremony. These awards are a mix of seriousness and humour. The best known is the "politician of the year" award, which was won by the minister for education and prospective prime minister, Mary Hanafin. Others include "gaff of the year," which went to the former junior minister, Ivor Gallery, for a self-inflicted resignation debacle, and "best dressed politician," which was won by the Progressive Democrat's Liz O'Donnell.
An hour before the awards were due to start, Magill editor Eamon Delaney heard some news and immediately decided to drop one of the categories from the ceremony. The former Sinn Fein official and British spy, Denis Donaldson, a "survivor of the year" nominee, had been found dead in a decrepit bungalow in Donegal. He had been shot twice, once in the head, and once in the arm, which was almost severed.
The day before Donaldson's murder, there was some good news from Northern Ireland: as part of the "normalization measures" launched by the British government last summer after the IRA announced it was to disband, the British army took down the last of its watchtowers. This was dismantled in the "bandit country" of south Armagh. Amid on-going stories about political wrangling in Northern Ireland, this small event suggested despite its moribund peace, militarism and paramiltarism were no longer a feature of life there.
News of an informant's death would certainly have made a few headlines during the dark days of 1980s and early 1990s, but that might have been about all. This week, Donaldson's murder has shocked Ireland, north and south. Execution and torture are not supposed to happen there any more.
But perhaps this initial surprise will soon be displaced by a sense of inevitability. Although the IRA has said that it has disbanded, and has said that its weapons are decommissioned, the fact remains that Donaldson was one of the most high-profile informants (or "touts" in republican parlance), in the history of the Irish republican movement.
This killing couldn't have come at a worse time for Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, as they prepare to meet to discuss the partial restoration of devolved power for the Northern Ireland assembly. The assembly, set up under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, was suspended in October 2002, after allegations of an IRA spy ring in the assembly buildings at Stormont. Shortly afterwards, Donaldson was one of three men arrested for his alleged part in this spy ring. These charges were dropped in December 2005, "in the public interest", according the authorities. Eight days later, Sinn Fein announced that it was expelling Donaldson from the party for being a British agent. Later, in a press conference flanked beside Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and his deputy Martin McGuiness, Donaldson admitted to working for the British security services for two decades.
After his expulsion, Gerry Adams said that he had nothing to fear from the republican movement. Despite the current stasis in the Northern Ireland peace process, it would have been assumed that Adams was right. A recent article in the Sunday Tribune, for example, said that not so long ago, Donaldson "would have been executed by the IRA for spying for the British. Now he is left to live as a different kind of mole - an underground, squalid, secretive afterlife for a life of lies."
Donaldson, as a long serving Sinn Fein official, would have been very familiar with the IRA internal security department, the "nutting squad." Despite this, and although it's reported that the Irish police had made contact with him in January, he didn't request any protection. True, he had left Northern Ireland immediately after the revelations of his spying emerged. But if he had felt that his life was in danger, he would have left Ireland – north and south - rather than move a few miles across the border to a small cottage, with no electricity or running water.
Almost as soon as the story broke, Gerry Adams told the BBC that he condemned the killing without reservation. "I want to dissociate Sinn Fein and indeed all those Republicans who support the peace process, if this man was murdered." The IRA also issued a statement saying that it "had no involvement whatsoever in the death of Denis Donaldson."
Predictably, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was quick to blame "IRA/Sinn Fein". DUP assembly member Edwin Poots argued: "The reason, the motivation and the track record for murdering Denis Donaldson all rest with the IRA…it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who did it. It was either aliens from Mars or it was IRA/Sinn Fein. And I suspect it wasn't aliens from Mars."
One of Sinn Fein's most vocal critics, Michael McDowell, the Irish minister for justice, uncharacteristically responded with restraint and caution. He asked a sensible question. "Cui bono? Who would benefit from such an action? Those interested in bringing about political progress would not."
Edwin Poots discounted the possibility that British intelligence might have murdered Donaldson, by arguing that it would serve them no purpose. The possibility that this murder was carried out by loyalists has also been discounted, given that it took place in Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. In any event, Donaldson would have been a strange target for loyalists, considering that he had spent twenty years wreaking havoc on their enemies in the IRA. It's possible, but unlikely, to have been one of the dissident republican groups, who would have claimed credit for it by now.
The DUP and others are constantly saying that the IRA and Sinn Fein are one side of the same coin. But what purpose would it serve Sinn Fein or the IRA to have Donaldson murdered? As things stand, Sinn Fein are arguing that Stormont should be fully restored with executive powers, and are resisting the temporary watered down version proposed by the British and Irish governments. This murder doesn't exactly lend Sinn Fein's argument much weight.
This killing may well have had nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with personal retribution. Two weeks ago, an Irish tabloid called the Sunday World tracked Donaldson down to his squalid Donegal cottage. Although it didn't name the exact location, it said that it was located in the gaeltacht (Irish speaking) part of Donegal, and that it was the only occupied house in a collection of cottages at a bend in the road. It also published a photo of the house. Donegal is well known as being a holiday spot for republicans. It's possible that someone who had been crossed by Donaldson (and there are many who fall into this category), acting on his own initiative, decided to do a little detective work, and succeeded in locating him.
Although Sinn Fein is broadly representative of republicans in Ireland, this representation isn't exclusive. The rioting in Dublin last month following a proposed Orange Order march is a case in point. After these riots, DUP deputy leader Jeffrey Donaldson, while on Irish television, could barely contain his glee at the opportunity of talking about the victimization of unionists. As with the Donaldson murder, Sinn Fein unequivocally condemned these riots, and there was nothing to suggest it had any part in them. Like the Donaldson murder, these riots did nothing to advance Sinn Fein's political agenda; both totally played into to the hands of the DUP, who will use any pretext they can to avoid sharing power with Sinn Fein.
This murder may well disrupt the peace process temporally, but I think that it will do little beyond that. It is a matter of fact that at present, Sinn Fein has absolutely nothing to gain from violence, and everything to lose. Unfortunately, for Denis Donaldson's family, his tragic and brutal death may well soon be dismissed as simply "one of those things."