The dog ate my homework
The dog ate my homework

By Vincent Browne (for the Irish Times)

Bertie Ahern, in a radio interview on Sunday, backed off a demand for an investigation into what is known as “Stormontgate”.

What is now important, he said, is that we move on from here and try to get the Good Friday institutions up and running again. It seems he too has been bamboozled by the spin “security sources” in Northern Ireland have put on the story.

Just remember the bare facts of this case. On October 4th, 2002, members of the PSNI Special Branch “raided” the Sinn Fein 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 Fein 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 Fein 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.

And we are now invited to believe by “security sources” that the discovery of these 1,000 documents in the home of one of their own agents was merely coincidental, that this agent had not told them either of this spying operation or his own part in it, that they had never asked him about it before raiding his home. We are further asked to believe that the prosecution of their own spy for spying was always intended to go the full course: to trial, conviction and sentence, without it ever emerging that the Sinn Fein member was actually a Special Branch spy.

And, as an array of usual media suspects would have it, we are invited to regard this as a major crisis for Sinn Fein, not a major crisis for the security forces. Amazing! Sometimes what seems obvious is obvious. Sometimes it is prudent to believe one’s own eyes and ears.

Of course it is possible that Denis Donaldson was a double agent and that, while pretending to spy for the British, in fact he was spying against them. But if that was true, would he not now say that and save his reputation among his own community, among his own family and among his own friends?

It is also vaguely possible that he was compromised on this one venture, that he had to go along with the spying venture for Sinn Fein, without telling his Special Branch handlers over several months, and that he got caught.

But, come on, think of the extraordinary coincidence: the only place where the PSNI Special Branch found anything linking Sinn Fein with spying was in the house of their own agent. What are the chances of that being for real? Of course, I think it plausible Sinn Fein would have been engaged in spying. Weren’t they and/or their sister organisation, the IRA, into it for years? Weren’t they spying to enable them to murder people for decades? Weren’t members of Sinn Fein caught spying on politicians in the South? But that is not the point.

We are now being asked to believe that “proof” of Sinn Fein spying is the discovery of documents in the home of a Special Branch agent and nowhere else. And we are further asked to believe that the consequent collapse of the constitutional arrangement was the fault of Sinn Fein, not of the security agents who may have staged this affair. Brian Rowan, former security editor of the BBC, writing in this newspaper last Saturday, conveyed an ingenious version of what had happened in relation to all this, according to “security sources”. We are told: “There was another informer - a covert human intelligence source (CHIS) - and the IRA’s intelligence-gathering operation inside the Northern Ireland Office was compromised long before the documents were moved to Donaldson’s house. For weeks, indeed months, before then, the PSNI Special Branch and the British security service, MI5, had known precisely where the Stormontgate documents were being kept.”

And we are asked to believe that the Special Branch held back for months on raiding this house because of a “bigger plan”; they thought they might be able to capture the IRA director of intelligence red-handed. Then, unfortunately, the documents were moved to the house of their own agent and they had no option but to raid that house. Why could they not wait until the documents were moved on to somewhere else, before compromising their own agent? No explanation.

The dog ate my homework.

The refusal to face up to the obvious facts is wilful. Wilful on Bertie Ahern’s part and on the part of the media. As though any interpretation of the bare facts that might let Sinn Fein off the hook cannot be entertained. Meanwhile, we have nothing to say about what the facts scream out: almost certainly the PSNI Special Branch and British intelligence forces subverted a constitutional settlement of the Irish problem.

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