Negotiating war and peace

An extract from Lives Entangled, an essay by Bernadette McAliskey included in Britain & Ireland: Lives Entwined II.

Once more, the dust settles, and whatever passes for normality creeps stealthily in and out of the fading logic of war.

I have absolutely no idea under what pressure and for what reasons Denis Donaldson made a personal choice to become a spy, an active agent of British intelligence. I have no idea why, previously, he made a personal choice to be an active member of the Irish Republican Army. I have no idea why the person who killed him chose to do so, or under whose orders he did so, and in whose interest the self-confessed British agent and suspected double agent was killed.

I could speculate on a range of potential explanations for all these mysteries: everyone else has. But the questions will now never really be answered. The tabloid journalist who, in his paper’s words, “hunted him down” claims to have found him within three hours of deciding to look for him. His assassin followed soon after. It would not have been impossible for me to have located Denis and asked him for his account. I wish I had.

Denis was not the first, and may not be the last undercover agent in the service of the crown in Ireland. He was not the first, and may not be the last to pay for his decision with his life. That we should all know and accept these complexities, without an individual explanation, is a reflection of an inter-island relationship in which lives are entangled rather than entwined.

Some of the simplest things in life are extremely complicated; and some of the most complicated, in the last analysis, very simple. Love, integrity, and whose side you are on are good examples.

Denis Donaldson had a life partner of many years, a daughter, two sons, three grandchildren, sister, brothers, extended family, comrades, colleagues, friends and acquaintances. In varying combinations he was loved, liked, respected by most of these people. Suddenly the Denis people knew, or more correctly, the Denis they had constructed in the totality of their relationship with him, disappeared. The new Denis - British agent, double agent, vulnerable victim or unscrupulous villain and traitor - usurped his identity like some mythical Irish changeling.

Every single human being on whom his life had an impact was required to reconstruct his image and their reality. From the public images of him offered up in the media, it looked as if Denis Donaldson was forced by the circumstances of his disclosure to do the same. Perhaps those who killed him could not permit that process to come to its logical conclusion. Denis Donaldson might have told the whole truth to a wider audience than was healthy for “the peace”. I don’t know.

For everyone, this complex and painful disentanglement was informed by many strands in their own lives: personal history and loss; political history; the need for self-protection; fear of guilt by association; the depth of personal or collective betrayal. For some, in its impact on their personal, political or professional progress and ambition, this discovery might have created opportunities. All of this reconfiguring had as its starting point whichever side of the conflict the person was on - their location, so to speak. The potential locations on the map, and the number of persons standing on any one of them, were many.

Yet in its complexity, the map remained simple. They were all, in the last analysis, singularly on their own side. The singular and personal Denis Donaldson they related to no longer existed. The new one did not belong to them. They despised, hated, reviled, even pitied him, in varying degrees; or simply wiped his existence as a person from the horizon of their own world view.

This denial of the intrinsic humanity of a person, whatever his or her deed, is a learned self-defence mechanism. This process of dehumanising the image of the “other” is how most people on all sides survive the reality of war.

Only the very brave or philosophical will acknowledge the humanity of their enemy, and their own contribution to the death and destruction around them, whether by word, deed or omission. This does not cancel out their own suffering, their own rights, principles or actions, for which they are willing to be held accountable. This, to my mind, is crucial to the integrity of republicanism as a philosophy.

Gerry Adams referred to Denis Donaldson, formerly a key member of his party, as “this man”; Gerry Kelly called him “that man”. People who did not know him at all called him much worse. Colleagues, friends, comrades and brothers-in-arms of the old Denis, many of whom shared his now very public weakness for “philandering”, retreated to some deep overgrown well of Catholic morality to weigh in the balance of political compromise, the moral lessons of adultery. Others dismissed the possibility of so commonplace an activity constituting the source of his vulnerability. Most didn’t care. He had crossed the line. He was over. The blame lay with him and with the British, who, it now appeared to the untutored eye, had been spying on themselves until, in the process of doing so, they had brought their own institution down around their ears.

It was left to Martin McGuinness to acknowledge that the two incompatible Denis Donaldsons were the same person, and that before appearing to change sides, this person had contributed significantly to the cause of Irish republicanism and Irish freedom.

It was left to Anthony McIntyre to point out that, as an agent, the role of his erstwhile comrade had been to lure the republican movement down a path of compromise, in which direction McIntyre considered them to have been already stampeding of their own free will and consent, without much need for further intrigue.

There was a much smaller group of people for whom the painful re-evaluation started somewhere else entirely. Particularly in Belfast, in addition to the complex range of emotions shared as part of the republican community, these people had to deal with the reality and implications of their own unique starting point. They already knew that there was only one Denis: and they loved him. That simplicity is extremely complex.

Denis Donaldson, life partner - whose weaknesses could be read like tea leaves by the woman who loved him, lived with him, forgave him his trespasses, supported him in his tribulation, comforted him in his grief, laughed, cried, struggled and survived the trauma of making family life work in the middle of a war - was not loved because of or in spite of what he was. He was loved unconditionally for himself. That didn’t make him right, or excusable. It made him loved. Denis as brother, father and grandfather was loved in the same way.

If men understood this much, women’s lives would be easier. Even when they were angry, distraught and unable to believe that he could ever be a spy, despite his own testimony to that fact; even when they were quite at a loss to make sense of it all, fearful of its implications, and where it might end - in short, no matter how complicated it became for them, he remained for them essentially the same person.

Because he needed them now more than at any other time, they remained unconditionally on his side. He belonged to them still, and they to him.

IN the period from 1986 to the ceasefire, 19 [ IRA] volunteers in Tyrone were killed in actions that had been sanctioned by their military leadership. Almost all those actions were compromised when agents/informers provided advance notice to British intelligence.

One of those to die in this series of compromised actions was Jim Lynagh, killed with his comrades by an SAS ambush of an IRA operation at Loughgall. It is currently alleged, by the same media outlet that “outed” Denis Donaldson in Donegal, that Donaldson was killed in revenge for the death of Jim Lynagh at Loughgall. The media do not explain why those who died with Jim are not included in the revenge equation. Most of those who served with him are also dead.

I knew Jim better than I knew Denis: he was a friend of many years’ standing. On January 16th, 1981, the UDA knocked on my door with a sledgehammer. It was very early in the morning. They arrived in a car which, far from being stolen or commandeered, had been legitimately hired. Documentation relating to the car hire exists, but has never been fully investigated to this day.

What is known is that the loyalist active service unit who left my husband and me for dead were betrayed by British intelligence agents/informers within the ranks of loyalism. They were permitted to enter the house, do their work, and were arrested directly on leaving. There were soldiers lying in the ditch at the door of my house all night. I know this because I spoke with them, as I returned home from a meeting around 1.30 that morning.

My famous last words may well have been “Have you no homes of your own to go to, instead of lying outside decent people’s houses, and spying on them?”

I was fully conscious, but too seriously injured to move from where I lay on the bedroom floor. My would-be-assassin had discharged all his ammunition: the last shot shattered the bone in my leg as I lay on my back, my head almost touching his feet. I have no idea if Mr Watson, who fired that shot, is haunted by it. At a distance of only several feet, perhaps unnerved by the ferocity with which my husband had blocked their entry using nothing but his physical and moral strength, he had fired eight rounds from his nine-millimetre Browning into my body, and after a second’s pause that stood between me and eternity, fired again. There was only one shot left. Perhaps he had forgotten that he had also fired at my husband. Had he known it was the last round, I assume he would have fired it at my head. Maybe it was too near his feet.

He walked out of my house, in quiet conversation with his two comrades, Mr Grahame, whose job it was to shoot my husband, also left for dead, and Mr Smallwood, who held my two daughters at gunpoint in their beds. My two-year-old son watched Mr Watson from the bed onto which I had thrown him to avoid him being killed in his mother’s arms.

Erroneously, as they left, I assumed these assassins were the soldiers with whom I had spoken some hours before, when I heard a distinctly English voice call out, “Up against the wall!” I waited for a shot that I believed might kill a neighbour alerted by the shooting into coming onto the scene. A Northern Ireland accent replied, “F*** this for a double cross!”

Some time later, a paratrooper entered the house. I assumed he had returned to complete the mission. As he stood with his rifle pointed at my head, and demanded my identity, my potentially famous last words were less repeatable. He explained that the men who had invaded my house had been arrested on leaving. Less than graciously, I inquired why, since he had been lying outside my house, they had not been arrested before entering it. He informed me that his orders were to arrest them coming out. I have no reason to disbelieve him.

Once more, the dust settles, and whatever passes for normality creeps stealthily in and out of the fading logic of war. People use the empty space in their psyche for other things, until finally everybody acknowledges that, for now at any rate, the war is over.

War, however, is a limited military exercise. The real question that remains is not about the war, which was a consequence, rather than a cause. The real question is left unanswered, temporarily forgotten. It is about equal rights, human rights and fundamental freedoms. It was the campaign for these things that descended into war for many reasons too well rehearsed to deserve space here.

Suffice it to say that the primary responsibility for a fair and equitable society in the North lay with the Irish and British governments, both of whom claimed authority over this jurisdiction either by conquest or constitution - neither by peaceful means. Both, from the formation of the Irish Free State, and the amendment of the Government of Ireland Act onwards, abdicated their duty and responsibilities in relation to the people of the North.

It confers no honour on the position of either government that they were finally motivated and mobilised towards negotiating an end to war, not by the relentless death toll, the grinding permanent attrition on either side, the rising prison population, or the passing on of the violence into a second and third generation, but by the rising vote for Sinn Féin. It does little honour to Sinn Féin that they were motivated by the same high principles, namely their belief that the war was preventing their vote from rising even faster. Principles were abandoned on all sides in the pretence that greater motives pertained. Overnight, those who had cautioned against Trojan horses were reconstrued as militarists by the military men of both islands, now carving up between them not the spoils of war, but the potential spoils of peace.

Nonetheless, the peace is made and continues to be tortuously processed. So what progress are we making towards what goals? Against what targets and indicators will that progress be measured? Shall we take as our benchmark a renewed understanding of the futility of war and violence, and learning to live in peace, in deference to the much-lauded strapline, “no cause is worth a single life”?

Here we have the spectacle of our neighbouring island, released from the trauma and cost of war in Ireland, turning to fresh wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and currently contemplating another in Iran. The Republic of Ireland has taken to parading its limited military hardware up and down O’Connell Street like some tin-pot military dictatorship in commemoration of an uprising it has disowned for 40 years. It has shaken the dust off the Proclamation of 1916, which, among other things, summoned the Irish nation to war with its neighbours.

Up until very recently, swearing allegiance to this proclamation could land you in the Special Criminal Court in Green Street. Now, apparently, for the Government that abandoned its constitutional right of jurisdiction, it is safe to reclaim the Easter Rising, the Fenian dead, Oglaigh na hEireann and the mantle of republicanism.

With respect to law and order, Sinn Féin roundly and loudly condemns the looters of vodka, manufacturers of dodgy diesel, suppliers of stolen cigarettes, and those who flog fake jeans, DVDs and cannabis, significant numbers of whom bear an uncanny physical resemblance to members or former members of Oglaigh na hEireann, to give the IRA its proper title.

The UDA and UVF have chosen to interpret their inability to secure more than 1 per cent of the ballot box, with or without the bullet, as a form of social exclusion that justifies not only their continuation of hate-based attacks on Catholics, but a whole new line in attacks on black and ethnic minorities and migrant worker communities. There are rumblings in the grey economy on both traditional sides that the only way to keep the Assets Recovery Agency off your back is to toe the political peace-line.

There is, however, more than 10 years after the ceasefire, and almost 10 after the negotiated peace, no powersharing government as yet, thanks to alleged Sinn Féin espionage - which brings us back to Denis Donaldson, who was arrested as the key figure in that espionage, and who turned out to be a British spy.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the “direct rulers” have made off with our water rates. They are making us pay again, raising our rates, dismantling our hospitals, local government, health boards, education boards; and they won’t let us build in the countryside, which is where most of us live. The plain people negotiate the peace as they negotiated the war and life goes on.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News