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Vincent Browne: I'm no friend of Gerry Adams, but the BBC Spotlight programme on him was tittle-tattle

The programme was compromised from the outside, filled with bullshit drama effects alongside dodgy journalism, writes Vincent Browne.

Vincent Browne

THE BBC SPOTLIGHT programme on the likely complicity of Gerry Adams in the 2006 murder in Donegal of a former Sinn Fein and IRA colleague, Denis Donaldson, was compromised from the outset.

The unidentified informer whose evidence was the main source of the programme’s allegations – aside from what Spotlight ‘understands’, which is a weasel journalistic cop-out –  claimed he went voluntarily to the police force in Northern Ireland, to inform them about what was going on in the IRA so as to ensure there would be no further outbreak of violence. The clear inference was that he went to the IRA when the violence had all but stopped, but not before this, when the killing was rampant.

There was no explanation offered by the programme for this obvious conundrum. If this person was so concerned about the loss of life, why did he not go to the police force when the IRA was engaged in killing before the ceasefire? Indeed why did he join the IRA at all, unless he did so to get information which he would later convey to the police? And if the latter was so, why did the programme not tell us that?

Northern Ireland Sinn Fein Chief Gerry Adams Source: Associated Press

So there was something dodgy about this “informer” from the outset or there was something dodgy about how the programme was constructed.

The mystery around Denis Donaldson

Then there was the curious claim that Denis Donaldson, who, as a member of the IRA and Sinn Fein had acknowledged he had acted for the security forces as an agent, was the person supposedly behind “Stormontgate”, the alleged IRA spying operation at Stormont, exposed in 2002. According to the programme, this prize IRA “informer” never informed in advance his security forces handlers of this enterprise. If this is so, was Denis Donaldson a rogue “informer” – i.e. pretending to the security services to be acting on their behalf while actually acting on behalf of the IRA. If so, then why would the IRA have killed him? If that was not so, why did he not inform the security forces of the spying operation? And if he was the person who informed the security forces of this spying operation, why did the programme not tell us that – instead of telling us that he had not informed the security forces of this?

Curious.

Anyway, what was there at Stormont that the IRA or Sinn Fein would want to spy on? The names and addresses of prison officers? What was the point, since they were on ceasefire and, certainly, Gerry Adams was adamant that the ceasefire would stick?

Why would the IRA want to kill Donaldson?

The programme claimed that Donaldson owned up to being an “informer” when the security forces told him he was about to be exposed in the media as such. Really? If anybody in the media were so informed, who could have informed them other than the security forces, and why would the security forces do that to one of their “informers” – knowing that this would undermine their entire informer network – unless they were up to something else, such as getting their own back on Denis Donaldson because they realised belatedly he was a rogue “informer”, acting throughout on behalf of the IRA? In which case, again, why would the IRA want to kill him?

It is pretty obvious the IRA had decided not to kill him and so informed him, since he decided not to flee the country but to live near the heartland of the IRA in Donegal.

IRELAND BRITAIN DONALDSON The isolated home of Denis Donaldson near Glenties in Donegal Source: Associated Press

The Spotlight programme’s informant said Donaldson was killed at the insistence of the South Armagh IRA and of Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, the leading figure in the South Armagh IRA, because Donaldson had penetrated that unit of the IRA and done considerable damage to it. This seems implausible to anyone who paid any attention to the Smithwick investigation into the murder of two RUC police officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanon in South Armagh in March 1989. Witness after witness from the security forces north and south gave evidence at the Smithwick Tribunal of how, uniquely, the South Armagh IRA was impenetrable. Anyway, Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy would have known well how inopportune it would have been to kill anybody as prominent as Denis Donaldson in April 2006 right at a sensitive time politically when Adams was engaged in negotiations to have the Stormont power-sharing executive re-established, this time with Ian Paisley.

But the give-away of the programme was the acknowledgement that Adams had ceased to be a member of the IRA army council in 2005 and yet his sanction for the killing of Donaldson in 2006 was required because all such assassinations needed the sanction of the military and political leadership of the IRA. When, ever before, did anyone hear about the military and political leadership of the IRA? Anyway, the programme’s informant did not claim to have any direct evidence of this, just that someone told him Adams would have had to sanction the killing!

This is tittle tattle, not journalism.

Anyway, isn’t it odd that not alone did the Real IRA claim to have murdered Denis Donaldson but, according to the programme, this is what the gardaí believe also and they, again according to the programme, are pursuing a line of inquiry concerning a known member of the Real IRA.

The reaction in the media

The Spotlight programme was full of the bullshit drama effects that go along with dodgy journalism – scary sound effects, dark atmospherics, the whole diversionary panoply from the thinnest claims.

Undaunted, the Irish Independent went into its Adams hysteria as though a smoking gun had been revealed, with the usual suspects lining up to ridicule Adams’s denial of any involvement in the Donaldson killing. The absence of any credible evidence was of no importance or significance to the Talbot Street excited airheads.

And then there was the rank opportunism of Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, insisting Adams had questions to answer about this. What questions?

Of course Gerry Adams, as the leading figure in the IRA from around 1978 onwards, was up to his neck in some of the most awful IRA atrocities of that period. But had he never been involved in the IRA, most of those atrocities would have happened anyway and, very probably, even worse atrocities. But what is also obvious is that peace would not have been negotiated when it was negotiated – and then renegotiated –  had Adams not been the most influential figure by far within the republican movement.

Adams’s extraordinary achievement

In a documentary which I was working on for TV3 – now not to be completed by TV3 – the most unlikely people spoke so highly of Adams. Martin Mansergh, for instance, called him “a statesman”. Mitchell Reiss, George Bush’s envoy to Northern Ireland, said he was the most formidable person, not just at the negotiations that led to the St Andrews agreement, but the most formidable person he ever had come across in attempts to resolve conflicts around the world.

Sinn Fein MP Gerry Adams Gerry Adams pictured in 1984 Source: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

Arguably the Good Friday Agreement and what followed from that has been the most important success on the island of Ireland since 1922 and while the likes of David Trimble, Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster, Bertie Ahern, Martin Mansergh, Martin McGuinness, many others in Sinn Fein and the IRA, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell and, of course Tony Blair (possibly his only creditable legacy in what is now remembered as a discreditable period in Number 10), all contributed hugely, without Gerry Adams it would not have happened when it did.

I write this, not as a friend of Gerry Adams – although I have known him since August 1971, I have never socialised with him other than over cups of coffee or water and have been and probably will continue to be a critic of his politics and of his complicity in so much of the horrors that occurred under his IRA stewardship – but in acknowledgement of an extraordinary achievement. There is nobody else in the Dáil, nor indeed on the island, that has achieved anything of such significance.

Read other columns by Vincent Browne:

Terrorism works only with the complicity of the media and its sensationalist reporting

Enda’s latest move shows a cruelty of the heart and mind

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Vincent Browne

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