Ex-IRA man's murder hits new peace bid

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The Independent Online

Intense speculation continues about the identity and motives of the killers of the British agent Denis Donaldson, providing the most unsettled of backdrops to a new effort to revive the peace process.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, travel to Northern Ireland today to launch a new political initiative in the sombre knowledge that it will come to a sudden halt if the IRA was involved in the murder.

Donaldson, an IRA and Sinn Fein activist for more than 30 years and a Special Branch informer for two decades, was shot dead at a cottage in Co Donegal on Tuesday. Post-mortem examination results last night confirmed that he died from a shotgun wound to the chest. He also suffered severe injuries to his right hand.

While it is generally assumed that he was shot by republicans, it is unclear whether he might have been killed on the orders of the IRA, by dissidents, or by IRA members or former members acting on their own initiative.

If it emerges that the IRA was involved, then the initiative to be announced today will collapse, since it is based on the hope that the Rev Ian Paisley, as leader of Northern Ireland Unionism, will later this year accept that the IRA has given up violence.

The two prime ministers have declared that the killing will not deflect them from their attempts to revive a power-sharing executive in Belfast, but both governments acknowledge that the Donaldson killing is a major complication. "It certainly makes it more difficult," Mr Ahern told the Dail.

The initiative would entail a recall of the suspended Belfast Assembly, in the hope that by the autumn an absence of IRA activity would bring about a Paisley-Sinn Fein deal.

That would lead to a resumption of the power-sharing executive, which fell in October 2002 when Donaldson and two other men, including his son-in-law, were charged with running an IRA spy ring at Stormont.

The charges were dropped in mysterious circumstances in December last year, and then Donaldson appeared on Irish television to admit he had been a British agent since the 1980s.

He fled his home in Belfast, but, in contrast to what was the usual IRA practice in earlier times, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, said there was no threat to his life from republicans. Proven IRA involvement in the Donaldson assassination would remove any possibility of a political breakthrough.

Competing theories put the killing down to either political sabotage or personal vengeance. One theory has it that someone at an unknown level in the IRA is registering disapproval of the course of the peace process; another is that the killing was instigated by an individual who believed Donaldson's activities put him behind bars.

In both London and Dublin, however, the belief was voiced that the timing of the incident, coming as it did on the eve of such an important relaunch of political activity, was no coincidence. Republicans too said that the killing had been carried out by opponents of the peace process.

Both governments now face an anxious wait as detectives on both sides of the border attempt to pin down responsibility.

Irish police had known for some time that Donaldson was staying at the cottage, which belongs to his son-in-law, Ciaran Kearney. He had been living in the remote cottage, which had no electricity or running water, since January, appearing in the small town of Glenties only rarely to buy groceries and coal. He was also said to have occasionally called into a local café and a pub.

His presence in the area was publicised by the Sunday World on 19 March. He told the newspaper that there had been no spy ring at Stormont, and said it had been a failed security service plan to save the crumbling career of David Trimble, who was Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister at the time.

He had been contacted by the police with a warning, though this appears to have been a generalised message rather than a specific threat.

Mr Ahern told the Dail: "Gardai visited him in the light of the public attention which he'd received and they advised him that because of his circumstances there was a perceived element of threat to his life.

"They offered advice on personal security and the telephone number of Glenties Garda station in case he had any concerns. On an ongoing basis, therefore, the house where he lived received passing attention from the Garda."

He had not made any request for police protection, Mr Ahern said.

Tony Blair said: "The timing of this does suggest that whoever did this wants to derail the peace process. Our response should be to deny them what they want. Sometimes these things can be perpetrated by people in disagreement with their leadership."