The Execution: How an IRA man turned British spy met his brutal end

The long arm of republican vengeance reached inside a remote Irish mountain cottage yesterday and took the life of Denis Donaldson, the former IRA and Sinn Fein member who was recently unmasked as a police agent.

One or more assassins cornered the 56-year-old republican, gunning him down in the primitive ramshackle cottage where he had hidden himself away from the world. There were unconfirmed reports last night that his body had been mutilated.

The cottage is in the Blue Stack Mountains near the Donegal village of Glenties, a rugged and sparsely populated area. It seemed he felt safe there, even though last month his presence was publicised. But the republican tradition of carrying out what are called "executions" of known informers has evidently not faded with the general rundown of the IRA campaign.

There is no mystery about why he was killed, since the IRA makes no secret of its hatred and contempt for informers and agents in its ranks. Republican organisations have killed many over the centuries, including scores in recent decades. But the question is exactly who killed him and whether his assassination was sanctioned by the IRA leadership. The answer will determine the immediate political future of Northern Ireland.

The killing sent major tremors coursing through the Irish peace process, since if the IRA is judged to have been responsible this phase of the process will come to a halt. The IRA declared last night that it had "no involvement whatsoever" in the killing, an assertion which will now be thoroughly tested by police on both sides of the border.

Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, are due in Armagh in Northern Ireland tomorrow to launch a new initiative aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly and eventually putting together a coalition to include Sinn Fein and Unionists. But, if the IRA is shown to be responsible, the ambition of the British and Irish governments to put together a new cross-community government will be in ruins, as Unionists will refuse to share power with Sinn Fein.

Certainly the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, will be making no conciliatory move until the question of the Donaldson killing has been answered. He expressed scepticism at the IRA denial and said the killing could hinder progress.

"This has put a dark cloud over those talks," he said. "If this man has been murdered because of his connection with IRA/Sinn Fein and because of the past happenings, then it strikes a blow at what the two governments are trying to do - to say that the IRA has forsaken these ways and they are seeking peace."

Donaldson, who was 56, was found by Irish police who broke down the door and found his body at about 5pm yesterday. He had gone into hiding in December after being exposed as a security force agent, admitting he had worked for Special Branch for 20 years. He was interrogated by Sinn Fein activists and then apparently told he was free to go. The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who said at the time that Donaldson had not been under threat from the republican movement, condemned the killing.

Last month Donaldson was tracked down by the Sunday World to a Donegal cottage. The cottage, which was described as being barely habitable, with no electricity or running water, was pictured in its issue of 19 March. Donaldson, who looked thin and dishevelled, told the paper in an interview: "How did you find this place? You don't see much of anyone here, not even the gardai. They've been up and down past there but they never came in. I'm not hiding, I just want to be left alone. I don't go anywhere. I don't want to be in touch with anyone. As you can see, I'm in the middle of nowhere."

As months have gone by since his unmasking, the assumption has grown that the IRA had decided not to move against him. Many in its ranks harboured feelings of betrayal and hatred but everyone knew that his assassination would set back, probably for years, Sinn Fein's hopes of getting back into government.

The possibilities also exist that he was killed by individual members or ex-members of the IRA, or by a breakaway republican dissident group.

In recent years Donaldson had been an important apparatchik within Sinn Fein, but he was previously a senior member of the IRA in Belfast for many years. Some of those he served with in the IRA may hold him personally responsible for the jailing of IRA members or even for the deaths of people at the hands of the security forces.

The journalist Hugh Jordan, who found Donaldson in Donegal, said last night that he did not think the informer believed his life was in danger. He said: "He looked like a hunted animal. He was extremely depressed. The nerves in his eyes were trembling. He seemed like a man who didn't think he would come to any harm. He did not see his life to be in any danger, but felt the only future he had was where he was, living in that dreadfully squalid situation. It's desperate that something like this happened. He was alone and threatened no one. He was no harm to anybody."

Three years ago another security forces agent, Freddie Scappaticci, was unmasked within the IRA in Belfast but he was allowed to go free. He is thought to have moved to Italy.

Donaldson appears to have felt that he too could escape death at the hands of the IRA or individual republicans. Certainly he stayed on at his cottage even after its location became public knowledge, a sign that he judged himself safe. But it was a misjudgement, and one that cost him his life.

A dangerous life

4 October 2002 Ex-IRA volunteer Denis Donaldson, Sinn Fein's head of administration at Stormont, and two others arrested and accused of spying for Sinn Fein. Unionists threaten to withdraw from executive, forcing British to suspend devolution.

8 December 2005 Charges of spying against the three dropped "in the public interest".

16 December 2005 Donaldson expelled from Sinn Fein after admitting he has been a paid British agent for two decades, though he denies spying at Stormont. He flees Belfast. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams denies he is under threat from republicans.

19 March 2006 Donaldson tracked down by Sunday World journalist Hugh Jordan to a rundown cottage near Glenties, Co Donegal. He says he was sacrificed in a failed attempt by the security services to preserve the career of the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

4 April 2006 Donaldson found shot dead at his cottage, with police sources saying his hand has been severed. IRA denies involvement, but political furore erupts.

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