David McKittrick: A note of hope in Northern Ireland's spy scandal

The changing character of spying is in a curious way a measure of progress
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The Independent Online

The Northern Ireland peace process is now overcast by lowering clouds of suspicion, doubt and uncertainty.It was bad enough before the recent revelation that Denis Donaldson, one of Sinn Fein' s most trusted backroom boys, had been a Special Branch agent for 20 years. But his unmasking has added new mounds of cumulus to the scene. Only fragments of the story have so far been disclosed: more may emerge but the full story may never come out. The effect has been to hit republican confidence hard.

On a theoretical level, Sinn Fein' s leaders always knew that intelligence agents lurked within its ranks, but there is real shock that one of these was Donaldson, who for so long seemed so completely loyal.

Republicans have for years taken pride in the way Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have come away from meetings with Tony Blair bearing concessions which impressed nationalists and enraged Unionists. Now it is a deeply unsettling thought for republicans that in many instances the Prime Minister knew much of what they would ask for before they ever asked for it. The thought that Blair was being out-negotiated has now been shattered.

2005 supplied triumphant vindication for Blair' s long-held but often controversial thesis that the IRA and Sinn Fein, despite various acts of misbehaviour, were for real in their commitment to the peace process. There may have been no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but republicans certainly held a formidable armoury, and 2005 is assured of a place in the Irish history books as the year when the IRA put its arsenal beyond use and left the scene.

The Government gave much ground to republicans before that happened, and here Donaldson and other agents may well have played an important part. Their information could have convinced the Government that concessions would pay off in encouraging republicans to pursue a political path. It all took years of exhaustive effort and recurring crises, but ultimately it has paid off with the disarmament and departure the IRA.

Documents released in Dublin last week under the 30-year rule show how far things have improved. In 1975 the Irish cabinet, filled with dread, was wondering what might happen if, as seemed entirely possible, the then Labour government should pull out of Northern Ireland.

Increased British army casualties and an IRA bombing campaign in British cities might, Dublin worried, lead to a pull-out. The possible scenarios included an independent Northern Ireland, a UN-led administration or repartition. This is turn could lead to a land grab, with the IRA and loyalist groups seizing control of areas "probably leading to large-scale inter-communal violence". Thirty years on, the fear of possible catastrophe has gone.

Northern Ireland is not a settled entity and probably never will be, for the troubles have left many unresolved issues. 2005 provided numerous examples of this, most obviously the question of how to deal with republican "on the runs" without outraging opinion at large. More than three decades of death and destruction have left many painful legacies. But most believe real advance is possible.

For London and Dublin - and indeed for Sinn Fein - the central ambition for 2006 is to bring together republicans and Unionists, in the shape of the Rev Ian Paisley, in a new cross-community administration. Events such as the spy saga are clearly unhelpful to this objective, but at the same time they have not deflected any major player from the goal of powersharing.

The changing character of the spying itself is also in a curious way a measure of progress, since not long ago most republican surveillance took the form of gathering information with a view to blowing people up.

Much official intelligence-gathering, meanwhile, was carried out with a view to having republicans arrested, or ambushed by the SAS. Now both sides are concerned with gaining a negotiating advantage rather than bringing about death or imprisonment.

The question is whether 2006 will produce a new Belfast government. London is attempting to set the spring of 2007 as a target date for elections; Sinn Fein wants early movement, but Paisley may seek to slow the pace. For all the confusion and commotions of the last year, the aim of putting that deal together remains the template of the peace process.

There is a certain underlying complacency in this. Back in 1975, Ireland peered into the abyss and attempted to prepare for convulsion. Today the underlying feeling is it will all eventually come together, and that the real question is not if but when it will happen. The sense is that the abyss has gone.