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Ex-Sinn Fein official says he regrets espionage

Politicians from all sides demand official inquiries

LONDON -- For a quarter-century, Denis Donaldson moved among the elite of Northern Ireland's republican movement.

A small man with glasses and thinning hair, he looked more like a bureaucrat than a guerrilla fighter. But his revolutionary credentials were impeccable, starting with a 1971 conviction for plotting to blow up British government buildings and a four-year stint in the infamous Maze prison. A photo from that time shows him with his arm draped over the shoulder of cellmate Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army icon who died on a hunger strike in 1981.

Then, last week, Donaldson revealed his secret: For two decades, he had been a British spy.

Donaldson's announcement has roiled Northern Ireland's fragile political world, where mistrust between Protestants and Catholics still runs high despite the IRA's announcement last summer that it was permanently ending its armed campaign. Politicians from all sides are demanding official inquiries into one of the province's most sensational cases of espionage since the beginning of the sectarian violence known as the Troubles, a three-decade war that cost more than 3,600 lives.

''People are just gobsmacked," said Tim Pat Coogan, an Irish historian and author of a history of the IRA.

Even Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland, who said he would seek an investigation, called the situation ''as bizarre as it gets."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said over the weekend that Blair would have ''no comment whatsoever."

Donaldson, 55, had emerged from Maze prison as a rising republican star. He eventually became a top official in Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, where he was a confidant of party leader Gerry Adams and represented the party on fund-raising trips to the United States. And for much of that time, Donaldson admitted Friday, he was being paid by the British government to inform on his colleagues.

''I deeply regret my activities with British intelligence," he said in a statement broadcast on television. Apologizing to his ''former comrades" and his family in a calm voice, he said he ''was recruited in the 1980s after compromising myself during a vulnerable time in my life." He did not elaborate, and it remains unclear how the British government recruited him.

Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Sinn Fein, told BBC Radio Ulster on Saturday that the disclosure showed that, despite the IRA's disarmament, British security forces were still trying to undermine the landmark 1998 Good Friday peace accord. That plan called for a power-sharing agreement between Northern Ireland's Catholic republicans, who want to see Northern Ireland reunited with the Republic of Ireland, and Protestant unionists, who support British rule in the province.

''We are all disappointed," McGuinness said, calling it ''yet another episode of the dirty war of British security services."

David Ervine, a prominent Protestant leader from the Progressive Unionist Party, said he was ''deeply confused" by the Donaldson case.

''Every time you think you've got Northern Ireland figured out, something else happens," he said in a telephone interview.

Donaldson's statement was the latest twist in a puzzling, three-year drama.

It began in October 2002, when police raided Sinn Fein's office at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly. They seized stolen government documents and arrested Donaldson, who ran the office, and two others and charged them with running a republican spy ring. Sinn Fein denied the allegations.

Ten days after Donaldson's arrest, Unionist representatives walked out of the assembly, saying the spy ring allegations proved Sinn Fein could not be trusted. Sinn Fein officials said security forces were trying to discredit them.

The assembly was suspended and has not been reinstated, a major stumbling block to restoring normal government to the province.

Last week, the spying charges against Donaldson and the others were suddenly dropped.

Prosecutors said pursuing the case was ''no longer in the public interest," sparking new questions about a mysterious episode that had brought down Northern Ireland's elected local government.

Donaldson was embraced by Sinn Fein as a vindicated hero, appearing at a news conference alongside Adams, who supported him and blasted British officials for their handling of the case.

But that all changed. In his televised statement, Donaldson said British agents had approached him Thursday night, which he said was his first contact with them since 2002. He did not say what they told him.

But Adams, at a news conference Friday, said they told Donaldson his cover was about to be blown and his life was in danger. Adams said Donaldson then confessed to Sinn Fein officials, and was expelled from the party.

''Obviously we did have a spy ring at Stormont, but it is now clear it was a British spy ring," McGuinness said.

Donaldson's statement was filled with contrition for being ''a British agent."

He said the alleged republican spy ring at Stormont in 2002 ''was a scam and a fiction. It never existed." He said British security officials had created it. He did not say why.

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