Will a Spy's Murder Kill Peace in Northern Ireland?

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Denis Donaldson was supposed to be a sign of changing times in Northern Ireland, not a reminder of its brutal, unforgiving past. Last December, when the IRA veteran admitted being a British agent for more than 20 years, his treachery didn't trigger the normal end for informers — a hasty, secret court-martial and a bullet in the back of the head; only five months before, the IRA had renounced violence for good, and so its political arm, Sinn Fein, promised that Donaldson would be left alone.

And for a few months, he was. But then this week, someone nearly cut off his arm and shot Donaldson, 56, in the face with a shotgun. Donaldson had reportedly been warned by local law enforcement a couple of months ago of threats on his life, but he refused offers of special protection from both local police and the British. Tracked down to the remote, mountainous area of western County Donegal where he was living in self-imposed exile, in a run-down cottage with no electricity or running water, Donaldson became proof of the old notion that the only way for an informer to live is looking over his shoulder.

But the killing may have been about much more than settling old scores. Donaldson was killed two days before the Prime Ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, were due to launch a joint plan for reviving the faltering political process in Northern Ireland. Thanks to continuing mistrust between Protestant unionist leaders and Sinn Fein, efforts to restart the kind of coalition local government that was borne out of the 1998 Good Friday peace accords have been stalled for the past three years. And the murder of Donaldson, a convicted IRA bomber who served time in prison along with Sinn Fein head Gerry Adams in the 1970s, is certain to further complicate matters. Unionist leaders like the Rev. Ian Paisley say they have doubts about whether the IRA has genuinely laid down its weapons, and maintained that the killing "has put a dark cloud" over the pending talks.

There is no shortage of suspects for the murder. Although the IRA denied killing Donaldson, former members of the group may have taken it into their own hands to extract revenge on the man they blamed for putting them in jail or sending other comrades to their deaths. Other Republican splinter groups opposed to the peace process certainly had enough motivation to do it. On the other hand, some members of Sinn Fein have implied that the same people who got Donaldson to become spy in the mid 1980s had their own reasons to silence him, since he remained a threat to divulge further details of Britain's counter-terror operations.

Much of the current political stalemate in Northern Ireland, in fact, can be traced back to Donaldson himself. As head of Sinn Fein's administrative offices at the Northern Ireland assembly in the late 90s, Donaldson was accused by Britain of spying for the IRA, accusations which helped bring down Northern Ireland's landmark power sharing local government in 2002 amidst mutual suspicions and recrimination. Only after those charges were suddenly dropped against Donaldson and two others last December did he reveal on national TV the stunning news that he in fact had been on the British intelligence payroll for almost two decades, after, as he put it rather cryptically, "compromising myself during a vulnerable time in my life."

Blair and Ahern both suggested the murder may have been a deliberate attempt to derail their plan to finish the job of establishing a peaceful Northern Ireland. "If there are people who are trying to wreck the political process by these appalling and barbaric acts of violence," Blair said, "the single best message is to say 'No, you're not going to succeed.'" That sounds good in theory, but as Donaldson's killing has shown once again, violence usually has the final say in Northern Ireland.