The British government was tonight challenged to launch a public inquiry into the Stormontgate affair after a top Republican official, who admitted he was a British agent, said the matter had been “a scam and a fiction” invented by UK intelligence.
Denis Donaldson was working as a Sinn Féin Assembly group administrator in Stormont when the police raided the party’s offices investigating a Republican spy ring.
Mr Donaldson, 55, was one of three men arrested and accused of gathering intelligence for the IRA.
The scandal brought about the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland in October 2002.
Last week the charges against Mr Donaldson, his son-in-law Ciaran Kearney, and civil servant William Mackessy were dropped.
Yesterday Denis Donaldson revealed he had worked as a British agent for 20 years and said allegations of an IRA spy ring which led to the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland had been “a scam and a fiction” invented by UK intelligence. He was expelled from Sinn Féin.
As pressure mounts for British Prime Minister Tony Blair to respond, the calls for a public inquiry into the matter crossed the political spectrum.
The nationalist SDLP party said it would support Unionist calls for a full public inquiry.
“Fundamental questions must be answered,” said its policing spokesman, Alex Attwood.
“People will take with a heavy pinch of salt the denials and allegations emerging from elements in the British system and people at the head of the provisional movement.
“If it takes a public inquiry for all the truth to come out, then let’s go that way. But we’re not confident the British government will concede an inquiry,” he said.
Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey demanded a public inquiry and there were calls from the Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for a public statement from Mr Blair, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain or the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, explaining why the case against Mr Donaldson and the two other men was dropped.
The DUP’s Jim Allister, Northern Ireland MEP, said: “Blair needs to explain whether he knew Donaldson was an agent and, if not, how that could credibly be so.
“The Prime Minister should make a full statement to Parliament on Monday.”
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the British Government needed to tell the truth about Stormontgate.
“We want the Government to come clean. We want the Government to tell us straight what was going on here. Were they trying to protect an agent in dropping the prosecution case against Denis Donaldson and the two other individuals who had been charged with serious offences? If they were, we need to know that,” he told RTÉ radio.
Only Sinn Féin stopped short of calling for a public inquiry into the affair.
The party’s Mid Ulster MP Martin McGuinness asked what a public inquiry would achieve.
“In the circumstances the Unionists have called for an inquiry. Let’s see if they get one. Let’s see if that happens,” he said.
Mr McGuinness said it was clear from his party’s perspective that the only spy ring operating at Stormont was a British one, controlled by “people within the establishment who are hostile to the peace process”.
But Mr McGuinness said he would also like to know why the prosecution case against Mr Donaldson and his two co-accused was withdrawn.
In his statement last night, Mr Donaldson supported the Sinn Féin argument that there was no Republican spy ring at Stormont.
“I was not involved in any Republican spy ring in Stormont,” he said.
“The so-called Stormontgate affair was a scam and a fiction, it never existed.
“It was created by Special Branch.
“I deeply regret my activities with British intelligence and RUC/PSNI Special Branch.
“I apologise to anyone who has suffered as a result of my activities as well as to my former comrades and especially to my family who have become victims in all of this,” Donaldson said.
In his statement, he also said: “I was recruited in the 1980s after compromising myself during a vulnerable time in my life.
“Since then I have worked for British intelligence and the RUC/PSNI Special Branch. Over that period I was paid money.”
The revelation has sent shockwaves through the Republican movement.
Mr Donaldson was a trusted Sinn Féin aide at Stormont. He was liked by many of his colleagues and known for a droll sense of humour.
He was also familiar to staff employed by the Northern Ireland Assembly and the other political parties at Stormont.
A Republican source told the Press Association: “This isn’t just shocking. It is gut-wrenching.”
Now Mr Donaldson faces an uncertain future.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said he had been totally sceptical about Stormontgate since the case was dropped with no evidence given.
“This was a huge case, it doesn’t get much bigger than bringing down democratically elected institutions that people have voted for. What this was about I just don’t know. I’d just like to hear all the sides in this,” he said.
Mr Ahern was speaking after the conclusion of the EU budget negotiations in Brussels.
“Now we’re asked to believe that the person Sinn Féin had in there looking after the administration was also in there by the British security.
“So he had the confidence of Sinn Féin and he had the confidence of British security to be in a key position that ultimately brought down the whole institutions. I tell you, it even stretches my imagination at 4am in the morning,” said Mr Ahern.