Monthly Archives: September 2016

Denis Donaldson: The Problem With Single, Anonymous Sources

More than one commentator has echoed Vincent Browne’s criticism of the BBC Spotlight special on the killing of IRA double-agent Denis Donaldson, that the story was over-dependent on a single, anonymous source who was not directly involved in the alleged assassination plan.

We don’t know yet what dealings the BBC and its lawyers had with the alleged IRA Special Branch mole known as ‘Martin’ that made the notoriously cautious Spotlight team and the BBC’s top brass confident enough about his story to air the programme.

And while I will believe Gerry Adams’ threat to sue the BBC only when I have heard that he has actually stepped into the witness box in his own defence, there’s no doubt that ‘Martin’ is the weak link in the BBC’s defence. Would he even risk giving evidence, knowing that he will have to reveal his true identity?

We shall see. But in the meantime if we are going to criticise journalists for the use of single, anonymous sources who were themselves not party to the incident under scrutiny, then let us at least be consistent,

In the last couple of days a story has appeared quoting a spokesman for the Real IRA re-iterating that organisation’s claim to have killed Denis Donaldson, and absolving Gerry Adams of any hand or part in the deed.

Maybe, but from what I could read the claim was made by a single, anonymous source who was not him- or herself involved in the killing.

But there hasn’t been the same skepticism expressed about this story’s reliance on a single source as there has been about Spotlight, and upon examination the reason for that is less than satisfactory.

It is that the person who spoke to Suzanne Breen was speaking on behalf of an organisation and that made it, well if not all right then more acceptable than if her source was speaking only for him- or herself.

And that’s because the media bestows more credibility on organisations because they are organisations than they do with someone like ‘Martin’ who has only himself and his memory to back him up (leaving his Special Branch handlers to one side pro tem).

But as the journalistic history of the Troubles shows, organisations are just as capable of lying, dissembling, misleading and being economical with the facts as any individual, and were able to get away with their dishonesty because the media accepted their anonymity.

Not only that, but the media during the Troubles continued to give credibility to organisations even after their anonymous spokespersons were found out lying or tailoring the truth. Just look back at the peace process, or the 1981 hunger strikes, and the boatloads of lies that were told by just about every participant, some more than others to be sure, but most of them told on behalf of organisations.

It has been my experience that individual sources, even when they insist on anonymity, are generally as truthful, if not more so, than organisations, not least because their motivation for speaking out is often more honest and what they do certainly requires considerable more bravery than that shown by anonymous spokespersons for the government, the police, the IRA or the DUP.

When someone takes a risk by speaking out, even anonymously, the reporter is entitled, even obliged to take them more seriously (especially since anonymity can never be guaranteed).

‘Martin’ may or may not be correct in what he says about Adams and Donaldson but I’d wager the mortgage that what he said he heard, he did hear, and what he said had happened to him, did happen.

I have been in the same place as Jennifer O’Leary and the Spotlight team are with ‘Martin’ more than once, when the chance to discover other sources was negligible, as was so often the case with Troubles’ stories, and each time the decision to write and publish was – after all the checking that could be done was  done – governed by two factors: judgement of the story and trust in the source.

As I have written elsewhere, I do not know whether the IRA, by itself or using a surrogate, killed Denis Donaldson but I’d be sure that the people in the BBC made what they believed to be the right judgement and had sufficient trust in their source.

In journalism, especially in a place like Northern Ireland, it is sometimes the best you can do.

‘Gerry Adams to take legal action over BBC Donaldson claims’ – Irish Times Headline

Opening day of hearing.

Gerry Adams enters the witness box and takes the oath,

Counsel for the BBC: ‘You have been a member and leader of the Provisional IRA most of your adult life, haven’t you Mr Adams?’

Gerry Adams – ‘No!’

Counsel for the BBC – ‘I submit that is a lie Mr Adams. You are lying about the very essence of your life story, aren’t you? I suggest that the jury cannot believe a word you say about your past life, about the IRA or indeed anything you say about Mr Donaldson.’

Gerry Adams – ‘No, I’m not lying, that’s not true’.

Cue sound of Paddy McGrory turning in his grave.

And so on, and so on.

And this is really going to happen?

They could sell tickets for this one……..

A Drone Flight Over Fermanagh

Jonathan Pie On Jeremy Corbyn’s Re-election…..

This one is for DS, who knows who he is:

The Unbelievable Stupidity Of Young Americans……

You couldn’t make this up. These are students at a prestigious college in Texas. Most of them will have a vote for the next President on November 8th.

Mary Lou McDonald And Real ‘Balls Of Smoke’…….


Jennifer O’Leary On The Spies In The IRA

UPDATE – The Irish Times has been on to me to point out that Jennifer’s piece is actually on the webpage. It is in the ‘World News‘ section. Where? The ‘World News’ section, alongside bombs in Aleppo and Hungarian Trumpism! Why not the ‘Irish News’ section, where it should be?

SECOND UPDATE – I just noticed that while Jennifer O’Leary’s article has been consigned to ‘World News‘, it has also been tagged ‘UK‘. You couldn’t make it up. Honestly…..

I noticed this article by the BBC Spotlight reporter Jennifer O’Leary on The Irish Times website yesterday but couldn’t access it because my ‘free articles’ period had expired.

When I went to read it today, it had disappeared from the Times’ site. Now I am not the most talented surfer of websites but when I went to all the usual places on the paper’s internet page, Irish News, Opinion & Analysis sections and so on, places where you might expect it to be, there was no sign of it.

I had to go to the paper’s search facility to eventually dig it out. I’d be most happy to be proved wrong – and I welcome any reader doing just that – but I have a suspicion that someone in the Times may have decided that Ms O’Leary’s thesis, that the birth of the peace process may have been assisted by spies in the IRA’s ranks, was a tad too subversive for its readers and decided to quietly drop it from the webpage. Or maybe I am just too stupid to find it!

So, in the spirit of spreading knowledge (especially to those who cannot afford an Irish Times sub) and defying possible censorship, here is Jennifer O’Leary’s article, the central thrust of which I concur with entirely (in fact I would take it further to its next logical step).

Incidentally, a close reading of the article suggests that her source ‘Martin’ was the origin of the police operation which uncovered the IRA spying ring at Stormont and that careless words by Denis Donaldson in ‘Martin’s’ presence led not only to the ring being blown but also Donaldson’s cover and that ultimately this caused his death.

Jennifer O'Leary of BBC Spotlight

Jennifer O’Leary of BBC Spotlight

Did British spies force the IRA to renounce violence?

‘Spotlight’ journalist Jennifer O’Leary writes about infiltration at the IRA’s highest level

Jennifer O’Leary

I mostly listen to stories for a living. Stories that people are often reluctant to admit they know. They tell them to me in their homes, coffee shops, cars and parks and, more often than not, they are alone.

Several months ago, I was contacted by a man who said he had a story to tell.

His was among the most elusive I’ve come across, because “Martin” told me he was a spy who brought RUC special branch deep within the IRA and Sinn Féin.

Martin was paid to betray other people’s secrets. His very survival was premised on his ability to tell lies.

Over months, I listened to Martin, I never stopped asking him questions and I corroborated as much detail as possible without compromising him.
He cannot be identified because he fears for his safety, but he’s not anonymous to me.

In the course of one of our meetings, Martin opened up about the late Denis Donaldson, whom he had known when Donaldson was Sinn Féin’s head of administration in Stormont. Both men were supposed to be working to a republican agenda.

However, both were agents of the British state. And when Martin betrayed a boast made by Donaldson, it set off a chain of events which ultimately led to the unmasking of Donaldson as an agent of British intelligence.

When Donaldson later gave a press conference and confessed he was an agent within the IRA, the consequences went beyond the personal.

His admission went to the heart of the secret intelligence war between the IRA and the state, because Donaldson was an “agent of influence”.

His key value as an agent was not the secrets he disclosed, but the subtle influence he could bring to bear when key decisions were being taken by those at the top of the republican movement.

Security sources told Spotlight that, by 1994, a majority of the seven-person IRA army council were effectively compromised because of their proximity to high-level agents.

The council’s decisions were, they said, influenced by IRA insiders who were also secret British agents.

Informers and agents not only betrayed the IRA’s secrets, but some, such as Denis Donaldson, were used over decades, to influence its strategy at the highest level.

For republicans, the scale of infiltration within the IRA raises uncomfortable questions.

Was the IRA rendered ineffectual by many of its own members who were also informers and agents of the state?

Did the secret intelligence war force the IRA to renounce violence?

Did spies within its own ranks bring the IRA in from the cold?

Jennifer O’Leary is a reporter for BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme