Ex-Sinn Fein official says he regrets espionage

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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.

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