The 25 words which defined secret life of IRA double agent Denis Donaldson

“I was a British agent.

“I was recruited in the 1980s.

"Since then, I have worked for British intelligence and the RUC/PSNI Special Branch.”

Denis Donaldson’s life has become defined by these words in 2005, where he admitted to being a double agent at the very top of the Republican movement for two decades.

Less than four months after this admission, Donaldson was murdered. He was shot with a shotgun at point-blank range. 

The identity of his killers remains disputed. The Real IRA claimed responsibility, but others have alleged that the Provisional IRA or even British Intelligence was involved. 

Who was Denis Donaldson? Why was he murdered? And what role did this Republican and British spy play in shaping today’s Northern Ireland?

A lifelong republican

Denis Donaldson was born in Belfast in 1950. He grew up in the Short Strand, a Catholic area in the predominantly loyalist east Belfast. 

Donaldson was a republican from a young age. He is reported to have been a member of the IRA before the outbreak of the Troubles and to have joined the Provisional IRA at its formation at the turn of the 1970s. 

Donaldson was right at the heart of the republican movement throughout the Troubles. He was imprisoned in Long Kesh in the 1970s and was a point of contact between the IRA and Hezbollah in Lebanon, where he unsuccessfully campaigned for the freeing of the then-captive Brian Keenan.

Denis Donaldson was a friend of hunger-striker Bobby Sands, here they are pictured together.

The image of Bobby Sands in his red jumper is one of the most iconic and reproduced images of the Troubles. In the original version, Denis Donaldson stands with his arm around Sands’ shoulder.

There can hardly be a more graphic illustration of Donaldson’s closeness to the heart of republicanism.

Compromised: The role of informers. 

The circumstances that led to Denis Donaldson becoming a British agent are uncertain, like much else about his time as a spy.

In his 2005 admission, Donaldson said he was recruited in the 1980s after "compromising myself during a vulnerable time in my life".

Despite much speculation in the years after, the nature of this “compromising” issue has never been confirmed. 

Nor has the nature of Donaldson’s activities as a “British agent” ever been described. 

Informers were a key part in British efforts against the IRA, but their actions are clouded in secrecy. 

The state had various intelligence agencies responsible for infiltrating paramilitary groups. Some were part of the military, such as the Army’s Force Research Unit (FRU). The police also employed informers through its Special Branch. 

These agents gave information that, it is claimed, helped prevent IRA attacks going ahead and that minimised casualties for those operations that did proceed.  

Agents also provided information on the political direction of the republican movement, letting British policymakers know what the thinking was among leading figures.

Informers reached all levels of the IRA. The head of the IRA’s anti-informer unit was a double agent for FRU known by the codename Stakeknife.  

Members of the intelligence services claim that their agents saved hundreds of lives and led to the IRA becoming much less effective over the course of the conflict. Critics, however, say that this overstates the role of double agents in the peace process and that informers were often protected from the consequences of their criminal activities. 

Donaldson was surely an asset to the state during the Troubles. He was a trusted member of the inner circle of IRA and Sinn Fein leadership.

He could’ve provided a first-hand account of the debates between Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and the hardline sections of the republican movement. 

And according to those who knew him, Donaldson was seen as above suspicion in a movement rife with paranoia and accusation of “touts”.

He was so trusted that he became a key ally of Gerry Adams as he sought to end the IRA’s campaign and enter peace talks. 

Setting up and bringing down the Assembly

Police officers arrive to raid Sinn Fein's assembly offices during the "Stormontgate" scandal.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had to face down opposition as they sought to bring the IRA into peace talks. Hardline members wanted to continue their campaign and refused to negotiate with the British state.

In all this, Donaldson was a trusted ally of Mr Adams. He helped to convince other republicans to take part in the peace process, and in the devolved government that was set up as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. 

Mr Donaldson would be a key part of Sinn Fein’s operation at Stormont, serving as head of party administration for the Assembly team. He was also at the centre of the scandal that brought down Stormont in 2002.

“Stormontgate” unfolded dramatically when dozens of police raided the Sinn Fein offices on the hill on October 4 2002. Denis Donaldson was one of three Sinn Fein members arrested in connection to an alleged IRA spying ring at Stormont. 

No one was ever successfully charged with spying, and the British and Irish governments were both unwilling to launch inquiries into the scandal. Sinn Fein and Donaldson always maintained the scandal was invented by rogue elements within the security services who were trying to influence the political process. 

The case against Donaldson collapsed on 8 December 2005, with the Public Prosecution Service declaring it to not be “in the public interest” to proceed.

Eight days after this seeming vindication, Donaldson’s double life was made known to the world. 

Exposure and Exile

The media were called to a press conference on 16 December, where Gerry Adams announced that Denis Donaldson was a British Agent and had been expelled from Sinn Fein.

Donaldson himself read out a statement to RTE where he admitted his life as a spy. 

"I was a British agent at the time.

"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.”

Donaldson claimed that his admission came after his handlers warned that he was soon to be exposed in the Press. 

He apologised for his activities as an informer, but he was aware of the threat to his life now that fellow republicans were aware he had worked for the British.

An aerial view in 2006 of the house near the village of Glenties, Co Donegal, where Denis Donaldson lived and was murdered Credit: PA

Soon after his exposure, Donaldson left Belfast and took refuge in a family-owned cottage outside Glenties, Co Donegal. Donaldson’s location was not entirely secret.

Local residents were aware of his presence, and reporters from the Sunday World were able to secure footage of him speaking of his life in exile. 

“I might be back, I don’t know,” he told them.

Whether Donaldson was sincere in his hopes to return, he would never make it back to Belfast.


Denis Donaldson was murdered on April 4 2006. Gunmen broke into his home in the early hours of the morning armed with a shotgun. Donaldson was shot from point-blank range. His right hand had been almost completely destroyed by the blast, seemingly as he moved to shield himself.

An Garda Siochana investigated the murder, but no one has ever been found guilty of the crime

Donaldson's brutal murder was widely condemned but initially was not claimed by any group. Suspicion fell on the republican movement due to Donaldson’s status as a high-profile informant.

Afterlives - novels and inquiries

The cottage as it is now in Donegal.

The IRA denied responsibility for his murder, and leaders of Sinn Fein denounced the killing publicly. In 2009 the splinter group the Real IRA claimed they had killed Donaldson. 

This claim has been doubted by numerous groups, and allegations have been made that other parties were involved. 

Donaldson's family have claimed that people associated with the security forces participated in the crime and have tried to cover up the murder. The family claim that An Garda Siochana has a diary from Donaldson in their possession that would implicate such individuals. 

An Garda Siochana have continued to investigate the killing and charged a man with murder in 2019, but no one has ever been successfully prosecuted. 

Other investigations have been carried out. French journalist and friend of Donaldson, Sorj Chalandon wrote two novels inspired by the double agent’s life and death. My Traitor and Return to Killybegs won awards and sold many copies, but even in fiction Donaldson has proved elusive. 

Chalandon’s fictional IRA man never fully confirms why he betrayed the republican movement, nor is his death ever totally explained.

Unanswered questions

Denis Donaldson’s life has an almost fictional quality when laid out in short. 

A boy from Belfast, who was an IRA volunteer before the Provos even existed. Best friends with republican martyrs and right-hand man to the movement’s leaders.

A grand betrayal and two decades of working for the enemy. A public admission, exile from his home, a bloody death. An award-winning French novel and 15 years of police and government inquiries into his life. 

Donaldson was however a real man, who played a notable role in shaping today’s Northern Ireland. His life is symbolic of the challenges and contradictions that faced those who fought in Northern Ireland’s Troubles. 

The Police Ombudsman’s report answers some of the questions that surround Donaldson’s life and death, but it is unlikely to fully satisfy his family and those puzzled by Donaldson's life and death.