Published Date: 11.03.2022
An investigation by the Police Ombudsman has found no evidence that police leaked information about the whereabouts of former Sinn Féin member and self-declared informant Denis Donaldson prior to his murder in County Donegal on 4 April 2006.
PDF: Full public statement
Mrs Marie Anderson also found that the PSNI had not sought to implicate members of Mr Donaldson’s family in his murder, and that rather than impeding the investigation of his murder by An Garda Siochana (AGS), the PSNI had provided “a high level of co-operation and assistance.”
However, she stated that the PSNI should have carried out a further risk assessment of any potential threats to Mr Donaldson’s life following the publication of a media article which included photographs of him outside the cottage where he was murdered just over two weeks later.
These are among the findings of a detailed investigation into a complaint made by Mr Donaldson’s family about police actions both before and after the murder.
On 17 March 2002, sensitive information was stolen during an aggravated burglary at Castlereagh Police Station. Police subsequently received intelligence that the PIRA had been responsible.
In July 2002, the PSNI commenced Operation Torsion which targeted PIRA’s intelligence-gathering network in the Greater Belfast area and included the investigation of thefts from the Northern Ireland Office at Castle Buildings, Belfast. On 4 October 2002, Mr Donaldson was one of four people arrested as part of the operation.
A search of Mr Donaldson’s home following his arrest recovered a large quantity of documentation, including papers which had originated from the Northern Ireland Office at Castle Buildings in Stormont.
Later that day, police searched his workstation in Sinn Fein’s Stormont office. He and three others were subsequently charged with possessing material that could be of use to terrorists.
Charges against one of the four were withdrawn in December 2003, and the case against the others was withdrawn by the Public Prosecution Service in November 2005.
Police then carried out a risk assessment which concluded that the PIRA would be likely to conduct an internal inquiry to establish why the case had collapsed.
On 8 December 2005, the PPS announced that the prosecution had been discontinued, and two days later, police delivered a threat message to Mr Donaldson which stated that ‘members of the media believe that Denis Donaldson is an informant.’
Threat message: 'members of the media believe that Denis Donaldson is an informant'
Police subsequently received information that Mr Donaldson may have informed Sinn Fein colleagues that he was an informant. Concerned that he may be at risk, the PSNI held an urgent ‘Gold Command’ meeting on 14 December 2005, resulting in police resources being put on stand-by so that, if necessary, they could respond quickly to developing events.
Although at this stage, an ongoing PSNI risk assessment indicated that there was no imminent threat to Mr Donaldson’s life, a number of contingency plans were put in place, including contacting him to identify and address any welfare concerns he might have.
On 15 December 2005, Police Officer 3 made a telephone call to Mr Donaldson’s home number, but received no answer. The officer made a second call at about 4.45pm, and this time spoke to Mr Donaldson, who advised that he could not talk as there were people with him. Mr Donaldson suggested that Police Officer 3 should call back at 7pm and the officer provided him with a contact number.
Enquiries by Police Ombudsman investigators established that after the second phone call, Mr Donaldson told a Sinn Fein member that he had been contacted by police. He was then told to attend a meeting with other Sinn Fein members, at which it was decided that Mr Donaldson would contact Police Officer 3 and arrange a meeting.
It was proposed that this meeting would be recorded for use during a press conference planned for the following day, at which it would be announced that Mr Donaldson had admitted being an informant and had been expelled from Sinn Fein.
At about 9.20pm on 15 December 2005, a call was made to the number given to Mr Donaldson earlier. Police Officer 3 did not recognise the number as belonging to Mr Donaldson and did not answer the call. He was instructed not to return the call as the number did not belong to Mr Donaldson.
On 16 December 2005, the then president of Sinn Féin held a press conference in Dublin during which he announced that Mr Donaldson had been dismissed from the party after admitting that he had been an informant.
Mr Donaldson made a statement to the media later the same day stating that he “had worked for British Intelligence and RUC/PSNI Special Branch” since the 1980s.
He later moved to a cottage near Glenties in County Donegal, where he was murdered on 4 April 2006. In April 2009, the ‘Real IRA’ claimed responsibility for the murder.
The family’s concerns
Mr Donaldson’s family expressed a number of concerns about police actions. These included an allegation that the threat message delivered to Mr Donaldson on 10 December 2005 was “bogus” and “artificially manufactured” as it was untrue that the media were intending to expose Mr Donaldson as an informant.
The family voiced concern that the message was “maliciously released”, and alleged that police had failed to conduct a risk assessment before delivering the message. As a consequence, they believed police had breached Mr Donaldson’s right to life.
However, Mrs Anderson said the threat message was based on ‘reliable information from a credible source’. She said her investigators had examined a clear audit trail, including a risk assessment and contingency plans, setting out the rationale for the decision by police to deliver the threat message.
“I am of the view that police would have failed in their Article 2 obligations if they had not informed him of the relevant information,” she said.
The family also alleged that the phone call made to Mr Donaldson on 15 December 2005 was intended to ‘spook’ him and part of an exercise to ‘burn’ him as an informant.
Phone call 'part of a carefully considered threat management plan '
However, Mrs Anderson said it was “part of a carefully considered threat management plan in response to information that Mr Donaldson had informed Sinn Fein colleagues that he was an informant.”
“The purpose of these telephone calls was to identify, assess, and manage any identified risks, as well as address any welfare concerns relating to Mr Donaldson. I have identified no concerns regarding these telephone calls.”
She added that the decision by police not to take the call made to Police Officer 3 on the evening of 15 December 2005 was “reasonable and prudent” given that it was not made from Mr Donaldson’s phone.
Another concern expressed by Mr Donaldson’s family was that, after he had moved to Donegal, police had leaked information about his whereabouts to a number of people, including journalists.
On 19 March 2006, the Sunday World newspaper published a story which described the cottage he was living in as ‘run down’, without running water and electricity and adjacent to other cottages in a bend in the road. It did not reveal the location of the cottage, stating that it was in an Irish-speaking area of Donegal.
Mrs Anderson said her investigation had found no evidence that police had leaked any information about Mr Donaldson’s whereabouts.
Police should have conducted new risk assessment after media article.
However, she said the publication of information about where he was living should have prompted police to conduct a further risk assessment to identify any risks he might have been exposed to, and to consider whether any preventative measures might be necessary.
“PSNI advised AGS of the potential increased risk to Mr Donaldson as a result of the media article. However, my investigators found no evidence that a further risk assessment took place or was considered by the PSNI,” said Mrs Anderson.
”This would have better informed PSNI, and if shared with AGS, would have better informed them as to the potential risks to Mr Donaldson, and his family. It would then have been a matter for AGS to assess the risks and implement appropriate measures to address these risks.”
Mrs Anderson also addressed the family’s concern that the PSNI had not conducted criminal investigations into the actions of a number of journalists. “I am of the view that there was no evidence that would have justified initiating a criminal investigation against any member of the media,” she said.
However, during the course of the Police Ombudsman’s investigation, one former police officer was interviewed under criminal caution on suspicion of having told a journalist that Mr Donaldson was an informant. The officer denied the offence. A file was subsequently sent to the PPS, which directed that the officer should not be prosecuted.
An associate of the officer was also interviewed by the PSNI on suspicion of similar conduct.
Mrs Anderson described as “reasonable and proportionate” the police response to information that police officers may have been unlawfully disclosing information to journalists.
She added that she had found no evidence that PSNI had monitored Mr Donaldson’s movements or conversations after he moved to Donegal, as alleged by his family. Neither was there any evidence of contact between the PSNI and Mr Donaldson after the phone calls of 15 December 2005.
The Police Ombudsman’s investigation examined concerns that the PSNI had sought to implicate members of Mr Donaldson’s family in his murder.
The family also alleged that the PSNI had impeded AGS’s murder investigation by withholding, suppressing or editing information about their contact with him during the final months of his life, and by failing to make Mr Donaldson’s handler available to AGS.
No evidence PSNI impeded An Garda Siochana's murder investigation
However, Mrs Anderson said her investigation had found “no evidence that any member of the PSNI sought to impede the murder investigation conducted by AGS.”
“I am of the view, given the available evidence, that there was a high level of co-operation and assistance provided by PSNI to the AGS investigation,” she said. “I have found no evidence that police sought to implicate members of Mr Donaldson’s family in having facilitated, or been involved in, his murder.”
Mrs Anderson is of the view that, in the absence of a documented risk assessment following the Sunday World article, and given PSNI previously documented risk assessments, that it is likely that this important measure to assess the threat to Mr Donaldson’s life was not undertaken.
Although Mrs Anderson described as “legitimate and justified” the family’s concerns about the steps taken by PSNI in the management of this threat to Mr Donaldson, she stated that she could not conclude that “if such a risk assessment had been undertaken and shared with AGS, that the murder of Mr Donaldson could have been prevented.”