LONDON, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- The Irish Republican Army is "in turmoil" over suggestions the recent exposure of a Sinn Fein member as a British agent might have been an attempt to protect a more senior spy in the organization.
The group is suspicious the collapse of the trial of three Sinn Fein members accused of spying at the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the subsequent revelation that one of the men had been working for British intelligence for 20 years, was orchestrated in order to maintain the cover of a British agent closer to the heart of the IRA.
This agent was rumored to be a leading figure in Sinn Fein and the IRA, an intelligence source told United Press International.
Alban Magenniss, former mayor of Belfast and a Northern Ireland Assembly member for the republican Social Democratic and Labor Party, said the IRA was taking the theory "very seriously" and all members were "watching their backs."
The organization was scrutinizing members, interviewing them and checking their bank accounts, he told UPI.
The affair opened up "a cesspit of espionage and counter-espionage, intelligence-gathering and counter intelligence-gathering, and the planting and manipulation of agents," he said.
Dubbed Stormontgate, the case of the alleged Sinn Fein/IRA spy ring is a murky affair of the type that has long blighted the Northern Ireland political landscape.
With all the elements of a Graham Greene thriller, the episode has been described as "as bizarre as it gets" by Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and "preposterous" by senior unionists.
The controversy erupted earlier this month when prosecutors dropped a three-year-long case against three Sinn Fein members accused of operating a spy ring in the offices of the Northern Ireland Assembly, on the grounds the prosecution was no longer "in the public interest."
The case took a further twist when one of the men, Denis Donaldson, a senior figure in Sinn Fein, admitted Friday he had been working as a British agent for the past 20 years and claimed that the spy ring was a fiction created by British intelligence.
The allegations were vehemently denied by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, who Monday rejected calls for a public inquiry into the affair.
Both he and Prime Minister Tony Blair denied there was any political hand in the decision to drop the case against the three Sinn Fein members, but their reticence to divulge details has fueled suspicions of an ulterior agenda.
The raids on Sinn Fein's offices at Stormont in Oct. 2002 brought an end to three years of devolution, and led to the return of direct rule by Westminster.
Sinn Fein claims elements in British intelligence were opposed to the peace process and invented the spy ring in order to bring down the power-sharing assembly.
Party President Richard McAuley told UPI the operation had essentially been a "coup d'etat."
A small number of people within British military intelligence, Special Branch and the Police Service of Northern Ireland had been "actively working against the peace process," he said.
He claimed the raids on Sinn Fein's offices had been "a piece of political theater" organized and orchestrated by the then head of Northern Ireland's Special Branch, Bill Lowry.
A prominent supporter of the Democratic Unionist Party, Lowry had, along with other rogue elements, been opposed to Sinn Fein taking its place in a power-sharing assembly, McAuley said.
Lowry had known of Donaldson's status as a British agent and had sacrificed him as part of a "conspiracy concocted by the Special Branch, within the PSNI, the people who were part of the old Royal Ulster Constabulary," he said. "There is a little nest of vipers in all this."
He dismissed unionist allegations that Donaldson was in fact a double agent, and that the British government had done a deal with Sinn Fein to drop the case in exchange for IRA disarmament, announced earlier this year.
Donaldson had only revealed his identity after a Special Branch agent visited him last week and told him he was about to be outed, McAuley claimed.
The accusations were no more than "conspiracy theories," he added.
The DUP's Ian Paisley Junior said earlier this week that Hain's denial of a political hand in the collapse of the case was "preposterous," and called for an inquiry into the affair.
Though he dismissed suggestions that the spy ring was British-orchestrated, Paisley said he believed a Northern Ireland Office official had been authorized to pass information to Sinn Fein.
"If that is the case then the government's refusal to make a statement is not about protecting the life of an agent but about hiding their own duplicitous hand in the mercy business of aiding and abetting Sinn Fein's political agenda."
Donaldson had in fact been a "double agent," he claimed, "playing both sides for money and power."
Crispin Black, who formerly worked for the British government gathering and analyzing intelligence in Northern Ireland, said certain facts suggested Donaldson had been some kind of double agent, particularly that Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams had insisted he need not fear for his safety. Normally members of Sinn Fein or the IRA who were outed as spies would be tortured and/or killed, he said. "There has to be somebody helping him."
The whole affair "did not stack up," he told UPI. Hain and other ministers were being "very tight-lipped" and there was "something odd" in the collapse of the court case.
However it was more likely that there was a political deal to drop the case than that "rogue elements" in the intelligence and security services had fabricated the spy ring, he said.
Black said there was a "long-standing rumor" in the intelligence services that there was a more senior British spy operating in the IRA.
The theory has also been alluded to by Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, who told media in Dublin on Monday: "I've heard all the rumors; I've heard even names mentioned, which I think is very unfortunate and dangerous. But that's something Sinn Fein has to deal with."
Rumors though they may be at present, it appears the IRA is taking them extremely seriously.
Alban Maginness told UPI: "Their organization is in turmoil over this, and heads will roll."