Conspiracy theories alive and well in NI


From bloodstained Donegal cottage to stagey gravitas at Navan Fort, Northern politics this week as so often out-fictioned the worst melodrama and left many to fall back on wild surmise. Through the trauma of The Troubles and the prolonged, anti-climactic dickering that for the most part has replaced violence, conspiracy theories have been almost as sustaining as religion.

Not surprising: the best are attractive. Some have even turned out to be true.

Loyalist bombings in the late 60s were indeed meant to finger the IRA. So many loyalists have been on the payroll of one or several arms of the security services - according to retired detectives and their former friends - that the unmasked few look lonely. The freshest story, though of course not new, is that of republicans doubling as British agents. This painful fact sends many fleeing back into folk webs of what might-have-been and should-have-been.

There are people in the North, possibly also in the Republic, who believe that the Provos were created by hardline unionists so that violence would frustrate reforms.

A bunch of catspaws on the Shankill, who got plastered together back in 1966 and in their cups babbled about reviving the UVF, were urged on - not clear precisely how, but the 50th commemoration of 1916 featured - to kill the first three victims of the Troubles. And one thing led to another.

Stirred-up loyalists frothed at civil rights marchers, the Reverend Ian in his prime and Stormont ministers on the wane detected IRA plots where none existed, and sure enough, the Provos rose from the ashes of burned-out Catholic streets and in time went on the offensive. Result: Catholics lost their underdog halo, and British governments said one side is as bad as the other, must be even-handed; for example, mustn't hurry on fair employment.

The thing about theories of this order is that they are elastic, generous enough to envelop snazzy little trifles, plus a host of bogeymen.

If you're that way inclined you don't want all the links neatened. Suggest connections, point out how the result is right up X's street and as long as X can be linked to the early stages, that'll do: a game for all the family during get-togethers like weddings, funerals or Christmas.

The most far-fetched stories magnetise some of the least informed, for whom a little knowledge is delightful. It is also the case that scholarly minds can be prey to theories so intricate they lose themselves coming back, with an awful effect on their conclusions.

Denis Donaldson's death was horrible, tragic, a throwback to an age many hoped was gone. For conspiracists, it will ramp up delightful new chapters. The story has everything a durable theory needs: terror, betrayal, a whiff of sex, money, brutality, and an enigmatic central character. Perhaps the most vital element is that almost every step in the saga - no matter what your preferred version - is beyond proof. With a spy or spies at the heart of things, pleasurable speculation is infinite.

Was the murder intended to blight the Blair-Ahern performance in Armagh? Since the planned announcement was already shadowed by suspicion that it would be more spin than substance, knocking it off-track was not perhaps much of a goal. The Rev Ian Paisley was never likely to mark his 80th birthday, a celebration heightened by the imminence of his wife's long-awaited title, by telling the world his demands of republicans will henceforth be tempered by a sense of his own fallibility.

Only the killer or killers know if those shotgun blasts in Doochary were simply hate-filled revenge by old comrades, or part of a plot. A convincing confession seems highly unlikely. Speculation flows unchecked, assertion and counter-assertion uninhibited by the absence of evidence.

Republicans are angry that their word is rejected, though they have a history of denying atrocities and embarrassing accusations, subsequently borne out. Others cite security sources, as though there were no history of secret-service dirty tricks, and as though every agency "in the field" has habitually been aware of what others were doing.

The questions outlive Denis Donaldson, the most stubborn and interesting capable of being answered in several ways.

Why did he become an agent? Who "outed" him? Is it true that police warned him he was about to be outed and if so, who told the police?

Was there really another Sinn Féin spy, protected at the cost of collapsing the Stormont spy-ring case? Why has "Larry the Chef" - the man supposedly introduced to Northern Ireland by Denis Donaldson - not been extradited? And when the story makes the inevitable jump to the big screen who will play the central character, waiting for death down a lane in Donegal? It will be a rotten film, but some will love it.