Atonement and Redemption
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 2017
Sean O’Callaghan was once a killer for the Provisional IRA. He died on 23 August 2017. His death was not a violent one. He died in a swimming pool in Jamaica, probably of a heart attack, while visiting his daughter, Tara. For many years, O’Callaghan himself had been expecting a violent death because, after becoming disillusioned with the IRA, he turned informer and was a fierce critic of his former comrades. He put his chances of dying a natural death at less than 20%. He wrote: “As the years went on, I came to believe that the Provisional IRA was the greatest enemy of democracy and decency in Ireland”.
He was born in Tralee, County Kerry in 1954 and was part of a family with a long tradition of nationalist rebellion. In his teens, he gave up Catholicism and became an atheist and a student of Marxism. He saw the unfolding events in Northern Ireland as an indictment of British Imperialism and joined the Provisional IRA in 1969 at the age of 17. He went to prison after accidentally detonating a bomb he was making and completed his sentence.
He claimed to have been responsible for two murders in 1974: in May, a “Greenfinch” Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, Private Eva Martin aged 28, the first female from the security forces to die in the Troubles, was killed in a mortar attack on the British Army’s base at Clogher in County Tyrone; in August 1974 O’Callaghan murdered Detective Inspector Peter Flanagan, an Ulster Catholic officer of the RUC Special Branch, by shooting him repeatedly with a handgun in a public house in the town of Omagh in County Tyrone. On more than one occasion O’Callaghan confessed to killing John Corcoran, another informer whose body was found in a sleeping bag by the side of a road in Ballincollig, County Cork in March 1985. No-one ever stood trial for that murder and there has been speculation that the state colluded in the murder and did not want its dirty linen to be displayed in court.
When he was 21 in 1976, O’Callaghan left the IRA, and moved to London where he established a successful cleaning business. In May 1978, he married a Scottish woman of Protestant unionist descent. However, he could not settle: “In truth there seemed to be no escaping from Ireland. At the strangest of times I would find myself reliving the events of my years in the IRA.” In 1979, the IRA contacted him and he decided to work against the organisation from within. He claimed this was his chance for atonement and redemption. He did not see himself as a traitor. “I had been brought up to believe that you had to take responsibility for your own actions. If you did something wrong then you made amends. I came to believe that individuals taking responsibility for their own actions is the basis for civilisation, without that safety net we have nothing”.
Charles and Diana Assassination
Although he wanted to subvert the IRA, he still did not want to work with the British government. He returned to Tralee in 1979 and offered his services to Detective Sergeant Seán O’Connell of the special branch of the police of the Irish Republic, the Garda Síochána. He met Kerry IRA leader Martin Ferris and participated in a number of attempted robberies. O’Callaghan claims to have foiled these attempts “by a whole series of random stratagems”. In 1984, after a tip-off from O’Callaghan, the Irish Navy and the Garda Síochána intercepted an arms shipment from Boston to the IRA. O’Callaghan claims that he foiled the assassination of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1983 by alerting the authorities to a bomb planted in the Dominion Theatre before a Duran Duran concert.
On 29 November 1988, O’Callaghan walked into a police station in Tunbridge Wells and confessed to the murders of Eva Martin and Peter Flanagan. He served his sentence in prisons in Ulster and England, during which time he foiled several planned escapes by IRA prisoners. He was released as part of a Prerogative of Mercy by Queen Elizabeth II in 1996. In 1999, he published an account of his experiences entitled The Informer: The True-Life Story of One Man’s War on Terrorism. After his release, he lived openly in the UK after repeatedly refusing offers of witness protection and a new identity.
It is not surprising that Sinn Féin questioned his account; The Sinn Féin paper An Phoblacht concluded an article about O’Callaghan: “No-one likes informers. They tell lies.” An Phoblacht said: “During almost eighteen months in Crumlin Road Sean O’Callaghan’s mental health was a cause of concern to the prison authorities. He tried to commit suicide on at least two occasions and he was taking regular medication”. The paper dismisses the claim that O’Callaghan gave himself up out of remorse. “An Phoblacht has learned that throughout 1988 O’Callaghan was drinking heavily and becoming increasingly depressed at the turn his life had taken… MI5 had cut him loose. … He realised he had outlived his usefulness for his British handlers – that was why he did not offer his super grass strategy to MI5 – and he could not return to Ireland”.
O’Callaghan’s former IRA colleague, Martin Ferris, is now a member of parliament in the Irish Republic. He is derisive about O’Callaghan: ““His many attempts at self-aggrandisement were highly fanciful and despite the attempted lionisation of Sean by some, his obvious fabrication of the truth is clear for anyone that has delved into his claims and counterclaims.”
Others with less of an axe to grind have doubts. Some said the reason for O’Callaghan’s release was so that he could express the views of Conservative politicians who opposed the peace negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement. Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe interviewed O’Callaghan during the time of peace negotiations and he insisted that Sinn Féin was not serious about peace: “His cynicism about the process was badly misplaced.” Nevertheless, Dean Godson, the biographer of David Trimble the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who fought hard to push the peace process through found O’Callaghan’s counsel helpful: “O’Callaghan’s advice was particularly important to Trimble, giving the latter extra confidence to join the first power-sharing Executive between Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein in 1999”.
Historian Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote in the Belfast Telegraph: “One of the many reasons that despite coming from a Dublin Catholic nationalist background I came to form great friendships with Ulster Protestants was their astonishing ability to forgive.” O’Callaghan told the Los Angeles Times in 1997: “The IRA wasn’t really after the British,” “It was the guy down the road who had the better land that his ancestors had taken from the Catholics. The bitterness was there all the time, rooted and deep. What they really wanted to do was to murder their neighbours. It was tribalism.”
Ruth got to know O’Callaghan well when he worked with her to seek justice for victims of the Omagh bombing in 1998. I wrote about that in these pages. https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/omagh-part-one-the-road-of-tears/
Those who seek to question O’Callaghan’s account and his motives often cite him as being under the influence of those who seek to question the mythologies of Irish nationalism. Ruth Dudley Edwards is one of those people as is Conor Cruise O’Brien and Eoghan Harris. I myself have been greatly influenced by Ruth’s writings and those of Professor Liam Kennedy, who coined the acronym MOPE about the Irish “Most Oppressed People Ever”.
I sought to apply what I had learnt from them to the Sri Lankan situation and encountered a great deal of abuse as a result. http://groundviews.org/2012/03/17/martyrology-martyrdom-rebellion-terrorism/ As Michael Clifford wrote about O’Callaghan in the Irish Examiner: “His testimonies of the sectarianism, the wanton criminality, the expedient killing, all gave lie to the bright shining image of selfless freedom fighters protecting their families.”
When someone has committed terrible crimes is it possible to put that behind us as we move to the future? Many who did terrible things for the LTTE still walk free. Eoghan Harris wrote on hearing the news of O’Callaghan’s death: “O’Callaghan committed terrible crimes. But, unlike other republicans, he showed remorse and sought to make restitution by laying his life on the line. His moral rigour forbade him to seek forgiveness either in counselling or in Christianity. He sought absolution by risking a dreadful death, as an unpaid agent inside the IRA. To meet Sean, or even see him on TV, was to be struck by the simple truth of his testimony.”
Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal. May his soul be on the right hand of God.