Belfast Telegraph

DUP MP hails Sean O'Callaghan - who was once a man of war, but would go on to become a man of peace

DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on informer's journey from terrorist to lifesaver.

Sean O'Callaghan and I came from very different backgrounds and had contrasting life experiences.

He was born in southern Ireland, I in Northern Ireland.

He was a republican, I am a unionist.

He chose to join the IRA to fight for what he described as the cause of Irish unity and to usurp the will of the majority in Northern Ireland. I chose to join the Ulster Defence Regiment to lawfully resist this brutal sectarian insurgency and to uphold the right of the people to determine their own future. Many innocent people died in this unnecessary and futile attempt to destroy Northern Ireland, a fact Sean O'Callaghan came to recognise.

Writing in the Irish Times in 1997, not long before the Belfast Agreement, he said: "I joined the IRA and became a bomber, a robber and a double murderer. When I came to my senses and realised I was committing criminal acts for a vicious sectarian organisation I left, but my conscience drove me to rejoin in order to work against it."

It is a brave man who calls out the IRA for its naked sectarianism but an even braver one who embeds himself into its midst for the purpose of engineering its defeat.

I was first introduced to Sean O'Callaghan by Ruth Dudley Edwards in the presence of David Trimble.

At first I was suspicious of his motives, perhaps even hostile towards this former IRA member. However, in time I came to understand him better and to realise that Sean had a wealth of knowledge and an intimate understanding of the internal workings of the Irish republican movement and the psyche that drove them.

As former commander of southern command of the PIRA, he had met people like Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams many times and knew how they thought and was familiar with the tactics they adopted. He was willing to share this experience with us as we negotiated for the first time in a process that included Sinn Fein. While I would not wish to exaggerate his influence, his unique insight was helpful to unionist negotiators as we navigated our way through a challenging talks process.

As we debate the legacy of our troubled past and the morality of using informers and agents to defeat terrorism, we do well to examine the journey undertaken by Sean O'Callaghan. He started that journey as a man of war and finished it as a man of peace.

Along the way he did some terrible things that he came to recognise were unjustified and just plain wrong. He took the courageous decision to become an agent of the State and as a result of his infiltration of the IRA all the way up to leadership level, countless lives were saved and untold damage prevented.

While some will question the ethics of this type of counter-insurgency measure, there are many alive today who can be thankful for it.

In the end, Sean O'Callaghan was a changed man and it takes changed men and women to help build peace.

That will be his legacy.

  • Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is DUP MP for Lagan Valley

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