Belfast Telegraph

In death, as in life, Sean O'Callaghan continues to divide friend and foe

By Suzanne Breen

In the end, Sean O'Callaghan's death was not the one that every IRA informer fears. The masked assassin bursting through the door in the dark of night to blast him to eternity.

Instead, O'Callaghan's passing almost defied his political opponents. He drowned swimming in the sunshine in the Caribbean.

Growing up in Co Kerry surrounded by the sea, he was a strong swimmer. Friends suspect he suffered a heart attack in the pool in Jamaica where he was visiting his daughter.

She saw him before she headed to work in the morning and he had spoken to his son on the telephone and emailed his friend, the writer Ruth Dudley Edwards, just before he died.

In death O'Callagan is as controversial a figure as he was in life. Those who loved him speak of a fearless man challenging everything he had once believed.

He didn't shirk from speaking the truth although that brought him up against powerful paramilitary opponents. To republicans, both dissident and mainstream, he was a treacherous, deceitful figure who became a pawn of the Establishment for no other reason but self-gain.

He spent the last two decades of his life in London, constantly looking over his shoulder in case old friends would take their revenge. He refused offers from the security services of a new identity, stubbornly insisting that he would always be Sean O'Callaghan.

"He decided he would take his chances," said Dudley Edwards.

"He wasn't going to take a new name and be relocated to somewhere in the north of England to work as a shelf-stacker. He lived in London as himself but he always moved around. He had no fixed address or credit card. He left no trail.

"He received warnings from the police that he was under threat. After a certain period, he likely ceased to be a target for the Provos but the dissidents wouldn't have hesitated to kill him."

In an interview with this newspaper two years ago O'Callaghan spoke of the threat he lived under. "I'm sure the Provos and dissident republicans would shoot me in an instant if they got the chance, so I keep looking in front of me as well as behind me," he said. "That's just how it is. It's part of the furniture. But I try and not make much of it and just get on with things."

The Omagh bomb families were among those victims of republican violence that O'Callaghan helped. Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was killed in the blast, said he was stunned to learn yesterday that the informer was just 63 years old.

"He looked a lot older than his years. He'd obviously had a hard life," Gallagher noted.

The informer had battled depression and alcoholism but he "kicked the drink" four years ago, a friend said, and was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dudley Edwards stressed that O'Callaghan was not a lonely, isolated figure in London.

"He had a large number of friends here who loved him because of his courage, personality and integrity," she said.

"He was a very vibrant person. He had that rare combination of moral and physical courage. He faced down an ideology that had encouraged him to kill. He had read material which challenged what he believed and he acted upon that and faced up to the brutality of what he had done. He came to see the IRA as a vicious, sectarian organisation. He spent the rest of his life trying to atone for past actions."

But for former IRA prisoner and writer Anthony McIntyre, this narrative does not ring true. "I view Sean O'Callaghan as a calculating, self-serving and manipulative man," he said.

"I don't buy the line that he had some sort of 'Road to Damascus' conversion and was turned because of the horrors of the past. Most people work for the security services for money or to save their own skin.

"There have been cases of people becoming religious and confessing to police. They own up to what they did themselves. They don't embark on a life as a double agent."

Sean O'Callaghan was born into a deeply republican family in Tralee, Co Kerry, in 1954. His paternal grandfather had taken the Anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War and his father had been interned in the Curragh for IRA activity by the government during the Second World War.

O'Callaghan became involved with the IRA when he was just 15. Friends said he had watched on TV as "Catholics were burned out of their homes in the North and the Rev Ian Paisley went on his sectarian trail".

As a teenager, O'Callaghan was staunchly left-wing. He stopped going to Mass and became an atheist and Marxist. His hero was 1916 leader James Connolly. Soon after joining the IRA he was arrested by the Garda after accidentally detonating a bomb that damaged local homes.He received a short jail sentence. He remained in the IRA and crossed the border, operating in Co Tyrone. He was involved in various operations there including a mortar attack on the Army base in Clogher in 1974 in which UDR Greenfinch Eva Martin was killed.

In the same year he was involved in the murder of Catholic Special Branch officer Peter Flanagan, whom he shot dead in a pub in Omagh. Friends say O'Callaghan ended his involvement with the IRA around 1976 when he moved to London.

He married a Scottish woman of Protestant unionist descent. They had a son but the marriage broke up. He has a daughter from another relationship. O'Callaghan ran a mobile cleaning business but said 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. As the years went on, I came to believe that the Provisional IRA was the greatest enemy of democracy and decency in Ireland," he later wrote.

In 1979 he agreed to work as an agent in the IRA for the Irish Government and return to Tralee. In his memoirs he wrote: "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."

He claims he thwarted numerous IRA armed robberies and that he successfully sabotaged efforts of local republicans to stage fasts in support of the 1981 H-Block hunger strike.

He rose through the ranks of the Provisionals becoming a member of its Southern Command and rubbing shoulders with Army Council members.

In 1984 his information led to the Garda intercepting a US arms shipment in a fishing trawler, the Valhalla.

O'Callaghan also claimed to have prevented an attempt to kill Prince Charles and Princess Diana at a charity pop concert in London in 1984.

The IRA's murder of informer John Corcoran in Co Cork in 1985 is one that haunted him. He said he became disillusioned with the Garda for not protecting Corcoran.

Republicans claim that O'Callaghan was himself the murderer.

"He confessed his involvement to journalists," said McIntyre. "Then he denied he did it. I believe he used Corcoran as a scapegoat in order to protect himself and ward off suspicions that he was the informer."

In 1988 O'Callaghan walked into a Kent police station and confessed to the murders of Eva Martin and Peter Flanagan. He was jailed for life, but was freed under royal prerogative in 1996.

Three years later he published his autobiography, The Informer: The True Life Story Of One Man's War on Terrorism. At that time - before we had ever heard of Freddie Scappaticci - he was the most senior known British spy to have emerged from republican ranks.

He became a regular media commentator on the IRA. He acted as an unofficial adviser to the then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

He later worked with young gang members in London.

O'Callaghan wrote regularly for the British Press and gave evidence against IRA chief of staff Thomas 'Slab' Murphy in his libel case against The Sunday Times.

More recently, he featured in the media as a fierce critic of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Two years ago he wrote a book about his former hero - James Connolly: My Search For The Man, The Myth And His Legacy.

O'Callaghan told this newspaper of the effect the 1916 leader had on him as a teenager: "Connolly certainly fascinated me. He fired my imagination. He was one of the few leaders from 1916 who was modern, international and relevant. He was a bridge for a lot of people to a new way of thinking in Ireland away from all the heavy stuff," he said.

But the adult O'Callaghan became disillusioned with his icon.

"No one was ever good enough, dedicated enough or pure enough for him. I could find nothing to suggest that Connolly ever enjoyed himself.

"He was not a nice character. He thought that compromise was the pits," the informer said.

O'Callaghan's journey from socialist republican to ally of unionists and British Conservatives was momentous.

His motivation for doing so still fiercely divides his friends and foes.

Belfast Telegraph

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