Belfast Telegraph

Ruth Dudley Edwards: How my dear friend Sean O’Callaghan showed the true meaning of redemption

The former IRA man, who died last week, was genuine in his remorse, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

I spent Friday night with close friends in Tyrone, much of it talking about my dear friend Sean O’Callaghan, who died last Wednesday. As a Provo terrorist in his teens, he was feared and loathed by the security services in the area. Yet four serving and retired policemen spoke of him with great admiration.

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.

My tribe has an unhealthy culture of nurturing and exaggerating past grievances and using them to justify criminality.

But Protestants I’ve found to be much less inclined to embrace victimhood, and the religious among them take seriously the biblical injunction: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”

At the weekend, a friend reminded me of his first meeting with Sean.

I had persuaded a group of senior Orangemen to come to London to seek his advice on how to deal with the republican strategy of fomenting violence over parades and putting the blame on the Orange Order.

“We were uncertain and suspicious,” he said, “but he spoke to us simply at the beginning, told us he had done great evil to our community, and said he was sorry.

“And that changed the whole atmosphere and we forgave and trusted him.”

So to Kenny Donaldson, with whom I have much sympathy in his role as spokesman for Innocent Victims United and who doubts if Sean was truly remorseful for the crimes he committed, let me say yes, he was, and from the time he saw the light, he spent his life tortured by what he had done and doing his best to atone for murdering Peter Flanagan of the RUC and Eva Martin of the UDR. 

His frighteningly honest memoir, The Informer, tells the story.

As a child in Kerry, Sean’s granny taught him that the only good policeman was a dead policeman, and his father gloried in his work for the IRA.

In 1969, at 15, Sean, fancying himself a Marxist revolutionary, watched RTE footage of the Reverend Ian Paisley’s sectarian ranting and Catholics streaming across the border.

He believed the propaganda that Northern Ireland was the victim of an occupying foreign power and joined the Provisionals rather than the Marxist Official IRA because he thought it a more effective resistance movement. He was wreaking havoc in Tyrone when he began to realise that his comrades were far more interested in killing their Protestant neighbours than British soldiers.

It was that and anti-IRA writers like Conor Cruise O’Brien — for Sean was an omnivorous reader — that made him realise he was a dupe in a squalid, sectarian war.

With enormous moral courage, he accepted that his deeds had been evil, not heroic.

How many IRA people do that? Instead, you have the obscenity of Sinn Fein’s celebration of murderers.

Sean spent several dangerous years in the IRA as a saboteur and unpaid Garda spy knowing that he faced torture and death if he was found out.

Had it not been for him — as was acknowledged by the Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald — the IRA would have murdered the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1983 and many other less famous citizens along the way.

Eventually, having had to flee Ireland, he gave himself up, turned himself in, admitted to all his crimes and even in jail continued his one-man war on many fronts against his previous associates.

Michael Gallagher, who knew Sean well, acknowledged how much he had done to help families who took a successful civil action against some of the men who in 1998 in Omagh murdered 29 people and unborn twins, injured 220 and ruined the lives of many, many more.    

Among Sean’s many friends were soldiers and police who thought the good he had done far outweighed the bad.

As someone who loathes terrorism, I ask Kenny to acknowledge that Sean’s remorse was utterly genuine and that he deserves to be remembered in charity and forgiveness.

How about it, Kenny?

  • Ruth Dudley Edwards is the author of ‘The Omagh Bombing and the families pursuit of justice’

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