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2 October 2017

My friend, the IRA informant

At 20, Sean O'Callaghan was a murderer. Then he decided to take a different path. 

By Gary Kent

Imagine you murder two people in what you believe is an honourable cause. Then, a commander’s off the cuff comment reveals the cause is utterly ignoble. This was the case with Sean O’Callaghan, whose life was recently cut short at the age of 62, while on holiday in Jamaica.

O’Callaghan joined the IRA as a teenager. By the age of 20, he had murdered a woman soldier and a police officer, one in a mortar attack and the other by shooting him several times in the head. His IRA boss then casually remarked that a murdered woman soldier was hopefully pregnant so they had got “two for the price of one”. Protestants, that is.

He immediately grasped he had made the biggest mistake of his life. He resigned, returned to his parents, then moved to Milton Keynes. He worked as a cabinet-maker and barman, met his first (Protestant) wife and set up a successful contract cleaning business in London. Then, in 1979, the murder of Lord Mountbatten convinced him to return to Kerry. He would rejoin the IRA, but to be “on the side of Irish democracy” against the IRA, which he now considered “the greatest enemy of democracy and decency”. He met an Irish Special Branch officer who had often questioned him years before. He offered to work for the force for free, knowing full well the risks he was running of a bullet in the head. It was a great gain for the British and Irish peoples.

The terrorism of the Northern Ireland “Troubles” dominated our lives and politics for decades. It caused the deaths of 3,600 people, ruined lives and scarred cities in both parts of Ireland and Britain. Take the young psychiatric nurse, David Heffer, blown up nearly 25 years ago in a Covent Garden pub. Or Mary Travers, murdered during an assassination attempt on her father. 

We need to understand how terror was smashed and decades of conflict ended. Better British and Irish security and political co-operation were crucial, but the IRA was also hollowed out from within by informers who took huge risks – many were executed. Imagine the pressures to outwardly conform but inwardly hate the people you share your life with.

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O’Callaghan was one of the most successful informers. He scuppered an arms shipment to the IRA – in a poem he wrote in his autobiography, he described the “seven tons of American guns and bullets” that “will not shatter one limb, or spatter brain on a pub floor”.  He sabotaged an IRA plan to murder Charles and Diana, and many others, at a Duran Duran concert at the Dominion Theatre. 

He was also a friend and comrade. We first met in 1995 in his cell at Maghaberry prison in Northern Ireland, where he was serving 539 years after handing himself in. I was briefly his amateur literary agent and we talked regularly by phone. In late 1996 he was pardoned and released and we soon met for a drink that began two decades of close collaboration.

Sean dedicated his first book, The Informer, to organisations unyielding in opposition to political violence in Northern Ireland and mobilising public opinion against terrorists. Many British and Irish civic and political leaders, including the former Irish president Mary Robinson, united in the late 1980s in a British-Irish peace movement. This movement confronted apologists for terror, held vigils for victims in London, picketed Sinn Fein in Ireland, and organised Peace Trains from Belfast to Dublin to demonstrate anger at IRA bombs on the Belfast-Dublin line (odd for a group seeking to unify Ireland).

The Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972 recruited many young people to the IRA. Therefore, justice for these victims was also one of our priorities. On its 20th anniversary in 1992, we persuaded Prime Minister John Major to tell the Commons that those killed were not guilty. We also challenged those who exploited Bloody Sunday to justify IRA violence. Our placards proclaimed “No more Bloody Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays”. 

During this time, O’Callaghan’s expertise on information on IRA leaders and the peace process was in demand. The Conservative Backbench Committee on Northern Ireland asked to see O’Callaghan  and I joined him. We hopped into the Special Branch car of the Committee Chairman and sped into the Commons. The Billericay MP Theresa Gorman asked me if O’Callaghan was too good to be true. I reassured her.

O’Callaghan and I also sought to buttress the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement as informal advisers to the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, the future First Minister of Northern Ireland. Trimble listened to non-unionists and, in O’Callaghan’s case, a man with a past, but also with a future as a decent and intelligent political thinker.

With the New Statesman, which pioneered progressive revisionism on Northern Ireland in the 1990s, we gave the first public platform to Trimble at Labour’s conference in 1996. I could see jaws dropping. Nevertheless, building a relationship between Labour and unionists paid dividends when Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam took over the peace process.

O’Callaghan’s politics came from the left – he once told me that Tony Benn was a childhood hero. Yet some on the hard left believed the British state should coerce – “persuade” – Protestants into a united Ireland. Benn even once told me over a Coke in the Commons that the Army, as he called the IRA, had to tackle informers.

But the left was changing its tune on Ireland. O’Callaghan and I admired a veteran British Communist, Bert Ward who provided much of the intellectual heft behind the peace movement. We hired a battered Mondeo to visit Middlesbrough in 2001 to spend the weekend with him. We were all former extremists (I was a teenage Trot) but our common cause was anti-fascism.

I am not seeking to annex O’Callaghan to the progressive column. He was his own man, who delighted in making and keeping friends across the political spectrum. To the last, O’Callaghan was unsparing in his critiques of left and right. He embraced pragmatic policies and alliances based on solid principles.

The IRA hated him, of course. Its hostility was sometimes funny. In 1998, we were in my office in the suburbs of the Commons on a quiet Friday afternoon. We had met the renowned Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto Polar, with whom he shared a publisher and who highlights the plight of the landless poor in third world countries. We were discussing how to back devolved government at Stormont.

As it happens, we were just feet away three senior members of the Stormont Assembly who were next door privately discussing the logistics of office furniture in the parliament. This only became apparent when my cigar caused a fire alarm and we were all evacuated. As the fire engines arrived, O’Callaghan  and I came face to face with the Sinn Fein representative who knew him of old. The representative later accused me on the Garvaghy Road of being an MI5 agent who had flushed him out to set up an embarrassing picture with O’Callaghan (no such photo ever surfaced).

But there was an assassination attempt against O’Callaghan. One day, he was about to enter the subways under the roundabout in Old Street when he spotted a pincer trap – assailants coming from both sides. He vaulted over the railings and darted across the busy road. O’Callaghan was also told that two Commons pass holders were monitoring us.

O’Callaghan carried immense guilt about those he had murdered and this drove an erratic lifestyle. He drank too much (but finally gave up five years ago), ate little, smoked untipped tabs like a chimney, and occasionally disappeared – I thought he had been murdered on one such occasion. It’s a tragic triumph of sorts that he died of natural causes.

He was one of the brightest political thinkers I have known. Many who came to know him, including those who were understandably wary at first given his record, came to respect his judgement. He blew the whistle on the IRA and equipped many with the ability to force them to do all they promised to avoid, from accepting the right of Northern Ireland to determine its fate to decommissioning its weapons. O’Callaghan died far too young but his legacy of fighting extremism will live on, as do many who would otherwise have been murdered.