I have written quite a lot on this blog (here, here and here) about Sean O’Callaghan who died, at 62, yesterday, apparently as a result of a swimming accident in Jamaica, and so I just wanted to mark his death with a short comment about the significance of his rather sad life as an IRA activist turned informer.
I can well understand why, haunted by regret for his actions, he left the IRA and then re-enlisted to become an informer for the Gardai, apparently to expiate his past wrongdoings, but two episodes cast shadows over his life.
One was the death of another Garda agent, Corkman John Corcoran. O’Callaghan at first admitted in a newspaper interview that he had killed Corcoran – shooting him in the back of the head with a revolver – but then retracted the confession in a rather unconvincing way.
O’Callaghan claimed that he had made the admission in order to force the Irish police to properly investigate the killing. But looking at the circumstances of the event, it is just as likely that O’Callaghan killed Corcoran to preserve his cover, i.e. if he hadn’t killed him, suspicion would have fallen over him. Dark questions still hover over the extent of Gardai complicity in this matter.
The other was O’Callaghan’s romance with the neoconservative wing of the Tory party which began when he moved to London after a jail term in Belfast for two murders, of an off-duty RUC Special Branch man and a woman member of the UDR. He was released by way of a Royal prerogative of mercy.
His entrance to Tory party circles coincided with the peace process and O’Callaghan’s message – that it was all a clever trick by Gerry Adams to wrong-foot the Brits – went down a treat with people who were appalled at the prospect of Sinn Fein in government.
By this time, O’Callaghan was wildly out of touch with the Provos. He had spent the best part of a decade in a secure prison unit for his own safety and it had been years before that since he had been part of the Provos’ leadership circle.
The Tories who welcomed the converted terrorist into their circles would have been well advised therefore to have taken a large spoonful of salt with O’Callaghan’s agreeable warnings, but what he had to say so perfectly conformed with their view of the world that they threw caution to the winds.
The neocon view of the world dictated that terrorists must always be militarily confronted and defeated – militarily and politically – since compromise, negotiation and deal-making were fatal as terrorists were by definition dishonest and full of trickery. Their aim was to weaken and defeat by politics if war could not achieve victory.
The neocon analysis of the Irish peace process was that it was an IRA artifice designed firstly to destabilise the SDLP, whom the Provos would swallow up and replace.
Once the IRA’s political wing had won the allegiance of a majority of Nationalists, the IRA’s war would be re-launched from a position of strength. By this time Britain’s will to remain in Northern Ireland would have been fatally sapped and they would disengage. Game, set and match to the Shinners.
It would be a case of ‘tricked by terrorism’.
Except it hasn’t worked out like that at all. But this grim scenario was meat and drink to the Tory neocons and they wolfed it down eagerly.
The leading Tory neocon, Michael Gove, for instance, compared the Good Friday Agreement to the appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s and the toleration of paedophiles.
As time went on and it became clear that the Provos really did mean to end their war against the British, and that there was no chance of a resumption of serious violence, O’Callaghan’s grim predictions were seen for what they were: the opportunistic imaginings of a fantasist.
Even Michael Gove had to moderate his views, conceding during this year’s Tory party leadership election: “I am glad about the peace process in Northern Ireland….”
Gradually and inexorably, Sean O’Callaghan slipped out of sight. He re-emerged briefly, courtesy of the right-wing, red top, print media in Britain, during the British general election to warn against Jeremy Corbyn for his dalliances with Gerry Adams. Corbyn’s remarkable performance served only to underline the sadness of O’Callaghan’s irrelevance.
An early death may have saved him from the special misery that comes from getting the story really, really wrong and knowing it.