Wednesday 9 April 2014

Lying For The Cause: The Tragedy Of Sean O'Callaghan

Sean O'Callaghan

When I see his haunted eyes staring at me from this photograph in the Irish Post, I feel very sorry for Sean O'Callaghan. He looks weary now and weighted down. Whatever one's opinion of the man, it would be inhuman to take pleasure in his obvious suffering.

Gone are the swagger and self-importance that characterised his writings and media appearances in the years following his release from prison in 1996. In those days, O'Callaghan seemed to relish the notoriety of being the most senior PIRA informer to have emerged at that point. (Scap was still in the closet then of course.) Certainly the opportunities for public recognition and financial reward came thick and fast — a series of articles in the Sunday Times was followed by a six-figure book deal, a speaking tour in the US, and even a spell as an advisor to David Trimble.

Things are different now. O'Callaghan's dire warnings about the peace process proved to be bogus, and since the formal end to the PIRA campaign in 2005, his media star faded fast. Sean O'Callaghan seems forlorn now, and he looks older than his sixty years. Shunned by his devoutly republican family in Kerry, he lives alone in London and he tells the Irish Post that he now spends his days working with gangs and the vulnerable inner-city teens they attract.

My instincts are to leave Sean O'Callaghan be. Indeed, I had written the bulk of this critique almost two years ago during a discussion on Facebook about O'Callaghan with one of his most steadfast supporters, my dear friend Ruth Dudley Edwards. I had no intention to revisit the issue again. However, Ruth has recently written an article for the Daily Mail about the PIRA and she cited Sean O'Callaghan in support of her argument. Shortly after, she sent me a link to the Irish Post's interview with O'Callaghan and asked me to read it.

Though we have little time for each other's politics, Ruth has been a kind and generous friend to me, and unlike so many others in the media, she is remarkably tolerant of those who disagree with her. All things considered then, I think that it is right for me to put forward my own views on Sean O'Callaghan, his claims and his credibility.

Bluntly put, Sean O'Callaghan is not a credible source. Indeed, I would require substantial independent corroboration before I would accept any of his claims about the PIRA. I say this not only because his most outlandish allegations are implausible per se, but because Sean O'Callaghan is — by his own admission — an accomplished liar who has often lied to the Gardaí, the RUC, and the media. I think the best way to put forward my argument is to examine some of O'Callaghan's most dubious claims.

The Plot to Kill Prince Charles and Princess Diana

Perhaps O'Callaghan's most astonishing allegation is that the PIRA ordered him to kill Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1983 by bombing a charity concert that the royal couple would be attending. O'Callaghan's supporters in the media argue that his story was corroborated by former taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in 1996.1

However, to my knowledge, all that Garret Fitzgerald confirmed was what he himself had been told by the Gardaí in 1983: a Garda agent in the PIRA had informed his handler of his involvement in a plot to kill Charles and Diana, but the agent had managed to abort the operation without blowing his cover.

But if O'Callaghan had in fact become a member of the highly effective PIRA unit responsible for the bombing campaign in England, how is that he could not provide his handler with sufficient intelligence to undermine the unit's activities? And if the PIRA did not suspect their plot had been uncovered, why didn't they have another volunteer plant the bomb? In fact, given such an unresolved security risk, it is astounding that the royal couple still attended the concert, which went ahead as planned on 20 July.

Moreover, the brutal incineration of Charles and Diana at a charity fundraiser would have been a massive PR blunder for a movement then trying to make headway in electoral politics. Gerry Adams, who had just been elected MP for West Belfast in June 1983, was well aware of the value of a good public image. At the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis later that year, he spoke of the need for "controlled and disciplined" IRA operations to protect Sinn Féin's electoral strategy. As Ed Moloney points out, Adams warned his supporters about this again in June 1984 following Sinn Féin's poor performance in the elections for the European Parliament:

[T]here are a number of people who, while they voted for us in June 1983, may not have been able to tolerate some aspects of IRA operations. ... I think it is fair to say there are varying degrees of tolerance within the Nationalist electorate for aspects of the armed struggle.2

Of course, I doubt that Gerry Adams would have been greatly perturbed by the gruesome killing of the royal couple or any of the other concert-goers that evening. However, in light of the political career he was starting to build for himself, it is unthinkable that he would have allowed it to be jeopardised by such a horrific and electorally noxious attack.

Thus, I simply don't believe the plot really existed. In my view, a much more plausible explanation for what happened is that Sean O'Callaghan invented the plot and his foiling of it. I believe he did this in order to curry favour with the Gardaí and boost his profile in their eyes. Indeed, the Gardaí themselves came to regard O'Callaghan's claims as unreliable.3

The "Sham" Peace Process

What kept Sean O'Callaghan in the headlines before the Belfast Agreement in 1998 was his spiel about the peace process being "a sham". In December 1996, O'Callaghan claimed that when both men were imprisoned in Crumlin Road Gaol six years previously, senior Provo Danny Morrison revealed to him the hollowness of the peace process and the Provos' true intentions. As O'Callaghan told the Irish Times, these intentions were "to call a ceasefire before the next British general election, usurp the SDLP as the majority nationalist party in Northern Ireland and then relaunch its military campaign to create a major security crisis."4

Leaving aside the fact that the alleged secret strategy turned out to be bunkum, is it likely that Danny Morrison — who was in jail himself because of an informer’s tip-off — would reveal something as sensitive as this to a suspected informer? As far as the Provos were concerned, O'Callaghan had left Tralee under a cloud in 1985 and went into hiding for about three years. Republicans in Kerry suspected him of being an informer and of stealing money from PIRA coffers.5 He then handed himself over to the police in England in 1988, confessed to two killings and was transferred to a secure annexe in Crumlin Road Gaol where supergrasses and informers were housed.

O'Callaghan claimed that he managed to convince the PIRA of his bona fides, and that that was why he was taken onto the republican wing of the prison. However, it was not uncommon for those who had given information to the security services to be accepted onto the republican wing provided they agreed to be debriefed by PIRA prison leaders. For example, this happened to Eamon Collins. In any case, given what republicans did know about O'Callaghan, it is utterly incredible that he would be trusted with something as significant as the "secret strategy" behind the peace process.

The Finucane Smear

O'Callaghan's last high-profile allegation was his smearing in 2003 of the late Pat Finucane, a respected Belfast solicitor who was killed by loyalist paramilitaries in 1989. Two public investigations concluded that elements within the British security services colluded in his murder. Following the publication of the conclusions of the Stevens Enquiry 3 in April 2003, Sean O'Callaghan claimed that Pat Finucane was a senior PIRA intelligence officer who used his position as a solicitor to act as "a trusted conduit between the IRA prisoners and the leadership on the outside". This was the very same reason the UDA/UFF gave for killing him.

 It is telling that O'Callaghan never claimed that Pat Finucane was a Provo until after John Stevens concluded  in April 2003 that British security forces colluded in Finucane's killing. Indeed, O'Callaghan chose not to mention it in his 1998 autobiography The Informer or in the multiple articles that he wrote or interviews that he gave.

It is true that Pat Finucane's brothers were PIRA members, but the claim that Finucane himself was a member has been rejected by every single investigation into his killing, including the one carried out by the RUC. Indeed, the Cory Collusion Inquiry Report states that "there is nothing in the RUC files which indicates that Patrick Finucane was a member of PIRA, the IRA or the INLA." As Judge Peter Cory points out, the senior officer in charge of investigating Finucane's murder stated at the inquest that "[w]e have no evidence to suggest that Patrick Finucane was a member of PIRA". The presiding coroner drew the following conclusion:
The police refute the claim that Mr Finucane was a member of PIRA. He was just another law-abiding citizen going about his professional duties in a professional manner. He was well known both inside and outside the legal profession. He was regarded in police circles as very professional and he discharged his duties with vigour and professionalism.
If it is true that Sean O'Callaghan knew Pat Finucane to be a senior member of the PIRA since 1980, how is that there is no documentary evidence of O'Callaghan imparting this information to either MI5 or the RUC when he was debriefed by them in 1988? If he didn't tell either organisation, why not? It must also be said that there was a large percentage of informers in the PIRA. Indeed, it has been suggested that about a third of all PIRA members were British agents. It is absolutely incredible that none of these agents mentioned Pat Finucane’s membership to their handlers and there is nothing in RUC files to suggest that they did.

To my mind then, the journalist Sam Symth gives the most plausible explanation for O'Callaghan's very tardy smear:
Sean O'Callaghan's attempt to undermine the Stevens report was as breathtakingly brazen as it was shamelessly self-serving. By posthumously branding the late Pat Finucane a member of the IRA last week, he tried to mitigate the role played by his paymasters and protectors in the murder of the Belfast solicitor.6

Lying for the Cause

Even if we ignore the dubious and self-serving nature of his claims, there is a much more compelling reason to doubt Sean O'Callaghan. Essentially, he is a person who believes that telling lies is a means justified by the end: undermining the Provisional Republican Movement. Of course, no one would expect him to have been honest with the PIRA when he was an informer, but he has told quite spectacular lies to the RUC, the Gardaí, and numerous journalists. The lies continued even after he had revealed himself as an informer and an enemy of the IRA. During Thomas 'Slab' Murphy's libel trial in 1998, O'Callaghan was asked if he could name a single person to whom he had not told lies in the last ten years. He simply responded, "No."7

When being debriefed by the RUC in 1988, O'Callaghan described in graphic detail how he murdered two American hostages and burned their bodies. As he later admitted, these hostages never existed and the episode was a figment of his imagination. Thus, it is hardly surprising that a British security source described O'Callaghan as "cunning, charismatic and manipulative".8 The Gardaí didn't trust him either. In March 1997, senior Gardai told the Irish Independent that O'Callaghan's claims about his role in the IRA were "highly exaggerated".9
Worst of all, O'Callaghan told at least three journalists in three separate interviews — Ger Colleran in 1986, Liam Clarke in 1992, and Kevin Cullen in 1994 — how he had killed fellow PIRA informer Sean Corcoran on a farm in Kerry in 1985. Cullen reported O'Callaghan's account of the killing as follows:

"I took the mask off him," he said. "It was just the most pathetic sight. To the very end, I was hoping the Guards would come through the door, just take Corcoran and his wife away somewhere, give them a new life, a new identity." Instead, O'Callaghan says, convinced there was no other way, he walked over and shot Corcoran in the head.10

O'Callaghan later repudiated this account, as he would deny telling Ger Colleran in 1986 that he had killed a total of six people. He argues that he falsely confessed to killing Sean Corcoran in order to get the Gardaí to investigate the killing, but this rings hollow. Indeed, it demonstrates that telling lies is Sean O'Callaghan's modus operandi, the first resort rather than the last one. As such, we can never really know where his lies end and where the truth begins.

Peace and Redemption

I don't think Sean O'Callaghan is a bad person. Indeed, I believe that there are far more mendacious and unscrupulous individuals leading Sinn Féin and the DUP today. O'Callaghan's work with vulnerable youngsters is truly admirable and I hope he finds the redemption that has eluded him thus far.

I don't wish to criticise Sean O'Callaghan any further. I will leave him in peace. Instead of trumpeting his tall tales in the media, perhaps his friends should do the same.

1 Garret Fitzgerald, "The Only Clear Thing About IRA Strategy Is Uncertainty", Irish Times, 4 Jan 1997
2 Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA (London: Penguin Books, 2007), p.317
3 Tom Brady, "Gardaí Dismiss IRA Informer's Murder Claim", Irish Independent, 3 Mar 1997
4 Jim Cusack, "Killer-Turned-Informer Warns Ceasefire Is A Sham As IRA Plan Major Security Crisis", Irish Times, 14 December 1996
5 Senan Moloney, "IRA 'Jackal' Surrenders To Clear Name", Irish Independent, 2 Dec 1988
6 Sam Smyth, "Killer and Liar Bids to Subvert Stevens Report", Irish Independent, 22 April 2003
7 Ibid.
8 "'I Spared Diana and Charles': Suspicion As An IRA Killer Seeks 'Public Recognition'", Daily Mail, 30 November 1992
9 See note 3 above
10 Kevin Cullen, "IRA Man Tells a Tale of Betrayal", Boston Globe, 29 Jan 1995


  1. Thanks you. Very interesting. The tragedy perhaps is that O Callaghan is well informed and was connected into the IRA intimately enough to know stuff and a large part of what he says may be true - say, around the arms importations and the divisions within the leadership; it's just not easy, or perhaps possible, to know what to accept. There was an interview recently on Channel Four News with a former undercover cop who had been spying on the family of Steven Lawrence. The cop said, 'I am a trained liar.' How can anyone trust the word of someone with those skills and a motivation to dissemble?

  2. Thanks for your comments, Malachi.

    As I said on Facebook today, I am not certainly not arguing that Sean O'Callaghan is a Walter Mitty type or that all of his claims about the PIRA are false. As I said in the article, O'Callaghan was the most high-level informer to emerge before Stakeknife fell out of the cutlery drawer.

    It is clear that he was a high-ranking member of the IRA's Southern Command, but the Gardaí did not believe his claim to have risen to the rank of commanding officer. However, it is true that he scuppered several important PIRA operations, such as the Marita Ann arms shipment.

    However, as O'Callaghan told the Irish Post recently, "he wanted to make up for his crimes in the most 'effective' way possible, damaging the organisation he had come to resent for fighting an unwinnable war against British civilians, not the British State."

    The point of my article is that O'Callaghan's most dubious claims have to be seen in the context of his overall objective: doing as much damage to the Provisional Republican Movement as possible. Lying to the RUC, the Gardaí, and several journalists was just a means to this end.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comments, but I am afraid I cannot publish anonymous, unsubstantiated allegations.

    1. Which is more than can be said for the Times when commenting on the Jokeal. I think you can tell they were accurate.. TTFN

  5. Anonymous,

    I suppose the difference is that when a newspaper like the Times publishes claims by an anonymous source, the journalist who writes the story knows the identity of the source and so he/she is in a better position to judge the source's credibility.