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4 September 2017

How republican propagandists tried and failed to discredit the legacy of Sean O’Callaghan

When the IRA informer died the republican PR machine swung into action, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Sean O’Callaghan

I knew there would be quite a few people celebrating after Sean O’Callaghan died on August 23. And I knew that Sinn Fein propagandists would be busy. There is no one they hate as much as an informer, and Sean offended particularly by telling how he came to realise that he was not a freedom fighter, but a young dupe from Kerry sent to fight a squalid sectarian war in Tyrone. 

Republican propaganda portrays informers as low-lives motivated by greed or fear, so they were furious that Sean had worked unpaid for the gardai to save lives because he realised the IRA’s ideology was evil.

“Heard Sean O’Callaghan died by drowning, just when you thought a tout couldn’t sink any lower,” one Twitter offering said.

They tried spreading the rumour that he was mentally unstable and had killed himself, but that one didn’t fly.

You have to be very dim indeed to think it credible that someone would fly to Jamaica to commit suicide in the swimming pool by his daughter’s home.

And then there were quite a lot enraged at the very positive media coverage.

“Staters calling him a hero” tweeted one. “Hope it was painful.”

They threw themselves into discrediting him as a liar and a fantasist.

The slight difficulty there was that media repeated the testimony of ex-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, who praised his “courage and commitment”.

“From what I have read of his story,” he wrote after Sean went public, “his account of his activities over many years bears the stamp of truth — and to the limited extent of my personal knowledge of those activities, I can confirm what he has said.”

Sean’s most contentious claim had been that he had been sent to London to plant a bomb in the royal box of a theatre where a few months later the Prince and Princess of Wales would be at a charity concert.  

But FitzGerald continued: “As Taoiseach, I was told of the plot to murder Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and of how a key participant in the plot who was also an agent of the Garda Siochana had managed to abort it without losing the trust of his IRA colleagues.”

So the Walter Mitty line mostly stuttered to a halt.

Then there was the allegation that while acting as a spy within the IRA he had murdered a man called John Corcoran, who was himself an informer.

For that to work you have to believe that a man who put himself in mortal danger to stop the IRA killing people would himself have killed.

And that when he gave himself up for the two murders and all the other crimes he had committed before he saw the light, he would mysteriously have omitted that of Corcoran.

In fact, Sean had been so profoundly shocked that he had failed to persuade the gardai to step in to save Corcoran’s life when he warned it was under threat, that, in jail, still tortured by it, he confessed to shooting him in the hope of forcing an investigation. That failed, as he explained later when he recanted.

Unfortunately, that meant people, like certain journalists who desperately didn’t want to believe Sean was telling the truth, have ever since clung on to the claim that he killed Corcoran.  

With Sinn Fein propaganda failing, the critics then comforted themselves by explaining that Sean had ceased to be of any significance and had died lonely and unmourned.

This was rather undermined by an outpouring of grief from a vast array of people who loved, admired and were helped by him, and found him fascinating, wise and funny.  

“Am profoundly shocked,” tweeted the TV presenter Tom Bradby, “to hear Sean O’Callaghan has died… a brave and intelligent man.”

Douglas Murray, the formidable commentator on Islamic terrorism and best-selling author, spoke for many when he wrote of the debt his friends owed Sean and “the pride we felt in him.

“Alongside the heroism and the friendship, his life holds out one other hope: that whether or not it’s the only one we get, atonement can be reached for and perhaps even achieved in this life.”

Amen to that.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards