Former IRA man who committed double murder intends to right his wrongs
SEAN O’Callaghan will never be able to make up for what he did. He’s learnt that much after 35 years of trying.
In his eyes, as much as those of anyone else, he’s still the cold-hearted IRA man who killed a schoolteacher and an innocent policeman. Whatever he does that is how he believes he will go to his grave.
“When you take people’s lives, you just can’t make amends for it,” he says, quickly and with a decisive shake of his head.
“You just can’t do it.”
But that hasn’t stopped him from trying.
After committing the two murders during his five years in the Provisional IRA, O’Callaghan was racked with guilt and keen to right his wrongs.
First he became an IRA informant, helping British and Irish authorities flout such attacks as an attempt to bomb Princess Diana and Prince Charles in the early eighties.
Then he gave himself up for prosecution in Britain and received a 539-year prison sentence for the murders and many more terrorist attacks.
Now, following his release in 1997 through a Royal Pardon, he works with gangs in London.
The 60-year-old Kerryman is perhaps an unlikely sight amongst rough inner-city teens. But he says they accept him because he’s not there to represent any charity or organisation.
He’s just there as someone whose life has been haunted by bad choices, an example of what might happen to them if they follow him down the path of becoming a double-killer by the age of 21.
While he says there are a lot of differences between the people he helps today and the young men he knew in the IRA, he sees similarities too.
“At that stage, every kid is looking for status one way or another,” he explains.
“And if you are at the wrong end of things, living in a horrible estate without much chance of succeeding, and you are looking for status and respect, you get that from doing either good things or bad things, and then it becomes a habit.
“You can probably get just as much kudos if someone congratulates you for pulling a woman from under a bus as from drug dealing, where you can get patted on the back by the boss.
“It is a question of identifying those habits and seeing that at certain ages young people are especially vulnerable depending on the areas they are in and what is going on.”
When O’Callaghan decided to join the IRA at the age of 15, time and place were certainly two key factors.
He says it might never have happened if he had been five years older. After all, his older brother didn’t get involved.
“But in ‘68 ‘69 ‘70, all that was going on in Ireland was the beginning of the Troubles and that dominated everything hugely,” he explains.
An odd and vulnerable teenager, he was an atheist and Marxist by his mid-teens, well-versed in the American civil rights movement and the rise of Communist Cuba.
He was also an avid reader of James Connolly, whose linking with the militant Patrick Pearse was the “big deciding factor” in his decision to take up arms.
The newly-formed Provisional IRA looked, to the extreme young O’Callaghan, like a popular front bringing “the revolution” to Ireland.
“You could talk about Cuba or wherever, but all of a sudden it seemed to be here and you were either going to be a part of it or you weren’t,” he recalls.
At that point O’Callaghan’s problem with the IRA wasn’t that it was killing people, it was its right-wing and ultra-Catholic roots.
“My juvenile thought was that the PIRA would carry this so far and then we would take them over and be a proper socialist republic,” he adds.
By the time he left the organisation, shortly before his 21st birthday, O’Callaghan had two murders on his conscience.
The first was Private Eva Martin, a 28-year-old secondary school teacher who had volunteered to join the Ulster Defence Regiment and was killed in attack by O’Callaghan and others on a British Army base in Clogher.
The second was Detective Inspector Paul Flanagan, who he shot dead in an Omagh bar after having been told falsely that the RUC officer had tortured IRA suspects.
With one hand on his head, O’Callaghan cannot hide his disgust as he relives the killings, which he still thinks about regularly.
“You cannot forgive yourself for something like that unless there is something wrong with you,” he says.
“You have to face the reality: I knew nothing about Northern Ireland. In my eyes I was a juvenile political delinquent who ended up murdering a schoolteacher of 28-years-of-age.”
The experience of going from ideological teen to young killer has left him with “a horror of ideology and a horror of extremism”.
When he re-joined the IRA in his mid-twnties it was to act as a Gardaí informer. But O’Callaghan wasn’t hoping for redemption.
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.
That was the extreme thing to do, as was his decision to turn himself over to the British authorities in 1988.
Breaking a long silence, O’Callaghan says he thinks he did as well as he could have done after leaving the IRA. But he no longer thinks it is possible to make amends for his actions.
And guilt isn’t the only consequence he has to live with.
Twice, he says, he has had to move home very quickly to escape assassination attempts by the IRA.
“Those guys would like to kill me and obviously there are people around within the mainstream republican movement who have great personal grudges to bear,” he adds.
That fear impacts O’Callaghan’s life every day. He lives alone in London and keeps his address and his phone number a secret. He also doesn’t have a bank account, avoids places where he might be recognised and gives out false names when he can.
But he is conscious of not painting himself as a victim.
“I will keep on doing the work with gangs because I want to do it,” O’Callaghan says.
“It is also a way of putting something back.”