Plenty of reason to doubt this ex-IRA `informer'


PREDICTABLY, the usual suspects, Conor Cruise O'Brien and Eoghan Harris, were gushingly approving over the weekend of "revelations" of IRA machinations offered by the self-proclaimed "informer", Sean O'Callaghan. Apart from such damning approvals, there are good reasons to be sceptical of Mr O'Callaghan's offerings.

His main claim to plausibility as a witness of what went on within the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s rests crucially on his claimed access to and acquaintance with the leadership of the movement.

In a Guardian article last June he claimed to have been part of the general headquarters staff of the IRA and to have attended meetings at that level. In last weekend's Sunday Times he wrote: "I was very close to the leadership."

In a radio interview with him last week I pressed him on his access to the leadership and, casually, he claimed to have attended two meetings of the IRA army council. He had made no such claim in the Guardian article and did not repeat that claim in the Sunday Times.

I asked him why he had not mentioned this previously, since it would have been the most spectacular example of his access at the highest level and must, if true, have figured prominently in his memory. He said he could hardly be expected to mention every meeting he was at.

I also asked him how he could profess to know about current IRA intentions given that, even according to himself, he had had no involvement or contact with the IRA since 1987. He said this was untrue as he had had a significant meeting with a leading member of Sinn Fein and of the IRA army council in early 1990 in Crumlin Roads jail, just after that person had been arrested.

I inquired how he knew the person was a member of the army council. He said the person had told him so and had gone on to reveal details of the "peace strategy" of the IRA at the time.

1 asked how it was plausible that a member of the IRA army council would reveal such information to anybody, all the more so to someone who in 1990 was widely known to be, or at least suspected of being, an IRA informer. He said the veil of suspicion on him had lifted at the time.

A few days after this interview I was contacted by a former Sinn Fein leader who, in January 1990, had been arrested and imprisoned in Crumlin Road jail. He said he assumed O'Callaghan's reference to meeting a leading member of Sinn Fein who had just been arrested at that time was to himself.

He went on to give his version of that encounter (I have assumed that my conversation with this person was private and, for this reason, I am not disclosing his name - I have been unable to contact him in the meantime to get his permission to use his name, although I assume he would have no objection to my doing so.).

THIS FORMER Sinn Fein leader said that O'Callaghan had been in the seclusion wing of Crumlin Road jail for some time before then; and that O'Callaghan's family were concerned he was being pressurised by the RUC and requested that republicans in the jail guarantee his safety if he [O'Callaghan] was released into the republican section of the prison.

This guarantee was given, according to the former Sinn Fein leader, although it was widely known at the time that O'Callaghan was an "informer". They agreed to the guarantee, he said, because they believed O'Callaghan was psychiatrically ill.

He said his conversation with O'Callaghan had to do almost entirely with his [O'Callaghan's] mental state, although O'Callaghan, according to the former Sinn Fein leader, talked obsessively about "action" being taken against a loyalist who was in the jail at the time. He said that shortly afterwards O'Callaghan suffered a nervous breakdown.

Thus the sole claim that O'Callaghan has to insight into IRA thinking in almost 10 years is wildly implausible. This is so, not just or even primarily because a former Sinn Fein leader gives a radically different account of the conversation that is the foundation for this claim (although, clearly, that is a factor); but because of the implausibility of the contention that a leading republican figure, who was fully aware at the time of at least the suspicions concerning O'Callaghan, would reveal intimate details of IRA plans and intentions.

Just a few other points:

In an interview on Today with Pat Kenny on RTE Radio One last week, O'Callaghan stressed repeatedly that while an IRA "informer" he had worked for the Government of the Irish Republic. In my interview with him I pointed out that at the same time he had also worked for MI5 and inquired why he had not repeatedly acknowledged that in his earlier interview. He did not explain the selective "spin" he had put on his endeavours.

In the Sunday Times piece he claimed that the IRA "just wanted to kill Protestants". This claim followed immediately upon a graphic and horrific account of how he had taken part in the murder of a Catholic RUC officer. There are several other such peculiarities to his story.

BUT ON the main issue that he deals with, the republican "peace" strategy, what he says is probably true. And in spite of the accompanying alarmist premonitions magnified by his cheerleaders - what he "reveals" amounts to precious little.

He wrote in the Sunday Times: "Primarily, the IRA intends to replace the SDLP with Sinn Fein as the dominant voice of Northern Ireland's nationalists... [the IRA] had a peace strategy which was aimed at radicalising Irish constitutional nationalism."

So what? Doesn't every smaller political party hope to replace the larger party in its spectrum - just as Democratic Left would hope to replace the Labour Party as the main party of the left here? And what's wrong with attempting to radicalise Irish constitutional nationalism, as what would be wrong with trying to radicalise constitutional unionism?

The tenor of O'Callaghan's premonitions, echoed by Messrs Cruise O'Brien and Harris, is that there is a grave danger inherent in the IRA's abandonment of violence and adoption of constitutionalism. This is because, republicanism far from being defeated, the IRA might succeed politically where it had failed militarily.

But what would be so bad about that? It could succeed politically only if it could persuade a majority to vote for it and, although some of us might not like this, what is objectionable about it? Yes, some loyalists might object to the point of violent revolt. But why should we be in any way more deterred from going along with the constitutional process, wherever it takes us, because of loyalist threats than we should be because of republican threats?

Sean O'Callaghan and his friends will have to do better to frighten us.