Senior Irish and British figures mark death of Sean O’Callaghan

IRA informer Sean O’Callaghan’s life and legacy will be marked by senior representatives of the British and Irish states on Wednesday.

They will be joined by many of his friends in London, where he made his life and from where he gave invaluable advice to David Trimble about how to deal with his former close colleagues in the IRA.

The former IRA commander gave the intelligence services in Britain and Ireland vital information about IRA operations and the thinking of its Army Council. Former Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald wrote about “the debt we all owe to Sean O’Callaghan’s courage and commitment.”

I’d been worried that no one would represent the Irish State but the good news is that the Irish State will be represented by its Embassy’s political counsellor, standing in for the Ambassador who has an unbreakable prior engagement. I understand that Lords Bew, Salisbury and Trimble will be among those speaking and Michael Gove will also attend.

Sean was also a good friend. We met, thanks to Ruth Dudley Edwards, in his cell at Maghaberry prison in 1995. When he was released on a Royal Pardon in 1996 after 8 years for two murders, we worked together closely in the UK Parliament with David Trimble and others to inject realism into understanding of the developing process of reaching and then implementing the Good Friday Agreement.

Given his own record and his deep regret for murdering and robbing for a cause he came to despise, he was never free from remorse and drank too much until he quit alcohol several years ago. 

A smoking-induced heart attack killed him, but he would have seen that as a preferable fate to being assassinated by former IRA colleagues – which was an ever-present threat.

Excellent company, he always had a host of friends.  As well as giving advice to MPs, advisers, journalists, and academics, he was free with his time in helping people trying to curb the scourge of knife crime in London and Islamist radicalisation of the young.

It’s tragic that he died so early of natural causes but at least it was not at the hands of the IRA. Agree with him or not, he was one of the most intelligent political thinkers I have had the privilege to know.

He also kindly dedicated his autobiography, The Informer, to peace groups New Consensus, the Peace Train and Families against Intimidation and Terror, which he said were unyielding in opposition to political violence in Northern Ireland, and with which I was involved before I met him.

He was a physically and intellectually brave man who risked a great deal to help end the Troubles. He deserves a hero’s farewell from senior Irish and British representatives and the respect of those whose lives and livelihoods were saved from terrorism.

The memorial service is at 10.30am on Wednesday 21 March at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Trafalgar Square.

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Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.