Lord (Paul) Bew, a former professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, struck the right note at Sean O’Callaghan’s memorial service in London by citing Othello’s final words in the Shakespeare play.
“Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know it.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.”
His friend, Ruth Dudley Edwards, referred to him as a fanatic, once in the cause of James Connolly and the IRA and then against them, as he outlined in his critical biography of Connolly. She said that “All his life, he was fanatically focussed on trying to make the world a better place.”
Sean’s eventful, valuable, and complex life was evidenced by the variety of the 300 people in the St Martin-in-the-Field church off Trafalgar Square.
A clutch of Labour and Conservative MPs included the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, Security minister Ben Wallace, and Jack Lopresti, a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
I recall a peace vigil there after some IRA atrocity many years ago with another attendee, Sir Peter Bottomley as we dutifully sang “All we are saying is give peace a chance” in Dutch for a news crew from Holland.
The Irish state was represented by the Embassy’s number two as the Ambassador was in Warrington to mark the 25th anniversary of the IRA’s bomb attacks there. Sean’s son, Rory told us this was the first time the Irish state had formally acknowledged Sean’s work.
The former Unionist leader, David Trimble addressed the event as did former Cabinet Minister, Lord Salisbury, who said he spoke by phone to Sean in his cell every Saturday morning when Major’s government was wrestling with the peace process before the Good Friday Agreement.
DUP Leader, Arlene Foster, Orange Order members, and former policemen mixed with academics, those campaigning against knife crime and gangs, journalists and editors such as Dominic Lawson and Charles Moore who learnt from him, peace activists whose efforts he supported, and Alcoholics Anonymous activists who kept him off the bottle for the last five years of his life.
And his family who had previously stayed out of the limelight. Sean’s older brother Donie said: “It is true to say that Sean didn’t always make it easy for us to love him unconditionally. But we always have. And we always will.”
The service had began with the rebel song, The Soldiers of Twenty Two, and the church echoed to these fighting words “When they heard the call of a cause laid low/They sprang to their guns again,/And the pride of all was the first to fall.”
Then there was Amazing Grace followed by Professor Liam Kennedy’s reflections on the life of an Irish Exile, and former policeman, Rob Bryan shared his memories of comparing notes on John Le Carre spy plots with Sean.
Rory read his father’s poem on his quiet satisfaction about his role in the capture of the Marita Ann arms shipment and how “Seventy-six thousand bullets/Will not shatter one limb/Or spatter brain on a pub floor.”
As Sean had done himself when he murdered DI Peter Flanagan in a pub in Omagh and for which he gave himself up, receiving a 539 year sentence for that murder and that of Greenfinch Eva Martin, before being released on a Royal Pardon and working tirelessly for peace, and against the anti-democratic cancer of the Provos of which he had been part.
The service ended with a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, whose famous chorus tells us: “Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)/That’s how the light gets in.”
Sean was also good craic and did so much to throw light on the murderous movement he had killed for and his insights enabled Irish and British democrats to better manage the republican movement’s transition.
Clearly, Sean is marmite to some judged by the intemperate reaction of some readers to my last article. His death last year was accompanied by substantial obituaries few cabinet ministers would achieve.
The service in London was a moving and fitting tribute to a man whose many friends were in silos and often didn’t know of each other.
The breadth of the attendance at his dignified memorial highlights the esteem in which he was held by many from left, right and centre in these islands.
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.