OPINION: Informers long part and parcel of Irish history

September 4th, 2017 12:00 PM

By Southern Star Team


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O'Callaghan enjoyed double-crossing, particularly if there was money in it

LAST week, an Irish spy drowned in a swimming pool, having choked on his own alcohol-induced vomit. He was Seán Ó Callaghan, a Tralee man who publicly confessed to murdering a close friend, John Corcoran, by putting a pistol to his head and blowing his brains over a Kerry field.

Mr Corcoran was also a spy, although a low ranking one – more of a part-time snitch than a super-grass, tasked to report on IRA tittle-tattle in Cork city. Both were on the Special Branch payroll, although Corcoran was not aware that his comrade, O’Callaghan, was an informer. 

In the scale of political importance, Corcoran didn’t feature highly. O’Callaghan did!

Of course informers always have been part and parcel of Irish history and the two men followed a long line of scoundrels for whom basic moral qualities were abnormal and alien. People such as ‘The Sham Squire’ who betrayed Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Or the Fenian informer, James Carey. Then there was West Cork’s Mrs Lindsay  and, more recently, the late Denis Donaldson and dangerous double agent Freddie Scappaticci who denies that he went by the codename Stakeknife.

Curiously, Ireland doesn’t like spies and traditionally has shunned lowlifes that give information to an enemy. But, in the case of Sean O’Callaghan, it must be said that he enjoyed double-crossing, particularly if there was money in it. 

During his long career as an IRA informer, he sang like a canary; first to the Gardaí, then to MI5 and MI6 and finally to the press.  He even wrote a book about his antics that netted him €170,000!


Murder most foul

That aside, the most shocking aspect of his treachery was the cold-blooded assassination of his fellow-spy, John Corcoran, on March 22nd, 1985 and his later assertion (which had some credibility) that he had been acting on behalf of the Irish State. 

Worse still, because references were made to collusion by State agencies in the execution, an impression was created that something right and necessary had taken place.

It was an impression enhanced by a Garda reluctance to interview O’Callaghan in relation to the killing. The impunity that he seemed to enjoy in turn contributed to the perception that his handlers approved of the atrocity that he carried out.

The background is the following: in the 1980s O’Callaghan was the chief Garda informant within the IRA. In 1984, he was the person who tipped the authorities off about the attempted importation of arms on the Marita Ann. He also claimed to be OC of the IRA’s Southern Command and that he attended Army Council meetings. 


Marita Ann 

His garda handlers took O’Callaghan very seriously, considering him an invaluable aide who could obtain secret and confidential information relating to the IRA. However, some were not so sure, seeing in him a kind of dangerously loony Walter Mitty type.

His golden moment came when, thanks to his spying, the Marita Ann trawler was intercepted off the Kerry coast by the Naval Service on September 29th, 1984, and found to be carrying seven tonnes of arms. 

His secret watch on the actions and words of his comrades proved to be fruitful. Among those on board was Martin Ferris who went on to become a Kerry TD for Sinn Féin.

But, after British newspapers reported that a garda informer within the IRA in Munster was responsible for tipping off the  authorities, apprehension grew that an IRA investigation would uncover the role O’Callaghan played in the capture of the Marita Ann. 

For instance, O’Callaghan was one of the last people to speak to Martin Ferris before the vessel sailed from Fenit pier to collect its cargo in America.

Consequently, O’Callaghan came to the conclusion that the best way to protect his cover was to kill John Corcoran, which would give the impression that the Corkman had been the mole. Shockingly, O’Callaghan’s Garda handlers may have shared his vile point of view. 


Veil of silence

Vincent Browne in Magill magazine (Christmas 1997) pulled no punches as to what went on. He wrote that the gardaí allowed Corcoran to be killed by another IRA informer and stated bluntly that the authorities refused to investigate his murder. 

He quoted a garda with comprehensive knowledge of the Corcoran affair who said: ‘it was well known within the gardaí that someone had been sacrificed for the greater good.’

At around the same time a story was spread in Belfast that Corcoran had been in cahoots with a Cork garda detective whose plan was to entrap IRA members in bogus crime.

Even more astonishing is the fact that, in 1998, O’Callaghan publicly admitted his involvement in the murder and that he repeated the admission in newspaper interviews in 1993 and 1994.

Astonishing too is that the gardaí had no interest in O’Callaghan as a murder suspect. They didn’t pick him up or interview him. The lack of police interest prompted Browne to write that the gardaí were trying to protect the identity of one of their prime informers (O’Callaghan).

It seemed that in the eyes of the State, John Corcoran didn’t count for very much, either in life or death.

The then Minister for Justice, John O’Donoghue, stung by Browne’s persistent criticism, sought a full report on all aspects of the case from the Garda authorities. But the report was never made public. 

John Bruton also maintained a veil of silence over the murder. And that has been the official response down to the present day.


500 years in jail

Was that the end of the story? No. In 1988, O’Callaghan, wearing only a pair of trousers, handed himself over to the British police and admitted three murders, including that of John Corcoran.  He was sentenced to over 500 years in jail but, remarkably, served only eight. While in jail, he tried to commit suicide on at least two occasions.

On release, O’Callaghan was exploited by a bunch of Dublin neo-unionists who convinced him that he had experienced a Road to Damascus conversion. They used him as a tool to attack Sinn Féin and, for a while, he was the darling of the Indo/Sindo media, spouting fantasies about wanting ‘to sabotage violent and criminal plans.’ 

In time, the wretched man will be forgotten. Nonetheless, he still has admirers, such as the Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes. 

Last week, Hayes said this: ‘One of the reasons the IRA were ultimately defeated was because from top and bottom they were thankfully infiltrated by informers.  Sean O’Callaghan was one such informer, someone who exposed them for what they were.  

‘He ultimately defeated them. And in helping to expose their fascist campaign we all owe him gratitude.’

Hayes did not refer to the murders O’Callaghan committed nor to Vincent Browne’s allegation that the gardaí might have been accomplices in one of them. One wonders why?

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