By Jack Holland
A few weeks ago at a social occasion, a prominent member of Sinn Fein snarled at me that all I was doing was trying to prove that I had known all along about the Provisionals and their long-term plans to bring the so-called "armed campaign" to a halt.
Far be it from me to claim any special powers of prophecy. But I have to admit that I did better than a few others in the business. I think of Conor Cruise O’Brien and his unending refusal to face up to the fact that the Provisionals have changed course and forsworn the armed campaign for politics. Remember all those dismissive reports and commentaries in the London Sunday Times trying to prove that the Provisionals were engaged in a clever ploy, and that when the security forces let their guard down, they’d strike harder than ever.
That line has gone now, more or less, though it still resurfaces in the British conservative press. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, the Daily Telegraph ran a story about an "army council" meeting almost voting to return to war. This was just after the very same army council had issued its statement about the inspection of its dumps.
The Cruiser is still among the few hold-outs, incapable of recognizing the reality of the new situation. Most of the others are to be found in the ranks of the Democratic Unionist Party and the anti-agreement faction of the Ulster Unionist Party.
It’s hard to give up one’s enemy. It’s rather like surrendering a comfort blanket. The unionists have always needed the malevolent threat from republicans to justify their own intransigence. Since the IRA called its first cease-fire, in August 1994, Unionism has, in fact, imploded under the threat of peace. It is accommodation not war that frightens them, as is obvious from the latest crisis into which the UUP has been plunged by the Provisional’s offer to open its arms dumps to outside inspection. One gets the impression that they are almost nostalgic for the good old days when "Ulster" was under threat and everybody knew where they stood: right behind the barricade. And that’s where some of them clearly prefer to stay.
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Back in the mid-1990s, one of those who fueled this paranoid response to the cease-fire was Sean O’Callaghan, the former Provisional IRA man from Kerry-turned-informer. He and his handler, the historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, went around telling anyone who wanted to listen that the Provisionals’ engagement in the peace process was just another diabolical ploy to deceive honest Protestants and well-meaning Brits.
Now I am delighted to see that Sean has completely changed his line and joined the real world. In a commentary in The Daily Telegraph last week, the former Provisional gunman wrote that: "No ifs, no buts — the leadership of the republican movement has abandoned the ‘armed struggle’ . . . The mainstream IRA is not going back to war." He proclaims that unionists should except this and get on with the political battle against republicanism.
I found his change of line very interesting because of what it revealed about the reliability of O’Callaghan’s previous assertions.
O’Callaghan had said that his previous claims about IRA intentions were based on a conversation he had had with republican leader Danny Morrison in Crumlin Road jail in 1990. O’Callaghan was in jail after having confessed to involvement in two murders in the 1970s. Morrison was being held on charges of conspiracy to murder an informer, Sandy Lynch.
According to O’Callaghan, he and Morrison spoke for 90 minutes or so, during which Morrison revealed to him the IRA’s secret peace strategy plan, which was intended to deceive nationalist Ireland and the Brits and lull them into a false sense of security.
Morrison derided the notion that he would have revealed such a plan if it had existed to someone who the IRA believed was an informer. According to Morrison, Sean talked about "his personal life and the people whom he had hurt."
If O’Callaghan was telling the truth about this conversation, what has become of the Provisional’s grand plan? It is not mentioned in his latest article in The Daily Telegraph. He simply says that until now "my attitude to the ‘peace process’ has been one of skepticism.’ " However, he does not say upon what his skepticism was founded. Surely, if we are to believe what he said in 1997, it had been based on what he was told by Morrison in January 1990. That was why the enemies of the peace process used him to prove that they were right — after all, O’Callaghan had the inside information about IRA plans, didn’t he? That was why he was wined and dined by the likes of Dudley Edwards and even ended up as a sort of adviser to David Trimble on IRA thinking.
This is not the first time that O’Callaghan has changed his tune or made dubious claims.
He claimed that he was O/C of the Southern Command of the IRA from 1984-85, when he was also an informer. Yet, as this reporter was the first to point out, he did not seem to know about the Libyan arms shipments the first of which arrived in Ireland in August 1985. (O’Callaghan subsequently covered himself on this one by dating his tenure as O/C from October 1984 to July 1985.)
He claimed that he was operating in the IRA’s England Department in 1983, yet his "handlers" allowed him to blow his cover after a few weeks and return to Ireland, thus losing what would have been a source of vitally important information about IRA attacks on the "mainland."
He claimed to have murdered Sean Corcoran, a suspected informer, near Cork, yet before the High Court in London in 1998, he denied murdering Corcoran and said he had only made those claims to have the crime investigated.
He claimed to have been involved the bombing attempt on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and that his information had helped snare the man behind the attack six months later. Yet the information that led to that arrest had come as a result of an RUC surveillance operation that was not linked to the Thatcher attack.
However, the past is past. Sean’s latest conversion is at least a positive sign — for it means that Trimble no longer wants to be told about diabolical IRA plots. Instead, he wants to hear that the war is over. And Sean is — as ever — willing to oblige.