Seán O’Callaghan was never brought to account for the murder of John Corcoran, most likely because the State may well have found itself in the dock beside him, says Michael Clifford
IT WAS a mundane end to a lonely life. If Sean O’Callaghan had drowned 20 or even 10 years ago, as he did in Jamaica last Wednesday, it would have been highly suspicious. Murder would have been suspected. He had many enemies within the so-called republican movement as a result of his status as a high-profile informer in the IRA.
Life has moved on. The republican movement, as it then was, is now simply Sinn Féin the political party, and O’Callaghan was an occasional irritant in the party’s project to rewrite the history of the Northern Troubles. His testimonies of the sectarianism, the wanton criminality, the expedient killing, all gave lie to the bright shining image of selfless freedom fighters protecting their families.
But the Tralee man also had major credibility problems. He claimed he began informing after becoming
disillusioned about the celebrations among Northern comrades following the murder of a female UDR soldier in the North in the late 1970s.
Maybe so. However, there could well have been a more base reason.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to a number of retired gardaí who worked in State security during the Troubles.
What always amazed me was the trivial reasons for which some IRA personnel turned informer. In one case, it was as a result of being stopped while driving without insurance. Another involved a threat to tell a man’s wife about his affair.
“Once you got them to start talking on the smallest thing, that was it,” one former garda told me. “There was no going back for them after that. You had them.”
Maybe O’Callaghan’s decision to inform was based on moral principles, maybe not. It is widely accepted that he informed on the 1985 importation of arms aboard the trawler Marita Ann, for which his former colleague and current Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris was convicted.
That same year, O’Callaghan had a role — the extent of which he had given conflicting accounts about — in the murder of Corkman John Corcoran.
This crime has never been properly investigated, and there is a strong case that it involved collusion by the State.
Mr Corcoran, a native of Togher in Cork City, was a low-level IRA operative who had been giving information to the gardaí about the organisation’s activities in Cork.
His comrades began to suspect him following a few successes by the gardaí in uncovering arms.
O’Callaghan has claimed he warned his handler that Mr Corcoran was under suspicion and his life in danger. A few years ago, in researching Mr Corcoran’s murder, I was told by sources who worked in State security in the 1980s that warnings had been given to Garda HQ that Mr Corcoran was in danger from people other than O’Callaghan.
Vincent Browne wrote extensively about this matter in the late ‘90s, citing separate sources with similar claims.
There is a plausible theory that these warnings were ignored on the basis that O’Callaghan was the more valuable informer and if Mr Corcoran was rescued by the gardaí, then O’Callaghan might come under suspicion. Or, to put it more bluntly, Mr Corcoran’s life was sacrificed in order to preserve the flow of information from O’Callaghan.
John Corcoran’s body was discovered in a sleeping bag on the side of a road outside Ballincollig on March 23, 1985. The IRA claimed responsibility for the murder.
O’Callaghan left the country later that year and, in 1988, walked into a police station in England and admitted to earlier crimes, including two murders in the North.
He was sentenced to life in prison but released under licence in 1996.
On three occasions in the 1990s, he admitted to journalists that he had personally shot Mr Corcoran dead at a farm in Co Kerry, following an interrogation and confession.
Here’s what he told Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe while in prison in 1994.
“I took the mask off him. It was just the most pathetic sight. To the very end, I was hoping the guards would come through the door, just take Corcoran and his wife away somewhere, give them a new life, a new identity.”
Then, convinced he had to do it, O’Callaghan walked over and shot Mr Corcoran in the head, he told the Boston Globe.
He gave similar accounts to Ger Colleran of The Kerryman and the Sunday Times’ Liam Clarke.
Later, he repudiated these admissions on the implausible basis that he only made it up to force the gardaí to properly investigate Mr Corcoran’s murder.
He was right about one thing — the gardaí appear to have had little interest in investigating the murder. A source close to the investigation told me that Mr Corcoran’s Garda handler wasn’t even interviewed.
In 1998, in rply to a parliamentary question from Dick Spring about the murder investigation, then justice minister John O’Donoghue revealed that in late 1988 “a Garda investigation file was forwarded to the director of public prosecutions with a view to prosecuting the person involved (O’Callaghan) in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act”. O’Callaghan was then in custody in the North.
The reply went on to state: “This aspect was subsequently overtaken by events when the person was convicted on a charge of murder in Northern Ireland and received two life sentences there.” Yet, when O’Callaghan was released in 1996, there was no effort by the gardaí to interview him or pursue a prosecution for murder. It was as if they preferred that the whole thing would simply go away in case it might throw up some unpalatable truths.
In all probability, O’Callaghan did shoot Mr Corcoran dead. He was never brought to account for that, most likely because the State may well have found itself in the dock beside him.
O’Callaghan’s untimely death, at 62,
ensures he will never be a witness to a truth and reconciliation body, should one ever be established. It might reasonably be suggested that his relationship with the truth was highly tenuous anyway, but he certainly had some insight into the IRA’s operation in the Republic. It is also the case that the information he passed to the gardaí did, in all likelihood, save lives.
Sinn Féin claims these days that it wants all the truth from the past to be laid out in order to facilitate proper reconciliation. These claims have little credibility when one considers the potential political fall-out for Sinn Féin if the real truth about how the war was fought did emerge. Equally, the British government has plenty it would rather remain buried in the past.
The whole murky business surrounding the death of John Corcoran shows that the Irish State also has its own secrets that few in Government Buildings would ever want dug up. For those fearful of the past’s capacity to embarrass, O’Callaghan remained something of a loose thread. Now he has taken his secrets to the grave.
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