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Defector Takes On the IRA

Sean O'Callaghan says he is a soldier once again at war--but this time against the organization that taught him to kill.

February 28, 1997|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Sean O'Callaghan is an old-looking 42, his shaggy mustache gray, his trigger finger nicotine-stained as he flits warily through London, a metropolis he grew up believing was the enemy capital.

Today, O'Callaghan is a unique and reviled figure in the twilight world of violent Irish nationalism. A killer-turned-informer, he is "most wanted" by the militant Irish Republican Army. He is Judas on the run.

"I've no fixed address, no bank account, a cell phone in somebody else's name. I stay away from the Underground [subway]," he said, loping toward an anonymous cab after a long interview on the eve of his first visit to the United States, where he will spend the next three weeks, including a stop in Los Angeles.

O'Callaghan believes that he is safer in the United States. Released in December after serving eight years of a 539-year terrorism sentence, he declined the shelter of a witness-protection program in Britain despite an IRA price on his head.

Instead, he is emerging from the shadows as an outspoken skeptic and peacemonger who recounts stranger-than-fiction stories with a pointed message. "Never trust the IRA," he will tell one and all on his self-financed U.S. visit.

"I kind of accept that the IRA has the right to kill me. If they succeed, I would say, 'Fair dues,' " said O'Callaghan. He is a soldier once again at war--but this time against the organization that taught him to kill.

It would be a "huge underestimation," he said, to believe that the IRA is ready to end its armed struggle to unite British-controlled Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland despite the peace negotiations sought by its political arm, Sinn Fein. "The IRA has not changed," he said. "It is just more sophisticated. The peace process has been a sham from the beginning."

Only a joint stand by Britain, Ireland and the United States warning that there must be a final end to violence has any chance of winning peace, he argued.

O'Callaghan himself rocketed to IRA stardom in the 1970s. As a teenage IRA "volunteer," he killed a female soldier and a police detective. He took part in more than 70 armed attacks and bank robberies. At 25, he was a senior terrorist commander.

Disaffected by mindless violence and the callousness of his colleagues, he eventually betrayed the hard men of the IRA, defying his comrades and his heritage to become what British and Irish police privately call the most damning and effective police informer across the bloody decades of Northern Ireland's political violence.

In 1983, he said, he averted the planned assassination of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Later, he was responsible for the capture of tons of arms sent by boat to the IRA by admirers in the United States.

Much of what O'Callaghan has said is at least partly corroborated by outside sources. Former Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald, for example, said he knew of the short-circuited attempt on the lives of the royal couple. One Irish cop has called O'Callaghan "the most important intelligence agent in the history of the Irish Republic."

As the most senior IRA commander ever to defect, O'Callaghan has more guns-blazing insider's stories to tell than anyone has ever told publicly. Wrapped deeper is the personal story of an Irishman who was born to the republican struggle--only to become consumed and then repulsed by it.

O'Callaghan said he snapped one night in 1974 while at a safe house at 11 Mill St. in the town of Monaghan, Ireland. When the IRA commander whom O'Callaghan most admired learned that a female police officer had been killed, his reaction was: "I hope she was pregnant, and we got two for the price of one."

"I walked down the stairs to one of the bedrooms and burst out crying," O'Callaghan said. "There was nowhere to go." He was 20, already a veteran killer, bomber, bank robber.

"As an extremist, I was fine once it was remote--the British government or the British army. But when it was a scouting mission to the guy that lived a quarter of a mile down the road, to have a look at him to kill him, it all became a bit . . . different," he said softly, breaking the tip off a filtered cigarette.

In the United States, O'Callaghan will talk about the darker side of peace efforts in Northern Ireland. The IRA has never sought peace, he will say: An 18-month cease-fire there that began Sept. 1, 1994, was no more than a ploy by political gangsters, a trick that they will try again.

But the man is also the message.

This year, Sean O'Callaghan will see the United States for the first time in the run-up to St. Patrick's Day because the U.S. government says it is "in the national interest" to allow him in, despite his terrorist past.

A similar visa waiver carried Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams as far as the White House in years past. With the IRA killing again, Adams is not welcome this year, the U.S. government has quietly made plain.

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