Can you ever forgive a murderer? Or – even harder – can a murderer ever forgive himself? That’s the dilemma you were faced with when you met Sean O’Callaghan, the repentant IRA killer who drowned last week while on holiday in Jamaica, aged 62.

By his own admission, O’Callaghan’s hands were drenched in blood. In 1990, he was sentenced to 539 years in prison for more than 40 crimes, including two murders. First came Eva Martin, a 28-year-old language teacher and member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, killed in a rocket attack, led by O’Callaghan, at Clogher army base in 1974. Then, three months later, he pumped nine bullets, in cold blood, into the body of Detective Inspector Peter Flanagan, the Catholic head of the RUC in Omagh.

O’Callaghan came to realise the evil of his acts and, in 1979, turned IRA informer. His intelligence put 50 IRA members behind bars, and led to the capture of the trawler Marita Ann, stuffed with weapons and explosives, in 1984. He even supposedly prevented the planned murder of the Prince and Princess of Wales at the Dominion Theatre in 1983.

I only knew him a little, after a royal pardon released him from jail in 1996. Nicknamed “Sean O’Semtex”, he helped advise the Daily Telegraph on IRA-related articles when I worked there.

He was exceptionally intelligent, extremely eloquent and funny, in an understated way, with a soft-spoken voice. Furiously chain-smoking, pipe-cleaner thin and given to heavy drinking, he was perpetually agitated. I’ve never met a more tortured soul – his eyes flitted left and right in a constant, agonised dance. He certainly hadn’t forgiven himself for his appalling acts.

It is not for me to forgive him. It is for the relations of Eva Martin and Peter Flanagan. And I certainly wouldn’t forgive him if I were in their shoes.

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