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Friday's book: The Informer

The Informer by Sean O'Callaghan (Bantam Press, pounds 16.99)
Today's Irish referendum may usher in the greatest transformation the island has seen for at least a generation. A pattern for this was set exactly 200 years ago. On the night of 22-23 May 1798, the United Irishmen launched their doomed attempt at revolution, aimed at creating a secular, democratic republic. Their failure left a legacy of bitterness and division which is only now, perhaps, being undone. It also founded a republican tradition which latterly, in the hands of the IRA, degenerated into a sectarian brutality utterly alien to the United Irishmen's own values.

Sean O'Callaghan's book appears at a highly charged moment. It comes, too, in a blaze of publicity. Former head of the Southern Command, and an informer to the Irish security forces from 1979 until he gave himself up in 1988, he is the most senior ex-IRA officer ever to break silence. However, few of his more startling revelations are very new by now. Most had already appeared in the Sunday Times , as with his story of an IRA plot to kill Charles and Diana at a London theatre. Some episodes that feature in his earlier accounts - especially concerning Gerry Adams - have been dropped or modified, presumably on legal advice.

O'Callaghan's book has itself become the focus of a propaganda war. Sinn Fein and the ever-growing Gerry Adams admiration society have depicted him as a shameless liar driven both by greed and a sinister, anti-peace agenda dictated by elements within the British security services. It is clear that these claims are, in the main, quite false and malicious: a damage-limitation exercise by Sinn Fein, trying to soften the heavy blows O'Callaghan has dealt them. His account in fact reveals a close association with "handlers" in the Irish police, but only episodic - and frustrating - contacts with UK agencies. Indeed, he thinks that the latter misused his information on IRA plans and broke promises to him.

He has also, of course, worked with the Sunday Times and received a large advance for the book itself. Yet it has proved hard for enemies to pin charges of greed on him. He refused all payment for his work as an informer and rejected offers of official protection or a new identity after his release from prison. Since going public, he has worked with selfless campaigning groups such as New Dialogue and the Peace Train. The bulk of his royalties will be donated to Irish reconciliation projects. Whatever the complexities of his motives, they cannot be reduced to malice or money. Amid all the allegations, there is a simple bottom line: most of O'Callaghan's stories, at least, are true.

Yet aspects of The Informer do raise nagging questions. This is not a book of any great political or psychological depth. It simply doesn't provide a clear or emotionally convincing account of the author's feelings and beliefs. His explanations as to: why he joined the IRA; why he turned against it; why he re-entered as a spy; how he felt about killing or betraying his supposed friends; and what his hopes and values are, all remain perfunctory and puzzling.