Police must thoroughly investigate the director of a human rights group which campaigns for victims of state violence – after he himself admitted to having been a member of the most deadly group of the Troubles – the IRA.
UUP Justice Spokesman Doug Beattie made the call, echoed by victims campaigner Kenny Donaldson, after the weekend admission of IRA membership by Paul O’Connor, director of high profile campaign group, the Pat Finucane Centre.
His admission came less than 24 hours after the PFC itself issued a lengthy statement denying the claim, made by ex-IRA bomber Shane Paul O’Doherty. Mr O’Doherty also pressed Mr O’Connor to tell what he knows about the murder of Jim O’Hagan in 1971, something Mr O’Connor has denied any link to. Mr Beattie said: “The Pat Finucane Centre claims to be interested in justice and human rights, so the admission from its Director, Paul O’Connor, that he was a member of the organisation that for decades perpetuated massive human rights abuses, needs to be investigated as matter of extreme urgency. “There also needs to be a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of Jim O’Hagan. “Anywhere else in Europe, if the Director of an organisation dedicated to the pursuit of ‘human rights’ and ‘truth recovery’ was found to have been a member of an illegal terrorist group that was guilty of thousands of crimes including the murder of children, there would be an uproar. “The fact that there is not, says a lot about the current situation in Northern Ireland.”
He is sure, he added, that the wide range of funders for the PFC will now be “watching anxiously and wondering just exactly who or what they have been financing”.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable George Clarke said: “We are aware of claims made in a blog published online earlier this month, and of subsequent press reporting in relation to those claims, and we will now consider them.” Slugger O’Toole Editor Mick Fealty and ex-Labour senator Mairía Cahill also asked if funders would now review their support for PFC. Ms Cahill said it receives substantial funding for Human Rights cases yet has few, if any IRA cases. It is “absolutely imperative” that all funders review this as a matter of urgency, she said: “A one sided approach to human rights is not human rights advocacy.”
Mr O’Doherty noted how Mr O’Connor described the PFC to MPs in 2005. “We think it would be wrong for us to seek to portray ourselves as cross-community in the sense that anybody would feel free to approach us,” he said. “Clearly we are a group that works with the victims of state and Loyalist violence.”
Mr O’Connor has offered no response at this time.
Mr O’Connor has been the main driver in the PFC, regularly meeting government ministers to lobby on behalf of those killed and injured by the security forces.
Writing on his blog last week, fellow Londonderry man Shane Paul O’Doherty alleged he was sworn into the IRA in 1970 along with Mr O’Connor and called on him to open up on what he might know about the murder of 16-year-old IRA member Jim O’Hagan in Londonderry in 1971.
Mr O’Doherty said there had been “an argument between Jim O’Hagan and another IRA volunteer during which a gun was placed against Jim’s chest and the trigger was pulled”.
However Mr O’Connor rejected any links to the murder, describing it as “totally false story . . . I wasn’t there, a fact Jim’s parents are well aware of, and I strongly suspect the police also know that”.
Mr O’Connor told The Irish Times he joined the IRA in 1970 when he was 15, and left in 1972.
“The question has been put out there, was I in the IRA?” Mr O’Connor told the Irish Times. “Yes, I was...I don’t look back on that and feel proud, but I don’t look back and feel shame,” he said. However the victims campaigners insisted he did not “create any victims”.
He said he was “active in the IRA” in the Bogside for about six months in 1972 and was involved in patrols and manning checkpoints, but could not leave the area. “I didn’t create any victims, that’s absolutely clear,” he said. “None.”
He told the paper he was ordered to leave the IRA in 1972. “I had disobeyed orders and left a safe house in Buncrana and come back to Derry.”
He left for Germany and lived there and in the United States before returning to Derry in the early 1980s where he became an activist and campaigner.
Mr O’Connor said the injured Jim O’Hagan had been brought to his house, where an ambulance was called. To avoid arrest, Mr O’Connor said he spent several months on the run in the Republic but returned to Londonderry after Bloody Sunday in 1972.
He said he has never been questioned by the police about Mr O’Hagan’s death and has no criminal convictions. A claim he had received an “on the run” letter was “preposterous”, he said.
Mr O’Connor said he could “completely understand why victims of the IRA would feel angry,” and said the Troubles was “a futile conflict, a futile waste of life. It should never have happened.”
He said his future depends on the PFC and its clients.
Mr O’Doherty pressed Mr O’Connor to say who killed Jim O’Hagan, something the PFC chief has rejected any links to.
He said Mr O’Connor showed no remorse for his IRA past in his interviews.
“Paul is just sorry,” he said, “that he was caught out and forced to admit that his Pat Finucane Centre so-called Human Rights’ group was built on a massive deception – a man pretending to be an activist for those pesky indivisible Human Rights was actually secretly an IRA volunteer with a distinct and admitted IRA bias – which must now be admitted to have tainted every case and investigation and report Paul has had his hands on.”
In 1999 Paul pressed for law lord Lord Woolf’s Bloody Sunday judgments not to stand because he was a former soldier, he noted. “Sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander.”
Slugger O’Toole editor Mick Fealty said it is important to know “if a human rights body is run by a former member of an illegal organisation that was responsible for more human rights violations than any other”.
He added that PFC’s claim to be “a bona fide human rights organisation was already questionable because it studiously avoided investigating what in reality was the Director’s own former comrades-in-arms”.
As one of the wealthiest NGOs, he suspects some funders will now want to talk to PFC about Mr O’Connor’s admission. (The Irish Dept of Foreign Affairs granted PFC €110,000 in 2015.)
Ex-Labour Senator Mairía Cahill said she wouldn’t care about his IRA membership “if he hadn’t spent the last load of years along with PFC digging up everyone else’s pasts without admitting his own”.
She said the PFC had also been discredited because it formally denied its director’s IRA membersip only 24 hours before he admitted it.
PFC receives substantial funding for human rights cases yet has few, if any IRA cases, she added. “To that end, it is absolutely imperative that all those funding it, including the Irish Government, review this as a matter of urgency,” she said. “A one sided approach to human rights is not human rights advocacy.”