Northern Ireland

Prominent human rights campaigner Paul O'Connor admits he was a teenage IRA recruit

Paul O'Connor said it was reasonable for people to think a youth pictured carrying a gun in 1970s Derry was him.
Paul O'Connor said it was reasonable for people to think a youth pictured carrying a gun in 1970s Derry was him.

THE director of the Pat Finucane Centre Paul O’Connor has denied that he was present when a teenage IRA member was shot and fatally wounded in Derry in 1971.

However the prominent human rights campaigner confirmed that he joined the IRA in 1970 as a 15-year-old youth but said he was ordered to leave less than two years later for failing to follow orders.

The Derry-based activist was responding to a series of claims made in a blog by former leading IRA man, Shane Paul O’Doherty.

O’Doherty served 15 years in jail for a letter bomb campaign in England in 1976. While in prison he turned against the republican movement and has become one of its greatest critics.

In a blog published earlier this week, O'Doherty claimed Mr O’Connor was a close teenage friend and that they were “sworn in” to the IRA together as 15-year-olds in 1970.

He claimed Mr O’Connor took part in various IRA activities.

Mr O’Doherty also alleged another teenage IRA member, Jim O’Hagan (16) died in Mr O’Connor’s family home in 1971 after being shot in a in a nearby IRA bomb-making factory.

He claimed: “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. A bullet passed through Jim, wounding him fatally, though he lived for a short time. The gunman dropped the gun and left the scene.

“Two of the others present carried the wounded Jim past the nearest inhabited house and beyond – to the home of Paul O’Connor.”

O’Doherty, who said he was not present at the incident, alleged: “Jim was carried to a bedroom where he ultimately died. His last words were: ‘The pain, the pain’.”

Mr O’Connor strongly denied his former friend’s account.

He told The Irish News he was not present in the barn at the time of the shooting as he was at home sick.

He said he recalled that on the night in question two people arrived at his home carrying the wounded teenager.

“I told them to get off side which they did however they were arrested later that night at home, one of them was a minor,” he said.

With his brother, Mr O’Connor said they considered taking Mr O’Hagan to Letterkenny General Hospital but instead called an ambulance and Mr O’Connor’s brother went to fetch the dying youth’s father.

“I got off side. It was clear that we were bringing down all hell," he said.

Mr O'Connor said Mr O’Hagan did not die in his home as claimed by O’Doherty but in hospital shortly after his father arrived.

He said he has discussed the youth’s death with the teenager’s parents.

After taking refuge in 'Free Derry' Mr O’Connor said he and other IRA members were moved through a series of 'safe houses' to Co Kerry.

He later moved to Dublin but returned to Derry after Bloody Sunday in 1972.

Confirming that he joined the IRA as a teenager, Mr O’Connor said he was highly politicised and came from a political family.

He said he was proud of his father who had fought with the IRA in the Irish War of Independent and went on the run almost 50 years before he himself did so.

While he took part in IRA activity, Mr O’Connor said he was not responsible for Provisional’s bombing campaign in Derry city centre as he was unable to leave the Free Derry area.

“I did not create victims; that is absolutely clear, none.”

Following Operation Motorman in July 1972 Mr O’Connor and other IRA members moved to safe houses in Inishowen in Co Donegal but he moved back to Derry some weeks later where he was subsequently told to leave the IRA for disobeying orders.

Mr O’Connor said he joined a cousin who was working in Germany and he later moved to the US where he became involved in non-violent political campaigning before returning to Derry in the early 1980s.

The PFC director said he had no recollection of a photograph which Mr O’Doherty claimed was of the teenage Mr O’Connor carrying an Armalite rifle.

While he did not confirm that it was him in the picture, Mr O’Connor said: “It is reasonable for people to look at the photo and say that looks like Paul O’Connor”.

He also acknowledged that his admission of IRA membership could have implications for the PFC.

“Clearly it is in the public domain. People are saying the PFC has questions to answer. Why am I doing this right now? I think I owe it to the families we work with.

“I have talked to a number. I think it is only right to do something. I don’t know how all the families – and they, along with Jim’s family, are the most important – are taking this; how must it has impacted on them.”

Mr O’Connor said: “For those who say you cannot work in the PFC because 48 years ago you were in the IRA, I have to leave that to the staff and families. I would ask people to judge me on what I have done throughout my entire adult life.”

The Derry man said many of the claims in O’Doherty’s blog have been published before by loyalists and others on social media.

He believed O’Doherty’s motivation was to force him to respond but he added: “I think it (the Troubles) was a futile conflict and a futile waste of lives; it should never have happened.”