Pat Finucane Centre strongly challenges claim that director Paul O’Connor was IRA man

Paul O'Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre.
Paul O'Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre.

The Pat Finucane Centre has strongly challenged allegations that its director is a former member of the IRA.

Writing on his blog this week, fellow Londonderry man Shane Paul O’Doherty alleges he was sworn into the IRA in 1970 along with Paul O’Connor.

Shane Paul O'Doherty says he was sworn into the IRA in Londonderry with Paul O'Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre.

Shane Paul O'Doherty says he was sworn into the IRA in Londonderry with Paul O'Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre.

Established in memory of murdered Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, the Londonderry based centre has campaigned on behalf of many of those killed or injured by the security forces during the Troubles.

Director Mr O’Connor has been the main driver in the organisation, regularly meeting Irish and British government ministers in a lobbying capacity.

However the Pat Finucane Centre has now released a statement strongly challenging the claims about Mr O’Connor.

“In essence the allegations are that Paul is a former IRA member and that he was involved in some unspecified way in the death of Jim O Hagan, an IRA volunteer from the Waterside in 1971,” the statement said.

“At the time of these allegations (48 years ago), Paul was a 16 year old schoolboy. Just over a year later he left Ireland to live in Germany and the USA.

“Since 1980 Paul has lived openly in Derry. He has never been questioned by the RUC or PSNI about any matter relating to the death of James O’Hagan.

“It follows that he has never been charged or convicted of any troubles related offences. Paul has never asked for, or required, or received an OTR letter.

“Ultimately it is not for the Centre to judge the accuracy of the allegations made by Shane Paul O’Doherty. They are a police matter. However we would make the following additional observations.

“Since 1980, with one short break, Paul has resided in Derry. In the 1980s Paul was active in the formation and subsequent activities of the Derry Anti Nuclear Group and worked in Bookworm, the local community bookshop. Hardly the actions of a fugitive. Had the police wanted to question him about any of the allegations contained in Shane Paul O’Doherty’s blog they could have done so. The fact is they didn’t.

“As an employer the Pat Finucane Centre scrupulously follow equality and employment legislation and make appointments only on the basis of the suitability of the candidate, i.e. that they were the best applicant in terms of relevant knowledge and experience. Of course we have a statutory obligations to ask staff about any convictions. Paul has none.

“In conclusion we would advise people to take these allegations with a strong dose of skepticism. None of the allegations which Shane Paul O’Doherty makes in any way constitutes reliable evidence. Apart from what he claims in terms of personal knowledge, the rest is hearsay and speculation; not credible evidence which could be put before a court.

“If at some point the PSNI choose to reopen the case of the killing of Jim O’Hagan and the investigators wish to speak to Paul, we would expect him to fully cooperate and to provide, if he has any, any information which he has.

“We would also want to say that we care very much about what this is doing to the O’Hagan family. Our thoughts are with them and will continue to be so.”

Mr O’Doherty - who is making the claims about Mr O’Connor - served 15 years in prison when he was convicted on 31 counts of attempted murder in 1976 following a letter-bomb campaign in England.

While in prison he turned to faith and is now one of the republican movement’s most vociferous critics.

This week he published a photograph of a youth carrying a gun at an IRA checkpoint which he claimed was a teenage Mr O’Connor.

In his blog, he claimed Mr O’Connor was a childhood friend when they joined the IRA in 1970.

Mr O’Doherty said: “He told me he had discovered the nascent Provisional IRA and was going to join the Provos the very next evening. He asked me if I wanted to come with him.

“On a whim that was to change my life and the lives of many others, I replied that I would go with him.”

Aged 15, he said both teens were sworn in.

Mr O’Doherty said the Londonderry IRA would be involved in a bombing campaign targeting shops and businesses in the city centre, while the number of gun attacks increased as they obtained more weapons.

“We 16-year-olds were sent out nearly every week to plant duffel bag bombs and also incendiary devices. At times, with almost no experience of firing guns, we were sent out with small revolvers to shoot at soldiers armed with rifles. I was doing all three of these things.”

He claimed the teenage Mr O’Connor took part in various IRA activities, including patrolling the “Free Derry” no-go area and taking part in attacks as he was “on the run” in the Bogside.

“You couldn’t just be allocated safe house billets and a weekly wage (very small) and do nothing,” he said.

“As I walked through the Bogside to school at St Columb’s College wearing my college blazer, armed IRA volunteers manning a patrol car – including Paul – from time to time stopped their car beside me for a chat.”

Arrested in 1972, Mr O’Doherty claimed Mr O’Connor was released following appeals by leading Catholic business and political leaders to the then head of the RUC in Derry, Frank Lagan.

He said he was then ordered by the IRA to leave Derry and after spending time in Dublin, Mr O’Connor eventually moved to Germany.

He returned to Londonderry in the early 1980s and has remained in the city since.

Mr O’Doherty claimed that Mr O’Connor’s role as the director of a human rights organisation was compromised because of his alleged IRA past.

The full statement from the Pat Finucane Centre is as follows;-

“About 15 years ago the Pat Finucane Centre, a human rights organization in Derry, began to investigate the activities of a Loyalist paramilitary gang based in Glenanne, County Armagh. This investigation eventually culminated in two ground breaking books authored by PFC staff members, Anne Cadwallader’s Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland and Margaret Urwin’s A State in Denial: British Collaboration with Loyalist Paramilitaries. Anne’s book subsequently became the basis for Sean Murray’s award winning documentary Unquiet Graves. Together these works, based on well sourced and impeccable witnesses, have established that collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries and the British state was extensive and widespread.

“The Centre has always been aware that as our work became accepted, attempts would be made to discredit the Centre by those close to the British state including Loyalist paramilitaries.

“The first rumblings of this began two years ago with Loyalist commentator close to the UVF. He suggested that Paul O’Connor, the PFC’s Director, was a former IRA volunteer who had been in receipt of an On The Run (OTR) letter.

“The Centre chose at that time not to respond to these allegations as few would give them any credibility.

“Since then a more substantial piece has been published as a blog by Shane Paul O’Doherty.

“In essence the allegations are that Paul is a former IRA member and that he was involved in some unspecified way in the death of Jim O Hagan, an IRA volunteer from the Waterside in 1971.

“At the time of these allegations (48 years ago), Paul was a 16 year old schoolboy. Just over a year later he left Ireland to live in Germany and the USA.

“Since 1980 Paul has lived openly in Derry. He has never been questioned by the RUC or PSNI about any matter relating to the death of James O’Hagan.

“It follows that he has never been charged or convicted of any troubles related offences. Paul has never asked for, or required, or received an OTR letter.

“Ultimately it is not for the Centre to judge the accuracy of the allegations made by Shane Paul O’Doherty. They are a police matter. However we would make the following additional observations.

“Since 1980, with one short break, Paul has resided in Derry. In the 1980s Paul was active in the formation and subsequent activities of the Derry Anti Nuclear Group and worked in Bookworm, the local community bookshop. Hardly the actions of a fugitive. Had the police wanted to question him about any of the allegations contained in Shane Paul O’Doherty’s blog they could have done so. The fact is they didn’t.

“As an employer the Pat Finucane Centre scrupulously follow equality and employment legislation and make appointments only on the basis of the suitability of the candidate, i.e. that they were the best applicant in terms of relevant knowledge and experience. Of course we have a statutory obligations to ask staff about any convictions. Paul has none.

“In conclusion we would advise people to take these allegations with a strong dose of skepticism. None of the allegations which Shane Paul O’Doherty makes in any way constitutes reliable evidence. Apart from what he claims in terms of personal knowledge, the rest is hearsay and speculation; not credible evidence which could be put before a court.

“If at some point the PSNI choose to reopen the case of the killing of Jim O’Hagan and the investigators wish to speak to Paul, we would expect him to fully cooperate and to provide, if he has any, any information which he has.

“We would also want to say that we care very much about what this is doing to the O’Hagan family. Our thoughts are with them and will continue to be so.”