January 13, 1997 12:00 PM

IT WAS NEVER A SECRET THAT PRINCESS Diana disliked the intrusive-ness of the security she had to put up with from the moment she became one of the Windsors. No sooner had she separated formally from Prince Charles in 1992 than she defied the palace by shedding her ubiquitous “minders.”

Last month, however, when an IRA killer-turned-British government informant attacked his ex-cronies and detailed a scheme to kill the Waleses, it became clear that the royals needed all the protection they got. Released from a Belfast prison on Dec. 6 after serving eight years of a 539-year sentence, Sean O’Callaghan, 42, condemned the terrorist acts he’d committed (including gunning down two Irish security agents) and gave a chilling description of the alleged royal murder plot.

As O’Callaghan told it, the IRA sent him to London to plant a bomb in the Dominion Theatre, where Charles and Di were to attend a Duran Duran concert in July 1983. A double agent since 1979, he says he cased the premises and found a restroom opposite the royal box but never planted the explosive—”fleeing” England when Scotland Yard gave him cover, naming him a suspect in another crime.

Now in hiding, O’Callaghan says he felt “relief” that the plot was thwarted. Since his release (which required the Queen’s approval), he has spoken out against the IRA and supported Prime Minister John Major, who has demanded a permanent cease-fire from its political arm, Sinn Fein.

Britain’s reaction to his story has been subdued: “The Windsors are IRA targets; everybody knows that,” shrugs the British Press Association’s Peter Archer. Indeed; one well-placed British source reports that Charles is still at the head of the IRA’s hit list—”and Diana is no longer rejecting bodyguards, either.”

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