By Jack Holland
When the body of author and former IRA man Eamon Collins turned up at the roadside near Newry, in South Down, last week few were surprised.
"He was a very stupid man," said a detective who had known Collins in the 1980s. Stupid because in spite of the number of enemies he had made in South Down and South Armagh, he was still living there.
Collins’s battered and stabbed body was found on a roadside near Newry on Wednesday. His body was so mutilated that his wife, Bernie, was advised by the RUC not to look at it. No group has admitted responsibility.
Collins made his first batch of enemies when he worked as an Intelligence Officer for the local IRA, during which time he was directly responsible for the murders of five people, most of them off-duty members of the security forces brutally gunned down at work or at home. Then, during his post-terrorist career, first as a supergrass and then as the author of "Killing Rage," a firsthand account of his years in the IRA, Collins denounced many of his former colleagues and painted a disturbing portrait of the organization to which he had given so much of his life.
"If I have blackened the IRA’s name," he wrote, "I have done so with the heat of truth."
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Clearly, that did not impress local republicans, who scribbled threatening graffiti on walls in the estate where he lived, burned his car, burned down his house, run over him with a car and broke his leg in 1997, and finally, in the early hours of last Wednesday morning (Jan. 27) battered and stabbed him to death. A police officer was quoted as saying that Collins suffered "a horrendous death" reminiscent of the Shankill Butcher’s murders. He was stabbed repeatedly in the body and face, bludgeoned with a blunt instrument, and his brain was pierced. Reportedly, shortly before his death he had been wiping graffiti off a wall not far from his home.
Collins became active in the IRA in the late 1970s, when he worked as a customs officer. He was an unusual recruit, being university educated and middle class. His job made him useful and soon he had claimed his first victim a fellow customs officer, Ivan Toombs, who was also a part time member of the Ulster Defense Regiment. He was shot dead in his office on Jan. 16, 1981.
Toombs had been a friend as well as a colleague. Collins recounted how he attended his funeral. Years later he met Toombs’s teenage daughter on a train going to Belfast and was overwhelmed with guilt at what he had done to the family of a man he described as courageous and decent.
Among the other victims Collins set up was a 53-year-old off-duty policeman who was about to retire, and a 60-year-old ex-RUC man who desperately tried to fight off his young killer with a walking stick before being gunned down next to his wife. By 1983, Collins was already known to the RUC Special Branch, who brought him in for questioning on several occasions. They tried to "turn him" but without success.
In September 1984, undercover officers identified Collins in Belfast at a meeting with the Belfast Brigade’s Intelligence Officer and a Queen’s university academic. This was during a period when the IRA was targeting judges in and around the university area. By then, the customs man was beginning to have doubts about his role and the leadership’s strategy. On one occasion at a funeral of an IRA volunteer killed by his own bomb, Collins infuriated Gerry Adams by accusing him of acting like a "Sticky" — that is, a member of the revisionist Official IRA, whom the Provisional IRA despised.
On the evening of Feb. 28, the IRA drove a lorry loaded with mortars within range of Newry RUC station. Several bombs hit the station canteen and killed nine constables. In the emergency, with resources stretched, the local police had only one landrover to spare. "There’s only one person could have scouted that truck in," said an officer, ordering a raid on Collins’s house.
Collins broke under questioning, making 12 statements and five hours of taped interviews in which he named leading members of the IRA. However, he later retracted his evidence and found himself charged in relation to five murders. But Chief Justice Higgins dismissed the charges on the grounds that Collins had been verbally abused during interrogation, which he found constituted "inhuman and degrading treatment." He walked free.
However, Collins never freed himself from his past, and was tormented until the end, lashing out fiercely at the IRA. Most recently he accused it of preparing to go back to war.
He remained bitter toward many of his former colleagues. Last May, he named one of them, Armagh-man Thomas "Slab" Murphy, in court as a member of the IRA’s Army Council.
"If he had agreed to work for us, he’d still be alive," said a police officer when he heard news of Collins’s death.
"There’s a lot of pain ahead," Collins wrote, rather prophetically.