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Why Collins died

(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)

It may well turn out to be the case that David Trimble is right and that the Provisional IRA killed Eamon Collins and by so doing broke its ceasefire. Time will tell the story. But from another perspective Collins's brutal death may actually turn out to be compelling evidence that the republican war is well and truly over. Eamon Collins may have died because the peace process he so strongly supported has worked.

Collins was an IRA 'supergrass' who retracted his evidence against former colleagues. His arrest came at the height of the 'supergrass' chapter of the Troubles when the IRA was reeling at the losses, psychological and military, caused by court evidence from what the RUC insisted on calling 'converted terrorists'.

The organisation really only had one answer to 'supergrasses' and that was somehow to persuade them, usually via relatives, to retract their evidence in return for immunity from retributive IRA anger.

The IRA and other groups were quite successful in this ploy especially when it became clear that 'supergrasses' who went the whole way were likely to be condemned to miserable lonely lives, their families burdened with the worst shame in their communities. But success was entirely dependent on the IRA keeping its word not to harm the ex-'supergrasses'.

If Collins had gone to trial against his former colleagues he would have caused, as his book Killing Rage eloquently did, immense embarrassment to the IRA. Collins's story was not just a squalid litany of death and incompetence, but a case study in the de-humanising effect of fighting such a long, seemingly endless and brutally face-to-face war as the Provisionals had fought. Collins's inevitable collapse into the arms of RUC detectives was a product of the long war strategy its architects had conspicuously neglected to predict.

When he retracted Collins was given a guarantee of safety provided he de-briefed the organisation on the damage he had done. This Collins did and he spent three months being interrogated by the IRA before being freed and allowed to relocate south of the Border.

Collins eventually moved back North, apparently with the IRA's permission but seemingly emboldened by the developing peace process decided to go public about his experiences in the IRA first in a television documentary and then in his own book, to date the most powerful inside account yet given of life as an IRA man.

Those were certainly provocations to the IRA but in a sense that damage had been done when Collins spilled his guts to RUC detectives and their intelligence analysts. To have taken action against Collins even after the publicity would still have been a precedent-setting transgression of the IRA's deal with this 'supergrass'. It would have caused all other ex-'supergrasses' pause for thought as well as former, present and future informers tempted to come clean with the IRA in return for leniency. What was at stake was the IRA's word of honour, a question of whether it could be trusted to honour deals with such people.

That is only if there was a good chance in the IRA's mind that the war would resume. If it was the IRA which sanctioned the killers of Eamon Collins and not individuals working off a grudge then its a fair bet that they did it because they see the era of 'supergrasses' and informers as a thing of the past.

Eamon Collins made many new enemies when he returned to Newry. In the aftermath of the Omagh bombing he called for internment of Real IRA members and publicly criticised two leading dissidents, Bernadette Sands and Michael McKevitt. He publicly linked one identifiable dissident with the 1979 Narrow Water bombing which killed 18 British troops and later accused him of corruption, bullying and cowardice. Felon-setting on such a scale was truly dicing with death. The Real IRA has denied involvement in his killing, but they'll be shedding no tears over his death.

Collins also took an enormous risk when he gave damning evidence against leading south Armagh-north Louth republican Tom 'Slab' Murphy in a libel case Murphy had brought against the Sunday Times over a 1985 article naming him as the IRA's Northern Commander.

Collins identified Murphy in court as a representative of the IRA's Army Council who had headed a court of inquiry into the mistaken killing of a Newry Catholic. The operation had been aimed at an RUC man, but faulty surveillance work by Collins turned it into a political disaster for the IRA.

Collins admitted he was apprehensive at giving evidence against Murphy and said that he had been paid £15,000 by the Sunday Times for personal security measures. He told the court: "If Tom Murphy decided I should be killed, I would be killed and that's the power he had at his fingertips".

Tom Murphy lost the libel case and with it his reputation and some £1 million in costs. Bringing the case made Murphy look foolish in the eyes of rank and file republicans and reportedly he stood down from the organisation in consequence. Whatever the real reason for Collins death it will certainly discourage other renegade IRA members from helping out in libel cases against their former leaders.

Collins himself appeared to believe that mainstream republicans posing as dissidents were his biggest theat. Just four months ago he wrote an open letter to Gerry Adams urging him to help end "a reign of terror" in Newry against him.

He wrote: "The people who are carrying this out are former Provisionals, former Sinn Fein people, and are now playing dual roles of being tied in with Sinn Fein, tied in with the republicans and tied in with the dissidents".

Collins was an enthusiastic supporter of the peace process and wrote articles urging republicans to back Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and reject dissident militarists. If he was hoping such sentiments might have protected him he was proved brutally wrong.


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