Willie McGuinness, Eamon Collins And A ‘Bloody Sunday’ Mystery….

The Broken Elbow hosts a post on the late Eamon Collins written by Mick McGovern.

I discovered this story on a strange little blog called Crypto-Gentile which has only two articles posted, both in 2008 and both devoted to stories allegedly told by Eamon Collins, the late IRA ‘ex-supergrass’/whistle-blower/penitent, who was murdered in an especially violent way by the South Armagh IRA for his alleged treachery, i.e. giving evidence against ‘Slab’ in a libel case involving The Sunday Times.

Both stories – the other deals with his relationship with an English law lecturer at QUB and left-wing activist/IRA sympathiser – were supposedly left out of ‘Killing Rage’, an account of Collins’ life as told to journalist Mick McGovern, arguably one of the best books, if not the best book on the Provisional IRA yet written.

Eamon Collins – the IRA killed him in 1999

This story is set in Crumlin Road jail where Collins was being held on remand before he agreed to become a ‘supergrass’. There he becomes friends with, of all people, Martin McGuinness’ brother Willie who tells him this story about Bloody Sunday in Derry – at least, allegedly.

Is it true? Here are the Saville Inquiries main findings.

IRA Man Killed on Bloody Sunday?

Was at least one IRA man killed by British troops on Bloody Sunday and secretly buried in the Irish Republic?

Mick McGovern, who co-wrote Killing Rage, the autobiography of IRA supergrass Eamon Collins, tells a story that was left out of the bestselling book in 1997.

Collins feared he might be killed for telling it.

In January 1999 the IRA murdered him anyway.

Mick McGovern was born in London and studied Politics at Leicester University. As co-author, his credits include Killing Rage, Soldier of the Queen, The Dream Solution and Hateland. He’s worked as a reporter on regional and national newspapers, helped produce documentaries for ITV, Channel Four and the BBC, and written features for The Observer and New Statesman. He lives in Berlin, where he works as a translator.

When I sat down to help Eamon Collins write his autobiography Killing Rage I knew that as a former officer of both IRA intelligence and British Customs (simultaneously), an ex-member of the Provos’ feared internal security unit (the so-called ‘Nutting Squad’) and, for a short time, a would-be supergrass, he would have many extraordinary tales to tell.

But he warned me from the outset there were several stories which for various reasons, personal and legal, he wouldn’t be putting in the book. And he added there were others he’d be excluding for the simple reason he didn’t want to get killed for telling them.

He didn’t think these gaps really mattered. He felt he could still write about his experiences in a way which might help contribute towards a deeper process of reflection about the causes, and nature, of political violence in Northern Ireland, while at the same time explaining his past to his four children and, it has to be said, settling a few scores with some of what he described as the republican movement’s ‘boneheaded bogtrotters’.

He also felt that – despite inevitable republican displeasure – he could, in the wake of the ceasefires, tell his story and live. He was wrong. In January 1999, less than two years after the book’s publication, his former IRA comrades murdered him in a bestial fashion in a country lane near his Newry home.

In 1995 during the writing of the book, a process which took place partly in County Kerry, not far from Banna Strand, where the Irish rebel Sir Roger Casement disembarked from a German submarine during the First World War to be captured by the Royal Irish Constabulary and later executed by the British for high treason, Eamon told me several stories which astonished me. Most of them ended up in the book.

However, there was one in particular which I wanted to use, but which Eamon wouldn’t allow into print. It was so potentially incendiary, he said, he’d almost certainly be signing his own death warrant if he wrote about it. The Provos would murder him, he said. And he wanted to avoid that fate, if at all possible.

The story concerned Bloody Sunday, that day in January 1972 when paratroopers shot dead 13 people in Derry’s Bogside. As almost everyone knows, the shootings occurred during an illegal march organised by the Derry Civil Rights Association and, as almost everyone also knows, they were instrumental in boosting support for the fledgeling Provisional IRA.

The British Army has always claimed that their troops came under fire first. For nationalists, Bloody Sunday’s enduring importance as a symbol of British misrule – and as a reason why some might turn to violence to oppose it – has depended in part on categorical assurances from republicans that they weren’t involved in aggressive military action on that day.

However, Eamon Collins told me a story that raises questions about the course of events. Most interestingly, he claimed he was only passing on information told to him while on remand in Belfast’s Crumlin Road Prison by the brother of the Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness, the Provos’ commander in Derry at that time.

In the acknowledgements at the back of Killing Rage Eamon thanks the people who helped him rebuild his life. Under the section titled ‘Crumlin Road Prison 1985-7’ he introduces their names by saying: ‘These men treated me as a fellow human being in prison: friendship can transcend politics in a hard place.’

The list contains some of the most notorious terrorists to emerge since 1969, many of them connected to the smaller republican group, the Irish National Liberation Army: Gerard Steenson (known to the tabloids as ‘Dr Death’), Jimmy Brown (who helped found the INLA splinter group, the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation) – both men subsequently murdered in internecine feuds – and Christopher ‘Crip’ McWilliams (who went on to shoot dead ultra-loyalist bogeyman and Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright in the Maze Prison).

Given the bitter history between the Provos and the INLA, Eamon’s friendship with senior figures from the rival republican grouping was in part a symptom of his alienation from his own comrades – the alienation that led ultimately to his writing Killing Rage. He felt that many Provos in the Belfast prison – and especially the leadership – despised him and wanted him dead.

He was right. But their attitude was hardly surprising in the light of Collins’s spectacular betrayal of the organisation he’d served for more than six years. When he’d been arrested following the IRA’s mortar attack on Newry Police Station in 1985 (in which nine police officers died – the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s single biggest loss of life) he’d cracked after five days of interrogation. He told the police everything he knew. As he said later: ‘I gave them the heap’.

And it was some heap. He’d been involved in countless IRA operations in a key border area, often working with senior terrorists from south Armagh, as well as those on the run in Dundalk. He had also been a member both of Sinn Fein and – of great interest to the RUC – of the Provos’ internal security unit dedicated to tracking down informers and agents within the ranks.

This unit, which had given Eamon access to information about IRA units across the North, was known as ‘the Nutting Squad’ – a grisly reference to the fate of those uncovered as traitors, namely, a bullet in the back of the head, a ‘nutting’.

Eamon didn’t to live to see the squad’s deputy Frederico Scappaticci – named as ‘Scap’ in the book – uncovered as ‘Stakeknife’, the fabled high-ranking, long-term agent of British intelligence, with whom Eamon felt a special bond because they both came from families involved in the ice-cream business.

Eamon’s maternal family had owned an ice-cream van. Scap’s extended family had owned an ice-cream parlour. Eamon told me he had once jokingly in Scap’s presence made reference to their shared Cornetto heritage. Scap had looked at him coldly and changed the subject.

Eamon would have been proud to learn that Killing Rage played an important role in leading to the exposure of ‘Stakeknife’. The whistleblowing former British intelligence officer and army Force Research Unit handler Martin Ingram first began seriously to question what the FRU did in Northern Ireland after reading the book.

In his own book, Stakeknife: Britain’s Secret Agents in Ireland, co-written with Greg Harkin, the latter describes how Ingram read in Killing Rage about Scap’s joking to Eamon about his murder of an informer: ‘It left him feeling sick to the pit of his stomach. Ingram knew the ‘Scap’ referred to was Freddie Scappaticci, but more importantly, that Scappaticci was Stakeknife, an agent run by his former friends in the FRU.’

More than 30 people had been arrested as a result of Eamon’s information in 1985. Several of them ended up serving long sentences because of statements they signed in custody. Eamon agreed to become a supergrass, but the IRA got word to him that if he retracted his evidence he would not be harmed: he could come and live with his fellow IRA men in the wings set aside for them in Crumlin Road Prison. All would be forgiven.

Eamon retracted his evidence against others, but he had already signed statements implicating himself. He was charged with five murders and 45 other serious offences. In fact, Eamon told me that, if the truth be known, he could have been charged with at least five other murders.

He said – though not for publication because he feared prosecution – he’d provided the intelligence that enabled the IRA both to shoot dead a customs man (and part-time member of the Crown forces) in Armagh City and – in May 1985 while he was in prison – to blow to pieces four RUC officers at Killeen on the border.

He spent just under two years on remand before his own trial in 1987. Then, in a remarkable twist, he walked free from a looming 30-year sentence after Judge Higgins said he could not be satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that the admissions Eamon made to the police had not been induced by inhuman or degrading treatment.

Eight years later he could write about his deeds because he couldn’t be charged again with crimes of which he’d been acquitted. These included the murder of his boss in the Customs and Excise, a major in the part-time Ulster Defence Regiment. Understandably, Customs had sacked Eamon after his arrest. But following his acquittal he sued for wrongful dismissal at an Industrial Tribunal. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Tom King intervened personally to stop the case proceeding.

Eamon’s nickname could have been ‘chutzpah’, the yiddish word for shameless audacity. While in the IRA he’d blown up Newry Customs Station, then as trade union shop steward negotiated a pay bonus and time-off for the customs officers on account of the poor working conditions following the explosion.

He’d also dreamed of blowing up the Royal Albert Hall in London shortly before the annual ‘Last Night of the Proms’. As he told me, though not for the book: ‘That was going to be one night when they wouldn’t be singing “Rule Britannia”.’

Although Eamon never gave evidence in court against his comrades, his admissions had still done a lot of damage, if only by outlining the divisions, frictions and power struggles within the republican movement.

He had been asked by his RUC interrogator what would be the best way to destroy the IRA. He had replied: ‘Support, encourage and make possible at every turn the development of Sinn Fein.’

Eamon had seen clearly that, despite the republican movement’s so-called ‘ballot-box and the Armalite’ dual strategy, parliamentarism and armed struggle could not co-exist together indefinitely. The ballot box would in the end decommission the Armalite.

This was not then what the republican ultras, especially those from south Armagh, wanted to hear. So Eamon’s two years in Crumlin Road Prison were spent under a cloud of barely-disguised hostility.

Not suprisingly, many of his closest friendships in that environment were with the INLA prisoners. He was more at home with them, both politically and intellectually. With Gerard ‘Dr Death’ Steenson – his nickname came from an incident in which he’d donned a doctor’s white coat to shoot someone in hospital – Eamon would spend hours discussing ninenteeth century English literature.

Eamon’s favourite reading was the Bronte sisters, especially Emily’s Wuthering Heights. ‘Dr Death’ was an admirer of the work of Thomas Hardy, especially his later poetry and the novel Jude the Obscure.

Several IRA men in Crumlin Road Prison were, however, kind to Eamon, treating him, as he says in the book’s acknowledgements, as ‘a fellow human being’. He was gratified, especially, by the friendship of William McGuinness, whom he names.

The fact that William was the brother of the revered, and feared, republican leader, Martin McGuinness, made Eamon feel that true republicans could genuinely forgive him for his act of betrayal. Eamon spoke to me of William with great fondness. He didn’t want to write about him in the book’s main text: he thought this might cause him embarrassment – something he wished to avoid because of his gratitude for William’s earlier kindness and decency towards him.

However, he occasionally talked about William, whom he regarded as a good and honorable man. He said William spoke only with admiration of his brother Martin. William had once said: ‘My brother’s twice the man I am’. William wouldn’t hear a bad word said against him.

Another time Eamon mischievously mentioned some gossip he’d heard about a furniture deal in which Martin had allegedly involved himself some years earlier. There was no evidence of wrongdoing on Martin’s part, but William had said angrily: ‘Who was the wee bastard who said that?’

William also told Eamon that once Martin rose to prominence in Derry some people started making snide remarks about how well-dressed the McGuinness siblings now were, implying they were benefitting financially from Martin’s position in the republican movement. William told Eamon that from then on the siblings had started wearing ‘rags’.

Eamon also said that William had joked about his own Christian name, not one usually given to Catholic children in Northern Ireland, where ‘William’ is the archetypal Protestant forename, passed down the generations in memory of King William of Orange, who defeated the Catholics at the still-celebrated (among Ulster Loyalists, at least) battle of the Boyne in 1690.

William said his mother had so christened him in order to give him a good start in life. She had felt that, in a Protestant-dominated society rife with anti-Catholic discrimination, her little boy would fare best if his name could help him pass as a Protestant. This was because ‘McGuinness’ was potentially a neutral surname, one shared by Catholics and Protestants. Usually only their forenames marked McGuinnesses unmistakeably out as being from the one or the other tradition.

In writing Killing Rage Eamon was keen to detail everything in his past that had shaped him and led him to join the Provos.

A significant incident happened in 1974 when he and his family, including his father and invalid mother, were brutalised by paratroopers who raided their farm in the mistaken belief that their car had been ferrying explosives.

A paratrooper had stuck the muzzle of his rifle in Eamon’s mouth, chipping a tooth, and said: ‘I’d blow your brains out for tuppence, you rotten Irish cunt.’ Earlier that day a sniffer dog at a checkpoint had detected traces of something in the car’s boot. Only later did forensic tests prove the substance was creosote.

Two years earlier, Bloody Sunday had also undermined Eamon’s opposition to political violence. He wrote: ‘Like almost every other Irish Catholic, I was enraged by Bloody Sunday.’

It was during our conversations about Bloody Sunday, and its aftermath, that Eamon told me what William McGuinness had once said to him in Crumlin Road. He said that one day, while they were discussing the civil rights movement and Bloody Sunday, William had shocked him with something he had mentioned almost in passing.

According to Eamon, William said that, despite denials over the years, IRA men had been wounded by gunfire on Bloody Sunday. He said that the casualties had been taken across the border to the Irish Republic to have their injuries tended. There, one of the wounded IRA men had subsequently died – and been secretly buried.

Eamon said that William had not given him the impression of having been personally involved: he’d simply been telling a story that he’d been told later on good authority. Eamon said that William had also not indicated whether the wounded IRA men had been engaged in exchanges of fire with the army or whether they had been unarmed marchers caught up by chance in the melee.

I asked Eamon if he believed the story to be true. He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know. He had a similar attitude to another story that did end up in the book – the disposal of kidnapped SAS officer Robert Nairac’s body through a mincer in a Dundalk meat-processing factory in May 1977.

As reported in Killing Rage, Nairac’s supposed fate was little more than gossip and hearsay among Provos, but republicans have never denied Eamon’s account. Its untruth could have been demonstrated by their indicating where the remains might be found. Yet they’ve failed to do this, even as a conciliatory gesture during the ‘peace process’.

The fact that the Bloody Sunday story had come from William, whose brother Martin had  been the Provos’ commander in Derry at the time, gave it in Eamon’s eyes a credibility it would not otherwise have had.

By this stage in Eamon’s life he was extremely cynical about the IRA, although they could still do things which surprised him. Of course, when he told me this story in the summer of 1995 the IRA had not yet admitted publicly that they had over the years murdered and secretly buried several people. The so-called ‘disappeared’ included some of their own members who had been executed as informers or agents.

I asked Eamon if he wanted to put William McGuinness’s story in the book. He looked at me as if I were mad. He said that doing the book was risky enough in itself: sticking in that story would definitely get him killed. He said: ‘It’s not going in any book of mine.’ Anyway, he said, it was simply a story told to him second-hand. He had no personal knowledge that could enable him to vouch for its truth.

And he didn’t want to get murdered for something like that.


  1. ‘Dr Death’ was an admirer of the work of Thomas Hardy, especially his later poetry and the novel Jude the Obscure.

    So ostensibly Steenson was quite the literary type eh. I cant seem to equate Steenson with such romantic artistry. It may well be true, but it smells like bullshit to me.

    Any thoughts on this mackers?

  2. I can't recall what Gerard read in terms of fiction but he was extremely intelligent and politically very well read. There is no reason I can think of to feel it is groundless.

  3. Fair enough.

    Deadly Divisions, by Holland and Mcdonald, portrays him as a trigger happy, psychopath, whose philosophy was geared more toward the birds and booze rather than the Greeks or German Idealists. Perhaps in the clink his options were limited and so he may have traded the lads mags for the classics.

    An intriguing character nonetheless.

  4. He was one of the most intelligent people I met in the jail. Very sharp and discerning. Way ahead of most people, whether INLA or IRA, in weighing up politics. I spent a lot of time with him when he would come on my wing while he was on the red book. I would wonder how people tended to see Jimmy Brown as the political "guru" when in terms of ideas rather than rhetoric, Gerard was the cutting edge. In terms of his range of interests, whatever they were, it simply suggests people are multifaceted. The media help make them one dimensional.

  5. I like you to think about constructing a piece on him. Not enough has been said and its seems he has become a boogeyman figure. It may go some way to balancing the documented reckless side to his nature - that being, willing to shoot all round him at the drop of a hat. I'd love to hear your perspective in a longer piece. ;)

  6. perhaps at some point time permitting

  7. Having met Collins and having been talked to by him on various occasions, I listened and he talked as was his way with everyone he engaged in conversation with, he came across as a highly intelligent person. Rumour had it that he had a photographic memory....I don’t know how true this is or was.
    He was quite condescending, patronising, and extremely obnoxious, selfish and above all delusional. He actually believed that he hadn’t done anything wrong. He brazenly complained regularly about how those he had put on remand in Crumlin Road gaol wouldn’t speak to him or would just about bid him the time of day! That’s how arrogant he was. He was desperate to find a kindred spirit that he could indulge his passion for conversation or simply one that would listen to him. There was more than one prior supergrass on the yard in the Crumlin Road at that time and Collins avoided being in the others company as he saw himself as having nothing in common. Those in the INLA knew exactly what he was but quite possibly didn’t see him as a threat as he wasn’t one of theirs and therefore didn’t mind chatting to him. Maybe his relationship with them was delusional....who knows.
    He was quite flakey and having suffered something of a mental breakdown earlier in his life he was treated with kid gloves so as to ensure that he remained on this side of the prison walls.
    As for Willie McGuinness, his sole role was to placate Collins at all times to avoid him having any doubts about retracting. He was playing the friend to keep Collins on board.....it was a highly emotional game and McGuinness played it well. The intention was not to alienate him but at the same time keep a secure distance as there was still doubt about just whose side he was actually on. There was a belief that he was still talking to the Brits. So did, McGuiness tell Collins that story about Bloody Sunday....I don’t know but I can’t imagine, given the circumstances, that he did. Just how true the story is, I think is doubtful. Even the disappeared were missed. I suppose the only way to judge this relationship is to check how many cups of tea Collins had in Willie McGuinness’s house, after his acquittal.
    Speaking of which, everyone knew Collins was getting out. That was clear and Collins knew it too and to a certain degree didn’t hide it. What people didn’t know was how he was going to get off....just how the hell he was going to work his ticket. His trial, if that’s what it really was, literally fell apart as soon as he produce a psychiatric report compiled by the same psychiatrist that wrote psychiatric reports for the British MOD on RAF pilots and other MOD personnel. The judge couldn’t cast doubt on this report for it would cause chaos throughout the MOD who relied heavily on this psychiatrists reports. A very shrewd move by him. But just where did this defense idea come from? He was out and all he had to do was keep his mouth shut which he didn’t. In fact he resorted to working for the authorities again....that’s how arrogant he was. Before his trial, he actually believed that when he was released he could go back to the IRA and continue on from where he left off. That was how delusional he had become.
    So when people write about the bravery of Eamon Collins, having met him, I know it was his arrogance and selfishness that drove him. Everyone and everything was just a tool to be used to further his own selfish aims. The problem with Collins was that it was quite difficult to discern reality from fantasy....the two seemed to intermingle quite easily where he was concerned.

  8. ...And nobody missed this IRA man particularly around the time of Bloody Sunday...One day he was there and then he was heard of no more?

    Nope I don't accept that an IRA man was 'Disappeared' and not a whisper of it afterwards. It's too absurd to even be considered.

  9. If I might intrude, I have met someone who speaks extremely highly of Gerard. He speaks of him fondly too.

    As a journo who has been caught up the tabloid crap trade, it has struck me how poignantly this chap speaks of Gerard.

    That isn't a comfort to those Gerard harmed.

    Mind you, even those who killed Gerard have expressed their regret and admiration for the guy.

    I find it funny/predictable that the trade I'm in, that many of the republican volunteers are always demonised.

    If you are asking about Gerard, I can corroborate what Tony has said. The chap wouldn't waste his time on wasters. He attributes to Gerard a genuine capacity to change things. Food for thought. That's all I can say.

  10. The thing I can't understand is why did Collins choose to testify against Slab when he knew doing so would be signing his own death warrant. He thought it was worth leaving his children without a father and wife without a husband just to get one over on the IRA. Why did he want to give his life to save a right wing Murdoch newspaper a little bit of money? Surely his best option would have been to move out of the area and try to live a quiet life with his family? I'm not saying what happened to him was right, but it seems what he did was reckless, egotistical and selfish really. I don't have children myself but if I did I wouldn't have done what he did.

  11. I think Collins felt his relatively high profile would keep him safe. He didn't want to die, and I don't think he expected to die.


    He should have either ran, or else not done it in the first place. He felt terribly aggrieved by the IRA, but so did many other people, and they didn't "make a stand."

    Collins appearing at the same time as Sean O'Callaghan was terrible "optics" to use the vernacular of our times.

    1. Brandon,

      More than that, I think it was utter arrogance on his part which fueled his belief that he wouldn't be killed. Another person may feel that the circumstances of the time and a high profile will protect them but still take measures to protect themselves.

      Watch the Network First programme where he reads out the letter sent ordering him out of the country and quips "all my years in the IRA for this". He was lucky he wasn't killed there and then!

      There were a spate of books around that time from Collins, O'Callaghan, McGartland and Gilmour.