20 years on since his horrendous death at the hands of the IRA, Eamon Collins appears to have been scrubbed from official narratives of the post Good Friday Agreement period, probably due to his murder not “fitting in” with the notion of the IRA being committed to peace.
Despite what most retrospectives will say, the murder of Collins in January 1999 was the beginning of a year of turmoil in this country, with political infighting, deaths of Rosemary Nelson, Frankie Curry and Elizabeth O'Neill as well as the regular scenes at Drumcree threatening to destabilise the Good Friday Agreement.
Collins himself remains a divisive figure. Anthony McIntyre has been quoted as saying that Collins:
...crossed a line...in deciding to go supergrass. I was never persuaded it was for good motives...I found the book self-serving... trying to justify his decision...He made it look as if he’d had a crisis of conscience.William Matchett believes that he was genuinely remorseful, and even the families of Ivan Toombs and Norman Hanna (whose deaths he was involved in) hold differing opinions on him.
For me, personally, Collins came across as an unlikeable and unpredictable person. A big fish in a small pond (he dropped out of his Queen's course and went back to Newry), there always seemed to be a superiority complex lurking within him, as if he saw himself as more intelligent than the muck savages in the countryside and that he was going to rejuvenate the IRA single handily.
Unsurprisingly, he also appeared to have been rather self-absorbed, as he was a man who went from one extreme to the other without little thought as to how that would affect his family, happily betraying his close friend David Ewins for the camera (for a show that never aired). All the while probably believing that this "celebrity" status would protect him from reprisal from the IRA. Foolish or brave, the debate will linger on.
While some will ponder how the above is relevant to the book, it's because the state of mind when the author tells their tale will have an impact on not only the tone, but also the details that are revealed.
And it cannot be denied that Killing Rage is easily one of the best books ever written about the IRA. Not because of it's scope (which remains limited to the South Down area) nor because of it's outcome, but because of it's attention to detail. You can feel yourself in those small, isolated houses with a mix of characters intent on killing. You easily envisage such petty characters floating around Sinn Fein centres, looking for ways to have their petty squabbles resolved by involving "the boys."
This depiction of the armed struggle as grubby, insular and petty undoubtedly made him little friends in the republican movement. But context is important.
The period that he writes about is a different period from the 'Wild West' of the early 70's, when gun battles with the British Army were a daily occurrence. This was post Ulsterisation and Long War, when the targets were often off duty UDR soldiers or reserve RUC officers, killed at close quarters. These murders were often used by unionists to demonstrate that the IRA's campaign was sectarian in nature.
On the face of it, it's easy to see why they would come to that conclusion: some were killed in front of their families, the fact that were off-duty (although there's an argument that they were never truly off-duty, in the way that a police officer must deal with a crime even when not in uniform) and that they were from the local Protestant community.
Collins, when discussing the killings that he had a hand in, neither embraces nor dismisses this belief. He is adamant throughout that he was targeting a uniform, not a person. Still, the image of Ivan Toombs lying dead in his office is a squalid, unglamorous image. Same with the photo of Fred Morton, his body hanging out of the van he was driving. Had they been killed in combat, there could be a sense of purpose and duty taken from their deaths.
His depiction of the death of IRA member Robert Carr (who suffered horrific injuries when he dropped the bomb he was carrying and died a painful death in Dublin weeks later) is both stark and pseudo-comical. The former because of the nature of his death, the latter because it was noted he had been drinking before carrying out the operation. And thus begins a theme of the Newry IRA being incompetent, sectarian and prone to in-fighting. Which, while believable, makes the whole tale that more sordid.
Ultimately, Collins should be praised for telling his tale with such candid detail, but it is a tome that exudes self importance and grandiose emotions. You're left wondering if he was genuinely remorseful over his actions, or was it a case of him feeling betrayed by the IRA (despite him becoming a supergrass).
An important book about the history of the conflict, but not one to be read with little or no understanding about the background to his tale.
Eamon Collins, 1998, Killing Rage. Granta Books. ISBN-13: 978-1862070479
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212