An IRA soldier
*Book Review: Amazon.com
Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey
Written content only
Written content only
“KILLING RAGE” By Eamon Collins
Reviewed By Ralph Couey
“Killing Rage” vividly recounts the compelling personal journey of Eamon Collins through the violent morass of Northern Ireland politics; the evolution from committed Republican, to terrorist, to an activist for peace.
For most Americans, the dominant impression of the war in Northern Ireland would be a confused mélange of news video images, reports of exploded bombs, and dead women and children. With little exception, the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Army have met with universal condemnation. Even a basic understanding of the roots of the conflict and the reasons for its perpetuation would prove quite beyond the ability of most to recount. For the first time, however, the words and passion of Eamon Collins provide an honest, if chilling account of his involvement in the conflict as a member in various capacities of the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army between 1978 and 1987.
The book opens abruptly and brutally with a detailed description of Collins’ first operation in December 1978, the killing of Major Ivan Toombs of the Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR). As Collins works to gather intelligence on his target he takes us through the process of dealing with a very human conflict::
“For me, the more I found out about him, the more admirable I found him. I liked him and felt that in other circumstances we might have been friends.” (Page 20)
“...to strike at Toombs was to strike at an ancient colonial system of elites. Killing Toombs would also be a symbol of our dogged resistance to inequality and injustice...” (Page 23)
“He was an idea, a force, not a person with a face. He had no humanity for me.” (Page 17)
This apparent moral conflict occurs repeatedly throughout the book in Collins’ continual debates with himself over the effectiveness of political violence. Collins also spends some time discussing the roots of the Irish conflict, which began as a growing dislike between the Protestant majority and his Catholic minority, which he characterizes as “... (The) Catholic underclass, marginalized, on the periphery of society, jobless, poorly educated, powerless and voiceless.” (Page 12) Students of the American Civil Rights Movement might recognize some clear parallels between life as a Catholic in Northern Ireland and life as an African-American in this country. Indeed, Collins recounts several incidents during both his and his parent’s childhood of acts of discrimination and outright violence committed against Catholics by Protestant civilians, police, and military. As might be expected, this violence went largely unpunished. It was out of this atmosphere of hate that the Republican movement gained strength. Over time, however, it changed from just a civil rights movement to “...a very ultra-left kind of Marxism.” Collins continues,
“I believed that the IRA could be turned into an organization which could take on the capitalist state and the agents of that state... I saw the struggle in internationalist terms: I believed Irish republicans should forge links with their brothers and sisters in Lebanon, in Germany, Italy, or Palestine, to help overthrow the forces who were retrenching capitalism in all the western democracies.” (Page 12)
Much of the book contains accounts of various IRA operations in which Collins was involved. While he still remained a committed soldier, he nevertheless began to see things that in his mind tarnished the image of the IRA warrior. He describes the killing of a man named Norman Hanna in January 1982 who had been wrongly identified as a member of the Ulster Defense Reserve by an IRA hit man who Collins had recruited. His remorse for this wrongful death is clear:
“That night for the first time, I could not be reassured by any grand or angry political scheme. Where were we going? Where was I going? I had never felt so empty. I remember touching my wife, kissing her hair and crying silently. I was crying for Hanna, perhaps for his wife and child, but also mostly for myself, for what I had become.” (Page 117)
Later on, Collins rationalizes the killing by recalling the thousands of Catholics who had died in the cause. He spends the subsequent 18 months struggling to suppress his compassion. Over time, he notes, “Each subsequent death mattered less to me than the previous one.” (Page 120) However, from this point Collins began to realize the abject amorality and violent banality of those with whom he was associated. His vision of helping to bring an end to injustice included participation by committed patriots. The reality was his involvement with men of violence, not political passion; in effect, stone killers. In September of 1983, he begins to have his first serious doubts:
“...I began to ask myself not only whether I personally should continue to be a member of the IRA, but also whether the armed struggle itself was worth continuing. If all we had to offer was bumbling thuggishness, and if we could only attract the naive or the brutal, how could we appeal to the mass of Irish people in the late twentieth century?” (Page 176)
During this time, near the end of 1984, Collins had a brutal confrontation with Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Fein, the fallout of which would shadow him the remainder of his time in the IRA. Collins saw Sinn Fein as leaving behind the constitutional nationalism that had fueled the Republican movement in favor of coalition-driven parliamentarianism. This was being done by the IRA in Belfast where “...the republican movement’s power was becoming concentrated among aspiring politicians who were stealthily moving towards a political compromise and abandonment of the armed struggle.” (Page 235) The result was a power struggle within the IRA. The combination of the loss of commitment from the Belfast IRA, the mere 13 per cent vote for Sinn Fein in the Irish elections, and his own disillusionment brought Collins to a penultimate moment of decision.
“It (the IRA) had not lost the war, but nor could it win an outright victory. So, the IRA’s struggle had become pointless. We had no right to take offensive action, and the Irish people had told the IRA in the recent elections that they had no mandate to continue the war in their name. In the last quarter of 1984, I was finished as an IRA man. I began to think that the republican movement’s shift towards political compromise was based on a more perceptive appraisal of reality...”
It is perhaps part of human nature that, when faced with perceived injustice, the spirit cries out for action. Certainly, this was the case with Eamon Collins. At an early age, he learned at his mother’s knee the terrible cruelties inflicted on Catholics by the Protestants and the British government. He recalls, “My mother instilled in me the grievances of the vanquished.” (Page 36) Objectively, any observer when faced with the reality of Irish history would be hard-put not to find sympathy with the republican cause. One can even understand that the active failure of the law to define justice will inevitably lead to violence by the oppressed. Culturally, Americans are intimate with this concept. The overriding question, which lies between every paragraph in this book, is how much violence does it take to change things, and at what point does one admit when its usefulness is at an end?
The story of the Provisional IRA, as recounted by Collins, should be an object lesson for revolutionaries. While the initial motives for the war were pure (lifting the oppression of Catholics), over time the IRA seemed to fall in love with the act of violence itself while forgetting the reasons for it. Collins talks at length about this love of violence, even among those he recruited. This is evident in their discussions, which covered tactical matters but very little about their political motivations. In the end, it became violence for violence’s sake.
It is also important to note, again, the shift in ideology by the IRA. The Republican movement and the original Irish Republican Army grew out of the efforts of Catholics to protect their own from the violent depredations of Protestants, in short, to protect the Church. In the 1970’s the Provisional Wing of the IRA, or Provos, adopted a Marxist ideology. Marxism repudiates religion. Since from this point, the struggle became more about political ideology than about protecting Catholicism it’s fair to say that the original purpose for violent resistance became largely irrelevant, although still a source for powerful rhetoric. Marches and protests were more aimed at making martyrs out of IRA men killed by the opposition, than about equal rights for Catholics. Indeed, the confrontation between Collins and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams occurred during a march honoring the death of a young IRA volunteer. Adams took actions to ensure that the protest remained peaceful. Collins, on the other hand, was convinced that forcing a violent confrontation would bring worldwide attention to their plight (Pages 223-224). The confrontation ended with Collins hurling a brutal, ferocious, and very public insult at Adams. Yet even with his strong passions, he was still able to look at the situation with a fair degree of pragmatism:
“Why was Adams trying to defuse situations which offered such potential? His behavior only made sense if the war was over. I think that it was at this funeral that I realized, with depressing clarity that the war was over. Adams was behaving in this way because he knew that this was true; he could see that there was no point in inflicting too much more unnecessary suffering on the people. Life, any life, was better than this, and yet we were continuing to embrace death recklessly. The war was over; the only problem was that no one could call it off.” (Page 225)
For anyone who lives by the sword and dies by the sword, the hardest act is to finally lay down that sword. I believe this was the struggle the Provos faced. To such people, compromise comes hard and the admission that the time for compromise (a revolutionary’s admission of defeat) is at hand must have been extraordinarily difficult. For the defeat of a populist revolution is not only a military defeat, but also calls into question the entire ideological foundation for the movement itself. Some may have seen the recent peace of Northern Ireland as a victory for the IRA. From the perspective of Eamon Collins it was a stunning defeat. The peace was reached as a result of Gerry Adams moving Sinn Fein away from violent nationalism to peaceful parliamentarianism. It was helped along by the repudiation of the IRA’s violence by the voting public. And it was made real by the recognition the war was, in fact, over, and the Provos had lost.
Ironically, it was shortly after his conscious breaking with the IRA that Collins was arrested for his suspected involvement in the bombing of a Newry police station, which killed 9 police officers. His subsequent interrogation and confession (later retracted), imprisonment, trial, acquittal, and abandonment by the IRA left Eamon Collins adrift in the never-never land between two violent antagonists, trusted by none, hated by all. After his release from prison, Collins barely survived the explosion of a bomb planted in his car. Although the IRA never claimed responsibility for the attack, the man who planted the explosive was known to Collins. He had recruited the man. The IRA forced him into exile in July 1987, taking him away from his wife and children. Nevertheless, Collins turned to more peaceful pursuits, working through the Church with troubled youths in several cities in Northern Ireland while pursuing his education. As part of a research project, he sought out one of Republicanism’s most hated enemies, Gusty Spence of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
“I felt an overpowering sense of nausea. For an instant I could only see before me a deadly enemy of my people. Suddenly, I was filled with a killing rage, all the old anger coming back. I felt I ought to have been moving towards him holding a revolver, firing bullet after bullet into his body, instead of standing there waiting to be ushered into his presence. But the feeling passed and my rage subsided. I knew that murder was the logical outcome of that rage, and murder would not solve anything. In that moment, I realized how far I had traveled in my life. At times, he spoke with violence and aggression; and I could detect that same rage that had just overtaken me. I realized that he had not moved that far forward in his thinking since 1966, but he had moved, and I had moved, and that was important.” (Pages 368-369)
Herein lies the essential ingredient for the end of a civil conflict: Two influential people willing to move away from anger and violence. The future of Northern Ireland hangs on the willingness of such people to put the past permanently behind and concentrate on the future. The last sentence of the book expresses the wish of Eamon Collins:
“The anger and hatred this place has seen may in time be forgotten, if not forgiven. I do not want much else more.” (Page 371)
Tragically, this shift in the direction of his life did not protect the former IRA Man. Eamon Collins was found murdered near his home on the early morning of January 28, 1999. Although it is widely understood that this was the act of the IRA, the murder remains officially unsolved to this day. Only time will tell if his sacrifice was made in vain.
By Eamon Collins
1999 by Granta Books, New York, NY