Republic of Pain
Killing Rage is the autobiography of Eamon Collins, who joined the IRA at the height of the "blanket protest" by H-block prisoners in the late seventies. (At that time, in a change of policy it defined as "criminalization," the British government withdrew recognition of political status from IRA prisoners and tried to force them to wear prison clothing. In response, the inmates refused to wear anything and went "on the blanket." One striking prisoner famously declared that if the authorities wanted him to wear a convict's uniform "they'll have to nail it to my back.") Collins went on to become a high-level volunteer before breaking under the strain of brutal RUC interrogation and quitting the IRA.
Like thousands of young Catholics who entered their teens in the late sixties, Collins was simultaneously outraged at the upsurge of loyalist violence--at a time when the IRA had given up the gun--and inspired by the peaceful Catholic civil rights movement. He chafed at the oppression of the nationalist community by the Orange statelet but for years resisted the temptation of joining the IRA, scorning green republicanism as too right wing for his brand of ultraleft Marxism. Not even the mistaken arrest and beating of him, his brother and his father by British Army paratroopers--a method of policing that produced a steady stream of IRA recruits--could convince him to join. What did was the socialist, people's-war strategy of the new young leadership centered around Gerry Adams and the mass movement inspired by the blanket protest. "I regarded myself and my comrades as history's vengeful children," Collins says, "come to exact the price for a society built on injustice."
Henceforth Collins devotes his hours to the grim and ruthless business of plotting the assassination of security force officers, relentlessly gathering intelligence and tracking his prey. He has qualms at times--after taking part in the assassination of a man who turns out to be a retired UDR officer, and thus off limits by IRA rules, Collins is plagued with guilt and berates his comrades for their sloppy intelligence work. But he warms to the deadly task and does his best to stop up the access and passage to remorse. "I felt this savagery was the necessary price of our struggle to create a more just society," he says. "We were involved in a war of attrition and even then I knew that my participation in that war had changed me: I knew I no longer existed as a normal human being. Every aspect of my life was dedicated to the purpose of death."
Collins's disillusionment comes in stages, in an agonizing and confused journey from dedicated volunteer to harsh critic of the armed struggle. Although he works with some dedicated and honorable volunteers, he's disgusted by some of his new comrades. "Should cowards, opportunists and half-wits have the right to decide who should live or die in the cause of Irish freedom?" he asks. He also realizes that the Belfast leadership, by elevating the importance of Sinn Fein, is gradually supplanting armed struggle with electoral politics; like the Belfast boys, Collins comes to believe the war is unwinnable and that the killing is becoming pointless. Yet he still can't bring himself to quit. He touches bottom when, after a civilian is killed because of his own mistaken intelligence work, he feels nothing at all.
Arrest forced the change. After days of constant interrogation and beating, Collins briefly turned state's witness and ratted on his comrades before recanting, but by now he'd had it with the organization. In keeping with IRA policy, the army pardoned him after his recantation, but some of his old comrades never forgave Collins's refusal to bow down: "Without explicitly rejecting the republican movement, I had made plain my independence from it. That was what annoyed them." Even worse, after a brief period abroad, he insisted on moving back to his home base of Newry and publicly criticizing the IRA whenever he thought it appropriate. In January, Eamon Collins was murdered after having received numerous death threats. A sad end to a life that one is tempted to conclude was a waste, but I think not. A few years before his murder Collins had a heart attack, at which time he realized he "did not want to die knowing that nothing worthwhile had come from my actions. My hope is that someone somewhere might learn something useful from the story of my life."
The republican movement has come a long way from the days of physical-force purism. In signing the Good Friday Agreement, Gerry Adams and his colleagues (and the IRA, which allowed this to happen with its cease-fire) have essentially recognized the state of Northern Ireland, thus ripping out a major plank of the old republican creed. Of course, it's a state that guarantees Sinn Fein a role through power-sharing and the Irish Republic a role through the North-South Ministerial Council. Leaders of the republican movement have decided that political struggle is the best way to fight for a united Ireland. They also understand that, for better or worse, some 800,000 Protestants make the province their home and that it's time to make an accommodation with them. It's time for loyalists to come to the same realization and give up the gun and the bomb--and accept the fact that an unused weapon is as good as a "decommissioned" one. Most important of all, they must reconcile themselves to power-sharing. Northern Ireland can no longer be a Protestant state for a Protestant people.