The Price Of Courage

One morning before dawn last January, Bernadette Collins awoke to a sloshing sound. Her husband, Eamon, was downstairs, cleaning paintbrushes again. Fifteen years ago he had informed on his comrades in the Irish Republican Army, and he'd made a pest of himself ever since. The taunts and threats against him showed up regularly in big block letters on walls near the house. Routinely, he'd get up at 4:30 and paint over graffiti like COLLINS--YEAR OF YOUR DEATH--1999. He would go home, clean his brushes and then take the dogs out for a good, long walk.

Bernadette glanced at the clock: 6 a.m. Sunrise was still two hours away in the Northern Ireland border town of Newry. Satisfied that nothing was amiss, she turned, went back to sleep and overslept. When she woke up at 8:30, her first concern was getting the children off to school. Downstairs she noticed that the back door was half open and that the family's two springer spaniels were in the backyard, dragging their leashes. That struck Bernadette as odd, but, pressed for time, she gathered up the kids and drove them off to school. On the way, she noticed that officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary had cordoned off a nearby street, though she didn't know why. When she got back home, Eamon was still nowhere to be found. She checked the church to see if Eamon had gone to mass. No. She checked with his mother to see if he had gone to see her. No. She rushed up to where the police were gathered. When she told them that her husband had gone missing, they said she'd better go down to the station.

At that point, the pieces of the puzzle started fitting into place. The police had been called to the neighborhood not long after 6. Near a low wall a few hundred yards from the Collinses' row house, they found the body of a small man, about 5 feet 1. He had been knifed twice in the back and then through the skull. He had been so badly bludgeoned that his face was unrecognizable. It took six hours to positively identify the man as Eamon Collins.

Collins's brutal killing two months ago was a reminder that political violence is still a part of everyday life in Northern Ireland. In a recent interview with NEWSWEEK, Bernadette Collins blamed her 45-year-old husband's death on dissident republican hard-liners who are not under the control of the official IRA leadership. But the hard men are still at work on the other side of the sectarian divide, too. Last week Rosemary Nelson, a civil-rights lawyer who has represented republican interests, was killed by a loyalist band that calls itself the Red Hand Defenders. Then Frank Curry, who was linked to the Defenders, was subsequently killed in what appeared to be an internal loyalist feud. The murders last week prompted U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to issue a joint St. Patrick's Day plea for "courage" on the part of the political parties seeking to implement last year's Good Friday Agreement. But as Eamon Collins's life abundantly proves, in Northern Ireland, courage does not always get its just rewards.

From the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, Collins was an intelligence officer for the IRA in and around fiercely republican Newry. Though he claimed never to have pulled the trigger or lit the fuse, he set up at least 15 people for their deaths--with a coldness that would later unnerve him to the core. In a powerful, disturbing 1997 memoir, "Killing Rage," he tells of a child crying "Daddy, Daddy!" as she sees her father gunned down by the IRA. He tells also of an elderly off-duty cop--a "peeler"--having a drink in a bar, seeing his IRA killers approach and pleading: "Ah, no, boys, not me..."

In 1985, as he lay in bed next to one of his sons, coaxing him to sleep, Collins was arrested. Two years earlier--"like a true IRA man," as one cop told him then--he had sailed through a two-day interrogation by the RUC, not saying a word. This time, already having doubts about the IRA, Collins cracked under five days of RUC interrogation. He became a big-time informer, a "supergrass." As he named names, the police rounded up 40 suspected IRA members, one by one; 12 of them eventually faced murder or other serious charges. Collins was a psychological mess. He was overwhelmed by the hugeness of his betrayal, and shattered by Bernadette's revulsion when she came to see him. She spit on the floor in front of him: "You f-----g bastard. If I had a gun, I'd shoot you myself. Why, why have you done this?" Less than two weeks after his arrest, he retracted his confession. He spent nearly two years in prison and then went on trial for five murders and 45 other offenses. The judge set him free because his confessions--which Collins claimed were brought about under psychological and physical duress--were obtained through "inhuman or degrading treatment."

But in Northern Ireland, an informer is never truly free. The IRA felt betrayed by his confessions. On July 7, 1987, a messenger came to the door of his row house in Newry and handed him a brown envelope. Inside there was a typed letter signed "P. O'Neill," the all-purpose signature the IRA put on such documents. Collins was ordered into exile and given seven days to leave "the war zone." If he stayed, he would be killed. That was when Bernadette severed all her ties with hard-line republicanism. "I left the war zone one day after the deadline," Collins wrote. Leaving one day late was, he said, "a final act of defiance." But it wasn't the last one. After three years away, he returned to Newry; in ways big and small, his acts of defiance would continue until that morning last January when somebody managed to lure him out of his house and up the road to his death.

In death as in life, Collins's story parallels the twisting history of Northern Ireland since the Troubles began 30 years ago. He did not grow up in a particularly sectarian home. Bernadette remembers that Eamon's parents, though nominally republican, had a photograph of the queen on the wall of their house. But over time Eamon was hardened into an IRA man. In 1974, while he was studying law at Queen's University in Belfast, he went home to the family farm in Camlough for Easter. One night a group of British soldiers stopped his father's car. Dogs had sniffed what the soldiers thought were explosives (it turned out to be common creosote). The soldiers took Eamon, his 15-year-old brother, John, and his father in for questioning. A soldier shoved a rifle barrel into Eamon's mouth, cracking a tooth and leaving the taste of gun oil. The soldiers demanded that Eamon sing "God Save the Queen," beating time to the music with their rifle butts on his back. Eamon went back to school, but within two years he dropped out. After drifting for a couple of years, he landed two jobs in Newry in 1978. By day, he worked as a customs agent for Her Majesty's Government. By night, he worked for the IRA.

Bernadette learned that Eamon was an IRA man shortly before their marriage in 1982. It didn't surprise her. "It didn't shock me or make me happy," she told NEWSWEEK. "I mean, it was just part of living." In the rugged hills around Newry, many Roman Catholic republicans saw armed struggle, not political accommodation, as the way to improve their lot in a British province dominated by Protestant loyalists.

Collins's allegiance to the IRA began to waver after his first son, Tiarnach, was born in 1983. Bernadette remembers a crucial shift in their lives: "When our first son came along, well, you know, your perspective changes because you no longer have just yourself to think about." But it was an execution the following year that really deepened Collins's doubts. A small-time IRA operative named Brian McNally had broken under RUC questioning and informed on the IRA, causing damage that Collins describes in his book as "slight." The IRA shot and killed McNally after getting him to write a letter to his mother in which he effectively exonerated his executioners. "I was beginning to feel physically sick," Collins wrote, "desperately afflicted by all this horror."

After he was sent into exile, it took Collins a number of years before he could articulate his disaffection from the IRA. He spent three years in Dublin, occasionally sneaking home to visit his family. When he slipped into Newry, he slept with a baton by the bed; he had to remind his four children not to tell anybody that Daddy was home. In Dublin, he had a job as a social worker. He also enrolled in a course to get a diploma in adult and community education. In 1990, he "took the chance" and returned to Northern Ireland. He worked for a while at the Ulster People's College. Needing a better-paying job, he left Northern Ireland again, this time for Scotland, where he got a job as a community-education specialist in Edinburgh. In 1994, he got a job running a youth club in Armagh--and returned to Newry .

In his book, Collins wrote that he "felt more relaxed back at home. My 'case' had been pretty much forgotten with the passage of years." Not so. After the IRA declared a ceasefire in August 1994, Collins began thinking about telling his life story. After a heart attack in 1995--intimations of mortality may have encouraged him to get his account on the record--he participated in a TV documentary. But it was his book that ensured that his "case" would not be forgotten. In "Killing Rage," he not only confirmed the confessions he had made to the RUC and then retracted; he actually amplified on his portrayal of the IRA as a drink-fueled killing machine, with heartless, amoral tactics and a misbegotten strategy. Then last year he testified against an alleged IRA commander in a libel case that had been brought against the London Sunday Times.

He paid for speaking out. In 1997, somebody tried to run him over with a car. Last September, the family farmhouse in Camlough, which is depicted in a painting that still hangs over the small fireplace at the Collins house in Newry, was burned down by arsonists. It was a particularly poignant loss for Collins. He ended "Killing Rage" with a wish: to restore the farmhouse. "I want to see my children there, laughing and playing. The anger and hatred this place has seen may in time be forgotten, if not forgiven. I do not want much else more."

Yet for the people of Northern Ireland, even that modest aim remains unachieved. The Good Friday Agreement is nearly one year old, but the peace process is deadlocked by the refusal of the IRA to begin disarming itself. This has prevented Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, from taking part in a power-sharing executive in the province. In the meantime, violence continues. Between Jan. 1 and March 17, according to the human-rights group Families Against Intimidation and Terror, republican and loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for 26 shootings, 62 beatings, 112 cases of intimidation and 148 instances of forcing people into exile.

True, there are signs of hope: luxury hotels opening in prospering Belfast, where two penthouse apartments just sold for £350,000 each; RUC patrols gone from virtually everywhere, and the smallest British Army presence in three decades. Bernadette Collins, a 38-year-old social worker, is thankful for small mercies: "I certainly don't want my kids living through the type of life we had." She's investing her hopes in Tiarnach, who just turned 16. "Tiarnach has absolutely no time for the republican movement or the whole ideology or anything--and hasn't had, ever," Bernadette said last week. "He's said it's all quite futile. Tiarnach's philosophy in life is, get on, do well, and the rest is not worth worrying about." His father had similarly modest ambitions. "I believe the war is over," he wrote, "but at the same time I do not think people should expect too much from the peace." What little Eamon Collins expected, he didn't get.