As anyone with half a brain can tell you by now, there is absolutely no chance that the powers-that-be in Northern Ireland will ever agree a credible truth-telling process dealing with the Troubles.
Too many vested interests are opposed: the British security forces, the Provo leadership, the Unionist establishment. None have any real interest in the truth about their behavior being told, none can afford to see the full truth of their behavior exposed and each would try to use the process against the other.
If a real and meaningful truth-telling process is ever going to happen, it is more likely to happen much further down the food chain and in a much more modest way. It will be the result of spontaneous, unplanned activity at ground level, involving people who feel compelled to record recollections of their lives in X or Y paramilitary group, A or B political party, P or Q government department and so on. Some of that is already happening.
It will be much smaller in scale than anything produced at Stormont but what it lacks in that department, it will make up in honesty and integrity.
Journalists also have a responsibility in this matter. Many are sitting on archives of material, notes of conversations and interviews for instance, which they could not or did not want to use in their entirety at the time, not least because to do so might reveal who their sources were. As time goes on, the argument to release such material strengthens.
And so I am particularly glad that one of those journalists has decided to open up part of his archive and sent me some unpublished material dealing with one of the most celebrated books produced by the Troubles, ‘Killing Rage’, the story of the life of Eamon Collins, the former IRA spyhunter, turned supergrass, turned public penitent.
The book was co-written by Mick McGovern, who now lives and works in Berlin as a translator, having abandoned the journalist’s trade for reasons that only he can explain. The book he and Collins put together was eventually published by Granta in the UK.
But one chapter was excised from the manuscript McGovern delivered. Granta’s lawyers trembled at its sight.
That chapter dealt with Collins’ friend and political swami, Dave Ewins, a QUB law lecturer, left-wing activist and, according to Collins, a secret collaborator with the Provisional IRA who was allegedly involved in setting up a series of killings and attacks – the IRA killing of up and coming Unionist politician Edgar Graham and the attempted assassinations of the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lowry and an RUC Inspector and law student at QUB.
When Collins was arrested and agreed to give ‘supergrass’ evidence against former colleagues, Ewins fled Belfast, quit his QUB post and moved to Dublin where he got a job teaching law at a private college. According to decade-old internet records, he settled in north Dublin, got married to one of his law students, a student from Africa, and raised a family.
Collins withdrew his ‘supergrass’ testimony, was charged with multiple IRA offences but beat the charges. However he remained a thorn in the IRA’s side, agreeing to give testimony for The Sunday Times in a libel suit brought by Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, the South Armagh IRA leader. Murphy lost.
Tom ‘Slab’ Murphy
He then co-operated with Mick McGovern in the writing of ‘Killing Rage‘, but it was evidently a difficult relationship and the two fell out. But they also made a TV documentary for Carlton Television called ‘Confession‘ which you can watch here. Confession predated the book, incidentally, an important detail in the subsequent timeline.
Collins’ enemies in the IRA bided their time. Foolishly, the former IRA activist chose to live in Newry, on the edge of ‘Slab’ Murphy’s domain, in a republican housing estate whose gable walls were soon daubed with threats to his life. Eventually, on January 27th, 1999, less than a year after the Good Friday Agreement, IRA killers struck.
Collins’ body, disfigured by multiple blows and knife wounds, was found near his housing estate. He had been waylaid as he walked his dogs and viciously done to death; while no organisation admitted responsibility few doubted that the IRA was behind his brutal end.
Eamon Collins with graffiti painted on walls near his Newry home
The first part of the material from Mick McGovern is the chapter on Dave Ewins that was excised from the manuscript of ‘Killing Rage‘ by the publishers, a strange decision since Ewins’ role in Collins’ life had figured in the earlier TV documentary Confession.
McGovern actually posted a summary of the chapter in an article on his blog called ‘Crypto-Gentile‘ in 2008 where I stumbled upon it a few years ago. Subsequently, he sent me the original chapter in in its entirety. I published it on this blog last year.
Ewins had threatened to sue for libel at the outset of the telling of Eamon Collin’s story but while he issued writs, he never followed them up. The Crypto-Gentile post has been on the internet for nearly a decade but Ewins has taken no action against it.
The second part of the McGovern papers are extracts from some of his interview notes on the IRA assassination of Edgar Graham. Those interviewed include the Orange Order leader and ex-Unionist MP, the Rev Martin Smyth; the former Unionist leader and First Minister in the first post-GFA government at Stormont, David Trimble, who a friend and political ally of Graham, and the RUC detective who headed the Edgar Graham murder investigation.
He has also sent me a copy of the lengthy legal note which he prepared for his publishers in Granta – but more of that anon.
A third part is an email from Mick McGovern describing a conversation he had with Eamon Collins about why Dave Ewins never returned to the UK despite Collins’ decision to withdraw his supergrass evidence and his subsequent acquittal on the charges he had confessed to.
PART ONE – THE MISSING CHAPTER FROM ‘KILLING RAGE’
These notes deal almost entirely with the December 1983 IRA murder of rising Unionist politician Edgar Graham (29), a lecturer in law at QUB, like Dave Ewins, who was shot dead by the IRA as he stood chatting to a colleague on the pavement not far from the law faculty building.
The immediate motive for the Graham killing were remarks he had made in the wake of British undercover security killings of two Co. Tyrone IRA members, 23-year old Colm McGirr and 19-year old Brian Campbell.The pair were ambushed as they made their way to an arms dump hidden in a field near Coalisland.
Responding to the ambush, Graham had remarked that ‘two swallows do not make a summer’ and anger at his words was the immediate reason for the IRA attack just three days later.
But there were deeper currents at work. The Belfast leadership was riven with doubt and distrust at the growing emphasis being placed on electoral politics by Sinn Fein, a tendency identified then as later with Gerry Adams, recently elected as MP for West Belfast.
The chief critic was his former friend and ally, Ivor Bell, then the IRA’s Chief of Staff. A number of incidents had happened which seemed deliberately designed to embarrass and undermine Sinn Fein’s electoral strategy, including killings and bombings whose effect was to attract dismay and criticism from potential Sinn Fein voters. Graham’s killing arguably fell into that category. It also invited Loyalist retaliation and there were no prizes for guessing who would be the prime target.
As things turned out Bell would lose his Chief of Staff job a year or so later when an IRA supergrass briefly offered to give testimony in court against him but then withdrew. He then attempted to convene an extraordinary IRA Convention with a view to reversing SF’s electoral drift but the plan was leaked from within the IRA Executive. Bell was court-martialed and dismissed from the organisation.
David Trimble, with Good Friday Agreement co-architects (l to r) Bill Clinton, Seamus Mallon and Tony Blair
Mick McGovern’s interview notes cover his dealings with three sources, the Rev Martin Smyth, then the MP for South Belfast; David Trimble. later MP for Upper Bann and First Minister in the post Good Friday Agreement Executive and thirdly, the retired RUC detective in charge of investigating two of the QUB/Dave Ewins-linked IRA attacks.
Since the detective asked for and was granted anonymity by Mick McGovern, this blog is not naming him. Nor are the names of Edgar Graham’s alleged killer and accomplice being revealed, those of another law lecturer accused of pro-IRA sympathies, a Unionist student who had to transfer to an English college because of threats, nor finally, the name of a lawyer who briefed Trimble about the IRA cell allegedly active at QUB. Michael Dolley’s name is preserved as he died in March 1983.
PART THREE – STAYING PUT
Even though the legal jeopardy facing Dave Ewins diminished enormously when Eamon Collins first withdrew his offer to be a supergrass for the British state and then was acquitted on charges based on his confession, the former law lecturer showed no inclination of wanting to leave Dublin.
Now there may have been many other reasons for wanting to stay south of the Border but Eamon Collins himself offered an intriguing motive that persuaded Ewins to stay and plant deeper roots in his new home.
Mich McGovern explained in an email he sent thebrokenelbow.com three weeks or so ago:
Re-reading that legal note I wrote on Ewins for Killing Rage – and which I sent you last year – my memory has just been jogged about another major, successful IRA operation that Ewins was almost certainly involved in, but which I’ve never mentioned before. It had slipped my mind, because I have no evidence for it other than Eamon’s speculation. However, it completely fits in to the relevant timeframe and it’s got Ewins’ fingerprints all over it.
In the legal note I wrote that when Eamon met up with Ewins in Dublin in 1988 – secretly filmed by Stephen Scott – he’d apologized to Ewins for forcing him to go on the run and for making it impossible for him to return to the UK without fear of arrest: “Ewins said that his inability to return to the UK was also in connection with ‘other things’ which he did not specify but which Eamon took to mean other IRA-related activities known to the RUC’.
I remember asking Eamon what he thought those activities might be. Eamon said he was pretty sure that Ewins had been involved in this incident in which three cops were killed.
This was the incident, as described in a pro-Unionist Facebook post:
4 November 1983:
John Brian Martin, 27-year-old Protestant, married with 2 children and an RUC police inspector died from an IRA bomb explosion in a lecture room at the Ulster Polytechnic at Jordanstown. SGT. Stephen Fyffe was also fatally wounded and died later that day. SGT. William McDonald was the 3rd officer that had been fatally wounded but died 9 months later. Insp. Martin was from Pinley Park, Banbridge. Of the more than 30 people who were caught up in the explosion, 4 of them were police officers who were seriously injured. The civilians caught up in the explosion were only slightly hurt. The policemen had been attending a criminology lecture as part of a Higher National Certificate course. Prior to the class, the room had been searched but nothing was found. The was fitted with a 12-hour timer and was placed in a ceiling panel and went undetected. Around 11:30AM, the bomb exploded. The inquest was told by the senior policeman in charge of the investigation that the “IRA’s intelligence for the operation had been very good”.. The coroner said he was completely lost for words. He said he was disgusted by an article in the Republican News which had the headline “RUC Taught a Lesson”. He said: “the IRA’s idea of teaching the RUC a lesson was to deprive 3 women of their husbands and 5 young children of their fathers”.