By EAMON COLLINS with MICK McGOVERN
The Killing of
At the time I became one of Her Majesty's customs officers I was about to become one of Her official enemies — a member of the Provisional IRA.
I had not been in the Customs and Excise for two hours when I realized that my job could merely be a means to an end. It would provide me with a wage and allow me to buy books, take holidays and visit friends, but I didn't see it as a `career', nor did I have much respect for the clerks who, in their offices on the border, attached some importance to reinforcing the partition of Ireland, working to legitimize this symbol of the last relics of British colonialism.
I had a mundane clerical job. I sat behind a long counter, facing a door through which dozens of lorry drivers entered each day. This was the `report seat', the public counter for checking the importation of goods from the Republic to the North of Ireland. I took the drivers' entry papers, made sure that all the appropriate boxes were filled in, that the signatures were in the right place, and wrote the details in an entry book which I passed through a wooden hatch to the clerical assistants for the final stage of the bureaucratic process.
I was the truck drivers' friend. I had spent enough years reading about anarchism and libertarian socialism to feel solidarity with and sympathy for people who had an arduous job and who could do without having their lives made more difficult by petty officials. The staff, with the exception of a few of the more humanitarian and intelligent individuals, seldom liked the drivers. But drivers who were willing to clip money to the C1220 export documents or to offer goods off the back of a lorry (known as `prog') could induce some of the old-timers to act more considerately.
Within two days of arriving at Newry customs station in December 1978 I had discovered from casual conversations with colleagues that two part-time members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve, the wife of a detective, and — best of all — Major Ivan Toombs of the Ulster Defence Regiment, all worked at the neighbouring customs office in Warrenpoint. I had stumbled on valuable information. I was not then a member of the IRA, but for all that, I decided to pass on this intelligence. I knew that by doing so I was crossing an important line, but I also knew what I was doing. The IRA was changing — influenced by radical left-wing prisoners — and I had begun to see it as a positive force for change. I was influenced by a very ultra-left kind of Marxism. I believed that the IRA could be turned into an organization which could take on the capitalist state and the agents of that state, as the Red Brigades had done in Italy. 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. Of course, I was one of the lucky Catholics in Northern Ireland who had had a reasonable education, had found a job and had been integrated into the system as a semi-loyal servant; and there were by then many thousands of Catholics who were succumbing happily to these inducements. I realized that if I joined the IRA I would be threatening my comfort and privileges, I felt I would be casting off the illusion of state protection: I would become as one with the Catholic underclass, marginalized, on the periphery of society, jobless and poorly educated, powerless and voiceless — at least until the IRA arrived to help them speak. I hated men like Toombs for his assumption of the right to police and harrass the people with whom I wanted to merge. I regarded Toombs and his friends as parasites, allowed to feed on the corrupt corpse of the Orange State, and kept alive by British money and the British Army. In that winter of 1978 I felt ready to cross the line. I was ready to become a Provo.
I had a direct line to the IRA through a distant relative, who was on the run in Dundalk. This man had an ambiguous relationship with the IRA. Useful to them for several years, he had quit after a nervous breakdown, no longer able to take the continuous pressure. I didn't think he had anything to be ashamed of. He had been there when the danger was at its worst, living through the chaotic years of the early seventies when IRA operations would be planned on the spur of the moment. IRA volunteers would just hijack a car, collect a couple of rifles, and take a few pot shots at the nearest army patrol. Planning, organization, and co-ordination were not familiar words in those days. Now everything had changed: a cell structure ensured that IRA members operated in small, self-sufficient units. There was now better discipline and training, and the philosophy of the movement owed more to the terrorists of the West German Baader-Meinhof group and the Red Brigades than to the IRA heroes from the misty past.
My information on Major Toombs and the other reservists helped start my career with the IRA. With it, I was like a bride bringing a dowry. My relative, whom I shall call Danny, surprised me by revealing that he knew Toombs; that he had, in fact, tried to kill him a few years previously. He and a Belfast man had lain in wait for the then UDR Captain Toombs in the garden of a house on a private estate in Newry called The Glen. The owners were away on holiday. The Belfast gunman was supposed to shoot Toombs as he drove past. My relative's job had been to prepare booby-trapped anti-personnel bombs which he had placed in the garden's thick undergrowth, where members of the Crown forces would inevitably take up positions and be shredded by the homemade shrapnel.
Toombs eventually appeared, driving his car slowly up the steep hill. The gunman was about to fire straight across the road, through Toombs's windscreen, when another car came down the hill and blocked the line of fire. Perhaps that split-second interference saved Toombs's life. As soon as the second car had passed, the gunman fired a round from his Armalite rifle. But Toombs was no longer in the ideal position, and the bullet hit the door on the driver's side, ripping off the door handle. The 7.62mm bullet must have fragmented and ricocheted into Toombs because the IRA men saw his face contort with pain. However, the gunman's position, at an awkward side angle, prevented him from squeezing off more accurate shots which would certainly have killed his target. Toombs would have died if he had panicked, braked, swerved or crashed, but although seriously injured, he managed to drive to the customs station two miles away. He was saved that time by a passing car, a chrome door handle and his own courage. Later I learned from customs men who were there that Toombs had driven into the station yard, pushed open his door, and fallen out of the car. As for the bombs, the army found and defused them.
Danny was surprised to hear that Toombs had become a UDR major, but he was excited by my information. He had fallen from grace in the eyes of republicans as a result of his nervous breakdown, which was seen by them as a kind of weakness, a ploy to get out of the IRA. Now, armed with my information, he saw a way of ingratiating himself once more — not as a volunteer, but as an all right guy who had been useful once upon a time and was still worthy of respect. Danny told me he would be in touch.
Some weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon, Danny took me to meet an IRA man called Seamus. I knew nothing about him, but I assumed he had some sort of responsibility for the Newry area. Bearded and reserved, he spoke to me with disturbing frankness. He seemed to suggest that I was mad to want to join the IRA in an area like Newry. He told me a demoralizing tale of incompetence and ineptitude. He said the Newry IRA had an atrocious reputation and was in a chaotic state. They had lost their independent command and battalion status, and were run from Dundalk rather than Newry because on their own they could not be trusted to command anything. He pointed out that Newry IRA people, with one or two exceptions, had always cracked under interrogation and signed damaging confessions. They had been responsible for the loss and theft of so much irreplaceable weaponry that they were no longer trusted with weapons of their own: whenever they had an idea for an operation they had to apply for equipment, and then go through a vetting procedure to determine whether the guns were going to be put to proper use. The worst enemy of the republican movement in Newry was its reputation for attracting social misfits and petty criminals. Seamus suggested that everything touched by the IRA in Newry turned into an embarrassment or a disaster. He asked me why anyone with a decent job would want to touch them.
I had been told that the IRA never painted a rosy picture for potential recruits, in order to scare off the faint-hearted; that they liked to warn people that, at the very least, their lives would no longer be their own, and that, in all probability, they would end up on the run, in prison, or dead. But Seamus, who was obviously tired and disillusioned, seemed to be going beyond this standard warning.
I admitted I was put off risking myself for such a chaotic group, but I wanted recognition by the IRA. If Newry was a mess, I believed it could be rectified by the right people and that I was one of them. In Northern Ireland we understood that the British Army classified areas by colour according to their level of republican military activity: white, let us say, is the safest, black the most dangerous. Newry in 1978 was therefore a grey area, and some districts were even classified white. This meant that the army felt that there was only a tiny chance of being attacked by the Newry IRA: they thought the organization was decrepit. I was determined to change that, to help turn Newry into a black area. At that moment, only three minutes' drive from Newry (which is a predominantly Catholic town), many Protestant policemen and part-time soldiers were living in the community, going to local shops without anxiety, and generally enjoying life. I wanted to replace their security with terror.
Danny was disappointed when he heard about my meeting with Seamus. He contacted another IRA man who he thought would be more receptive to what I was offering. This man was immediately alert to what I had to say. He wore a suit and had a business-like manner. Within the hour he had introduced me to two other men: the co-ordinating officer for all IRA units operating in the north, and the intelligence officer for the South Down area, who I would later nickname `Iceman'. They came quickly to the point: was I prepared to set up Toombs and the others for assassination, and did I have any idea how best they could be killed?
I felt that I also had to move quickly to the point, and explained my reservations about joining the IRA in Newry. I needed to know that if I were to help them kill soldiers and policemen, that there would be no loose ends. Seamus's warning had been very effective. They assured me that they would use experienced men. I said I would do what I could to set them up for what I thought of as the people's justice. The intelligence officer told me I would be crucial to the success of any operation; they had no one else in a position to gain direct knowledge of the movements of these people, their routines, habits, the precautions they took. He said I had to get close to them without arousing suspicion which could even lead to a counter-operation by the RUC Special Branch. Iceman was assigned as my contact. I was asked to give him a contact number — I gave him my number at work — and we decided that when he rang he would say he was my brother John. If he wanted to see me he would invite me out for a pint. I would know it was him if he said, `How's she going?', which he would accompany with an almost joyful laugh. It was a convivial code: in the coming years I was to hear it many times.
In my own eyes, I was an IRA man when I returned to Newry that night, even though I was not yet officially inducted into the organization. I felt important, useful, trusted; I went to work a new man. My hours spent at the report seat gave me leisure to think and fantasize about how to build an efficient terrorist organization. I began to learn the importance of building up character profiles, of gathering all kinds of intelligence — no matter how trivial or seemingly irrelevant — and how to be selective, to question people without them realizing you were looking for information. I convinced myself that the IRA had become dependent on hit-and-miss information and gossip from unreliable sources. What the organization needed was a network of sources ranging from local people, who could provide low-grade, every-day intelligence, to people inside the apparatus of the state, who could provide a lot more. I felt my job had opened up an important field of information which the republican movement could exploit. I was a clerical worker in the Imperial Civil Service. I was determined to do all I could to wreck it.
I had yet to meet Toombs. He was an idea, a force, not a person with a face; he had no humanity for me. Even in this, my apprentice period, I was learning how to depersonalize a man so that his death could not touch me.
In order to spy on your enemies in the local community with deadly intent, you need to perfect a different kind of memory. If I saw something of interest — a person, a car, a set of circumstances — I would pick a distinguishing feature, perhaps a facial scar or a cracked number plate. Soon I could order this information under specific categories: police/army/detectives. Then sub-categories: rural/urban; Bessbrook/Newry; old/young. I would turn these details over in my mind, again and again, until they were indelible. I found that the old system of rote-learning was best, as though I were memorizing the commandments, or irregular verbs, and so I got into the habit of repeating a piece of information to myself at least ten times. If I spotted a vehicle I would break down its obvious features — two-door, hatchback, colour gold. Registration number? `B' for Bertie. Then the potential target could be code-named `Bertie'. Over the following weeks or months any new information could be put into my mental Bertie file. And I could call up this file at any time, like a student.
Toombs and his Crown forces colleagues at Warrenpoint were not the only targets I had in mind. I visited Iceman's home covertly; if he was not in, I would put my information on paper and leave it for him: this was the only time I ever did this during my time as an IRA man. We would sit in his bedroom while his favourite Planxty record played in the background — the plaintive voice of Christy Moore covering our discussions of `ops'. During my meetings with Iceman he had explained two golden rules to me. The first was that, regardless of whether an objective had been achieved successfully, if a volunteer were captured or killed in the process, then the operation was a failure. The second was: never underestimate your enemy, but never overestimate him either. He stressed the importance of seeking out a target's routine, finding that particular aspect of his behaviour which could open him up for assassination. No matter how security-conscious someone is, there is almost always some aspect of his behaviour which becomes habitual. Targets would hardly be human if they did not have routines.
I knew that if I wanted to learn more about Toombs I had to get near him, but not so close as to attract suspicion. Suddenly an opportunity presented itself. Someone was needed to act as a relief worker at Warrenpoint to cover for officers on sick leave or on holiday. No one else from Newry would volunteer because they feared working in an office which contained so many part-time members of the Crown forces, in the event of an IRA attack. I told my superiors that the risk didn't bother me. So I began to work at Warrenpoint every now and again, for a few weeks at a time. Each time I entered the place I was able to paint another square of the canvas.
Warrenpoint customs station was an easy-going self-contained station, not long built, with showers and a well-equipped kitchen. There were around ten members of staff, but I spent most of my time at Warrenpoint working out ways to kill only Ivan Toombs. I had little interest in any of the other people except as a means of gaining information about Major Toombs. However, one of the executive officers attracted my attention. His name was Brendan. He talked loudly and excitedly, and took great care in signing his name on official documentation in his big, bold script. He appeared even to have some knowledge of the Irish language because he gaelicized his name when he signed it: Breandán. I took to working late shifts with him. He was quite open in speaking to me about the H-Block protest which was gaining support at the time, in early 1979. He thought that republican prisoners were right to resist the government's attempts to remove their political status and turn them into ordinary criminals. But this was a common sentiment among Northern Catholics, so I did not immediately jump to conclusions about his real sympathies. However, later in 1979, close to Warrenpoint customs station, an IRA bomb killed eighteen soldiers — mostly paratroopers. To my delight Brendan took satisfaction in the fact that at long last `those murdering, aggressive, half-witted bastards' had got their just desserts for shooting dead thirteen people in Derry back in 1972. I began to suspect he was an IRA sympathizer and not just an occasional nationalist. His sister was married to a Catholic man from a particularly loyalist area in Kilkeel: Brendan told me the usual horror stories about sectarian Protestant paramilitaries and their activities, and how these went unchecked by the police.
I gave to Brendan what few of his colleagues gave him: trust and respect. Among them he was seen as a gullible fool and a miser. I found him intelligent, although lacking in common sense, and extremely shrewd and careful with money. So I took a risk one day and told him that I had a connection with the republican movement. I said I was interested in compiling information about `Crown forces personnel' in Warrenpoint. He started giving me what he called `snippets'. He would not give me any information on any UDR and RUC men, whom he regarded as good guys, `nice people'. But if there was someone he thought was `a right bastard', then he would tell me everything he knew, with exaggerations thrown in for good measure. For my part, I detested this kind of selective republicanism: there were no `good' RUC or UDR men. They were all the same targets. You did not personalize them. Brendan was very reticent about Toombs, and during my first visits to the station I hardly saw Toombs. But one day he came to where I was working and I got a good look at him. I guessed he was in his mid to late forties; a small, stocky man. His hair was sandy-coloured with the fringe brushed back. He had a fresh complexion, and was slightly toothy.
I tried desperately to find Toombs's fatal routine. I kept tabs on his times of arrival at work: they always varied. I knew where he lived, I knew his car, that he was married with several children. He did not seem to have a close friend at work. Indeed, he did not seem to have any friends: he was a loner, not out of choice, but, I suspected, out of the need to survive. He seemed to lead a truly quiet life. Once I had even travelled to a union meeting with him, but I had not been able to penetrate his shell of reserve. I listened to his Protestant colleagues discuss him and I joined in the conversation, provoking them to say things. I suggested Ivan was a self-made man, deservedly a senior officer, a pillar of the service. I had certainly stirred a witches' brew. To some of his own community he was a nobody with airs and graces who had gained promotion because he had been shot by the IRA. They did not like the way he was able to come and go as he pleased, and they sneered at his membership of a golf club.
I felt only contempt for these people who denied the man the credit he deserved. For me, the more I found out about him, the more admirable I found him. He was a man of simple tastes who behaved decently towards all, the sort of man who would have rebuked anyone who made an anti-Catholic comment. I liked him and I felt that in other circumstances we might have been friends.
I came to find out lots of little details about Ivan Toombs, but never anything I could call a routine. Without a routine, without that regular and predictable action, I was stuck. But then, after two years of bits and pieces of nothing, I struck gold. I discovered that Major Toombs had got into the generous habit of giving his staff a little treat. Every Friday he would buy them sausage rolls and make them tea and coffee, always at around the same time in the morning. At last I had tied him down to one place, only momentarily, but long enough for gunmen to get in, kill him, and get out again. The only difficulty was that the other staff would be around. But if all the other staff were in the building, then the gunmen would also be able to kill another colleague of mine at the same time — a nice middle-aged chap but, unfortunately for him, a reserve policeman (the other one had left Warrenpoint by this time). Killing him as well as Toombs would be a bonus.
Around this time Toombs, who was Brendan's senior officer, wrote a report that Brendan was not fit for promotion. As was procedure, he discussed this report with Brendan before submitting it to his superiors. Toombs said that part of the reason for the bad report was what he called Brendan's `ablutions' on the mornings he was on early shift. I thought it typical of Ivan's strait-laced morality that he would use this Victorian-sounding word to refer to Brendan's illicit shave and shower. Brendan was extremely angry, and his thoughts turned to vengeance. Suddenly he started offering me lots of information about Toombs: he went shopping in a particular supermarket, he bought his bread in a small home bakery, he went to a particular church on a Sunday. But now I was not interested. It was too late. I had already done my homework and I did not need Brendan's help. However, I asked him if he would like to join the IRA. He said he was interested, although he kept saying: `All I want to supply is snippets.' What he should have realized was that so many snippets make a whole, and once that whole has come together then a new process, the final process, is set in motion and moves forward to an inevitable conclusion.
I supplied the IRA with detailed drawings of the layout of Warrenpoint customs station, indicating where Toombs and the reserve policeman would be. They were to be killed in the building — in a ghastly way, a vindication of the fundamental military principle of hitting your enemy where he least expects. I wanted the IRA to act fast because I would soon be taken off relief work and sent back to Newry, where I would not be able to keep up-to-date intelligence on Toombs and his colleague. I did not trust Brendan to take over from me: his sense of self-preservation would ensure he never helped us unstintingly.
One night Toombs made a surprise visit to my area when I was working late and alone. He had expected to find another of my colleagues there with me, a young Scotsman, but I had sent him home early, offering to cover for him. The next day Toombs gave the young man a rollicking, but I felt there was more to Toombs's anger than simply the young Scot's absence. To me it seemed that Toombs had been disappointed at missing this young man's company for a few hours — a Scot, a Protestant, someone to talk to without fear of it bringing a bullet in the back — rather than me, a Catholic, a nationalist, an unknown quantity. That night Toombs had brought his daughter with him. She could not have been more than eight or nine. She had large brown eyes, fearful and nervous. I remember thinking that no child should ever be like this: it was not natural, it was not fair. I did feel a twinge of conscience, despite my utter determination and capacity to abstract myself from human feeling, because I looked at this child and I said to myself: `I'm putting the finishing touches to your father's death.'
Just before I finished my relief work at Warrenpoint, Toombs once again came into the office when I was on my own. He asked me to come with him to board and check a Russian ship that had just docked in the town's harbour. We were welcomed by the captain, who spoke very little English. He was a middle-aged, balding man who sat there smiling through two rows of gold crowns. He gave us a few shots of very strong Russian vodka, washed down with spring water. The conversation was limited but the vodka was extremely good. The captain smoked continuously and I noticed Toombs fingering a box of matches that featured a picture of a woman in a visionary pose representing the onward march of the Soviet motherland. Toombs let it be known that he collected matchboxes from all over the world. The captain said he had a variety of matchboxes in his stores and he would let Toombs have a selection of them. We left the ship with Ivan Toombs talking — slightly intoxicated with the strong liquor — about his delight at finding so many unusual matchboxes. I felt for him at that moment and I felt angry at the people from his own community, his own tribal group, who begrudged him his senior officer's position. I had heard that after the first assassination attempt Ivan had been offered customs jobs in Britain, but he had chosen to stay in Ireland so that he could keep his command in the UDR.
And he had been born in Warrenpoint; his family had lived there for generations. This was his home, and clearly he felt it was his duty to stay. I admired this quiet unassuming man. I also felt sorry for him: sorry that he appeared to be isolated and alone, sorry that his children lived in fear, sorry that they had been brought up to be careful of whoever they met — trusting no one, weighing up every situation they walked into. His daughter's eyes told the story of that fear. Even at that time — although I hated his politics — I could see that all Ivan wanted to do was defend and protect what he saw as his land, his way of life, his community, against a subversive threat.
On the way back to the office we spoke about the new security arrangements at Newry customs station. I asked him if he thought they would be effective against attack. He said that when a group of terrorists were determined and dedicated, when they devoted their minds and energies to a task, they would succeed regardless of the level of security. At that moment I felt in a strange way that we were engaged in a similar dangerous project; we had common bonds in that we both believed our cause to be right. But that was where my sympathy stopped. I was an unpaid volunteer in the IRA, part of a secret guerrilla army with limited resources. As far as I was concerned, Toombs, and others like him, were paid for propping up a system that had institutionalized sectarian hatred for sixty years, a system with an anti-Catholic ethos, a system that operated a policy of widespread discrimination. I, and others like me, had had enough: I felt that there was no point in trying to compromise or reason with these people, particularly in a situation which had become a lot worse with the arrival of Mrs Thatcher. For me, to strike at Toombs was to strike at an ancient colonial system of élites. Killing Toombs would also be a symbol of our dogged resistance to inequality and injustice, a gesture of solidarity with the protesting prisoners in the H-Blocks who had just embarked on the first hunger strike. I was full of a heady mixture of anti-imperialism, anger, sympathy and self-importance.
I pushed hard for the operation to be carried out before I had been moved from Warrenpoint back to Newry, but without success. The intelligence officer, Iceman — who was also going to be one of the gunmen — believed it was necessary to turn one final stone. He wanted to know how the gunmen would know for sure that Toombs and his policeman colleague were in the building when they called. I suspected that Iceman wanted to use Brendan to give some sort of signal, but I knew he would not have been able to cope with the pressure. As far as I was concerned the information was up-to-date. Toombs would be there as always on Friday at eleven o'clock, preparing tea and sausage rolls.
On a frosty day in the middle of January 1981 I got a call from Iceman. He asked me to contact Brendan: he wanted to see us both that night in Dundalk. I had no idea why. At that time I was involved in sketching out several operations and it was difficult to say which he wanted to discuss. Planning for an attack on Warrenpoint police station had reached an advanced stage; indeed, I thought that either that attack or the bombing of the Customs and Excise warehouse in Newry would be the next operation. Brendan agreed to pick me up in a pub in Newry at 7 p.m. I waited two and a half hours; he did not turn up. I returned home believing that Brendan had realized that he was being asked to provide more than `snippets' to the republican movement. He was fast becoming a nuisance and a liability, and I was convinced he would prove of little use as an IRA volunteer, even though he was in the process of being officially inducted into the organization.
Brendan turned up at my house just after midnight. I have never seen a man looking so haggard and pale: he was completely white. He said he had been unable to meet me at the arranged time, but had eventually made his way to Dundalk. Iceman had some news for him. Tomorrow morning at eleven o'clock Iceman planned to enter the Warrenpoint customs station and shoot Toombs. I looked at Brendan, who was relating this story in a state of shock and terror, and burst out laughing. I had been smoking dope and I could not stop laughing at Brendan's big face, his voice cracking under the weight of dread. I laughed uncontrollably, almost hysterically, until I realized how desperately upset Brendan was. He said over and over: `It's not funny. It's not funny.' I did not need him to tell me that. He wanted me to go to Dundalk and have the operation called off. I knew this was impossible. I had no doubt that the IRA gunmen had left Dundalk by now and had hidden their motorcycle ready for collection the next morning. Brendan was going to be phoned at work by Iceman as a final check to make sure that Toombs and the other man were there. He was not expected to do anything else.
When I had first become involved with Iceman, he told me that there were times when he would subject me to tests of loyalty and commitment. I felt he might only be subjecting Brendan to such a test. Perhaps there was no operation; perhaps Iceman just wanted to make sure that Brendan was of the right calibre for the IRA. Over the next few hours, with the help of a few stiff whiskeys, I convinced Brendan that Iceman might only be testing him, that nothing was going to happen tomorrow. Brendan came to believe me. He left my house a happier man, prepared to `pass the test'. Part of me despised Brendan's attitude: it was not that he objected to Toombs being shot, only to the location. But when he left that night I was almost certain that the operation was going to take place the next day.
I went to work as normal. Shortly after eleven o'clock the news came through that Ivan Toombs had been shot dead.
Over the weekend I read about the assassination. I did not think much about Toombs's fate as a human being, except that he had died as the result of a perfectly-executed operation. I admit I felt real satisfaction that we had been the first IRA unit at the start of the New Year to get a kill, a good kill. I had worked for two years to bring off this operation.
I went to see Iceman during the week to hear about the assassination at first hand. He had done as I told him to do to get into the building: he stood at the security door and waved some official C10 entry papers — supplied by me — at the officer on duty. The officer then pressed the security buzzer to admit this innocent member of the public. Iceman pulled a gun on the man and took him down the corridor. The officer, whom I knew as Johnny, had told him that Toombs was not in, but Iceman put the gun to his ear and told him he would blow his head off. Johnny pointed out Toombs's office. Iceman said that when he had entered the office `the old fucker' had tried to go for a gun concealed in his briefcase, but Iceman shot him several times. The staff had heard several bangs and as soon as the shooting stopped they had tried to run out of the building, where they were met by another gunman wearing a motorcycle helmet. He told them to get back in and lie on the floor, which they all did. Iceman said he had come very close to shooting a man who he thought fitted the description of the reserve policeman, but had changed his mind at the last second. This was fortunate because the reserve policeman was not on duty that day.
I suspected Iceman was lying about what had happened. It took me some time to piece together the full story, which I finally did when I spoke to Johnny and a friend of the other gunman. They supplied very different accounts, accounts that were authenticated much later by forensic evidence submitted at my trial. The gunmen drove their motorcycle into Warrenpoint docks from the road entrance on the Newry side. They drove past the security hut, and straight into the docks. However, before they approached the customs station, they switched off the engine, allowing the bike to glide the last twenty yards silently. They did this because the motorcycle is linked with assassination in Northern Ireland, and Toombs could quite easily have been alerted by the sound of a motorcycle engine. Johnny confirmed how he had let the two gunmen into the building, how he had been made to lie on the floor and how he had felt the metal of the gun against his ear. He remembered being terrified by the gunman's sense of purpose and coolness. Iceman told Johnny not to move. Then he entered Toombs's office.
Toombs, who was sitting behind his desk, was surprised when his killer came in and called his name. The gunman immediately took up a firing position with his arms outstretched, standing only four feet from Ivan Toombs: he pulled the trigger of his Starr Automatic pistol, but it jammed. Toombs moved quickly from his seat towards the briefcase where he kept his gun. Iceman lunged at him. They began to wrestle. My IRA comrade, although in his early twenties and about six foot two in height, found Toombs, a much older man, determined and strong. Had Toombs carried his gun in a holster or in a waistband, the outcome might have been very different. However, he did not, and part of the reason he never did so was because some of the other staff were sensitive about seeing weapons on colleagues.
Iceman called out to the other gunman who ran the twenty feet down the corridor to Toombs's office. When he threw open the door he saw Toombs and Iceman struggling on top of the desk. The gunman shouted: 'Stand back,' and Iceman let go of Toombs who must have thought his assailant was either giving up or trying to get away, because he did not hold on to him. The other gunman fired several bullets in quick succession into Toombs, who fell to the ground, dying.
The gunman instinctively left the room -just in time to stop the staff from running out of the building. He made them come back and lie on the floor. Meanwhile Iceman had managed to clear his jammed weapon and pumped several rounds into Toombs as he lay dying on the floor. The gunmen walked casually out of the building by the main door, got on their motorcycle and drove out by the pedestrian gate, which was seldom locked. They made their way to Rostrevor, a few miles away, abandoning the motorcycle in a quiet housing estate, and walked to a safe house nearby. There they stayed for a few hours until the last checkpoint had been lifted and the hunt had died down. Then they were picked up from the safe house and they returned - as the IRA usually say in their statements - safely to base.
I knew I had to check up on Brendan to make sure he was not about to crack. Iceman told me how he had called Brendan on the morning of the killing to ask if Toombs was in. Brendan had simply said: 'Yes.' I knew that the next time Brendan had heard the same voice was when Iceman walked into the customs station, holding a gun.
I arrived at Brendan's house and could see he was nervous, but there was also a part of him that was satisfied with the chat around town about the ruthlessness of the attack. Even his parents seemed to be alive with the awful excitement of the event. His father told me that it was 'the intelligence of the operation' that really struck him, and I began to think that Brendan, in his fear, might have told his parents of his role, which no doubt he had exaggerated. Everybody seemed to be basking in the sun of our success. I was just thankful that Brendan was holding up. I knew he was annoyed with me, upset at having contributed a little more than 'snippets' to this operation, but I felt he had to learn to live with his action. This was how the IRA operated: everybody was expendable (some just a little more expendable than others, of course). I had no romanticism about it, even then: I regarded the IRA as a ruthless and necessary killing-machine.
I went to Toombs's funeral. At work I contributed money for the floral tribute. The clergyman was Robert Eames, later to become an archbishop, and he gave a sermon. He said he had had a meal with Toombs only a few days before his death. During the meal they had talked about the situation in Northern Ireland. Toombs had said — referring to either the IRA or the nationalist community or both: `Perhaps some day they will realize that there are some things that are so good they just cannot be changed.' I felt a sting of anger at a typical Orangeman's sentiment, and thought: `Northern Ireland is theirs and theirs alone, so good for them; not so good if you are a Catholic living under their heel.' After the service I joined the procession to the graveyard. I tried to identify some more potential targets, and I fell in behind two middle-aged gentlemen with English accents who were wearing crombies. I heard them discussing the IRA's operation. They were clearly army or intelligence officers.
Brendan was also at the funeral, looking pale and drawn. I kept a close watch on him to make sure he was continuing to bear up: I stared at him, wanting him to know that there was an implied threat in my stare. He could be killed just as easily as Toombs, and I wanted him to feel that reality. Of course I felt for Brendan's distress, and I knew we were wrong to have put him under such pressure, but the operation was over now, and survival required that we tighten up and leave Toombs behind.
I could still recognize his family's grief. And yet I was satisfied: satisfied that I had acted as an IRA man, as a volunteer, and I was prepared to move on to the next operation, the next hit, the next kill — for that was what it was all about. We had to be as pragmatic, single-minded and ruthless as we felt the British to be. That way they would know that they had an equal and dangerous adversary.
It did not take long for people to get on with their lives. With Toombs dead, customs staff in Newry were prepared to work in Warrenpoint. The most bizarre touch was the introduction of several new security devices: they put a warning button under a desk at the public counter and bullet-proof glass in the hatch. If there was danger in this area, the person at the hatch could push a button and a red light would go on in Toombs's office! But for what? He was dead and gone. Not even the blood stains on the carpet remained. I busied myself with other operations, and largely forgot about Toombs, but sometimes at work I would be reminded of him. I felt a respect for him: he had been a brave man. Later I asked Iceman how he felt about Toombs. He said he felt nothing. It was then that I began to think of him as icily cold and ruthless.
Some years later, long after I had left the IRA, I took a train from Belfast to Newry with a friend. An attractive young woman in her teens sat across from me. She had beautiful big eyes, short dark hair and a pleasant smile. My friend said hello. As the train arrived in Newry the girl got up to stand at the door and, captivated by her, I asked my friend who she was: `Oh, that's Alison Toombs from Warrenpoint.'
I realized now that I had seen that face before: I recognized those eyes which once had held fear and nervousness. A terrible sadness and a wave of guilt enveloped me. I turned to my friend and said: `I was responsible for her father's death.' My friend recoiled, looking shocked, as the train pulled into the station. I watched Alison Toombs standing at the train door. The door swung open, and she moved out into the crowd.
(C) 1997 Eamon Collins All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-86207-008-3