Sunday, 5 October 2008

Queen's University Law Lecturer, Revolutionary Communist and IRA helpmate

A blitz of spectacular attacks in and around Belfast's Queen's University convinced the police a terrorist mole had penetrated the campus.

No one suspected that the quiet, bespectacled law lecturer and Englishman David Ewins might be behind the murder and mayhem.

But Ewins's mild-mannered middle-class exterior – and the Paddington Bear on his mantelpiece – hid his fanatical dedication to the ideals of Communist revolution.

His hero was the notorious English traitor and Soviet spy Kim Philby.

One of Surrey-born Ewins's former students – the IRA intelligence officer and future supergrass Eamon Collins – had seduced him into crossing the line dividing revolutionary rhetoric from terrorist murder.

Mick McGovern, who co-wrote Collins's autobiography Killing Rage, tells the extraordinary story that Ewins fought for years to suppress. It is based on the bestselling book's unpublished chapter.

Collins paid for the book with his life. The IRA murdered him in January 1999.

The Lord Chief Justice stepped from the safety of his armour-plated Rover and walked towards the law lecturers waiting to greet him.

His armed police bodyguards scanned the tree-lined street for danger. All seemed quiet near the Staff Common Room of Belfast's Queen's University - the venue for Lord Lowry's secretly-planned lunch with law faculty staff.

But as the distinguished lord walked the few paces to his waiting hosts, a fusillade of shots whizzed past him, slamming into a tree - and the buttocks of a passing professor - but just missing Lowry himself.

Gun-toting policemen pushed Northern Ireland's most senior legal figure to safety, scattering the waiting lecturers. Soldiers and police soon swamped the campus and stormed the house from where the terrorists had fired the shots. Unsurprisingly, the Provisional IRA team had long fled.

Only one academic seemed unfazed by the deadly drama. The bespectacled Englishman David Ewins, a shy intellectual with no Irish forbears, impressed his colleagues with the stiffness of his upper-lip.

Even botched, this IRA attack on March 3 1982 gave the terrorists a major propaganda coup. How had the IRA got wind of Lowry's planned visit? What - or who - had caused the security lapse?

Only a handful of trusted people had known of the unadvertised lunch. Detectives called on each of that trusted handful, including the mild-mannered David Ewins, lecturer in Criminology and Legal Philosophy, whose well-spoken English accent suggested the prosperous middle-class Surrey background into which he had been born.

They told him they suspected a lecturer might unknowingly have let slip details to an IRA-sympathising student. They asked him if he knew any students who were 'not loyal'.
The otherwise serious-minded Ewins, not known among his colleagues for his sense of humour, had laughed heartily at the officer's 'colonial phraseology' when he later told this story to one of his former law students, Eamon Collins.

For Collins, despite his job working for the British Crown as a customs officer, was an IRA member - and the man who had over several years slowly seduced Ewins into the service of the Provos.

For eight years Ewins fought a legal battle to prevent this story being told. His writs stopped it appearing in Collins's autobiography Killing Rage.

But - ten years after the book's publication and eight years after Collins's own murder by IRA members enraged by the book - a legal ruling has opened the way to telling one of the most remarkable stories of the Troubles.

The story told here, and the quotes from Eamon Collins, are taken from the chapter of Killing Rage that remained unpublished because of Ewins's legal threats.

The attack on Lord Lowry was only the first of several IRA operations made possible by Ewins. His information led to at least two other ruthless, headline-grabbing attacks in and around the campus of Queen's University.

And the law lecturer also came within striking distance of what would have been one of the IRA's most spectacular attacks ever - the assassination of Britain's Chief Security Co-ordinator for Northern Ireland, the former top spymaster Sir Maurice Oldfield, one-time head of M16.

Collins first met Ewins as a law student at Queen's University in 1974, the year Ewins joined the staff. In 1978, several years after Collins had dropped out of his course, he met up with Ewins by chance at a march for republican prisoners. At that time Collins was not an IRA member, but was considering joining.

Collins said: 'David was of average height with frizzy ginger hair. He had a baby face and always looked much younger than his years. He was no more than 30 when I met him again in 1978. His black-framed glasses made him look a bit like Woody Allen, though he lacked Allen's sense of humour.'

Ewins seemed to be wearing the same clothes he had worn when Collins had first attended his lectures three years earlier - black trousers, black shoes and an open-necked shirt. Functional, if not fashionable. Only his duffle coat might once have been regarded as vaguely modish.

Ewins was selling the magazine Hands Off Ireland!, a publication of the tiny ultra-left Revolutionary Communist Group - one of the few British groups to give unconditional support to the IRA. Ewins told Collins he wrote for that magazine and its equally unambiguous,
exclamation-marked sister publication, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

Collins was impressed by his former lecturer's radicalism. They arranged to meet again and, over the following months, became close, spending countless hours discussing revolutionary politics.

Indeed, they discussed little else. Outwardly unexcitable, Ewins's only passion was revolution. Collins said: 'I would never dare to ask him about his private life: there was an almost asexual air about him......

'All I came to know about his background was that he came from Richmond in Surrey, the son of an English father who was an executive in the electricity industry and of a Welsh mother who worked in the health service. He had taken a first-class honours degree in law at Edinburgh University.'

They often met in Ewins's one-bed university flat, which was stuffed with revolutionary books, magazines and papers. The only frivolous object was a Paddington Bear. It sat forlornly on the mantelpiece. Collins thought the previous tenant had probably left it behind.

Collins admired Ewins's intellect, but despaired of his social skills. Collins said: 'One night early on in our friendship as we sat in a south Armagh pub with a group of republicans, I had to point out to David that, when sitting in a group, you were expected to buy a round if other people were buying you drinks.

'He was certainly not miserly - in fact he was very generous - it was just that he had not been aware of this social convention. At that time the thought did cross my mind: "Where has he been all his life?"'

He felt at times that Ewins was merely an observer watching the working class at play.

Collins confided in Ewins that he was thinking of joining the IRA, but had political and moral reservations about taking such a step.

Ewins supported his former student's drift towards the Provos with intellectual justification for the IRA's campaign.

He told him that Communists would always support revolutionary groups like the IRA, because revolutions were an important stage in the development towards a Communist society. He regarded the Provos as a force that might help spread revolution throughout western Europe.

Ewins felt the conflict had to be spread to working-class people in the south of Ireland to get them to seize the North. The people would then create a Socialist state like Nicaragua under the revolutionary Sandinistas which would have to be armed to the teeth by Russia in order to prevent an American intervention.

Collins said: 'I was already moving firmly towards joining the Provos, but David's moral support bolstered my resolve by helping me overcome the reservations I still had.....

'I was grateful to him: his analysis meant that when I looked at the breadman and the postman and the customs officer who worked part-time for the Crown forces I did not see ordinary working people, I saw agents of imperialism, class enemies upholding a corrupt system. Marxism helped me to remove their apparent ordinariness and turn them into what I then regarded as legitimate targets.....

'He said the enemies of revolution were capable of killing hundreds of thousands - even millions - in defence of capitalism, yet through their control of the media and the churches they were able to purvey a morality which left some people feeling guilty if they killed a mere handful of civilians by mistake.

'His words were what I needed to hear. My Catholic morality had prevented me for years from joining the IRA by imbuing me with a horror of killing. David helped me overcome the moral strictures of my upbringing.'

Collins joined the IRA in early 1979 - around the time he became a British customs officer in the Newry area, near the border with the Irish Republic.

Collins's position gave him access to invaluable intelligence. His IRA unit began operating with murderous effectiveness. He even organised the murder of his own boss in the customs, a part-time major in the Ulster Defence Regiment.

But Collins was also targeting Ewins as a possible IRA recruit. He felt that far-left English volunteers, practically invisible to the police, could help the IRA bring havoc to England.
They could provide safe-houses, and their English accents would be useful for hiring cars and carrying out other important logistical tasks.

Already Ewins would, from time to time, point Collins in the direction of specialist electronic magazines and obscure academic publications on counter-terrorism that he felt would be of interest to the IRA.

Collins eventually asked Ewins if he could persuade the Revolutionary Communist Group to help with a military campaign. Ewins flew to England and met with senior RCG members, but returned to Ireland disappointed. His RCG comrades refused to help the IRA in military rather than literary ways. Their unconditional support for the IRA came with the condition that their role remained as cheerleaders on the sidelines.

Ewins told Collins he felt their response was typical of the 'spineless' British Left.
Collins used Ewins's embarrassment to set him thinking about his own revolutionary credentials. He wanted Ewins to look in the mirror and see another armchair revolutionary, hot on rhetoric, cold on action.

The strategy worked. Ewins resolved his personal doubts in a decisive way.

At Collins's wedding in 1982 Ewins told him about Lord Lowry's planned secret visit - and agreed to help the Belfast IRA set up an attack.

Collins, about to set off on honeymoon, used a messenger to pass the urgent information to senior IRA commanders. The messenger, a wedding guest, had been drunk when Collins instructed him. The messenger subsequently garbled the message and gave the intended target as 'Lord Gowrie', rather than 'Lord Lowry'.

Lord Gowrie was then the Deputy Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He later became Minister for the Arts before retiring from the Cabinet in 1985 on the grounds that he could not live on his 33,000 pounds ministerial salary.

For some reason the IRA leadership regarded Lord Gowrie as 'not a bad old skin' - and declined to sanction his killing. The misunderstanding was not discovered until Collins returned from honeymoon. By then it seemed too late to mount an operation.

However, Ewins saved the day for the IRA. He discovered that Lord Lowry's visit had been cancelled at short notice and re-arranged for a later date. The attack went ahead.

Collins later discovered another embarrassing postscript to the story. On the night of the wedding he had arranged a bed for Ewins in an IRA man's house. Ewins had gone to bed early.
Collins heard that the drunken messenger had fancied his chances with one of the bridesmaids and woken up Ewins to ask him to vacate his bed for an hour to facilitate the liaison. Ewins had refused.

Before staggering off, the frustrated messenger had called him 'a cunt'.

Collins took great pride in his new recruit. He knew he had delivered to the IRA someone with the potential for bringing mayhem into the vulnerable heart of what he saw as 'the Establishment'.

The IRA regarded Ewins as so important that they appointed a high-ranking Belfast Provisional as his 'handler'. This man, a member of the IRA's so-called Army Council, told Collins delightedly: 'I would like to wrap this man up in cotton wool.'

Even before Ewins helped the Provos target Lord Lowry, he had spotted an even bigger target - the former head of Britain's foreign intelligence service MI6, spymaster Sir Maurice Oldfield. He had followed Sir Maurice- then the Chief Security Co-ordinator for Northern Ireland - as he walked unprotected along a beach in the supposedly safe seaside town of Bangor.
However, he could not provide enough information for the IRA to launch an attack which would have dealt a severe blow to the security forces.

He made up for his failure by helping the IRA assassinate one of his fellow law lecturers, the barrister and high-flying unionist politician, Edgar Graham.

Graham, only 29, was shot in the head at close range on December 7 1983 as he chatted to a friend in University Square on his way to give a lecture. Many, including the former Official Unionist leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, felt the party had been robbed of a future leader.

But Ewins's most ruthless act was to target one of his part-time Criminology students, William Fulton, then an inspector in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Fulton was attacked on May 26 1982 as he entered the exam hall to take the last paper of his law finals in Ewins's subject, Criminology. A gunman came up behind him and shot him in the back of the head.

Amazingly, the bullet went around his brain and exited without causing him to lose consciousness. The gunman then fired a second bullet into his back. Fulton fell to the floor but managed to spin around and hurl a chair at his attacker. The chair deflected the third bullet,
which exited through a window.

The gunman ran off and Fulton crawled to the front of the exam hall where the invigilator was standing. It was David Ewins.

'Ewins did nothing. He just stood there,' said Fulton, who miraculously survived. 'I crawled towards him because he was the authority figure in the hall, but in fact it was other students who came to my aid. Someone stuck their finger in the hole in the back of my head to staunch the blood flow.'

Fulton received a lot of get-well cards after the event, but none from David Ewins: 'I thought that was a bit strange at the time, but I suppose he can't be all bad, because he later gave me a very high mark when I retook the paper after my recovery.'

Fulton, who retired as a superintendent more than a decade after the attack, remembers Ewins as a man 'without character'. He said: 'He was completely nondescript. He would never talk to you about anything other than the subject. He never expressed any emotion whatsoever.'

After these attacks Ewins and Collins even went on holiday together to Soviet Russia, travelling separately in July 1984.

Ewins admired the Soviet Union and revered Lenin. He countered Collins's reservations about the purges and the gulags by saying they had been necessary to defend the 1917 revolution.
The trip was not entirely pleasurable - at least not for Collins and his wife. Collins said: 'We saw Lenin's tomb, Lenin's train, Lenin's house, even Lenin's car. My wife soon became bored with the unchanging focus of our days. She wanted to see more of Russia than dark museums and monuments to Communism. She also became resentful of the way in which David would not leave our side.

'In Leningrad she had wanted to see the Natural History Museum which contained a long-tusked woolly mammoth which had been dug out of the ice in Siberia - discovered fortuitously by gulag prisoners digging for minerals. David was not keen on adding this visit to our itinerary, and somehow we managed not to find the museum, ending up instead at yet another series of monuments to Lenin.'

Collins was also not impressed by the Soviet system. He felt it had turned people into frightened, sombre, grey creatures.

He said: 'The obvious repression that these people lived under did not bother David. He said that everyone had to make sacrifices for the revolution in the short-term: he felt that in the long-term little details like personal freedom would be sorted out. However, he said at one point: "I couldn't live here. I'm too used to a privileged life."'

Ewins always refused to be officially inducted into the IRA (which would have involved taking an oath of allegiance). Collins suspected Ewins secretly looked down on the Provos, having an allegiance to something greater.

One of his revolutionary heroes was the upper middle class English traitor Kim Philby, who had spied for Soviet Russia. Collins came to feel that Ewins to some extent modelled himself on Philby. He had several books on the Cambridge spies and seemed to know everything about them.

Ewins told him that as a student he had spent so much time in Communist East Germany that once on his return to the West he had been taken in for questioning by the security services.
Ewins so enjoyed his two-week tour of Russia that he soon developed plans to visit another Communist paradise - Vietnam. Collins and his wife could not afford the trip, so Ewins lent them money for the tickets. The planned departure date was March 29 1985.

Collins said: 'I met him towards the end of February. He said he planned to return to London at the end of his contract in September: he wanted me to have all of his left-wing books and papers, which included a full collection of Republican News.

'I knew he was still in touch with his IRA handler: it was almost as if he was following orders, creating a new "clean" identity for himself before he returned home to England for who knew what.'

Collins suspected Ewins was being groomed by the IRA to supply the intelligence background for a spectacular IRA mainland campaign of high-profile bombings and assassinations.

But Ewins never got to Vietnam - or England. With a spectacular act of betrayal Collins brought his own IRA career - and Ewins's potential helpfulness to the Provos - to a dramatic end.

The police swooped on Collins after the IRA's most devastating attack ever on the RUC when they killed nine officers in a mortar attack on Newry Police Station on February 28 1985. It was the RUC's single biggest loss of life during the Troubles.

After five days of intense interrogation Collins cracked. He told the police almost everything he knew, including the extraordinary story of David Ewins. He even agreed to become a supergrass. This would have involved his testifying in court against his former comrades.
Ewins fled before the police had a chance to arrest him. Republican sources had tipped him off that Collins was 'talking'. He went to the Republic of Ireland, where he is believed to have remained ever since.

Collins later retracted his evidence, but, based on his own admissions, was charged with five murders and 45 other serious terrorist offences. Astonishingly - though everything he had told
the police was true - he walked free from court after a judge accepted his claim that he had been mistreated in custody.

I first met Eamon Collins in 1994 as part of a Carlton Television team making a documentary about his life for ITV. At that time I spoke to several of Ewins's former colleagues at Queen's University. Most of them did not want to be named.

Ewins had told Collins he regarded almost all his colleagues as 'careerists' and 'Establishment fools'. Not surprisingly, no one described Ewins as popular. Quiet and intense, he hardly ever mixed socially with his fellow lecturers.

No one knew anything about his private life, and he was not known to have any friends - male or female. He did not encourage small-talk on any subject, and neither disclosed nor solicited private confidences. One lecturer said: 'It took us five years to find out he was a Chelsea supporter.'

Another woman who knew him remembered sharing with him a coach journey of several hours in which he did not emit more than a handful of words, despite her frequent attempts to engage him in conversation.

Another colleague, an Englishman who spent some time in the law faculty before Ewins began helping the IRA, had felt sorry for what he perceived as his countryman's social isolation. He tried to befriend Ewins and invited him to a number of social events.

The former lecturer said: 'Nothing seemed to fizz with Dave. He was very even-tempered - never high, never low, always the same. You could have let off a grenade in Dave's company and he would not have twitched.

'He was in many ways an independent and resourceful character but in other ways, particularly socially, he was inadequate and lacked confidence. The only times we had an even vaguely personal conversation would be when he would talk about suicide. He was fascinated by the subject. He was not interested in suicide as an act you commit when you are depressed but rather as a legitimate individual act in response to the meaningless of life.'

He thought that Ewins's involvement in republican politics was part of his search for meaning in what he saw as a meaningless existence. He remembered how once at a party a woman had launched a furious tirade at Ewins when she heard him support the occasional IRA tactic of planting no-warning bombs on public transport. Ewins did not flinch as she unleashed her fury.

At the time, this man wondered what Ewins was doing in the law faculty of Queen's (which he described as being then a 'very reactionary part of a very conservative society'), particularly given Ewins's left-wing views.

Ewins did not involve himself in academic research. Over time this man suspected that Ewins had been attracted to Northern Ireland because of the 'revolutionary situation.'

Everyone agrees that Ewins was gifted intellectually. He fulfilled his academic tasks with thoroughness and application. His courses were popular with students, if only because he took great pains to spoonfeed them, providing them with reams of his own notes.

Although Ewins was known to hold political views which put him on the far left, no one could believe that his republican sympathies had led him to become involved in political violence.

Former Official Unionist Party leader David Trimble, who was also a lecturer in the law faculty at the same time as Ewins, said: 'We all knew that he was somewhere on the far left, but we just thought he was a slightly silly Englishman with potty views living in a fantasy world.

'At the time of the incidents, there were fingers pointed at him, but everyone said, "Surely it can't be him? Surely he wouldn't have been so stupid as to set up operations for times when he would be at the scene?"'

Rumours began circulating around Queen's University after Ewins failed to turn up for the summer term in 1985.

The consensus was that Ewins might have become inadvertently caught up with republicans who had used him. The feeling was that he had panicked and fled once he knew he had blundered naively into a dangerous situation.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland refused to talk about David Ewins, but unofficial police sources have confirmed he was a suspect after the Lord Lowry attack. However, the extent of Ewins's involvement came as a surprise to one of the investigating officers for the university attacks.

The officer, who did not want to be named, said: 'It is one thing to suspect someone. It is another thing entirely to prove someone's involvement. If we had ever had a case against Ewins, we would have charged him.'

However, one group which had suspected Ewins of involvement with the IRA prior to the attacks on the university campus was the now-banned loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association. The then leader of the UDA, Andy Tyrie, approached a senior worker at the
university to tell him that the UDA had spotted a lecturer called David Ewins meeting senior republicans in Belfast.

The university worker passed on this information to the highest levels of Queen's University, but, so far as he knew, Ewins was never asked to explain his actions.

For the 1995 Carlton Television documentary I tracked Ewins down to his workplace in Dublin's Upper Mount Street, where the headquarters of Ireland's two major political parties were based.

He was running a small private college which offered tuition to people seeking British law qualifications. Ewins was asked to comment on Collins's allegations. He said nothing, then walked briskly out of the room, followed by our camera crew. He ran down several flights of stairs before hiding in a downstairs office we were not allowed to enter. He later had us ejected from the building.

In the subsequent documentary about Eamon Collins, broadcast by ITV in April 1995, we did not go into the Ewins story in detail. That did not stop Ewins suing for libel - but only in the Irish Republic. His fear of immediate arrest had possibly stopped him suing in the United Kingdom. He also sued - again only in Ireland - several newspapers that had reported the Carlton Television story.

However, we guessed that, even in Ireland, he had no intention of rushing into the witness box. We suspected his only plan was to stop the full story being published in Eamon's autobiography, Killing Rage, which the programme advertised as a book in the pipeline.
In this, Ewins succeeded. The publisher decided the Ewins story was a risk too far for an already risky book. The chapter was cut.

Over the next eight years Ewins appeared in no hurry to defend his reputation in court. Then the Irish Supreme Court struck out one of Ewins's libel writs on the grounds of his 'inordinate and inexcusable' delay in bringing the matter to court.

Ewins subsequently reached a settlement with Carlton Television and the other newspapers, the details of which are confidential.

Some of us were disappointed that Ewins had not managed to find his way into the witness box. He would have had a little difficulty in giving an innocent explanation for a lot of our unbroadcast evidence against him.

Ewins would also finally have discovered Collins's last, and secret, betrayal.

In a solicitor's letter before the documentary was broadcast Ewins claimed he had 'not met or talked to Mr Collins since 1984'. But in 1988 Collins had met him in Dublin, ostensibly to apologise for forcing him to go on the run.

Unknown to Ewins, the meeting was being secretly filmed, with Collins's connivance, by the producer who subsequently made the Carlton Television film.

Collins had been planning to make a documentary at that time, but pulled out through fears for his life. He felt he could only make a documentary and write a book once an IRA ceasefire was in place. And he had to wait until 1994 for that.

In January 1999 the IRA, on ceasefire, murdered him anyway.

A few years ago I spoke to a BBC journalist who'd met a member of the IRA team that had carried out the attack on Lord Lowry.

Only one person had been slightly wounded in that attack – Robert Perks, an openly gay Englishman who worked as a business studies professor at Queen's University. A stray bullet had hit him in the buttocks, a fact which, he told me himself, had been viewed by some of his more strait-laced Presbyterian colleagues as a divine punishment for his lifestyle.

The journalist told me the IRA man had boasted mockingly of the botched operation's one success: 'Well,' said the Provo, 'at least we got a Brit.'