Collins grows up in a middle-class Irish family in Camlough, a small, staunchly Irish republican town in County Armagh. After completing his schooling, he works for a time in the Ministry of Defence in a clerical capacity in London before studying law at Queen’s University Belfast, where he becomes influenced by Marxist political ideology. He eventually drops out of university and, after working in a pub for a period, joins Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise Service, serving in Newry, and goes on to use this internal position within the administrative machinery of the British Government to support IRA operations against Crown Forces personnel.
Collins joins the Provisional IRA during the blanket protest by Long Kesh inmates in the late 1970s and he becomes involved in street demonstrations. He joins the South Down Brigade of the IRA, based around Newry, and is appointed its intelligence officer.
Collins becomes noted within IRA circles for his hard-line views on the continuance of armed campaign, and later joins its Internal Security Unit. Around this time he has a confrontation with Gerry Adams at the funeral of an IRA man killed in a failed bombing over how to deal with the funeral’s policing, where he accuses Adams a being a “Stick.”
Despite his militarist convictions at this time Collins finds the psychological strain caused by his involvement in the terrorist war increasingly difficult to address. His belief in the martial discipline of the IRA’s campaign is seriously undermined by the March 11, 1982 assassination of Norman Hanna, a 28-year-old Newry man, in front of his wife and young daughter. His uneasy state is further augmented by being arrested on two occasions under anti-terrorism laws, the second including a week of detention and intense interrogation.
Collins subsequently states that the strain of the interrogation merely exacerbates increasing doubts that he has already possessed about the moral justification of the IRA’s terrorist paramilitary campaign and his actions within it. These doubts are made worse by the organization’s senior leadership quietly deciding in the early 1980s that the war has failed and now slowly manoeuvering the movement away from a military campaign to allow its political wing, Sinn Féin, to pursue its purposes by another means in what would become the Northern Ireland peace process.
In 1987, after being charged with several counts of murder and attempted murder, Collins is acquitted as the statement in which he admits to involvement in these acts is ruled legally inadmissible by the court. On release from prison he spends several weeks being counter-interrogated by the IRA’s Internal Security Unit, after which he is exiled by the organization from Ulster, being warned that if he is found north of Drogheda after a certain date he will be executed.
After his exile Collins moves to Dublin and squats for a while in a deserted flat in the impoverished Ballymun area of the city. After several years in Dublin, he subsequently moves to Edinburgh, Scotland for a period, where he runs a youth centre.
In 1995 Collins returns to Newry, a district known for the militancy of its communal support of the IRA, with numerous IRA members in its midst. The IRA order exiling him from Ulster has not been lifted, but with a formal ceasefire from the organization and renunciations of violence by all the paramilitary organizations in the province, he deems it safe to move back in with his wife and children who had never left the town.
Rather than maintaining a low profile Collins decides to take a prominent role in the ongoing transition of Ulster’s post-war society, using his personal history as a platform in the media to analyze the adverse effects of terrorism. In May 1998 he gives evidence against leading republican Thomas “Slab” Murphy in a libel case Murphy has brought against The Sunday Times, over a 1985 article naming him as the IRA’s Northern Commander. Murphy denies IRA membership, but Collins takes the witness stand against him, and testifies that from personal experience he knew that Murphy had been a key military leader in the organization. Murphy subsequently loses the libel case and sustains substantial financial losses in consequence. Collins and his family receive numerous threats after the trial.
Collins is beaten and stabbed to death by one or more unidentified assailants early in the morning of January 27, 1999, while walking his dogs near the Barcroft Park Estate in Newry along a quiet stretch of country lane at Doran’s Hill. His body also bears marks of having been struck by a car moving at speed. The subsequent police investigation and Coroner’s Inquest comment upon the extremity of weaponed violence to Collins’ head and face used during the attack.
Rumoured reasons behind the murder are that he had returned to Ulster in breach of the IRA’s banning order, and further he had detailed IRA activities and publicly criticized in the media a multiplicity of Irish terrorist paramilitary splinter groups that had appeared after the IRA’s 1994 ceasefire, and that he had testified in court against Murphy.
After a traditional Irish wake, with a closed coffin necessitated by the condition of his face, and a funeral service at St. Catherine’s Church in Newry, Collins’ body is buried at the town’s Monkshill Cemetery, not far from the grave of Albert White, a Catholic former Royal Ulster Constabulary Inspector, whose assassination he had helped to organize in 1982.