These days Matthew Collins is a leading anti-fascist campaigner and a Researcher/Northern Ireland correspondent for the organisation HOPE not hate. But this wasn’t always the case.
Back in 1987, aged 15, he was a Mein Kampf-reading Nazi, flogging copies of National Front Newspaper ‘The Flag’ around south London housing estates before becoming a party organiser and touted as a future leader. He was also a volunteer at the BNP’s head office and active with violent neo-Nazi street fighters Combat 18.
His ‘conversion‘ came in 1989 when the BNP disrupted a public meeting in Welling, Kent. Bloody violence ensued and Collins questioned “what freedom of speech and fighting for British democracy had to do with stamping on little old ladies’ heads.” He was prompted to ring anti-fascist magazine Searchlight and gave the names of those involved in the carnage. His subsequent role as a mole led to death threats and forced exile in Australia (arranged by Special Branch) where he lived in hiding from 1993 to 2003. Since his return he has written extensively for Searchlight and subsequently HOPE not hate and in 2012 authored the acclaimed book “Hate: My Life in the British Far Right”.
We caught up with Matthew on a recent visit to Belfast.
You’re a frequent visitor to be Belfast, why?
It’s my third favourite city in the world. I like Northern Irish people, I like all Irish people regardless of their religion or politics. My father’s from Cork, my mother’s from Fermanagh so I’ve always had an interest in Ireland – Northern Ireland in particular – because as a young man I got involved in far right politics and there was an obsession about Northern Ireland and para-militarism. On my first trip to Belfast in 2004 I got to meet David Ervine, Jackie McDonald and Alex Maskey so I’ve been hooked on the place ever since. It’s a proper working class town. I call it a town because I don’t feel Belfast is a city because you can kick a football across it. I’ve just always really really liked Belfast. I’ve traveled the world and Belfast is a brilliant place. What makes it is obviously the people because everyone has a story to tell – although the stories aren’t always uplifting. As a spotty school kid from London who obsessed about the troubles, it still has a sense of mystery and danger and culture and it still has a general conversation which you can join in and fall out of.
You’re also a big fan of Crusaders F.C.?
I was drawn to the Crues because I witnessed them doing some community stuff so I went to a game of theirs, I dunno, 4 years ago in Portadown I think it was, could be longer, and ended up cadging a lift back to their ground on the Shore Road and to the social club. Next thing I know I’m in the back room holding the Irish F.A. Cup. In forty years of supporting Crystal Palace, I’ve never even had a tour of an empty dressing room. So I’ve been a bit hooked on them and their burger van ever since – superb curry sauce and chips.
All my mates say they follow Cliftonville etc, etc but I’ve never been to Solitude. I came over for the game v Cliftonville when the flag dispute kicked off and there was a really nice, quite genuine excitement about the game and Crues supporters were going to meet the Cliftonville fans and walk down together but instead hundreds of loons from across Belfast turned up to spoil it and the game didn’t go ahead. An absolute disaster because what they really didn’t want was Catholic and Protestant fans walking down the road together, it still really pisses me off because Cliftonville had a hell of a team. I think I’ve seen Crues play 20 or 25 times and I’ve never heard any racist or sectarian chants. It’s like an English non league team; why the fuck would you be racist or sectarian when you need decent players? They had a great player from the League of Ireland called Michael Collins for a while. I dunno where he ended up, he was suitably half genius and half hatchet man but I think he struggled with our artificial pitch. He always seemed to arrive a split second late for a tackle…
You mentioned the right wing obsession in England with loyalism, looking at some of your work you have highlighted factions who are pro united Ireland – how has that impacted the right?
In Britain the sort of old-guard Fascist Mosleyites and the descendants of that are sympathetic to republican ideals about a united Ireland whereas your 1970 National Front and the descendants of that which go through to the BNP etc. are very very pro-loyalist. In the past it has been a problem because obviously everyone is a Mosleyite and loves Mosley – the British Hitler. In the 80s I went to some Mosley fan club dinners and functions and of course they would all talk about Michael Collins and things like that because the Mosleyites actually believed that Michael Collins would have been a fascist. It’s bizarre. It’s all to do with O’Duffy, the Blueshirts and all that. There’s a Michael Collins association, not to be confused with anything that’s mildly progressive, which was run by people associated with the League of St. George, they basically think Michael Collins would have been an Irish Hitler.
In the National Front how was Ulster loyalism sold to you?
Nobody joins the National Front or the BNP because it’s a loyalist organisation, you join them because you hate black people and then you get involved and there’s a whole host of bizarre and daft things you have to believe; the holocaust didn’t happen, Jews are evil. You’re talking about political parties who recruit people on the basis of fear but also genuine misunderstanding and misconceptions about immigration. So you join this anti-immigration party and it’s like oh while you’re in here as well, we hate the Irish, we hate the IRA, Northern Ireland must remain British forever. It’s only like ten years ago I realised that Ulster has nine counties. So one of the things I like coming here is I spend loads and loads of time with Unionist people, I find them easy to get along with, bizarrely. I like drinking with them because they get messier and about 11 o’clock at night you say, you do know we are in Ireland? And one of the things that the fascists don’t understand about Unionism and loyalism, the majority of them acknowledge that and say, yeah I know we’re in Ireland. And if you’d told me that twenty five years ago I’d have gone no way. The majority of them say, yes we know this is Ireland, we share this island.
I’ve had an obsession with Irish politics and a warped interest since I was a kid who grew up with an distant dispassionate Irish Catholic father, and obviously growing up in England, a constant picture in your living room on television about things that happen here, life that happens here. Then you get here and find that Belfast is spectacularly mundane, people are spectacularly average. But the most brilliant and wonderful thing is the people are very conversational and fantastically articulate with wonderful stories and of course the thing you always want to do is say, so what religion are you? In England they ask what football team do you support. I find unionists and loyalists over thirty years old are a lot more flexible, understanding and comprehending about post conflict Northern Ireland. I have friends who spend hours and hours on Facebook or on Twitter or in pubs banging on about, oh I love the IRA and all this kind of bollocks, they never come here. I know people in England who are still too terrified to come here and yet the only thing terrifying about Belfast are the beer prices. You talk about the legacy of war, I don’t know how they manage to justify charging what they do for a pretty average lager.