Ministers thrown 'to the wolves' by Lynch in the Arms Trial fiasco
Published 10/11/2015 | 02:30
In May 1970 Charles Haughey, Neil Blaney, Irish Army intelligence officer Captain James Kelly, and others went on trial for importing arms. Brian Lenihan Snr, then a minister in Cabinet, was convinced that the then-Taoiseach Jack Lynch knew of the arms importation and that it was "both convenient and quite wrong" for him to have claimed it came as a surprise to him.
'My earliest and most vivid memory of how national events impacted on our home is of the outbreak of the violence in the North of Ireland in 1969. To my mind, in our family home in Athlone, Co Westmeath, these controversies were very present. Our mother sat my older brother Brian and I down and told us that things were very difficult in our Dad's job and that we were not to speak of discussions in the house to those outside the house or family. She said there would be people coming in and out of our home at different times of the night and that we were not to get up, become disturbed or speak of who had come when we went to school the following morning.
It turned out that our parents' paranoia about talk emanating from the house was very real. My father, despite being an important minister, was in a sense under suspicion as well as under surveillance. My father in this period rarely spoke his mind on the phone. Mum was also under instructions not to talk on the phone. The Secretary of the Department of Justice, a Mr Peter Berry, had decided to put quite a few members of the Government under watch. Family members were told to act on the assumption that he had placed wiretaps on our home. Berry had become a sort of J. Edgar Hoover of Irish life, attracting adjectives such as overbearing, bullying, paranoid and that was often from people who had worked directly with him down the years.
There was all this talk about civil war and even a potential coup d'état within the state. My father's position on all of this was rather more ambiguous than we fully understood at the time. He was a good friend of both Haughey and Blaney and as such had come under suspicion by his own leader, the Taoiseach Jack Lynch. So our father had good reason to keep his head down and ensure there was no loose talk coming from home that would only jeopardise his position within the Government.
My father tried to act as a peace broker between the two warring factions in the Government and in the party. He was not always thanked, and to a certain extent, his friendship with Haughey cost him dearly in terms of subsequent ministerial promotion under Lynch.
My father's view was that Lynch was weak, in terms of his management of the Cabinet, but also on the Northern issue, and quite content to allow others make the running until things went badly wrong.
One significant move was a decision by the Irish Cabinet to create a four-member cabinet sub-committee on the situation in the North which contained the Minister for Finance, Charles Haughey, and the Minister for Agriculture, Neil Blaney.
My father avoided speaking about the Arms Trial in subsequent years but when he did he was adamant that the whole Government was aware of what the committee and Captain Kelly were doing, in other words that guns were to be acquired for use in the North. He found it both convenient and quite wrong for Jack Lynch to assert that the work of the committee had come as a surprise to him. For Lynch not to have known about what was going on would be equivalent to the Taoiseach of the day being asleep at the wheel of state.
The idea that Captain Kelly was operating either outside his remit or outside the law is patently absurd. In fact he was receiving instructions from arguably the three most influential members of the Cabinet; Charles Haughey, Minister for Finance, Neil Blaney the key mover on the cabinet sub-committee on Northern Ireland, and finally his own Minister for Defence, Jim Gibbons, who was briefed at every step of the way, if not by Captain Kelly, then by the Army's Head of Intelligence, Colonel Michael Hefferon.
Haughey, for his part, was not passive in his involvement, holding meetings in his home at Kinsealy with key IRA figures as well as the Head of Army Intelligence Colonel Hefferon.
Peter Berry, from his vantage point in the Department of Justice, spoke to Haughey at one point about the importation. Berry went to President de Valera who told him to raise the matter in person with the Taoiseach Jack Lynch.
Even at this late stage Jack Lynch was anxious to keep the whole matter under wraps. He spoke to Haughey and Blaney, then told Peter Berry he had done so and that both had assured him there would be no repetition and that the matter was now closed.
As stories circulated about the purchase and attempted importation of the weaponry, Liam Cosgrave, leader of the Opposition, was the subject of a tip-off, widely believed to be someone senior in the Garda Síochána at the time.
Lynch had no further room to wriggle out of the controversy and that evening requested the resignations of both Haughey and Blaney which, when they refused, led to them being sacked. Given that Jack Lynch had earlier spoken to the two ministers about the matter before the Cosgrave approach, his speed in now asking for their resignations is all the more surprising.
It is not clear at this point why Jack Lynch opted to put those involved on trial in the courts. My father always said that the main person pushing for a prosecution was George Colley.
My father told me that the lawyers around the cabinet table argued against a policy of prosecution. There were sound political as well as legal reasons why a prosecution of those involved might not work and in fact rebound on the government.
Neil Blaney, according to my father, chose the right legal option in having the matter heard in the first instance in the District Court. His legal representatives succeeded in having the case thrown out of court without it going forward to a formal jury hearing.
Haughey, Captain James Kelly, Albert Luykx and John Kelly went straight to a Higher Court. My father always maintained that this was either hubris on their part or simply bad legal judgment. They too could have taken the avenue pursued by Blaney.
Haughey had played for high stakes in the trial itself. His line of defence was at odds with that of the other defendants.
They insisted that they were merely carrying out government policy in attempting to import the weapons whereas Haughey insisted in maintaining the clear fiction that he as Minister for Finance did not actually know what was contained in the consignment being ordered by Army Intelligence.
The then-Taoiseach Jack Lynch clearly knew of the arms importation, but when the consequences became clear, backed off and decided to blame the entire fiasco on those ministers, and Captain Kelly, who had played such an active part in the attempted arms importation. He had thrown them to the wolves while he remained unscathed by the wide repercussions of what happened.