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A call to arms that still haunts State


MISFORTUNE: Jack Lynch faced difficult decisions as Taoiseach during the Arms Crisis

MISFORTUNE: Jack Lynch faced difficult decisions as Taoiseach during the Arms Crisis

MISFORTUNE: Jack Lynch faced difficult decisions as Taoiseach during the Arms Crisis

Writing of the Arms Trial in States of Ireland in 1972, Conor Cruise O'Brien concluded that: "There are many things about this process that make it hard to take it seriously: its sketchy improvisations, its half-heartedness, the brittleness of its falsities, and a certain dull and petty frivolity of mind underlying it all."

Last week, the son of the Army intelligence chief at the centre of the first of the two trials gave another twist to O'Brien's characterisation.

Colm Hefferon called for an "independent trawl" of any and all surviving Arms Trial papers having suggested that his late father believed that the attempted importation of arms into the Republic was known to the then defence minister.

At one level, the Arms Crisis was a fairly simple affair.

A faction within the Fianna Fail Cabinet looked on the gestating Provisional IRA as an instrument of purpose, one that would bring down the artificial statelet across the Border if succoured with the proper attention and resources.

The dingbat anti-partitionism of Neil Blaney was thus schooled in the ways of false bank accounts and continental machine-gun merchants by the cleverer Haughey operation.

This faction had to break or be broken by its nemesis, that is to say that surprisingly tenacious constitutionalist thread in our national life that put Erskine Childers and George Plant up against stone walls and dared their admirers to doubt the new state's superior command of violence.

It was Jack Lynch's misfortune to find himself Taoiseach at a time when this old joust had to be re-staged. The Free State routed the Irregulars, De Valera broke the pro-Nazi IRA, and Lynch kept Blaney and Haughey out of the Northern Ireland policy process for a decade.

Nothing new there.

But at another level again though, this whole period continues to loom with all the obscurity of the dreams Joseph was asked to decipher for Pharaoh.

Several questions still remain unsolved.

Why did Sean Lemass refuse Lynch's request for help just before he fired Haughey, Lemass's son-in-law who had turned his back on his own anti-IRA tilt while justice minister and who had emerged as a leading critic of Lemass's own preferred approach to Northern Ireland?

(Lemass is supposed to have told Lynch: "You are the Taoiseach").

Why did more people not register the hectoring, even wide-eyed quality in some of Captain Kelly's intelligence reports?

One such composition informed its readers that: "It would seem that it is now necessary to harness all opinion in the state in a concerted drive towards achieving the aim of unification. Unfortunately, this would mean accepting the possibility of armed action of some sort as the ultimate solution. But if the civil war embracing this area and civil war is not too strong a term was to result because of unwillingness to accept that war is a continuation of politics by other means, it would be far the greater evil for the Irish nation."

As Garret FitzGerald told Kelly to his face a few years ago on the old RTE Dunlop and Finlay chat show, he had never in all his various offices seen a report like this, this being more of a personal manifesto than a summary of orders executed for the official file.

Think then of the Inspector Clouseau dimension to the whole affair.

One shipment of arms was not allowed through Dublin port because it did not have the right government paperwork, and the second attempt via Dublin Airport was thwarted by Peter Berry, the secretary of the Department of Justice who effectively vetoed Haughey's attempt to land the guns and hustle them over the Border.

Can anybody cite another example of an occasion when a government initiative in the national security context was derailed by the intervention of a humble bureaucrat?

It beggars belief that this could have happened if the attempted importation of weapons really did bear the stamp and seal of the whole Irish government.

What to make of the fissure then that opened up in the second trial between the defendants?

Blaney, Captain Kelly and John Kelly from Belfast said they were mere conduits of government policy.

As he would do in regards to the Anglo-Irish Agreement years later, Haughey betrayed his fundamentalist friends.

He denied that there was any government plot to import arms, and put the whole mess down to a few operatically crossed wires.

Viewed from the republican high ground, Haughey turned in a mortifying performance.

Even more bizarrely then Haughey and Blaney responded to Lynch's decision to dismiss and arrest them by voting for his continuation as Taoiseach in the Dail confidence vote that followed Haughey's acquittal.

How James Connolly's hated "aristocratic Orange military clique" must have feared operators like this, intent on achieving only one goal: preventing the expedition of their electoral disarray.

No wonder the hard men of the revolutionary era like Frank Aiken, Sean MacEntee and De Valera himself backed Lynch so hard in 1970.

Irish Independent