Sunday 26 May 2019

The Idiot's Guide to the Arms Trial

For those who missed it first time around, Brendan O'Connor unravels the sensational events of 1970, when Fianna Fáil imploded over its response to the troubles in Northern Ireland

THE first shock I got when the Arms Trial was resurrected recently was that they were claiming Jack Lynch was not only an impotent fool but that he oversaw and condoned gun-running, or at the very least that he was duped into supporting gun-running. To paraphrase The Boys of Fairhill "Jackie Lynch he hooked the ball, they hooked Jackie balls and all."

I had to know more. What did the people at Berry's Dairies (the so-called clotted cream connection) have to do with it all and who was this old army man ranting on my television every evening? Who was the man with the eyepatch and why did everyone smoke on television in those days? Join me now on my journey through one of the most surreal times in Irish history.

So who or what was the Arms Trial?



The collective name given to the two trials of Charles Haughey, Captain James Kelly, John Kelly of the IRA and Belgian businessman Albert Luykx, who were charged with, and subsequently acquitted of, importing arms and ammunition for the Defence Committees in the North in 1970.

And did they do it?



Despite two attempts no arms were ever actually imported. On the 25th of March weapons which were to come into Dublin on a ship called The City of Dublin never arrived, having been impounded in Antwerp due to incomplete paperwork. The second attempt, to bring weapons in through Dublin Airport, failed after Haughey tried, as Minister for Finance, to have the consignment pass through unhindered by customs. The airport was effectively surrounded by a Special Branch "ring of steel" and the plan was aborted. All of those involved were acquitted. Neil Blaney, a prime mover in the whole thing, never even stood trial, a district court having decided there was insufficient evidence against him.

Yes, but did they do it?



Captain James Kelly (the slightly excitable old man you will have seen on various RTE programmes recently think Grandpa Simpson if he had joined the Irish army) certainly tried his damnedest to import arms but has always claimed he was only following orders. Haughey's typically brazen defence was that he didn't know what was in the shipment he tried to get through Dublin Airport. Luykx and the other Kelly went along with the defence that it was more or less government policy and they were just following orders. The simple answer is that they certainly tried to do it.

So who were these people?



OK, Haughey you know. He was Minister for Finance at the time, but with Neil Blaney he effectively controlled on the ground our policy on the North. John Kelly was an IRA man from the North. Albert Luykx was a Belgian businessman. Having been sentenced to death after the war for collaborating with the Nazis, Luykx escaped to Sutton where he opened a restaurant. He acted as an interpreter with the German arms dealer Otto Schleuter and also as an agent in this country for Schleuter. He was you guessed it a legitimate businessman.

Captain James Kelly, who is responsible for dragging all this up again, was an intelligence officer in the Irish army who appears to have lost the run of himself. Bizarrely, despite the fact that he was an army officer, Kelly was apparently working for Blaney (the Minister for Agriculture) and Haughey (the Minister for Finance) and clearly saw himself as a player in the North. His brother was a priest on the Falls Road and he was considered ideally suited for intelligence gathering in the North. Kelly appears to have seen himself as some kind of formulator of policy, however, and his early breathless intelligence reports consisted of entirely inappropriate comment such as: "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."

And yes, you didn't misunderstand it, that was a captain in the army calling for a war. This was at a time when government policy here, as clearly stated by the Taoiseach Jack Lynch on several occasions, was that unity could only be achieved by consent. The use of force had been firmly ruled out.

So whose orders was Kelly following, exactly?



I told you, those of the Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for Finance.

Em, hello?



OK. Political background at the time. Jack Lynch was the Taoiseach but his position in Fianna Fáil was not very strong. Lynch had been imported into the party as a vote-getter. He had won a few All Ireland medals and was seen by the party as a temporary figurehead but not the heir to the real legacy of Fianna Fáil.

It is generally agreed that Lynch didn't have a huge amount of control over certain elements in his cabinet Haughey and Blaney included. While Lynch continued to assert, during the violence that swept the North in 1969 and 1970, that government policy remained unity by consent, Blaney was going around telling everyone who'd listen that it was time to take up arms and finish the business of 1916 for once and for all by invading the North as in the infamous "Golden Grill" speech in Letterkenny when he claimed, in a direct challenge to Lynch's party line that "the Fianna Fáil party has never taken a decision to rule out the use of force if the circumstances in the six counties so demand."

Haughey was a bit quieter about it but was essentially of this opinion too. Lynch had to be careful. If he fired Blaney at the wrong time there was a worry that Blaney and other militants would gain control of Fianna Fáil and we would see an island-wide war. Somehow, Lynch was bullied into putting Blaney and Haughey in charge of a cabinet subcommittee for the North. As Minister for Finance Haughey was also able to designate cash for relief of suffering in the North, money which would go to fund arms buying and ultimately the setting up of the Provisional IRA.

But if Lynch was against force, what about the "We cannot stand idly by" speech?

First, Jack never said "idly"; Blaney added this in later. Also, that speech was very much formulated by the hawkish elements within the cabinet. Jack's man Paddy Hillery was stranded on Achill Island at the time and Jack's speech was influenced more by the likes of Haughey and Blaney, who Lynch continued to try and appease in the hope of keeping the party together and keeping the country out of war. As Justin O'Brien puts it in his book on the Arms Trial, "The most pressing issue facing the state was no longer decided within the Office of the Taoiseach but was under the operational control of the Departments of Defence and Finance."

This is getting confusing. What was actually going on?

Glad you asked. What was actually going on was a power struggle for the heart of Fianna Fáil.From the outset Blaney was making no secret of his leadership aspirations, constantly opposing Lynch in public speeches and effectively telling anyone who would listen that Fianna Fáil's true legacy was as a gun-toting Republican party. Haughey had also come to this view, if rather more privately, though he did let it be known that if he were prevailed upon he would reluctantly take the mantle of leadership.

Blaney was also involved in meeting northern nationalists in various locations, promising them guns and trying to engineer splits in the movement. These meetings often took place in Dublin and involved northerners asking the government for guns to protect themselves from marauding unionists.

So the guns were just for people to protect themselves and their families?

Well, it wasn't quite a few shotguns and a bag of shot. The arms in question were 200 sub-machine-guns, 84 light machine-guns, 50 general purpose machine-guns, 50 rifles, 200 grenades, 70 flak jackets, 250,000 rounds of ammunition and 200 pistols. A further 400 machine-guns were subsequently made available and arrangements made to buy them too. Those must have been some homesteads they were protecting.

So why is all this back in the news?

Well, intelligence officer from hell Capt James Kelly (Grandpa Simpson) has always claimed he was the victim of a show trial. He uncovered documents in the National Archives recently which, he claims, prove his assertion that he was following government policy and everybody knew what he was up to.

And was he?

OK. First this asks you to accept that Kelly was justified in importing arms to this country for private use. The government may only import arms into this country for the use of the one constitutional army, the real Óglaigh na hÉireann. Kelly asserts that the whole cabinet knew of the plans. Not only did his bosses, the Ministers for Agriculture and Finance (I know, I know), know of it, he claims that his actual boss, the Minister for Defence, knew as did, he says, Jack Lynch. He argues that it was government policy and all above board; he was merely following orders.

You also have to wonder why the whole thing needed to be conducted in such secrecy if it was a perfectly legitimate, above-board government operation. Why, you might wonder, did the importation fail twice, once because of lack of documents from the Department of Defence, and on the second occasion because it was effectively headed off by the state's security forces?

Did Jack Lynch know what was going on?

Peter Berry, a senior civil servant at the time, described by mild-mannered Garret FitzGerald last week as "a strange man, a very strange man", says he told Lynch in November 1969 what the lads were up to. The problem is that Berry claims this happened while he himself was sick in Mount Carmel and Jack came to see him. Jack says he didn't find out anything until April 20, 1970.

And who do we believe?

Berry's assertion is contained in the so-called Berry Diaries. These were not in fact diaries but were written many years afterwards based on Berry's recollections of the time. Berry was also sick in hospital at the time of the exchange so it's difficult to know how reliable his recollections are. Given that Jack was publicly continually asserting Fianna Fáil's total opposition to the use of force it would seem odd that he knew about the proposed gun-running and chose to ignore it until he did.

What about the cabinet directive that Old Man Kelly keeps banging on about?

First, there was nothing in this directive about gun-running. This directive directed the army to prepare for incursions into the North and possibly to make guns available for Catholics in the North to protect themselves. Kelly has interpreted this as a plan to invade the North. Others have interpreted it as a contingency plan to rescue Catholics from the North, to bring them across the border to field hospitals.

And where does Des O'Malley come into all this?

When all this was going on, Dessie had recently won his Uncle Donagh's seat in a by-election in Limerick. When the Minister for Justice, Mícheál Ó Móráin, the first cabinet member to fall over the arms crisis, was asked by Jack to step aside for "health reasons", Dessie was appointed to replace him. Capt Kelly recently unearthed documents witness statements which he reckons prove that the gun-running was state-sanctioned that had certain parts blacked out. Kelly claims that Dessie authorised this as Minister for Justice. Effectively Kelly believes that Dessie perverted the course of justice.

What does Dessie say?

Dessie says he didn't do it. Furthermore, he had sat in cabinet since the previous June as Chief Whip and he is adamant that no decision was taken at cabinet to sanction the importation of weapons.

And what was the upshot of all this?

The day after Ó Móráin was retired, Jack Lynch moved to fire Haughey and Blaney. Blaney, as we have said, was never tried. Haughey was acquitted, came out of court and demanded Lynch's resignation. The party backed Jack, and even Haughey was forced to toe the party line on the North in order to get back into the party and ultimately to the centre of power. It would seem that power was more important to Charlie than his nationalist convictions. Ronan Fanning wrote in this paper last week that Jack's stand at this time effectively made it impossible for anyone else in the party to deviate from the Dev/Lemass/Lynch line of rejecting the use of force in the North.

But they were acquitted by a jury of their peers?

Well, yes. But as with everything in this mess, there is controversy. It was even suggested that the jury were got at. In a letter to his superiors in London on December 10, 1970, the British ambassador to Ireland, Sir John Peck, noted that Deputy Prime Minister Erskine Childers had told him that "to his certain knowledge" Dublin businessman Gerry Jones (the man with the eye patch you will have seen in much of the footage of the trial) had tracked down and "got in touch with" all 12 jurors in the trial.

Furthermore, Muiris Mac Conghail, at the time editor of RTE's 7 Days current affairs programme, was at the acquittal party in Haughey's house. Mac Conghail, who has never given a full account of his view of these events, was "staggered" by what he saw there. He says he bumped into senior members of the judiciary, senior gardaí, senior civil servants, heads of semi-state bodies and even Jack Lynch's aide-de-camp Jack O'Brien, who was related to Haughey through marriage. "Anyone who was anybody in public life was present," Muiris said, leading him to wonder, "Am I in Munich?"

And the legacy of all this?

Well, Blaney admitted subsequently that he was effectively the first quartermaster of the Provisional IRA. The money that Haughey allocated for the relief of distress in the North is still largely unaccounted for, but it seems that, after a complex trail through many accounts, it financed the setting up of the Provos. Haughey and Blaney were uncomfortable with Cathal Goulding's old IRA (at that time largely non-violent) and its leftist leanings and designs on the Republic. As much as Haughey was protecting the Catholics in the North when he aided in the setting up of the Provos, it would appear that he was also protecting capitalism in the Republic. On a brighter note, the courage of people such as Lynch (not so weak when it came down to it) and indeed Dessie O'Malley, probably averted another civil war on this island, and possibly a coup d'état. Ask your parents. There were probably times when your father was ready to pick up a gun and head north.

So everyone was gone a bit mad?

Guns were certainly travelling across the border in various unofficial capacities. The Minister for Agriculture was bringing groups of people down from the North to ask the government here for guns. Muiris Mac Conghail recalls that during the all-night Dáil debates around this time, many people in Dáil Eireann were drunk. He clearly recalls hearing the strains of The Bold Fenian Men ringing out through Leinster House on one such evening. So now you know. Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís and all that.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss