Thursday 17 October 2019

Mary O'Rourke: 'Exploding myths and truths of 70s Arms Crisis'

Author serves up fascinating lecture on events that shaped our political landscape, writes Mary O'Rourke

Jack Lynch
Jack Lynch

Mary O'Rourke

Last Tuesday night I went to Wineport Lodge in Athlone. Did I go to dine and dally by the beautiful lake water? No - though I could so easily have done so.

The Old Athlone Society (of which I am a member) had its final lecture of the season, the Billy English Memorial Lecture 2019. The lecture was by Dr Michael Heney, a former investigative journalist and television producer with RTE. So far, so good - and I looked forward with great anticipation to the evening.

I was so fortunate in that my nephew, Dr Padraig Lenihan of NUIG, came up for the lecture and the two of us went together. At such a political lecture, which revisits old times, it is good to have one of your own with you.

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The title of the lecture was 'Unlocking the Myths of the 1970 Arms Crisis'.

Readers, you may well say, what is the point of dwelling (as William Wordsworth put it) on "old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago"?

To my mind, and clearly in the mind of the overflow audience which had gathered to hear Dr Heney, there is enormous benefit in going over events like that - because the Arms Crisis of 1970 shaped all the political events of the following decades. It shaped political careers and army careers, it led to so many unknowns, and now we were to hear more, we hoped, of that time.

Some of us easily remember Michael Heney from when he was with RTE. But you might not be aware that he has recently completed his PhD programme at UCD under the supervision of professor of modern Irish history Diarmaid Ferriter.

Michael's thesis is titled Unresolved aspects of the 1970 Arms Crisis: Revisiting the roles played by Jack Lynch, Charles Haughey and James Gibbons. Prior to that, he wrote a masters dissertation called Colonel Michael Hefferon and the 1970 Arms Crisis (also working under Prof Ferriter).

A book based on all of this research, which is deemed to be both groundbreaking and important, will be published next spring to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Arms Crisis, under the title Arms Crisis: Unlocking the Myths of 1970.

Now, it would be quite easy to say that this hugely well-attended lecture was acting as a teaser for Michael Heney's book. But that is not the story of the lecture. The subject of Michael Heney's address to us last Tuesday night was delving into the new research on the 1970 Arms Crisis which challenged the conventional view of the events of 1969-70. Michael Heney adopted a revisionist approach, suggesting that the roles played by Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey had been poorly understood in the literature of the time, and not alone misunderstood but misrepresented.

Freshly discovered documentation supports an alternative take on both the general Arms Crisis itself and the arms trials. It will consider whether Jack Lynch was an innocent victim or a culprit in 1970, and will also consider why the evidence supports the theory that the arms trials should never have taken place as they did, if at all.

Now, this is weighty stuff, but the hour-long lecture was so absorbing that we were sitting on the edges of our seats, drinking it in, churning it over, getting ready for the expansive questions and answers session which followed.

Michael Heney went through the myths one by one, pointing out the veracity of some of them and the non-tenable beliefs of others.

There was a strong army presence in the audience. This was entirely natural, based on what we know so far of the involvement of Colonel Michael Hefferon and Captain James Kelly, and in particular, against that background, the evidence as given in the arms trial by the then Minister for Defence, Jim Gibbons.

Did the orders he gave come from a genuine cabinet informal decision? Or was it a random order? All of these events shaped and changed so many careers, and were to have lasting reverberations down through political history.

Would things have turned out differently in the 1970s and 1980s if the research and interpretation which is now being done into those events had happened back then?

To me, and indeed to everyone in the audience, the whole lecture was endlessly fascinating. I have no doubt whatsoever that the distinguished work of Michael Heney will cause ripples when it finally emerges in book form next spring.

For those of us listening last Tuesday night, it stretched our minds, awoke so many past memories, and opened up wide-open vistas of what might have been, if…

I was chatting to Eimear Haughey (daughter of Charles Haughey) before the event. She, like me, was full of anticipation of what was to emerge from the lecture. I had a brief conversation with Marian Finucane after the lecture. She too was fascinated. I was so pleased to be introduced to and have a brief word with Captain Kelly's sister. What a pity there was not more time for endless discussion with the lecturer himself and with all of the many guests at Wineport Lodge.

On the night, Michael Heney was a clear example of what a busy and active mind can do with retirement years.

His previous life as an investigative journalist did not just end when he left his job with RTE, but has infused his mind to go deeper and deeper into research.

We are all the better for Michael's lecture, and there is no doubt that in the months to come we will be re-enthused and re-invigorated about all that might have been, could have been, and surely was, regarding the events of 1969-70.

Watershed times indeed in Irish political history.

Mary O'Rourke is former Minister for Education, Health and Public Enterprise. Mary is the author of two bestselling books, 'Just Mary' and 'Letters of My Life', and is co-editor of the book on Brian Lenihan Jr, 'In Calm and Crisis'

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