Conor Lenihan reviews ‘Deception and Lies – the Hidden History of the Arms Crisis 1970’ by David Burke: the arms crisis was a legitimate operation of state which history has falsely judged as a nefarious adventure by Haughey who went on trial 50 years ago this week for alleged illegal gunrunning.
The year 1970 was a pivotal year for Northern Ireland. The political earthquake discharged by the evidence of the Arms Trial left the career of Charles J Haughey in tatters. While acquitted of charges that he had trafficked weaponry for the benefit of the IRA, the public belief that he had done so left a shadow of suspicion over him that even to this day it is difficult for new evidence to dissipate. Haughey clawed his way back to power and in the process effectively toppled his nemesis in the Arms Trial – the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch.
The main career victims of the Arms Crisis were those on the republican wing of Fianna Fáil, most prominently Neil Blaney, Kevin Boland and the less celebrated Wicklow TD Paudge Brennan. However, in human terms, the biggest victim was Captain James Kelly, who as a career army officer, dutifully carried out his duties in the military intelligence section of the defence forces. Though acquitted in the Trial, Captain Kelly and his family were on the receiving end of state harassment and persecution for years afterwards. It was only after his death that the state, through a statement from then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, frankly acknowledged he had done no wrong.
‘While acquitted of charges that he had trafficked weaponry for the benefit of the IRA, the public belief that Haughey had done so left a shadow of suspicion over him that even to this day it is difficult for new evidence to dissipate’
At the heart of the Arms Crisis was an attempt by the government in Dublin to grapple with a situation that was veering out of control in the north with the potentially lethal possibility of a “doomsday” situation or civil war on the island of Ireland pitching Catholic against Protestant.
From the summer of 1969 feelings were running high. Loyalist mobs ran amok in response to the minority Catholic population’s embrace of peaceful protests through the civil rights agitation. Catholic homes were burnt in what had all the appearance of an organised pogrom perpetrated by the sectarian elements in the loyalist community. If the Dublin government were wrong-footed by the crisis so too were the forces of moderate unionism as well as the entrenched interests of the Stormont government. Extreme loyalists, including the Reverend Ian Paisley, were brutally outflanking the moderates by exaggerating the influence of the IRA and suggesting the civil rights marches were being orchestrated by republican paramilitaries.
Against this background and failed efforts by the Dublin government to escalate the crisis at UN level ministers launched efforts to deal with the plight of the nationalists in the north. The Irish army was ordered to the border and relief camps set up for those who were fleeing the early stages of the conflict. Delegations from the north demanded that the southern government supply them with guns so that they could defend their communities.
The Taoiseach Jack Lynch agreed to supply weapons, if the situation worsened, and initiated arrangements through his Minister for Defence Jim Gibbons that the army would discreetly acquire weaponry that could not be traced to Dublin should the “doomsday” scenario occur.
Captain Jim Kelly, an assistant to the head of Army Intelligence, was given the lead role to travel north, assess the situation on the ground, and ensure that citizen defence committees got the assistance they needed. These committees had only come about because the IRA’s campaign, under the leadership of Cathal Goulding, had become political and Marxist with little actual military capability to defend the community.
Captain Kelly was, with the full knowledge of ministers, putting together a covert operation of state that was designed to get weapons and make them available to suitable people north of the border. Too many people got to know of his operation as it progressed.
‘David Burke’s new book on the Arms Crisis slots in a final, but vital, piece of the jigsaw. Why was it that, while the Irish army were fully involved in the operation, the Department of Justice and Garda intelligence were left out of the loop?’
David Burke’s new book on the Arms Crisis slots in a final, but vital piece of the jigsaw, into play. Why was it that, while the Irish army were fully involved in the operation, the Department of Justice and Garda intelligence were left out of the loop? It appears that the then Secretary of the Department of Justice Peter Berry, an overpowering figure, was simply not trusted to be involved given his paranoia on security matters generally. Few of the books to date have focused on Berry’s motivations and weaknesses.
‘David Burke, for the first time ever, explains why Berry and the Special Branch moved to close down what, as a matter of political and historical fact, was a legitimate operation of state, approved by the Taoiseach’
Berry used his considerable influence to blow the whistle on the operation. David Burke, for the first time ever, explains why Berry and the Special Branch moved to close down what, as a matter of political and historical fact, was a legitimate operation of state, approved by the Taoiseach and supervised by his most important ministers.
‘The reason is truly startling: Seán MacStíofáin – the first Chief of Staff of the Provisional wing of the IRA played the Special Branch – to damage Goulding’s Marxist wing of the IRA and perhaps to split, and corrupt history’s view of, Fianna Fáil’
The reason is truly startling and the book takes on the aspect of a thriller as Burke posits the figure of “the deceiver” and finally unmasks him later in the book as (spoiler alert)…Seán MacStíofáin, the first Chief of Staff of the Provisional wing of the IRA. MacStíofáin, it turns out, was a Special Branch agent from the late 1960s but unfortunately from the Branch perspective – as Burke persuasively and meticulously documents – MacStíofáin had been playing them all along for his own nefarious ends: to damage Goulding’s Marxist wing of the IRA and perhaps to split, and corrupt history’s view of, Fianna Fáil’.
‘MacStíofáin, using his role as Head of IRA intelligence, set out to undermine Goulding by feeding false material about him to Special Branch – that the IRA, under Goulding, had cut a deal directly with the Irish Cabinet and that Army Intelligence, via Captain Kelly, was active in support of the deal that involved Ministers Gibbons Haughey and Blaney’
MacStíofáin’s status as mole within the IRA was taken so seriously he was put under the direct responsibility of the Head of Special Branch, Phillip McMahon. McMahon had his career extended beyond his pension age to manage MacStíofáin. MacStíofáin was at odds with his own leader the Marxist Cathal Goulding from the outset of the crisis in the north.
MacStíofáin, using his role as Head of IRA intelligence, set out to undermine Goulding by feeding false material about him to Special Branch. This paved the path to MacStíofáin becoming the Chief of Staff of the breakaway Provisional IRA and this all happened unnoticed by his own leadership and the Special Branch.
MacStíofain pushed the line that the IRA, under Goulding, had cut a deal directly with the Irish Cabinet and that Army Intelligence, via Captain Kelly, was active in support of the deal that involved Ministers Gibbons (Defence) Haughey and Blaney. MacStíofáin invented this but lodged it into the mind and mentality of the main apparatus of state charged with countering the subversion of the State. Even MacStíofáin cannot have reckoned on the chaos his casual intelligence would cause.
MacStíofáin’s claims rendered Peter Berry both paranoid and panic-stricken, when confronted with what seemed a massive conspiracy to upstage the State by the IRA, respected ministers and possibly even the Taoiseach Jack Lynch himself.
David Burke, a barrister, with the forensic touch of an investigator infers Jack Lynch’s motivations in the context of the need to ensure his own survival and the need to ensure that the Dublin government did not become discredited in British eyes and in the eyes of international opinion, as the sponsor of a failed effort to arrange an insurgency in a neighbouring state.
‘David Burke has come to the task with revelations that finally render untrue the tissue of lies perpetrated by the Lynch faction. The tragedy is that had this been resolved properly at the time there might not have been as many lives lost ‘’
2020 has been rich in literature published about the Arms Trial. Michael Heney’s book plumbs the archives and exposes the downright deceit at the heart of the state prosecution of Captain Kelly and those who stood accused in the box with him. It is hard to believe that it has taken 50 years to unearth this information. David Burke has come to the task with additional and plausible revelations that finally render untrue the tissue of lies perpetrated by the Lynch faction, the usual security sources and others in the wake of the 1970 Arms Trial. The tragedy is that had this been resolved properly at the time there might not have been as many lives lost in the northern conflict.
The Provisional IRA, thanks to the machinations of MacStíofáin, emerged as the main repository of hope for beleaguered and abandoned nationalist communities in the north.
It is remarkably difficult for a historian to change the received history. Burke’s book, the fruits of ten years of research from a barrister with an eye for detail and 35 years of relevant interviews, introduces a number of revelations into the discourse. A review cannot do justice to them all but here are the main ones:
- A Special Branch officer provided the future Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA with a Colt .45 handgun and fifty rounds of ammunition in August of 1969 in Dundalk;
- The British Army trained future IRA members in Belfast in the use of arms during the ‘honeymoon’ period after the intercommunal violence of August 1969;
- The existence of secret Fianna Fáil cabinet meetings;
- There were secret arrangements between the Irish and British armies in the event that the Irish Army might invade the North in August 1969;
- Details of a successful arms importation in September 1969 at Dublin Airport which took place with the knowledge of Fianna Fáil Cabinet members;
- The role of the near forgotten Citizen Defence Committees in the events surrounding the Arms Crisis;
- The secret training of Northern Nationalists by the Irish Army – not just at Fort Dunree which became public knowledge – but also at Finner camp;
- The near assassination of a British spy in Dublin in November 1969;
- A future Irish Government minister kept the British Embassy informed about aspects of G2 operations along the Border in November 1969;
- The existence of a British ‘source’ in either the Department of Justice or the Garda who was reporting on sensitive details about the arms importation operation to London including details of the secret bank accounts G2 was operating;
- Minister Neil Blaney of Fianna Fáil shut down an arms pipeline from the US to Dublin in December 1969;
- The names of three Fianna Fáil TDs who were aware that Taoiseach Jack Lynch approved of an arms importation operation involving Captain Kelly months before the Arms Crisis erupted;
- Gibbons took control of the arms importation operation and kept Jack Lynch informed of its progress;
- Jack Lynch met three members of the Provisional IRA for discussions about arms including the distribution of Irish Army surplus rifles;
- Gibbons deposited a secret consignment of 150 rifles in Dundalk;
- The names of an armed four-man unit of the Provisional IRA which was on standby to hijack a consignment of arms being shipped into Dublin Port in March 1970 by G2. Had the hijack gone ahead, it would have represented the first armed Provisional IRA operation of the Troubles; The hijack was cancelled when an IRA spy next to Captain Kelly alerted the unit that no guns had arrived on the ship;
- How the crisis which became public knowledge in May 1970 was a crafty and opportunistic Provisional IRA dirty trick designed to throw Fianna Fáil into chaos. Three Cabinet ministers and a junior minister would be sacked or retire, Fianna Fáil would split and endure decades of internecine feuding culminating in the formation of the Progressive Democrats;
- Future Taoiseach Charles Haughey had no idea that the Provisional IRA was behind the dirty tricks operation that nearly ended his career and preferred not to write his own history as it would have revealed him as an abject reputational loser;
- Lynch ordered Gibbons to lie about what had happened for the sake of Fianna Fail;
- A former Head of the Special Branch breached the Official Secrets Act by leaking information to the Leader of the Opposition Liam Cosgrave. This man did not realise that he was aiding a Provisional IRA propaganda-destabilisation plot against the government of the day;
- Two men who were working next to Captain Kelly were in fact loyal to the Provisional IRA;
- The Arms Crisis helped the Provisional IRA eclipse the Citizen Defence Committees;
- The existence of a dirty tricks campaign by Gibbons to mislead the media after the crisis erupted;
- Perjury, forgery and the concealment of evidence at the Arms Trial;
- Why the British Ambassador was part of an operation to steal a copy of Captain Kelly’s book and thwarted his attempt to get it published by a British company;
- A future Taoiseach kept the British Embassy informed of the activities of the Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the funding of the G2 arms operation;
- Peter Berry, the former Secretary to the Department of Justice, the prosecution witness who had engaged in dirty tricks in a failed attempt to secure the conviction of Captain Kelly and the other Arms Trial defendants, later made repeated attempts to make contact with the captain after he retired to tell him what he knew about Jack Lynch’s knowledge of the arms importation attempt. This evidence had been withheld by Berry at the Arms Trials and did not emerge until 1980 when it was published by Magill magazine.
- Jack Lynch misled his closest supporters including Des O’Malley up to the day he died.
Conor Lenihan is a former Minister and author of a biography of Charles Haughey. He is currently working on a biography of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds.