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Dishonest Jack. A new book on the Arms Crisis of 1970 demolishes the reputation of a former Taoiseach

By David Burke

Fifty years ago this month armed members of the Special Branch dropped a ring of steel around Dublin Airport as part of a plan to seize a consignment of arms which was due to land from the Continent. This marked the start of the Arms Crisis. Within a few weeks, ministers Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney were dismissed by the then Taoiseach, ‘Honest Jack’ Lynch. Another cabinet minister, Kevin Boland, resigned in protest along with a junior minister, Paudge Brennan. The minister for justice, Micheál Ó Móráin, was also edged out of office, purportedly on grounds of ill health. A trial followed in September (which collapsed) and a second one opened in October. Haughey, a captain from Irish military intelligence (G2)  and two others were acquitted of attempting to import arms illegally. (The case against Blaney was dismissed at an earlier stage due to a lack of evidence.)  Despite the jury verdict, Lynch insisted there had been an illegal plot to import arms.

Fianna Fáil split down the middle. 

A convoluted myth that Haughey and Blaney created the Provisional IRA, or – depending on who you talked to – merely helped it come into existence, soon took root. To add to the confusion, some alleged the guns had been destined for the Official IRA. The Provo version was fertilised by Haughey’s opponents inside Fianna Fáil, especially Des O’Malley, and outside it by Official Sinn Féin (later the Workers Party) which produced two pamphlets about the crisis, one in 1971 called Fianna Fáil and the IRA, the other in 1973 called Fianna Fail The IRA Connection. The Information Research Department (IRD) of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, i.e. Britain’s black propaganda department, jumped on the bandwagon by republishing both pamphlets with subtle alterations. I have a copy of the 1971 edition and the cunningly amended IRD version. The comparison is enlightening: the IRD version was aimed at vilifying Haughey as part of a wider campaign linking him to the Provos. I obtained the IRD adaptation from a former British Army officer who worked with the IRD in Belfast at the time. I also have a copy of the 1973 publication and some pages from the amended IRD forgery. A second officer at British Army HQNI, one who was responsible for safeguarding and filing black propaganda materials, has confirmed the existence of these documents to me.

Many of Lynch’s most ardent admirers swallowed this confusing and contradictory twaddle. It must have shocked them when Lynch appointed Haughey to his Opposition front bench in 1975 and made him a minister in 1977. Would Lynch have brought Haughey back into cabinet if he truly believed he had {i} attempted to import arms illegally {ii} for the Provisional IRA {iii} with pilfered State funds and {iv} did so by suborning officers in G2, Irish Military Intelligence, to join him in this foul treachery? Clearly Lynch knew something his devotees didn’t about the arms importation, and concealed it from them.

A cold handshake. Haughey (left) and Lynch (right)

The FF-IRA myth – the Provisional IRA version – with Haughey billed as the arch villain, provided the bedrock for a deep and abiding distrust in him, especially among sections of the Dublin media, many of whom saw him as a Provo godfather just as the Stickies and Her Majesty’s spooks had ordained. One of the main anti-Haughey protagonists was the late Dick Walsh who wrote at least one – if not many – speeches for Cathal Goulding, the Marxist and Chief of Staff of the Official IRA. Incredibly, Walsh managed to cloak his connections from the affluent middle class readership of the Irish Times where he was employed for decades and even became its political editor.

At least O’Malley and the Stickies believed the delusions they were circulating and had some political skin in the game. However, the IRD forgeries were entirely malicious and an affront to the democracy of this country. Ironically, the British government now complains that the Russians are treating them in a like manner on the black propaganda front, now restyled as ‘fake news’.

Like all good yarns, the Fianna Fáil-IRA conspiracy theory was too good to be true.

Like all good yarns, the Fianna Fáil-IRA conspiracy theory was too good to be true. The guns – which never arrived – were going to be stored in the Republic in case it ever became necessary to distribute them to the citizen defence committees across the border in extreme circumstances. Emphatically, the committees were not a front for the IRA despite what Her Majesty’s spies claimed about them at the time and their dupes have repeated ever since. Ironically, the whiff of sulphur that clung to Haughey afforded him the Republican credentials he had so sorely lacked in his failed leadership bid in 1966. Eventually, in 1979, he became Taoiseach. His administration then made great strides in curtailing the activities of the Provos, as RUC Chief Constable Sir Jack Hermon recognised in his memoirs.

There has always been a suspicion that Lynch knew about the arms importation attempt and that he and his hapless minister for defence, James Gibbons, conspired to lie about their involvement in the affair and Haughey became a scapegoat for a wider group involved in the endeavour.

Now Michael Heney, the distinguished former RTE broadcaster, has produced a book, ‘The Arms Crisis, the Plot That Never Was’ in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the crisis. It bulldozes the reputation of ‘Honest Jack’ Lynch. At one captivating point, Heney asserts that:

“Overall, it is possible to identify at least thirty specific instances when Jack Lynch either made demonstrably false statements, was deliberately misleading or chose to side-step the facts. Most, but not all, of his misstatements were to Dáil Éireann. The examples spanned the period from 5 May 1970 to the moment when Lynch, recently retired from the office of Taoiseach, attempted on 25 November 1980 to defend himself against some of the more serious barbs directed against him by Peter Berry [formerly of the Department of Justice] in his posthumous Diaries”.

Heney’s book contains the material to justify this assertion. So, it seems, butter could melt in Jack’s mouth after all.

So, it seems, butter could melt in Jack’s mouth after all.

Another point Heney (pictured above on the left) hammers home is the appalling injustice meted out to Captain James Kelly, the military intelligence officer who stood in the dock alongside  Haughey at the two arms trials (pictured above on the right). Heney dedicates the book to him and his wife Sheila. The captain emerges as a rough modern Irish equivalent to Captain Dreyfus with the saving grace he did not go to prison although his promising military career was destroyed and his life became consumed with the gruelling task of restoring his reputation. Along the way he picked up €40,000 in damages (and €10,000 in legal costs) on foot of an allegation made by former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald that the jury verdict was perverse.

Another hero to emerge from the pages of the book is Captain Kelly’s boss, Colonel Michael Hefferon, the Director of G2. He was one of the few Establishment insiders who had the courage to tell the truth and – sadly – paid the price for it by being ostracised by his peers. On the morning of the first trial, he informed  Captain Kelly’s solicitor that he was not going to commit perjury. It is a pity so many others lacked the depth of his courage, most particularly Jim Gibbons and Chief Superintendent John Fleming of the Special Branch. It is also deeply troubling that the colonel was ever placed in a position where he felt under pressure to commit perjury.

It is also deeply troubling that the colonel was ever placed in a position where he felt under pressure to commit perjury.

Jim Gibbons

I knew Seamus McKenna SC reasonably well. He was the barrister who led the prosecution against Haughey, Kelly and the other two defendants, John Kelly from Belfast and Albert Luykx. McKenna was one of the most engaging – not to mention able – practitioners at the Irish Bar, a man held in such high esteem by his colleagues he was elected as Chairman of the Bar Council. Strikingly, he was reluctant to talk about the arms trial. In his book Heney describes how, after it emerged that Colonel Hefferon’s witness statement had been altered prior to the first trial, Seamus took the astonishing step of asking the Bar Council to grant him permission to state openly that he had not known about this occurrence. In my mind, Seamus remains an exceptionally honourable man, one who must have been infuriated at the tainted brief he was handed by State in 1970.

When one considers the miscarriages of justice that occurred during the 1970s, it hard not to conclude the rot set in during the run up to the arms trials, especially at the Department of Justice which was overseen by a strange individual called Peter Berry, a civil servant who had a difficult relationship with the truth.

One of the defendants at the arms trials was John Kelly, a Belfast man who was the National Organiser of the Citizen Defence Committees. After his acquittal, he devoted his energies to the Provisional IRA. At the end of his book, Heney raises an important point for historians to ponder: “One view which has been little pursued is whether Lynch, when he chose to disavow so emphatically any possibility that the Irish army could ever intervene to defend northern nationalists, and allow John Kelly, the representative of the Northern Defence Committees, to be prosecuted, contributed himself to the growth of the Provisional IRA by leaving a vacuum in the North. His actions, arguably, created a situation where those in nationalist communities who had always looked to Dublin, who distrusted the British forces and felt vulnerable to potential Ulster Volunteer Force assault, were forced to look elsewhere for means of physical defence. The capacity of the Irish government to influence militant nationalist opinion was reduced almost to nothing after what some chose to see as Jack Lynch’s betrayal in 1970.”

Anyone with the remotest interest in the intrigue that has swirled around Fianna Fáil, Charles Haughey, Jack Lynch, the IRA and Irish military intelligence over the last 50 years should purchase a copy of Heney’s masterful book (a copy of which is available via  Kindle during the tedium of this Covid-19 lockdown).

Next September I will be publishing a book with Mercier Press which will reveal what I believe is the deepest secret of the Arms Crisis. I hope its exposure will render it possible to appreciate what really happened half a century ago.

See also The Forgotten Arms Crisis Scoop: https://villagemagazine.ie/the-supreme-agitator-and-the-arms-crisis/

See also The Irish Times got its biggest story of the last 50 years wrong: https://villagemagazine.ie/dw/