The author is a senior lecturer in the department of Modern History at Liverpool’s hope University. He has carefully mined the available documentary sources to produce a book that covers Haughey’s, much disputed disposition and policy instincts on Northern Ireland. Given the longevity and impact of Haughey’s career this, by definition, involves a painstaking trawl through a variety of sources. His cautious conclusion is that “Northern Ireland, it seems, was only one of a handful of issues to which Haughey left a positive legacy”. However, even this tentative conclusion is set against the view of the haughey critics who saw his actions as opportunistic and maladroit.
The Arms Trial is of course the defining event in Haughey’s career. Stephen Kelly goes a great distance to establish that Haughey was, however unwittingly, the person who most facilitated the emergence of the Provisional IRA as a terrorist organisation in the years that followed from the upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland following the events of 1969. He states that Haughey’s “subversive involvement in the distribution of monies, guns and ammunitions” indirectly facilitated the yet to fully emerge Provisional IRA. The only issue I can see with this line of argument is that it suggests that Haughey was in fact subversive when in fact most of the testimony, research and evidence suggests that the arms importation was part of a fully authorised, albeit covert, operation of state.
There is little or no doubt, at this remove of time, that Haughey was part of a plot to import arms for nationalists in Northern Ireland and that this operation was initiated at the highest levels of government and was supervised, quite deliberately, by army intelligence as opposed to that other security arm of the state the Special Branch. The lack of co-ordination between the two agencies meant the importation was badly managed. Kelly appears to give credence to the line, pursued by the Jack Lynch faction, in the wake of the Arms Trial, that Blaney and Haughey were in effect usurping their mandate from government and foisting their own policy on Northern Ireland.
The problem in sustaining this argument is firstly the actual jury verdict in the trial which concluded that the accused persons did have a government mandate for their action. The second difficult issue is the copious evidence from military intelligence officers that the operation was run with the active involvement of a variety of ministers including the Minister for Defence.
Stephen Kelly does well when covering Haughey’s subsequent efforts, when in power as Taoiseach, to develop policy on Northern Ireland and the famous early summit with Mrs Thatcher. His mishandling of Mrs Thatcher over the Falklands war and its consequences for Anglo-Irish relations is well covered. This book also gives a valuable insight into Haughey’s early approval of contact between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fáin as well as the careful cultivation of Fr Alex Reid, the Redemptorist priest, who became a crucial interlocutor in what has become known as the peace process and the ending, by way of formal ceasefire, of the IRA’s campaign of violence. In may 1987 Haughey, who had become Taoiseach, was presented with a 15-page letter from Fr Reid. The contents of the letter were groundbreaking. Contained within were the terms of a proposed IRA ceasefire, seven years before the end of hostilities in August 1994. Apart from his secret dealings with republicans, it was also Haughey who first won concessions from John Major, Margaret Thatcher’s successor as prime minister, on Northern Ireland. In December 1991, following three years of discussions between Adams and Hume, Haughey presented Major with a draft of a model joint British-Irish government declaration, known as ‘Draft 2’ which would later become the ‘Downing street Declaration’.
Stephen Kelly has set himself a hard task. John Bowman produced his definitive De Valera and the Ulster Question, 1917-1973 with the benefit of a PhD thesis and a lifetime of topical interviews with some of the key people through his work as a broadcaster before he produced his book. Kelly has produced something that will be of great value to others who may wish to write full biographies of haughey in the future. A book yet to come from Vincent Browne is much anticipated.
My only other quibble with stephen Kelly is his claim in a footnote that my biography ‘Haughey – Prince of Power’ is a hagiographical work. I might humbly suggest he re-read the book.
Perhaps the best part of this book is its description of the build up to and the contents of Haughey’s ground breaking summit with Mrs Thatcher in December 1980. Stephen Kelly rightly gives the credit on the British side to two senior Whitehall mandarins namely Sir Robert Armstrong and Sir Kenneth Stowe. Persuaded by Haughey’s persistence in demanding that there be an Irish or Dublin role in relation to the North, and a personal belief on Armstrong’s part that a united Ireland was inevitable, the two civil servants shifted Thatcher on this issue. This is rightly attributed to be the beginning of a series of agreements that brought both Dublin and London closer together. My father was hugely energised by the Dublin Castle meeting and told me afterwards, on the basis of conversations with Armstrong, that the British had given up the ghost on staying on in Ireland. The process begun at Dublin Castle was a move towards a joint British-Irish stewardship of the Northern Ireland issue.
‘A Failed Political entity – Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question 1945-1992’ by Stephen Kelly is available from Merrion Press.