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The long shadow of the Arms Crisis: more to Haughey’s question than meets the eye

By David Burke.

Deputy Sean Haughey has repeated his request for the release of certain Garda files from the Department of Justice. There is a lot more to his question than readily meets the eye.

In the late 1960s and 1970s C3 was the most secretive and sensitive department within an Garda Síochána. It provided reports to the Department of Justice based on information gathered by the various wings of the Special Branch across the country. It had the additional resource of a former Special Branch officer who was working inside C3 who had retained his contacts within the Republican Movement.

Reports were furnished by C3 to the Department on a monthly basis and were known as the Confidential Monthly Reports. They were usually written by one individual and signed off by the Head of C3, Patrick Malone (who later became Garda Commissioner); and after 1971 by Larry Wren (who also later became Garda Commissioner).

When they reached the Department of Justice, they were digested by Peter Berry who served as General Secretary to that department until early in 1971 when his deputy, Andrew Ward, took over from him. They were also read by Des O’Malley, who served as Minister for Justice between May 1970 and February 1973.

It is the Confidential Monthly Reports to which Haughey is trying to gain access. He believes they will prove that Sean MacStíofáin was the informant who told the Special Branch that the weapons which were due to have been flown into Dublin Airport in April 1970 were destined for the IRA.

This was a lie, for the weapons were due to have been stored by Irish military intelligence, G2, and only to be released in the most dire of circumstances to the Citizens Defence Committees (CDCs) of Northern Ireland. The CDCs were mainly made up of lawyers, businessmen and priests; and were not a front for the Provisional IRA.

Haughey suspects that there will be a change in the pattern of the reports that reached the Department of Justice after July 1972. That was the month when the Garda realise that the information Sean MacStíofáin was feeding them was designed to suit his own purposes, not because he was a genuine informer. The change of pattern will corroborate the revelation that the Garda lost faith in MacStíofáin as a reliable informant from that time.

Normally there would be little prospect that the Department of Justice would even entertain such a question. However, there is nothing normal about the MacStíofáin case.

MacStíofáin was not an informer, but rather somebody who ran rings around the Special Branch. During the research for my book on the Arms Crisis, I spoke to a number of former Garda officers who do not believe he should be protected and that this is an exception to the general rule of anonymity furnished to informants.

Another interesting aspect of this affair is that Haughey belongs to Fianna Fáil whereas the Minister for Justice is a member of Fine Gael.

Put simply, a minister from Fine Gael – the party of law and order, not to mention truth and justice – now finds herself in the position of having to cover up for the former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA who made a fool of the Special Branch

Put simply, a minister from Fine Gael – the party of law and order, not to mention truth and justice – now finds herself in the position of having to cover up for the former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA who made a fool of the Special Branch with his deception and lies.

What she may not yet have realised is that Haughey has the support of backbench figures inside his own party for his initiative and that the pressure to get some sort of response about the machinations of Sean MacStíofáin is not going to go away.

Indeed the Fine Gael minister may yet find she has to diffuse this issue before it becomes a more serious one for her Fianna Fáil colleagues in Cabinet.

Last week, Deputy Sean Haughey posed the following question to the Minister for Justice:

“To ask the Minister for Justice if she will release files in respect of reports from the C3 Division of an Garda Siochana, sent routinely to her Department by a person (details supplied) concerning information provided for the period 1969 to 1972, with particular reference to the importation of arms; her views on whether such files would be of interest to historians in view of the length of time which has since elapsed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. (Details Supplied) by Sean MacStíofáin, former member of the IRA army council”.

On Thursday last (8 October 2020), the Minister repeated her commitment to review the files. As things stand, it appears unlikely that any further files will be released in the near future. Her answer was as follows:

The National Archives Act provides that departmental files are subject to consideration for release to the National Archives, where appropriate, and open to public inspection. I understand that many of the records relating to the Arms Trial were released to the National Archives in 2000.

While the Deputy will appreciate that some of the records could not be released because they contain sensitive Garda reports or potentially defamatory information, it should be noted that these files are subject to periodic review, including as to whether they should be released. As the Deputy is also aware, related matters were also the subject of reviews by the Attorney General and then Minister for Justice in 2001. There were also debated in the House at that time.

As I recently informed the Deputy, it is not possible, given the current restrictions, to physically examine all of the remaining documents that exist in my Department. I gave a commitment to the deputy that the files will be reviewed and will be released as appropriate.

In advance of any such review, it would not be appropriate for me to speculate on the nature of the records held nor their value to historians.

This may have implications for the delicate governing balance between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. What could go wrong?