The Arms Crisis of 1970: The plot that never was
by Michael Heney (Head of Zeus, £20.00/€23.00)
This important but controversial new book by Michael Heney, published recently in the midst of our present pandemic crisis, challenges the received historical interpretation of the attempt in 1970 to import arms for possible use in Northern Ireland.
Rather than seeing it as a plot undertaken by a faction within the then government, without proper authority, Heney argues convincingly that this was in fact an informally authorised operation.
He believes that the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, knew what was going on, at least to the extent that he wanted to know.
Michael Heney, once a journalist and producer at RTÉ, attended the hearings as a young reporter. But this book is based on extensive archival research. Heney is able to make out his case by relying on state papers which were sealed from view until 2000, under the 30-year rule.
He shows that Jack Lynch had been told by the then Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, as early as October 1969, of offers of arms, or of money to buy them, being made by a serving Irish Army officer to nationalists from Belfast some days earlier at a meeting in Bailieboro.
He reveals that the Chief of Staff of the Irish Army minuted that, on February 6, 1970, he had received a direction from the Cabinet to “prepare the Army for incursions into Northern Ireland” and to have arms “in readiness to be available in a matter of hours” to be given to Northern Nationalists for their protection.
The legal position was, however, that under the Firearms Act of 1925, arms could not be imported to Ireland without a licence from the Minister for Defence of the time, Jim Gibbons. No such licence was ever issued.
That was the basis for the prosecutions in the Arms Trial of Charles Haughey, Neil Blaney, Captain Jim Kelly, John Kelly and Belgian businessman Albert Luykx.
Strangely, the decision to prosecute these men was taken by the Attorney General, Colm Condon SC, before all the relevant witness statements had been gathered, notably the witness statement of the Chief of Army Intelligence, Colonel Michael Hefferon. Hefferon’s testimony was to blow a big hole in the prosecution case.
There is much forensic detail in this book to which this summary cannot do justice.
The conclusion I draw is that, from mid-1969, the Lynch government was pursuing a twin track strategy:
(1) A diplomatic one, that was openly acknowledged, seeking reforms in Northern Ireland. Jack Lynch’s Tralee speech (eschewing coercive means to achieve a united Ireland) was part of this and
(2) A parallel, covert and deniable, strategy to give military aid to the nationalist minority for “self defence”, in the event of a further intensification of Loyalist attacks on them. The attempted arms importation was part of this second track.
The Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, saw the danger in the second track, hence his warning to Jack Lynch in October 1969.
The notion that weapons, once supplied, would or could only be used for “self defence” was ludicrous. The Irish State would have had no control over how they might be used, once the arms were outside its jurisdiction in Northern Ireland.
Such an involvement by the Irish state in military actions across the border would have exposed to attack isolated nationalist communities far from the border.
The effect on relations with the UK would also have been disastrous. Imagine how one might react if the British Army was supplying arms to a political group in this jurisdiction!
Jack Lynch did not seem fully to see these risks, until Liam Cosgrave went to see him on May 6, 1970 with information he had received from an anonymous Garda source naming the Ministers supposedly involved in the plot to import arms (including the Minister for Defence, Jim Gibbons).
Michael Heney controversially argues that this second track approach (of the Irish state preparing to arm Northern nationalists) might, by reassuring them that they were not alone, have forestalled the re-emergence of the Provisional IRA.
I do not believe this at all: it is dangerous historical nonsense.
The Republican ideology, dating back to the Fenians in the 1860s, is based on the false idea that Unionists can be coerced into united Ireland, and that, because Ireland is an island, nationaliss have a moral right to use force to that end, and that only pragmatic considerations should inhibit them from doing so.
This ideology was so widespread among ‘Republicans’, that the Provisional IRA Republicans would have gone down the cul-de-sac of violence, no matter what the Irish state did, or did not, do about arms in 1970.
It was never a good idea for the Irish state to supply arms to nationalists in Northern Ireland, whether directly or indirectly, licensed or not.
Michael Heney does show, however, that the prosecutions in the Arms Trial of 1970 were unjustified. This is principally because the accused believed sincerely that they were acting with formal or informal government authority.
How then ought the matter have been resolved, if not by the Arms Trial?
Jack Lynch should have put a stop to the whole arms importation exercise much earlier, when first warned of it by Peter Berry in October 1969. He should have done so long before May 1970, when he did eventually act by sacking some of the Ministers involved.
After all, Jack Lynch had already won an overall majority in the Dáil in June 1969, and had the political authority to assert himself over his Ministers. By October 1969, reforms in Northern Ireland were under way. The B Specials were being disbanded and effective security powers were being withdrawn from Stormont.
Lynch should have concentrated all his efforts on the diplomatic track, in the United Nations, the United States and among the Irish in Britain, in pushing for much more rapid reform in Northern Ireland. Instead he allowed the covert strategy to continue in parallel…his big mistake.
The use of weapons, by whomsoever supplied, and for whatever ostensible purpose, was always a waste of time, and of lives, as we have learned the hard way over the past 50 years.
John Bruton served as Taoiseach from 1994 to 1997. He retired from active politics in 2004.