By John Kelly
In 1970, there were a lot of national newspaper reporters who were even more puzzled than normal. But then, it was a very confusing year. The shifting sands of politics had become a m’lstrom. Almost everybody was blinded to some degree. Some remain so.
Many of the journalists who covered the arms trial that year, suspected the real truth had been binned. It stayed that way for three decades.
In fact, there were two trials. The first brief sortie was aborted after one of the state’s chief witnesses, the late Col. Michael Hefferon, director of Irish Army Intelligence, did not back the prosecution case.
Among the defendants was one of the leading young politicians within the Fianna Fail party, the son in-law of the former taoiseach, Sean Lemass, who had been replaced by the compromise candidate, Jack Lynch.
Lynch was appointed taoiseach largely to avoid embarrassing and potentially damaging conflict between some of the most powerful and ambitious young Fianna Fail politicians.
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Charles J. Haughey was one of those. Others who desired the leadership were the late Neil Blaney of Donegal, George Colley of Dublin’s northside and, of course, the late Donogh O’Malley, uncle of Limerick’s Desmond O’Malley, founder of the Progressive Democrats, and now a central figure in Ireland’s newest scandal.
What puzzled most of the reporters who crowded the Four Courts in 1970 was just what Lynch knew about the alleged illegal conspiracy to import arms into the Irish Republic for use by the Northern Ireland defense committees.
At last, the confusion is beginning to dissipate. After more than 30 years, the name of a good man and faithful servant of the state may be cleared.
Some of the puzzles surrounding Haughey may also be solved. The decision of Kevin Boland, former minister for local government, now in his 80s, to resign from the Fianna Fail party may also be vindicated.
The recent disclosures revealed in a "Prime Time" program, broadcast by RTE, followed up in a lead story in the Irish Times, may mean that the "chickens are at last coming home to roost," as a gleeful Capt. James Kelly stated after the revelations.
He was the liaison officer in Northern Ireland. He insisted, and still insists, that he acted on the orders of his commanding officer, the late Col. Hefferon.
His brief was to meet representatives of the defense committees set up in Northern nationalist areas to provide protection against marauding loyalists and to report back on their aims and needs.
One of his main contacts was a Belfastman, John Kelly, who is now a member of the Northern Assembly. He was also charged in 1970.
Despite considerable political pressure, Hefferon continued to maintain that he was acting on the specific instructions of the late minister for defense, Michael O’Morain.
The Mayo-born O’Morain had health and alcohol problems. But he insisted before the trial and after his dismissal from the cabinet that he had acted in accordance with government policy, the policy laid down by the cabinet led by the taoiseach, Jack Lynch.
He also asserted that he that he informed his leader about all matters at all times.
If one believed him, one could not possibly believe Lynch.
That was the dilemma that faced the journalists of 1970 and continued to puzzle them right up to present times.
What did Lynch know?
It was not just a journalistic dilemma. It is still one of the most traumatic questions that haunts the Fianna Fail party right up to the present.
What occurred as the result of the two trials was disgraceful. It now emerges that what may have happened before the trials went to court was almost certainly even more disgraceful. The Irish state cannot be proud of its evident perfidy.
Lynch replaced O’Morain as minister for justice with the young and relatively inexperienced Des O’Malley.
The latest disclosures lay the finger of blame directly on him. It has now been revealed that he ensured a statement by Hefferon was not made available in evidence.
The RTE "Prime Time" program also established that no fewer than 16 deletions were made from the statement.
All of the excised references, authorized by the then secretary of the Department of Justice, the civil servant Peter Berry, clearly indicated that the minister for defense, James Gibbons, was fully aware of the arms importation.
O’Malley denied after the screening of the program that he had any knowledge of this document.
Now, the Irish Times has established that on Oct. 7, 1970, O’Malley, as minister for justice, signed an instruction to the effect that the file containing Hefferon’s statement should not be produced in evidence.
His explanation was that this was in the public interest.
It was not. It was to protect the Irish government from the possibly serious diplomatic consequences that might have emerged.
If the British government had made it public that Dublin was clandestinely supplying arms to Northern nationalists it could have sparked a civil war on the island.
The disclosures emerged as the result of what was clearly a double sting perpetrated by British intelligence, most likely with the aid of a senior Irish garda, obviously Special Branch, who has never been named.
The note, sent to the then leader of the Fine Gale opposition party, Liam Cosgrave implicated Capt. James Kelly, Hefferon, James Gibbons, then Minister for Defense Haughey, Blaney and the Jones Brothers, who ran a major construction company and owned the Rosapenna Hotel in Donegal.
Signed simply, "A Garda," the note added in capital letters, "See that this scandal is not hushed up."
The entire sorry saga began when Cosgrave produced that damning note to Lynch.
It was then that the government put the coverup operation into effect.
It showed no mercy.
Boland and Blaney resigned. Haughey was consigned to the political wilderness.
Kelly was forced to retire prematurely, sacrificing pension and promotional opportunities, even though the prosecution failed. The army officer and father of a large family was almost reduced to penury. He details much of what happened in his book, "The Thimble Riggers."
Every serious student of contemporary Irish history should read this documented outline of the most atrocious perfidy.
Some huge questions remain.
Who was the anonymous garda who wrote the note? What was his connection, if any, with British intelligence? And how closely involved was MI6 involved in the affair?