Frank FitzGerald and the Arms Crisis of 1922
When Garret FitzGerald made his famous remark a bout Charles Haughey's "flawed pedigree", hinting at Haughey's involvement in the 1970 Arms Trial, he was being conveniently forgetful. 1970 wasn't the first time authorities in Dublin had tried to import arms for the IRA in the North. It had happened in 1922 as well. And then one of the principal figures involved had been Garret's uncle, Frank FitzGerald.
It was a strange and rather murky story which was unearthed by the Public Accounts Committee of the Dail between 1924 and 1926 and detailed in the committee's published reports. It involved not only gunrunning but allegations of profiteering and of a cover-up by the Cumann na nGaelheal Government of the day. After the Treaty was signed in December 1921 and the Provisional Government was set up in Dublin, violence continued against Catholics in the North, especially in Belfast.
The reports from the North and the stream of refugees across the border threatened to undermine support for the Treaty, especially among those IRA Volunteers who had been won over to the Treaty by Michael Collins. Collins and his military supporters like General Richard Mulcahy, the Minister for Defence, were vulnerable the taunt that they had abandoned the Northern nationalists to the mercy of the Special Constabulary in the North. The pro-Treaty or Free State army began to arm the Northern divisions of the IRA to resist the Specials.
They had a problem, however. The British were supplying the Free State army with rifles but they were all numbered and it would have been very embarrassing if any of these British-supplied weapons were captured by the authorities in the North. Mulcahy's force got round this for a while by trading some of their British-supplied guns with the anti-Treaty IRA for weapons acquired during the War of Independence and sending these to the North.
This wasn't enough, however, so they decided to buy a large quantity of arms surreptitiously from professional arms dealers in London. All this was sanctioned at the highest level in the Free State army and, in May 1923, General Sean MacMahon, who had been Quartermaster General at the time, summed up the course of events:
"Early last year, during the pogrom in the North and when our men in the Northern divisions were making every effort to deal with the situation, the demand for arms increased and every weapon we could lay our hands on was sent to one of our Northern divisions. Arms were taken from Southern units and sent up North and later we supplied them with some arms from the regular army. The position became very difficult and, after many meetings with our Northern officers, it was decided that we would procure a quantity of arms under cover to be sent in to the six counties.
"I went into the matter of procuring a quantity of revolvers and rifles with Mr Frank FitzGerald, who had been procuring materials for us for a long time .... "
Frank FitzGerald was a London-Irish businessman and a brother of Desmond FitzGerald (Garret's father), who was Minister of External Affairs in the Dublin Government. Frank FitzGerald had been involved in supplying arms and bomb-making chemicals to the IRA during the War of Independence and the Truce, using a series of largely paper companies, of which he was the proprietor. One of his contacts was Joseph F. White, another London-Irish businessman who had also supplied guns to the IRA.
In April 1922 in London FitzGerald introduced White to Sean Golden, the Deputy Director of Purchases of the Free State army and they discussed a formidable list of armaments Golden was interested in buying. They concentrated on rifles and revolvers and White later told the Committee of Public Accounts that FitzGerald had informed him that "it was desired to obtain a large number (of rifles) secretly for use against Ulster .... "
By mid-June 1922 White and FitzGerald had got offers of 2,500 .45 revolvers, 10,000 Lee Enfield .303 rifles and five Hotchkiss guns - heavy, machine guns which fired one Ib shells. The Hotchkiss guns had come from a British naval vessel which was being converted to civilian use. General MacMahon approved the deal and FitzGerald was given an advance of £10,000 out of army funds. The revolvers were expected to arrive about the end of June 1922, but the attack on the Four Courts and the outbreak of the Civil War intervened on June 28.
MacMahon told FitzGerald to hold things up for the time being because the Free State authorities couldn't be sure the guns wouldn't get into the wrong (i.e. antiTreaty) hands. He didn't stop the scheme, however, and negotiations with arms dealers in London went on during July while the Civil War raged in Ireland. Arrangements to buy the 10,000 rifles were only concluded and a deposit of £2,250 paid on August 2. This may have been connected with a meeting between Collins and Mulcahy and Northern IRA leaders, which was held in Dublin on the same day and at which it was arranged that a large number of Northern IRA men would come South to the Curragh camp. They were to be trained and armed there, ready to resume their activities in the North at some future date.
FitzGerald had also been supplying large amounts of bomb-making chemicals to the Free State army since May 1922. There is no indication what these were used for, but the IRA in Belfast launched an incendiary campaign against big businesses in the city at the end of May and there may well have been a connection.
The timing of all this was significant. It showed that there was quite a high level of cooperation on the question of the North between sections of the pro- and anti-Treaty forces until literally the eve of the attack on the Four Courts. And it demonstrated that the Free State army's high command was still involved with the clandestine activities of the Northern IRA for some months after the Civil War had begun.
Things began to go wrong in London towards the end of August 1922, however. FitzGerald seems to have been
a rather incompetent gunrunner. He had messed up one revolver deal in June by failing to keep appointments with the arms dealer, who got fed up and sold the guns to Brazil instead - there was always a ready market in South America.
On August 24 the bulky Hotchkiss guns were due to be handed over. They had been stored at the back of an antique shop behind the Shaftsbury Theatre, near Oxford Street and the Tottenham Court Road. Buying the guns was not wholly illegal but secrecy was essential since sending them to the IRA in the North certainly was illegal. FitzGerald had the Hotchkiss guns loaded openly on a lorry in full view of the busy main roads and then taken to his own works. Not surprisingly, detectives from Scotland Yard arrived a few hours later and seized them.
FitzGerald promptly denied all responsibility, claiming he was only storing the guns for White. He then asked White to take responsibility because, "his brother being a member of the (Dublin) Government, the connection between the two would cause very serious complications with the British Government ... " White was interviewed by Colonel Carter, the head of the British Special Branch, and claimed he had intended to sell the guns to Spain. He wasn't charged but Scotland Yard held on to the guns.
The seizure of the Hotchkiss guns messed up the deal for the 10,000 rifles. These were British army surplus and were stored, ironically enough, in the Tower of London. They were to be sold by the British army's Disposals Board to the same dealer who had handled the Hotchkiss guns, Horace Soley & Co., who were to hand them over to White and FitzGerald. When the machineguns were seized, the Disposals Board called off the deal, however.
All that was left of the original deal with Dublin now was the bomb-making chemicals and the revolvers. FitzGerald delivered another batch of chemicals early in 1923. He only began to receive the revolvers in October 1922 and they did not reach Ireland until much later. By the beginning of 1923 Michael Collins was dead and the Free State side had effectively won the Civil War. They were no longer too worried about the North and the Northern IRA divisions were officially wound up. The Free State army didn't press FitzGerald for the revolvers.
In the meantime Joseph White had become thoroughly fed up with FitzGerald, however. He had been left to carry the can for the Hotchkiss guns and FitzGerald had refused to pay him commission he had been promised on the various deals. White had gone to Dublin in September 1922 to complain to General MacMahon, who had refused to see him. He then wrote to a number of Free State Ministers who ignored his letters.
White suspected a cover-up and began to make allegations about FitzGerald's financial dealings. Eventually, at the start of 1924, he wrote to Tom Johnson TD, the leader of the Labour Party and chairman of the Dail's Public Accounts Committee.
Meanwhile, the Free State authorities were having their own troubles with FitzGerald. He was demanding payment for the 2,500 revolvers and 25 tons of chemicals which were part of the original deal, even though he had not delivered them and the Free State army no longer wanted them. Whatever pressure FitzGerald put on was effective because on October 19 1923, Mulcahy and General MacMahon, who was now Chief of Staff of the Free State army, had a hurried meeting with the President of the Executive Council, W.T. Cosgrave.
Mulcahy and some other Ministers then went to the Department of Finance where Mulcahy drew out £5,000, and he and MacMahon caught the night boat to England to see FitzGerald. They gave him the £5,000 and tried to persuade him to buy back the revolvers and chemicals for half price and dispose of them, but he refused. He didn't hand them over either, however.
The saga wasn't over yet. In February 1924 FitzGerald telegraphed Cosgrave and Mulcahy to say that the revolvers had been seized by the arms dealers, Soley & Co., in lieu of money he owed them and that he was being served with bankruptcy papers, He demanded the balance of the price originally agreed for the whole arms transaction. The bankruptcy story transpired later to have been only a ruse.
It was an awkward moment for the Cosgrave Government. They were involved in delicate negotiations with the British over the commission to review the boundary between the Free State and the North. They may have been worried that a bankruptcy case would bring the whole arms affair out in the open. Cosgrave urged an immediate settlement.
Department of Finance officials went to London and agreed to take over FitzGerald's debts to Soley & Co. (£3,260) and to pay FitzGerald the balance of the original sum agreed (£1,400). FitzGerald got the revolvers back from Soley & Co., but then refused to part with them or the remaining chemicals unless he got an additional £700 from Dublin. The Department of Finance official refused to hand over the £1,400 and returned to Dublin. At this stage the Free State authorities had paid FitzGerald £18,305 out of a total claim of £19,704 but had only received goods to the (nominal) value of £7,069. FitzGerald now held goods to the nominal value of £10,385, which the Free State had paid for. (FitzGerald had also paid Soley & Co. £2,250 as a deposit on the 10,000 rifles. Soley & Co. claimed they had paid this over to the British army's Disposals Board but the latter denied ever receiving it.)
The Free State authorities themselves initiated legal action against FitzGerald in July 1924, though it never came to court. Eventually, in December 1924, FitzGerald dropped his claim for an extra £700 and settled for the £1,400 he had been offered in February. He had then received a total of £19,704. He handed over the revolvers and some of the chemicals but it took another threat of legal action to produce the last of the chemicals, which weren't handed over until April 1925. When the revolvers reached Dublin, 61 were found to be missing. The chemicals were sold off in London but were found to be five tons short. Much of what was left was of inferior quality. The chemicals, which had a nominal value of £2,261, realised a mere £315 when sold.
By now the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by Tom Johnson, had begun to investigate the whole transaction, with the assistance of Joseph White, who also drew attention to the sizeable profit margins FitzGerald had made on the goods. FitzGerald had charged Dublin £1,000 for the Hotchkiss guns which had cost him only £750. He had charged £35s per revolver when he had bought the revolvers for £23s 6d each. And if the 10,000 rifles had been delivered he was aiming to charge £215s each for them when they would have cost him only £2 each. As for the chemicals, FitzGerald had charged a uniform price of £56 per ton for the bulk of them, although the market price had dropped to about half that over the period when he was supplying them.
White had pointed all this out to the Free State authorities in numerous letters but had got no response. He now alleged that this was due to FitzGerald's influence in Dublin, where, as well as having a brother in the Cabinet, he was very friendly with Mulcahy and Ernest Blythe, the Minister of Finance. FitzGerald himself refused to appear before the committee, as did Mulcahy, who had resigned from the Cabinet in the spring of 1924.
The Public Accounts Committee commented in April 1925 that the prices charged for the chemicals had been too high and that FitzGerald's profit on the Hotchkiss guns was "greatly excessive" (it was not clear whether the Free State authorities ever got these guns). The committee returned to the theme in March 1926, after a more detailed investigation, and said: "Every item in this account and almost every incident in connection with the transactions calls for adverse comment ... "
They noted in particular the army's failure to take any action after White had called their attention to FitzGerald's profit margins and the Department of Finance's readiness to meet FitzGerald's claims without taking any measures to ensure that he would deliver the goods. Johnson felt that the whole affair was being covered up. He had great difficulty in getting Government agreement to a Dail debate on the committee's report and, when they did agree, the debate was fixed for the day before the Dail recessed in July 1925, when many TDs were only anxious to get home. Johnson described the whole business as most unsatisfactory and said: "It will be difficult to disabuse the public mind of.the thought that the Ministry has been affected by personal considerations when . . . Mr. FitzGerald ... is a brother of a Minister ... " He said Desmond FitzGerald should have resigned from the Government.
Blythe, the Minister of Finance simply denied that personal considerations had influenced the Government. He said nothing about the allegations of overcharging and excessive profits, or why the Government had met FitzGerald's claims so readily. Johnson had discreetly avoided mentioning that the arms were destined for the North. Blythe was discreet too but indicated that he had opposed the Collins-Mulcahy policy of arming the Northern IRA. He tried to distance the Cosgrave Government from the events of 1922, saying: "Many people were confused after the Treaty (and) were forced to do things that I think they would now say ... ought not to have been done." Having hinted at the murky and potentially embarrassing nature of the affair, he urged that there was no longer any point in going into the details of it. His approach was effective. No-one else raised the question. Desmond FitzGerald said nothing.
Johnson remained indignant about the affair and the next report of the Public Accounts Committee gave more details of the transaction, including the intended destination of the arms. There was no response from the Government, however.
The last word on the question came after the Fianna Fail Deputies entered the Dail in 1927. They confirmed that supplies of arms had been promised for the North. Frank Carney TD, who had been chief supplies officer at the Free State army headquarters in Portobello barracks, said that, two or three days before the attack on the Four Courts, he had fitted out a flying column of 40 men from the South Down/South Armagh area. They had been waiting for the London guns before returning to fight in the North when the Civil War began. Carney himself resigned from the Free State army when the Civil War began and later joined Fianna Fail.
The Fianna Fail speakers were cynical about the episode and claimed that the promise of guns had been used to keep the Northern IRA and their Southern sympathisers quiet until the Civil War was under way and then the whole scheme had been dropped. None of them raised the question of FitzGerald's profits and the alleged cover-up by the Free State authorities.
The moral of the episode - apart from the obvious one in relation to later events, namely that people in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones is perhaps that the Northern problem has always had a tendency to disrupt the patterns of politics in the South and embroil Southern leaders in strange alliances and unorthodox activities. Presumably it will continue to do so until it is resolved.