The Significance of the Arms Crisis

The real scandal of the arms crisis was not what Haughey did but in what was done to him and the other defendants.


Since the evening that Liam Cosgrave went to Jack Lynch's office in Leinster House (May 5, 1970), to tell him that he had received information concerning the involvement of Government Ministers, in an attempted illegal arms importation, there has been a conspiracy of distortion, selectivity and humbug in relation to the arms crisis. At no time was this more evident than during the recent Dáil scenes arising out of the publication of the arms crisis articles in Magill.


There is no doubt but that Charles Haughey behaved improperly during the arms crisis. It was a reckless and silly thing to have agreed in the first place to assist volatile groups in the North to obtain arms, even in the circumstances then prevailing in which it was believed among the nationalist population "that they were in danger of an imminent and horrific pogrom.


He was wrong not to have had the issue of the arms importation specifically agreed in cabinet, even though there is copious evidence of other decisions taken which would have lent adequate authority to the arms importation.


Charles Haughey was also wrong to have obscured his involvement in the arms importation throughout his evidence at the arms trial and to have specifically denied any knowledge of the arms importation in answer to three specific questions. He was also wrong to have denied his knowledge that the fund for the Relief of Distress was being used to purchase arms. And most of all, he was callous in his disregard of the consequences to his fellow defendants of the line of defence he adopted at the arms trial i.e. denial of involvement in, or knowledge of what they were legitimately claiming, was an official Government operation. But there Charles Haughey's culpability ends and it is not terribly serious. Certainly, Haughey's impropriety bears no relation to the magnitude of the accusations that have been flung in his direction over the years. He played no part whatsoever in the setting up of the Provisional IRA. There is absolutely no evidence that he, at any time, assisted in the importation of arms for the purpose of "murdering fellow-Irishmen", as is regularly charged. Suggestions that he was guilty of being involved in an attempt to overthrow the State or was guilty of treason are simply outrageous.


Haughey was also very unfairly treated in the arms crisis. To have suffered the indignity of dismissal from Government for an action which was at least, in conformity with Government policy at the time, was very rough Justice. To have been dragged before the courts on charges arising out of this, was scandalous.


The real scandal of the arms crisis was not in what Haughey did, but in what was done to him and the other defendants. Even if one rejects the contention that the attempted arms importation was in conformity with a number of decisions taken by the Government at the time - the delegation of authority to Haughey and Gibbons to equip the army for involvement in the North, the training at Fort Dunree, the movement of arms to Dundalk, the army directive of February 4, 1970 etc. - the real genesis of the arms crisis was in the failure of the cabinet to discuss openly policy in relation to Northern Ireland generally.


As stated above, Mr. Haughey shares responsibility for this, but it was not his responsibility alone, nor was he primarily responsible. The person most to blame for the state of affairs, was the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch. There were extenuating circumstances which explain why he didn't allow open debate on the issue after his emotive television address of August 13, but the blame rests primarily with him nonetheless.


He is also to blame for not calling a halt to the entire escapade when he first got to hear of it on October 17, 1970 from Mr. Peter Berry, the then Secretary of the Department of Justice. Even had he acted when he, was again informed of it and of the involvement of ministers in it on April 13, 1970, then the most determined and almost successful attempt at importation, would not have taken place the following week-end.


Of course, Michael Moran has stated time and again - including in the course of his evidence at both arms trials that he had informed the Taoiseach on a number of occasions, of the plans to bring arms and of the involvement of two other ministers in them. Had Mr. Lynch acted on any of these occasions, then the whole crisis could have been averted.


But he didn't act and he allowed a situation to remain, whereby there was genuine doubt within his cabinet about what precisely policy was in relation to the Northern situation generally and an arms importation specifically.


Given these circumstances, it was unfair to dismiss ministers, or even ask for their resignations, for it wasn't their fault alone that policy was confused. It was doubly unfair to let it be known that they were not to be dismissed and then to fire them, simply and solely because the leader of the opposition had threatened to raise the issue in the Dáil on the following day. The Berry Papers reveal clearly that Mr. Lynch had decided not to dismiss Haughey and Blaney, on April 30 and cabinet sources at the time have informed us that, Mr. Lynch told a Government meeting on May 1, that the affair was ended.


It was bad enough to fire them; it was outrageous to have them prosecuted. True Justice Henchy said at the conclusion of the second trial that the prosecutions were legitimate, but he was talking from a strictly legal point of view. Of course there were grounds, legally, for believing that on the face of the evidence, a crime had been committed - an attempt was clearly made to import arms and there didn't seem to have been proper legal authority to do it, as the then Minister for Defence, James Gibbons, denied having given it sanction. But from a political and moral point of view the prosecutions were scandalous.


First in relation to Charles Haughey. Here he was being prosecuted for something which he did, at best, with proper cabinet authority and, at worst, in circumstances in which cabinet policy was confused on the issue. But more than that: he was being prosecuted for something which the then Taoiseach, had decided he should not be dismissed from Government for.


Then in relation to the other defendants. At no stage could Capt. Kelly, Albert Luykx or John Kelly have known that what they were engaged in was contrary to Government policy and in any way illegal. Capt. Kelly had spoken to the Minister for Defence about the planned importation and at no stage - even according to Mr. Gibbons' own evidence - was he told that what he was doing was contrary, to official policy. Albert Luykx had been involved in the affair by Neil Blaney. He was obviously flattered by Ministerial attention - George Colley, Brian Lenihan and Paddy Hillery had dined in his son's restaurant at Sutton House and had indicated that they approved of what he was doing, or at least that was the impression he received. How could he possibly have been aware that what he was doing was improper? Luykx ended up losing £8000 of his own money on the venture and the Government refused to recompense him.


As far as John Kelly was concerned. He had been a member of a number of delegations to the Taoiseach and other Government Ministers and, although Mr. Lynch denies this, all members of those delegations state that every Minister they met, including the Taoiseach, at least listened sympathetically to their pleas for arms. How was he to know that 'the importation was illegal or unauthorised?


It is certainly true that Charles Haughey gravely mishandled the affair, from his denial of involvement onwards and including his abortive challenge to the Taoiseach to resign once the court case ended. It is also true that he did not tell the truth about his knowledge and involvement. But these are pretty inconsequential misdemeanours compared with the injustice of his dismissal from Government and his prosecution.


By his dismissal from Government, his prosecution and his exclusion from office for 7 years, Haughey more than paid the price for his misdemeanours, but he still has to contend with absolutely unsubstantiated and groundless allegations of a Jar more serious nature than anything he was conceivably guilty of.


It is characteristic of the political and press reaction to the Magill articles, that attention should have been focused on Haughey's involvement in the arms crisis, although he was more sinned against than sinning. There has been no attempt even to address the other side of the story: the fact that Mr. Lynch was first informed on October 17, 1969; the fact that there were grounds for believing that the arms importation had proper sanction; the fact that there was a failure to hold a full cabinet discussion on Northern policy generally; the fact that Mr. Lynch had stated he was not going to fire the two ministers, even after all the facts of the April 18 attempted arms importation had been made known to him; the fact that the prosecutions were outrageous from a moral and political point of view, etc.


Right from the start of the crisis on May 6, 1970, there was a determined attempt - largely successful - to distort what had really happened with all the focus of attention resting on imaginary plots to overthrow the state, rumours of treason, etc. There is one particular aspect to this distortion which is of particular interest now. During the course of a private briefing of the Committee of Public Accounts in 1971, Peter Berry revealed that he had informed Mr. Lynch of the arms plot on October 17, 1969. Nobody on the Committee took up this issue and had they done so, then public perception of what had actually happened during the course of the arms crisis, would have been very different.


One of the members of the committee and a person specially interested in what Peter Berry had to say was Dr. Garret FitzGerald. At no stage since then did Dr. FitzGerald ever make reference to the possibility that Mr. Lynch's position on the issue, might have been ambiguous and that therefore, the position of Haughey and the others, might have been less heinous than previously suspected.


There was an effective conspiracy to close minds to the possibility that maybe it wasn't Haughey and Co. who were in the wrong. But there would have been a danger in that course of action. Any concentration at the time on Mr. Lynch's involvement would almost certainly have weakened his position within Fianna Fail and he might have been replaced as leader and Taoiseach, by somebody who didn't share the consensus line on Northern Ireland. Haughey is still suspected - probably wrongly unfortunately - of opposing this consensus line and therefore he is still subjected to the most outlandish charges, while his supposed opponents in the party are let off scott-free. How else for instance can 'one explain the remarkable silence over Des O'Malley's behaviour on the internment threat in December 1970?


It is not good enough that the matter should now rest as it is. True, Messrs Haughey and Blaney haven't noticeably suffered in recent years as a result of the unfair treatment they were accorded then, but others have and none more so than Captain Jim Kelly. He had to retire from the army at the end of April 1970 and was then immediately involved in massive legal costs to defend himself against charges which should never have been brought. He spent two years on the dole subsequently, while trying to provide for a large family. He has now, through his own endeavours, managed to re-establish himself in a pub in his home town of Bailieboro, Co. Cavan, but this is not good enough.


Captain Kelly should be compensated for all he has lost through no fault of his own, but through exingencies of a political establishment, which allowed the arms trial to take place at all. Mr. Haughey will be reluctant to reopen the affair, which the compensation of Captain Kelly would certainly involve. But he has a double reason for doing so: first of all there is the justice of the case and secondly, he has a personal obligation to do something, having previously been prepared to allow Captain Kelly twist in the wind when he denied any involvement in or knowledge of the affair. Compensation should also be paid to the estate of the late Albert Luykx and to others, well known to Mr. Haughey who suffered unfairly and grievously because of what happened. Then Haughey should clear the air himself in a forthright and straightforward manner, admitting his mistakes, but defending for the most part what he did.