Ghosts of Arms Trial haunt Fianna Fáil half a century later, yet FF and Martin state Sinn Fein are unfit to enter into a Government. Reading below, one would wonder if FF are fit to enter what can only be called a Circus, never mind wanting the Reins of Power again. As Haughey and other FF men once said, what is the point in having Power if you dont Abuse it?
THE splash headline over all eight columns on the front page of the Cork Examiner on Thursday, May 7, 1970, screamed:
“Ministers in gun-running plot, says Taoiseach”.
Late the night before, then-taoiseach Jack Lynch had informed a rowdy and occasionally hostile sitting of Dáil Éireann of the circumstances of his sacking of two of his ministers, Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney, and the resignation of a third, Kevin Boland, amid allegations that they tried to import illegal arms into Ireland to aid northern nationalists.
It was by any standards an extraordinary scandal, not just for Fianna Fáil, the dominant party in Ireland for 30 years, but for the entire Irish political system.
Tensions in the North erupted in 1969 with thousands of nationalist and Catholic families forced to flee from loyalist aggression into the Republic.
The term pogrom has been used to describe what was the largest forced movement of people in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
As a result, the Fianna Fáil-led Dublin government came under huge pressure to act to help protect the nationalist community in the six counties, efforts which Haughey, and republican hardliners Blaney, Padraig Faulkner, and Joseph Brennan ran. Lynch took a decision to leave the subcommittee alone and Haughey was given sole authority over a government fund of £100,000 to aid Northern nationalists.
On foot of the violence, Lynch asked Irish Army intelligence officers to explore and develop proposals for limited military intervention in the North to protect the nationalist community from unionist mobs.
At a meeting of the Northern Citizen Defence Committees in late 1969 in Co Cavan, attendees were told that £50,000 of Irish taxpayers’ money would be allocated to buy weapons from abroad for the defence of nationalist areas against loyalist attack.
Garda Special Branch informed the minister for justice Mícheál Ó Móráin of this meeting and he reported it to the cabinet, but Haughey dismissed it as a chance encounter.
The story goes that Blaney developed and approved plans with Irish Army Captain James Kelly to import weapons into Ireland from continental Europe.
For his part, Haughey provided the money for the purchase from his civilian relief fund, and also tried to arrange customs clearance for the shipment, only to be told by senior official Peter Berry that the Special Branch was aware of its arrival in Dublin Airport. Haughey reportedly told Berry: “Better have it called off.”
In April, now aware of the plot, the Special Branch informed Lynch.
But he did not move immediately. Lynch only took action when the leader of the opposition, Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave, was also informed by the Special Branch of the smuggling scheme and went to the taoiseach’s office on May 5 and pressed him to take action.
In the Dáil, Lynch gave his version of events. “On Monday, 20th April and Tuesday, 21st April, the security forces of the country at my disposal brought me information about an alleged attempt to unlawfully import arms from the continent. Prima facie, these reports involved two members of the government,” he said.
He told TDs that he decided to interview the two members of the government — Deputy Blaney, then minister for agriculture and fisheries, and Deputy Haughey, then minister for finance.
“I decided to do this on the following day, Wednesday 22nd April, which was the day of the budget,” he said, but there was a problem.
“In the meantime, I ensured that adequate steps were taken to prevent any unauthorised importation of arms.
“On 22nd April, the day I decided to interview the former ministers, I received news of the [horse-riding] accident to Deputy Haughey and, as a result, I was unable to interview him,” he said.
“I ultimately got the doctor’s permission and I decided to interview Deputy Haughey in hospital on Wednesday, April 29,” Lynch told TDs.
“I told both ministers I had information which purported to connect them with an alleged attempt to unlawfully import arms, on the basis of which information I felt it was my duty to request their resignations as members of the government. Each of them denied he instigated in any way the attempted importation of arms. They asked me for time to consider their position. I agreed to do so,” he said.
“I decided to approach the two ministers again and to repeat my request that they tender to me their resignations as members of the government. Having told the ministers that I wished to have their resignations forthwith, each of them told me he would not give me his resignation until this morning,” he said.
Haughey and Blaney were sacked by Lynch on May 6 when they refused to resign. Boland, the minister for social welfare, resigned from the government in protest at the firings.
Boland was of the strong view, as were others, that Lynch, most of the cabinet, particularly defence minister Jim Gibbons, knew about the plan to import arms.
“I want to assure the house that this was the only attempted importation of arms of which I had evidence and with which the two ministers named were associated,” Lynch said.
During the same debate, Cosgrave put on record his reason for approaching Lynch and his view of how grave the situation was.
“Last night at approximately 8pm I considered it my duty in the national interest to inform the taoiseach of information I had received and which indicates a situation of such gravity for the nation that it is without parallel in this country since the foundation of the State,” he told TDs.
Cosgrave did not get an easy time, with TDs attacking his standing and that of his father WT Cosgrave.
“Ah, shut up. Your father sold the North and damn well you know it,” said Mayo TD Joseph Lenehan.
Cosgrave sought to continue amid constant interruptions.
“Yesterday, when I received a copy of a document on official Garda notepaper which supported the information already at my disposal and which also included some additional names, I decided to put the facts in my possession before the taoiseach. This particular document says: ‘A plot to bring in arms from the continent worth £80,000 under the guise of the Department of Defence has been discovered. Those involved are a Captain Kelly, the former minister for finance, the former minister for agriculture and two associates of the ministers’,” the Dáil heard.
The Cork Examiner on the morning of May 7 reported that Lynch was “now master in his own house”, having acted decisively in sacking Haughey and Blaney.
“The Taoiseach, Mr Lynch, emerged last night victoriously in full command of the leadership of a united Fianna Fáil party after a day of incredible happenings when it appeared certain that the party would be irreparably split,” reported Anthony Ring.
That unity was to be shortlived, as later that month Haughey and Blaney went on trial in Dublin.
Also put on trial were Captain James Kelly, Belfast republican leader John Kelly, and a Belgian businessman and accused Nazi, Albert Luykx.
Luykx, who had fled Germany under threat of execution after 1945, was an intermediary for tracing and sourcing the weapons on the continent.
On July 2, in the District Court, all charges against Blaney were dropped due to insufficient evidence, but Haughey and others did stand trial before Justice Aindrias Ó Caoimh.
Sensationally, the trial collapsed a week later after the judge walked out, claiming he had been accused of bias.
A second trial was ordered and commenced amid farce and high drama in October 1970.
On the stand, Haughey introduced a dramatic twist to his evidence, denying he had any knowledge of what the cargo coming into Dublin actually was.
Haughey’s evidence now contradicted the evidence of Jim Gibbons, the defence minister, and Peter Berry, who asserted he had full knowledge of the shipment of arms. Haughey admitted arranging customs clearance for the shipment but maintained in evidence that he did not know it consisted of weapons. His change of stance also undermined the evidence of his co-accused, whose defence was that the shipment was authorised by government.
In delivering his summation of evidence to the jury, the judge remarked that they had to believe either Haughey or Gibbons and one of them had to be committing perjury.
“Haughey in the witness box lied through his teeth,” concluded leading UCD historian Diarmuid Ferriter.
Ultimately, all four defendants were acquitted on October 23 and Haughey immediately called on “those responsible for the debacle” to consider their position. He clearly meant Lynch, but the party rallied around its leader and the taoiseach survived. Blaney and Haughey were cast into the political wilderness.
The publication of State papers after the 30-year rule showed the controversy in a new light.
It emerged that statements by Colonel Michael Hefferon, Captain Kelly’s superior officer, which ended up in the book of evidence in the 1970 trial were substantially altered. The full statements as given by Hefferon showed he and Captain Kelly had kept Gibbons informed of events in the run-up to April 1970, bolstering the case that the cabinet knew of what was going on.
The then-taoiseach, Bertie Ahern issued a statement to the effect that Captain Kelly had done nothing wrong and was acting on orders.
The diaries of Peter Berry, secretary of the Department of Justice, serialised in Magill magazine, called into question Lynch’s public utterances that he knew nothing of the plot to import arms.
Fifty years on, the scars of the Arms Trial are still visible to see on Fianna Fáil and all those who were involved in the sorry saga.
High Court judge hid upstairs as gardaí arrested Haughey
Sean Haughey recalls turbulent times for his family as well as his father’s subsequent rise,
Sean Haughey, the current Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Bay North, was just nine years old when his father, the iconic Charles J Haughey, was sacked as finance minister by Jack Lynch in 1970 and later arrested on suspicion of seeking to illegally import arms.
Sean Haughey, speaking exclusively for this feature, reveals that on the day detectives arrived at their sprawling mansion, Abbeyville, in Kinsealy, a then-leading member of the judiciary, High Court judge Brian Walsh, “had to hide upstairs” as his father was led away for questioning.
Walsh was there to offer advice to his friend, who “obviously had been given notice something was about to happen”, Sean reveals.
His direct memories of both occasions are scant, he admits, but the fallout of the Arms Trial saga cast a long shadow over his father and the entire Haughey family for a decade.
As Sean’s sister Eimear Mulhern said in 2006, their father felt “totally betrayed” by the whole affair which left him in the political wilderness for so long before he climbed his way back.
Betrayed by whom?
“Jack Lynch — Lynch and his colleagues,” Sean says candidly.
He said after his father’s acquittal, he and his siblings were forbidden from mentioning Lynch.
“We couldn’t even mention Lynch’s name in our house, we were not allowed to talk about him. That is how deep it went. He felt very aggrieved,” Sean adds.
Even now, 50 years on, Sean feels his father and his co-accused Neil Blaney were made “scapegoats” of by Lynch and other members of the Cabinet who, he says, knew full well what was going on, and even approved of it.
“It is clear,” Sean says, “those events were authorised at the highest levels of government. It is clear the established narrative is now being challenged, but my view is that Haughey and Blaney were scapegoated. It was not an illegal plot to import arms”.
After his acquittal, Charles Haughey called on those “responsible for the debacle” (ie, Lynch) to do the honourable thing. Lynch did no such thing, and Haughey was cast to the backbenches.
Haughey took it very hard, his son says, and absolutely refused to discuss the matter with anyone until the day he died in 2006. His personal papers, donated to Dublin City University and due for opening in 2022, may shed some light as to his inner thinking.
The Arms Trial, and the handling of it, caused huge and bitter divisions within Fianna Fáil for 25 years, which were only really put to bed when Bertie Ahern took over as leader.
Speaking now, though, Sean still is adamant his father was “totally wronged by Lynch” and was “surprised” when current leader Micheál Martin named Lynch as his political idol.
“I suppose that’s a Cork thing,” he says.
In the wake of the trial, the whole Haughey family became invested in their father’s road back to cabinet and ultimately to the top job as Lynch’s successor as taoiseach in 1979.
Sean talks about the now infamous ‘chicken and chips’ circuit Charlie Haughey embarked upon in a bid to build up his power base, which culminated in pressure on Lynch to reinstate him to the party’s front bench.
“It became a family endeavour,” Sean says. “We were all very passionate about our father’s career and we all got caught up in it.
“But we all shared the view that he was totally wronged by Jack Lynch.”
Sean says the day his father was elected leader of Fianna Fáil in 1979 was a “tense affair”, given that the margin of victory over George Colley was narrow one, but ultimately it was a very happy occasion, and a vindication of a decade’s work to eradicate the damage done by his father’s sacking and trials.
He recalls there was a big celebration in Abbeyville that night where TDs, family, friends, and supporters gathered to mark his becoming taoiseach.
Sean says there was initial concern as a number of gardaí arrived at the house as they did in 1970, but this time it was not to arrest Charlie — they were his assigned protection officers.
The celebrations were marred, Sean says, on the day Charlie was elected taoiseach when Garrett FitzGerald, the then-Fine Gael leader, referred to Haughey’s “flawed pedigree” in the Dáil.
Matters were made worse as Sean’s mother Maureen and grandmother Sarah were in the chamber to hear those comments, and sat through hours of debate before the vote was taken.
“She was a simple woman and this was a big day for her. But after being made sit through all of that, she said: ‘I’ll never go back there again’.”
Becoming taoiseach a decade after being sacked from cabinet and almost jailed for his role in the Arms Trial was a major achievement for Haughey.
But the shadow of the period loomed large over him, his family, and his party for many years after that.
Seeds of split in Fianna Fáil began during Arms Crisis
The divisions opened during the Arms crisis never closed,
When the going got tough, Paddy Hillary got going.
On 20 February 1971, the direction of Fianna Fail post arms crisis was set out. The occasion was the party’s Ard Fheis at the RDS in Dublin.
There was bitterness in the air, and a sense of danger. Since the ructions of the previous year, culminating with the arms trial, there were mutterings of discontent within the soldiers of destiny.
Following the trial, Charlie Haughey claimed there was “dissatisfaction” within the party at Jack Lynch’s leadership and called for the leader’s resignation.
Haughey misjudged the mood of the party. Lynch had shown the kind of steel that he’d previously displayed on a hurling field to take control after an undoubtedly rocky period. Another dissident at the time was Kevin Boland, who had resigned his cabinet seat in solidary with the sacked Haughey and Neil Blaney.
And so the Ard Fheis rolled around the following February freighted with a big, unresolved issue. The party hierarchy had a number of security men who wore tricolour armbands in place to ensure that the platform wouldn’t be rushed.
During a speech by then foreign minister Paddy Hillary, Boland mounted a nearby podium, interrupting Hillary. There followed lots of verbal handbags between Boland’s supporters and Lynch loyalists.
“Come on up and put me down,” Boland shouted. After he left the stage, his supporters began chanting, “we want Boland.”
An enraged Hillary let loose in a manner that was completely at odds with his mild mannered personality.
“We can no longer stay silent, we have been silent since last May,” he roared.
“If they want a fight they can have it but I’ll tell you something, if you ever succeed in getting rid of one of us there will be more of us and we will keep coming. Fianna Fail will survive as it did before. You can have Boland, but you can’t have Fianna Fail.”
Sitting beside the animated Hillary was Jack Lynch, who looked like he’d just wandered in on an afternoon tea party.
The die was cast. The party was backing Lynch. Another incident on that occasion was probably more revealing. At one point, Charlie Haughey got up on the platform, approached Lynch and shook the hand of the man who had sacked him, the man whose demise Haughey had called for.
Boland left and attempted to form his own party Aontacht Eireann. He failed to attract much support for the new entity and lost his seat in the 1973 general election. He was reported to be bitter towards Haughey for declining to join him.
On one occasion when Boland travelled to Haughey’s home in north Dublin, the latter man told him. “The difference between you and me Kevin is that you fight for the sake of fighting, I fight to win.” Boland died in 2001.
Neil Blaney also formed his own entity, Independent Fianna Fail. He went on to have a long career in the Dail and subsequently as an MEP. He died in 1995.
His Dail seat was retained by his brother, Harry, who then passed it onto his son, Niall. In 2006, Niall rejoined Fianna Fail, despite opposition from the family of Neil Blaney.
Haughey was the only one of the trio to stick around. He spent his wilderness years cultivating the party’s grassroots, traversing the country in the company of PJ Mara on what was known as the “rubber chicken circuit”.
In 1975, Lynch, under pressure, brought him back onto the front bench. (Fianna Fail lost the 1973 general election). Two years later Lynch had his greatest hour with a thumping win in the first truly modern campaign conducted in this state.
Fianna Fail went back into government with a twenty seat majority. Ominously for the Corkman thought many of the new young bloods were arch Haugheyites.
By then, Haughey’s star was heading north once more. He was appointed minister for health in a cabinet where he was regarded by Lynch’s men as deeply suspicious. But the taoiseach was on borrowed time and in 1979 he opted to go before being asked to leave.
His chosen successor, and the favourite to succeed him, was George Colley, who had a deep professional dislike for Haughey. But the comeback kid did his homework, made the right calls and won the leadership contest.
Within nine years he had come from standing in the dock in a criminal court and facing political and financial ruin to the office of Taoiseach.
The past, however, wouldn’t leave him alone. The divisions opened during the Arms crisis never closed. Those who harboured suspicions about his character since the turbulence in 1970 continued to tilt at him when he was in charge.
Colley, and subsequently Des O’Malley – who had been appointed to the cabinet by Lynch to replace Haughey in ‘71 – kept battering away at the leader.
A number of challenges to the leadership dogged Haughey’s early years in charge, but in the end he was able to take control in the mid 1980s. O’Malley left to form the Progressive Democrats in 1985.
Once back in government in 1987, Haughey set about righting the public finances and laid the foundations for the prosperity that followed in the 1990s.
He was also involved in the earliest attempts to bring peace to the North. By the time he resigned in 1992, his reputation had been restored and, some might say, enhanced.
The divisions opened up in 1970 persisted in a diluted form for a few years more through the leadership of Albert Reynolds. Only with the ascent of Bertie Ahern in 1995 did the wounds really begin to heal.
There was a devastating postscript to Haughey’s career. In 1997, revelations about his relationship with money began to tumble out, culminating with investigations that showed he had received around €8m during his time in politics. Once again his reputation was subjected to the ringer.
A number of figures from the time suggest that Haughey’s actions during the arms crisis were a formative development in his character, the biggest feature of which was his corruption. He died in 2006.
Recently history has gone through more revision. A book published last month, The Arms Crisis of 1970 – the plot that never was, written by former journalist Michael Heney, suggests that Haughey may have been done a disservice during that year of upheaval.
This version shifts much of the blame onto Lynch, positing that he knew far more than he let on, far earlier than he let on. Fifty years down the line, new drafts of history continue to be written about the role of those who opened up the split in Fianna Fail at a seminal time for the state.