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Dublin Report Cabinet papers shed new light on ’70 arms crisis

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

It was one of the busiest news years ever in Dublin.

Thirty years ago seems a long, long time away. But, surprisingly, a lot of the major participants in the historic arms trial are still very much in our midst. In 1970, it was a huge story. Now, as the result of state archives that remained secret until the elapse of 30 years, it surfaces yet again. Most surprisingly, the big questions remain unanswered.

One of the men who knows a lot of the answers is now dealing with a barrage of new questions in Dublin Castle, questions that range back into the ’60s and seem to have nothing to do with the pivotal part he played in the arms importation debacle.

Up to 1970, there was no indication that Charles J. Haughey had any outstanding republican instinct. Admittedly, his father’s background was in Northern Ireland. Unquestionably, the family was republican, extending back many generations.

But it was not republican in any extreme way. In fact, Haughey Sr. joined the Irish Army, the "Free State Army," as more extremist republicans described it. Many within Fianna Fail still refused to join the army on the basis that it was the army of Michael Collins.

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In 1970, the secretary in the Department of Justice was Peter Berry, a fastidious Corkman and the epitome of the career civil servant. He had served several highly controversial ministers, including the late Gerry Boland, father of Kevin Boland and the brother of the assassinated Harry Boland, once a close friend of Michael Collins and the man who inducted him into the IRA.

Peter Berry lived through the wildest years of the fledgling Irish Republic. As Justice secretary he signed the death warrants for many republicans executed by the government led by Eamon de Valera.

He was always quick to point out that he was also the man who had signed the release note for Brendan Behan from Mountjoy Gaol. Behan served a sentence there for shooting at a policeman during a republican street demonstration.

It was Berry who firsts alerted Taoiseach Jack Lynch to the allegedly illegal importation of arms by an influential cabal of government ministers, including the late Neil Blaney of Donegal and Haughey, then the minister for finance.

Lynch never conceded that Berry had informed him of the details on the night before the senior civil servant underwent a potentially life-threatening operation. He insisted that he did not learn of the attempted importation until some weeks later.

There are some important revelations in the state papers. Unfortunately, Lynch took confidential cabinet papers home with him. They have, of course, not been made public even if they still exist.

In an important letter sent to Lynch from the hospital where he was still recuperating, Berry, who served as secretary to Haughey when he was minister for justice, pointed out that Haughey had played a critical role in "breaking the back of the IRA."

It was Haughey who pushed for the introduction of the Special Criminal Court. Berry always admired the young Haughey, especially when he served under him in justice. In fact, he repeatedly claimed during private interviews that Haughey had been one of the very ablest men he had ever worked with.

The civil servant who was privy to the state’s innermost secrets, who was in receipt of top-level intelligence reports from the Special Branch of the Garda Siochana, expressed major puzzlement in that just-released letter to Lynch.

He was astounded that Kevin Boland, then minister for local government, and Haughey had apparently become so close to the IRA that they contemplated supplying guns to the so-called "local defense" forces in Northern Ireland, which was then in turmoil.

Catholic neighborhoods were being put to the torch. There were rumors, supported by "intelligence" reports from Blaney and an Irish Army captain, James Kelly, suggesting that pogroms could be aided and abetted by the armed RUC.

It was a critical time. Northern activists like John and Billy Kelly wanted guns.

The papers just released have established that the Irish cabinet did agree to "push" arms toward the border, storing them in Dundalk just in case the threatened Armageddon of the pogroms did occur.

The government also prepared a contingency "Doomsday" plan to deploy Irish Army units just north of the border. Although the Irish Army warned that there would be heavy casualties because it did not possess the facilities, either in manpower or firepower, to maintain such an incursion for any length of time, the government reckoned the UN would then have to be dragged into the picture.

Those were the circumstances surrounding the attempted importation of arms by a group, including a rather unlikely Belgian businessman, Albert Luykxx, Haughey and Blaney. The arms were seized on foot of Special Branch intelligence at Dublin Airport.

What puzzled Berry and what still puzzles many is the Damascus like conversion of Haughey to the Northern "defense committees," the rather obvious front for the regenerating IRA, destroyed in the shambles of the ’50s campaign and strongly confronted by Haughey in his capacity as minister for justice.

In his letter, Berry also pointed out that the Special Branch had informed him that Haughey also had a meeting in 1969 with a senior IRA officer. Garda intelligence advised him that a deal had been arranged whereby arms would be dispatched to the IRA in the North providing it would call off the destruction of the property of "wealthy foreign residents" there.

If that was true and there seems to be little reason to doubt it since intelligence gleaned by the Special Branch was then excellent, it is very strange indeed.

Not for the first time in his career the wily old Corkonian Berry was correct to be so quizzical.

Who were those residents? What was the definition of "foreign?"

Were they citizens of the Republic?

Might they have included businessmen like the founder of the Dunne’s Stores dynasty?

The political favors a powerful man like Haughey could have provided were many and varied. They did not have to be dispensed on foot of payments. The favors could have been provided in advance.

The Moriarty Tribunal continues to rumble on. One cannot help feeling that it has lost sight of the big picture. Perhaps it was never possible to see it all. Haughey was in too many places all at once.

The main feature is not playing in Dublin Castle any more. History has wiped the slate clean. But the big questions of the past are still not answered.

Quite probably, they never will be.

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