Category: Archive

Dublin Report New book brings to life a national trauma: ’70 arms crisis

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

With great, unintended irony, on the day former Taoiseach Jack Lynch died, a group of people gathered in a basement room in Buswell’s Hotel on the corner of Kildare Street, directly opposite the Dail.

Because of its location, Buswell’s has probably witnessed more political assignations than any other building in Dublin, perhaps even including Leinster House.

The man who had invited the group that gathered in Buswell’s was none other than the former Irish Army captain James Kelly, one of the central figures in the so-called "Arms Crisis" in 1970.

The occasion was the launch of his book, "The Thimble Riggers," which, for the first time, puts the events of that traumatic era in context for the first time.

Even the cover is sensational enough, headlining a directive from the government, then headed by Lynch, to the Irish Army.

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Headed "Invasion Orders," it reads; "The Government directs that the Army (1) Prepare for incursions into Northern Ireland. (2) Set aside surplus arms and ammunition for this purpose. (3) Provide gas masks."

It could hardly be more blunt.

But then, all of the books written by the former Capt. Kelly, now just plain Jim, have been nothing but blunt.

They are "Orders for the Captain," "The Genesis of Revolution," "The Courage of the Brave," and a novel titled "The Marrow From the Bone."

It was Kelly, a Cavanman, then an intelligence captain in the Irish Army acting on the orders of his superior, James Hefferon, director of intelligence, who met officially with the Northern Defense Committees, headed by Belfast republican John Kelly, to investigate means of protecting the Northern minority against loyalist pogroms in 1969 and ’70.

It ended with his resignation from the army and the sacking of two powerful government ministers, none other than Charles J. Haughey and the late Neil Blaney.

During the national crisis, for that it what it was, Lynch had revealed that beneath the gentle exterior, he was a man of steel, prepared to take one of the greatest risks that any taoiseach had to take.

Almost after the announcement of his long-expected death as the result of a series of illnesses, Haughey admitted publicly that the late taoiseach, his former boss, had no choice but to fire him.

In so doing, he inferred that he may understand more about the ground rules of the subcommittee, set up within the Cabinet in that violent year, to deal with the dangerous plight of the Northern minority. Someday, he may reveal even more.

Lynch, winner of six All-Ireland medals with his native Cork, was not really a man to be trifled with.

Outwardly gentle, perhaps even shy, he was so unassuming that he almost set new standards among the mohair suited lads who dominated the Fianna Fail party at that time.

When push came to shove and he became officially aware of the plan to import arms, he swooped like a half forward on a bouncing ball. Top Fianna Fail ministers, rivals for the leadership he had gained, were sacked.

The innocent victim was Capt. James Kelly, who resigned from the army without a pension even though he was raising five young children.

Another was Kevin Boland, then minister for local government, an important post in the Cabinet at a time when Irish governments were forging ahead with coordinated national development at a pivotal time in the country’s history.

Now an octogenarian, he was prominent among the attendance for the launch of the book. And he made no bones about the fact that he was not going to attend any funeral service in honor of Lynch.

While the Cork hero, the "Real Taoiseach," as he was described, acted with a determination that was almost unexpected, it is still a matter of hot debate as to whether he did so honestly.

It certainly led to the greatest crisis within Fianna Fail and, of course, it set the pattern for events still occurring today.

It also led to one of the most potentially violent Ard Fheiseannas held by the party in 1971.

People now remember it mainly for the thundering speech delivered by former President Patrick Hillery, the speech during which he brandished his fist and shouted, "Ye can have Charlie Haughey but ye can’t have Fianna Fail!"

On the packed main floor of the RDS, standing beside the podium was another man who had graced many a football and hurling match, Dubliner Lar Foley. He was one of the most determined players in both codes who had ever donned a Dublin jersey. He was also a neighbor of Haughey in Kinsealy and the brother of the even more famed Des Foley, then a T.D., a man who died much too young.

As Hillery defied many of the party faithful with his passionate defense for Lynch, the enraged Foley, a bull of a man with very broad shoulders, suddenly made a lunge for the few steps that led to the podium.

Had he got there, the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis would have become an even bigger public spectacle than it was.

Foley was so enraged he would have almost certainly throttled Hillery in full view of the national and international press.

Luckily for the party, if not for the photographers, a few Fianna Fail stewards, alert to his obvious rage, manhandled him out of the danger zone.

Those were the sort of emotions the late taoiseach engendered in his own time.

Obviously, with the publication of the "The Thimble Riggers," the emotions have not gone away.

The title, incidentally, refers to a game, popular as a parlor game years ago, which involved the search for a hidden pea or little ball beneath three cups, shuffled with all of the artistry of a three-card trick man.

It is an essential book for any serious Irish history student.

Meantime, even though history has not recorded its final verdict, one can only say of Lynch, in common with his opponents, that he did what he thought was right for the country at the time.

In that spirit, ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

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