Book Review by Mike O’Shea
Michael Heney. THE ARMS CRISIS OF 1970. The Plot that never was. Head of Zeus. 2020. 431 pp
Many of our readers will be familiar with the story of the Arms Crisis of 1970, a collection of events that included the firing of two government ministers, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, and two subsequent High Court trials, of Haughey, Blaney and Captain James Kelly, supposedly a rogue army officer. All three were acquitted, and questions abounded, of perjury and all other kinds of skullduggery.
In macro terms, the narrative was put out that the two ministers, aided by Kelly, had been thwarted by Taoiseach Jack Lynch in a bid to import arms for northern nationalists, which had the potential to embroil the whole island in civil war. Jack Lynch was portrayed as a quiet man of steel who had seen off the threat, thereby saving the country from unimaginable chaos.
The background to the whole affair was the sectarian riots in Derry in 1968, when Catholics were attacked by their Protestant neighbours: things looked very bad for a period. The call went out from beleaguered nationalists for help from the south. In August 1969 in a televised address Jack Lynch stated that the Irish government could no longer afford to ‘stand by and see innocent people injured and possibly worse.’ He announced that the Irish army would be deployed along the border, ostensibly to establish field hospitals, but the implied threat was that they would cross the border if there was a repeat of the 1968 pogrom.
Fast forward to May 1970. On 5 May, FG leader Liam Cosgrave came to Lynch with a note on Garda notepaper, naming Blaney, Haughey and Jim Gibbons, then Minister for Defence, as being involved in a plot to import arms illegally. For whatever reason, Lynch immediately moved against Blaney and Haughey; Gibbons wasn’t named, and Cosgrave went along with it. What agreement had Lynch and Cosgrave struck? That question has never been answered. Gibbons was promoted by Lynch to a more senior ministry – Agriculture – and was always seen as being in the Lynch camp.Michael Heney was an RTE reporter at the time, and, like much of the country, was fascinated by the whole affair. Thirty years later, when the state papers for the period were released under the 30-year rule, he again did a TV program for RTE’s Prime Time Investigates team, highlighting information he had found in the papers and which had not featured in the famous Arms Trials. To his amazement, there was very little reaction in RTE or nationally, and he now says that he ‘saved it for his retirement’. He duly retired in 2010, and devoted the next six years to a PhD thesis. He now is Dr Heney and this is the book of his research.
So, how much did ‘Honest Jack’ know about the goings-on? He stoutly maintained he knew nothing and, supported by Gibbons, created the story that it was all down to Haughey and Blaney. Captain Kelly and his boss Colm Hefferon always insisted that they were working to official policy. If they were believed, then Gibbons would have been implicated and through him, Lynch. So Kelly and Hefferon were collateral damage and were sacrificed to maintain the Lynch narrative.Heney maintains that Lynch was caught up in an impossible situation, but that his main concern was to protect Fianna Fail from the political fall-out, should the real story come out. So the official version was put together and probably co-ordinated by Colm Condon, the Attorney General and fierce Lynch loyalist.
The reviews of the book to date have been mixed. Eoin O’Malley, son of Des, reviewed it for the Sunday Times, and predictably enough, he backed Lynch. TP O’Mahony reviewed for the Irish Examiner, and again took the Lynch side, which was no surprise as he had written a biography of Lynch. Mary O’Rourke reviewed it for The Sunday Independent and was very supportive of Heney, calling it ‘a brilliant book.’ It is a fascinating story, very well written and the meticulous research is evident.
This is an important book in the context of life in Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century. One of my books of the year so far.
End of Review
Jack Lynch, Tralee 20/09/1969, speech drafted by T K Whitaker:
The unity we seek is not something forced but a free and genuine union of those living in Ireland based on mutual respect and tolerance …..it will remain our most earnest aim and hope to win the consent of a majority in the Six Counties to means by which the North and South can come together.
Neil Blaney, Letterkenny, December 1969:
The situation last August in Belfast and Derry was such that, had the violence continued, the question of the use of force in defence of our own people under attack would have had to be urgently considered. If a situation were to arise in the Six Counties in which the people who do not subscribe to the Unionist regime were under sustained and murderous assault, then, as the Taoiseach said last August 13th, we ‘cannot stand idly by’.
Official record, February 1970:
At 1630 hrs on Friday Feb 6 1970, the Minister for Defence informed the Chief of Staff and the then Director of Intelligence that the Government at a cabinet meeting on that date had instructed the Minister to order the Chief of Staff to prepare and train the army for incursions into Northern Ireland if and when such a course became necessary …
The Chief of Staff General Sean MacEoin was surprised/astonished to get such a directive and asked the Minister for confirmation. The record shows an addendum to the directive wherein Gibbons tells him (The Chief)
At a meeting of the government held this morning (Friday Feb 6 1970), I was instructed to direct you to prepare the army for incursions into Northern Ireland.
May 1970. Cosgrave (Opposition Leader) visits Lynch.
There can be little doubt that Lynch was in a horrible situation having got the briefing from Cosgrave. Irrespective of the government decision of the previous February, the prospect of crossing the border into the North with armed forces would be a declaration of war, the implications of which – apart from the military ones – would have been disastrous, for the economy and the people who relied so heavily on British trade and general goodwill. And so he prevaricated, somehow got Cosgrave on side, and all the rest happened.
I spoke to Ryle Dwyer, distinguished historian from Tralee, about the book. He hadn’t read it, but had written a biography of Lynch some years ago. He offered no opinion on Heney’s book, but said that in his view Jack Lynch was an utterly honest and decent individual, and that Charlie Haughey was the devil incarnate! He said that when he gets around to reading the book, he will approach it with those convictions.
The book continues to divide opinion, and has made the best seller charts. David Davin-Power, long-time Pol-cor in Leinster House with special duties in the North, said after reading the book that Jack Lynch must go down as the worst Taoiseach ever – mind you he and Heney are old associates.
I still think this is an important book, and I have enormous sympathy for Lynch