Irish Troubles: The Boys in the Back Room

During 1970, the political system of the Republic of Ireland was shaken to its foundations by the effects of the crisis in Northern Ireland, which had reached a climax in the revolt of August, 1969, in Bogside, Derry, the second city of Northern Ireland.

The dramatic events in Northern Ireland were the subject of widespread international report and commentary. The political repercussions in the Republic are much less widely noticed. Yet many people in the Republic regard these events as making a significant erosion of our democracy. The last major event of the year 1970 was an announcement by Mr. Jack Lynch, the Taoiseach, as our Prime Minister is called, that his Government had discovered a plot to kidnap members of the Government, and that he had notified the Council of Europe, at Strasbourg, that his Government might have to derogate from the provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights, invoking Article XV of that Convention. Article XV allows derogation in the event of war or an emergency threatening the life of the nation.

Mr. Lynch said that he might have to bring into operation Part Two of a never rescinded wartime measure, the Offenses Against the State Act, of 1940. Under Part Two—which can now be introduced by simple proclamation—any minister has power to order the detention without trial of any citizen whose activities he says he considers dangerous to the safety of the state. Camps suitable for the detention of such citizens have been under construction. The Government has refused to give details of the alleged plot. The Minister for Justice, Mr. Desmond O’Malley, says that the Government knows of the plot “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” but “the rules of evidence” could be a barrier to successful prosecution.

Opposition demands for time for a special debate on the Taoiseach’s announcement were refused. The ruling of the Ceann Comhairle (or Speaker) implied that in his view this announcement was not an urgent matter of public importance; if it had been, debate would be mandatory under the Standing Order of the Dáil (Parliament).

The leader of the Labor Party, Mr. Brendan Corish, and some other members of that party, including the present writer, refused to obey what they considered an unjustifiable ruling and we insisted on speaking; as a result, we were suspended for a time. The issue was eventually discussed at the adjournment of the Dáil, by tradition the occasion for an open debate. The Government’s attitude continued to be that the country would have to take its word for the existence of the plot, and to rely on its judgment on whether citizens might or might not be retained without trial.

It had been a year of real or alleged plots. The first of these began to come to public attention on Budget Day, April 22, 1970. The Minister for Finance, who was to introduce the budget, was Mr. Charles Haughey. At the opening of business, following prayers at 3 …

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