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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 Lynch said that he might have to bring into operation Part Two of a never rescinded wartime measure, the Offenses Against the State Act, of 1940.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.

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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 P.M., the Taoiseach made the following statement:

Before answering the first question I should like to inform you, Sir, and the House, that before leaving his home this morning the Minister for Finance met with an accident which has resulted in concussion. He is now in hospital and has been ordered to remain under medical observation for some days. Therefore, I will introduce the Financial Statement myself.

The newspapers initially carried conflicting reports about Mr. Haughey’s accident. According to one report his wife said that he had been struck by a piece of drainpipe falling from the roof of his house while he was walking around it on the morning of Budget Day. Another version, which subsequently became the officially received one, was to the effect that he had had a fall from his horse.

On May 5, the Taoiseach announced the resignation of the Minister for Justice, Mr. Michael Moran. The following exchange then took place between the Taoiseach and the leader of the main opposition party, Fine Gael, Mr. Liam Cosgrave:

Mr. Cosgrave: Can the Taoiseach say if this is the only Ministerial resignation we can expect?

The Taoiseach: I do not know what the Deputy is referring to.

Mr. Cosgrave: Is it only the tip of the iceberg?

The Taoiseach: Would the Deputy like to enlarge on what he has in mind?…

Mr. Cosgrave: The Taoiseach can deal with the situation?

The Taoiseach: I can assure the Deputy I am in complete control of whatever situation might arise.

Mr. Cosgrave: But smiles are very noticeable by their absence.

The Budget Debate was still going on in the continued absence of the Minister for Finance. On the following day, May 6, the Taoiseach announced that he had called for the resignation of the Minister for Finance and of the Minister for Agriculture, Mr. Neil Blaney, and that the Minister for Local Government, Mr. Kevin Boland, had resigned. Later the same day, the Taoiseach announced that as the two ministers whose resignations he had requested had refused to resign, the President had terminated their appointments, as well as accepting the resignation of the Minister for Local Government.

The Taoiseach acknowledged that part of these proceedings was connected with security, and more precisely with the bringing of weapons into the Republic:

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. I 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. In the meantime I ensured that adequate steps were taken to prevent any unauthorised inportation of arms. On 22nd April, the day I decided to interview the former Ministers, I received news of the accident to Deputy Haughey and, as a result, I was unable to interview him.

The Taoiseach claimed that he had requested the resignations of Messrs. Haughey and Blaney as early as April 29. He took no public or definitive action however until after it had been made known to him that an opposition leader had information about the ministers. Mr. Cosgrave, speaking immediately after the Taoiseach in the Debate, said:

Last night at approximately 8 P.M. 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. By approximately 10 P.M. two Ministers had been dismissed and a third had resigned.

I received information that an attempt had been made involving a number of members of the Government illegally to import a large consignment of arms from the continent for use by an illegal organisation. Arrangements were made under the pretext that this consignment was coming as an official supply of arms to the Army, and that involved making arrangements with the Department of Finance for allowing this consignment through the customs without check at Dublin Airport.

The confidence debate that followed—lasting for thirty-seven and a half hours continuously on Friday and Saturday, the eighth and ninth of May—was won by the Government. The dismissed and resigned ministers voted with the Government.

Subsequently, the two dismissed ministers were charged, with a number of other persons, with offenses under the Firearms Act, which prohibits the importation of firearms except under certain conditions.

The trial of Mr. Haughey and two lesser known defendants—Captain James Kelly of the Irish Army and Mr. John Kelly of the Belfast (Catholic) Citizen’s Defence Council—opened last autumn in the High Court, Dublin, before the President of the High Court, Mr. Justice O’Cuir. (A lower court had decided earlier that the state had shown no prima facie case against Mr. Blaney, who was accordingly discharged.) The President of the High Court, before the opening of the proceedings in court, had surprised the legal profession by referring publicly to the “reluctance” of Irish judges to try Mr. Haughey.

The defendants were charged with conspiring together, and with persons unknown, to import arms into the Republic illegally. The defendants pleaded not guilty.

The first trial, which lasted from September 22 to 29, proved abortive. The “reluctant” President took offense at a suggestion by one of the defense counsels that he was biased against the defense. Refusing to be mollified by the offer of the lawyer concerned to withdraw from the case, the President dismissed the jury, and a new trial became necessary; with another judge and jury.

The new trial opened in the High Court before Mr. Justice Henchy, and it lasted from October 6 to 22, at the end of which all the defendants were acquitted.

All the Irish newspapers carried copious accounts of “the trial”; one Dublin paper carried a verbatim transcript. Throughout the autumn, “the trial” was the main topic of conversation in Dublin, and the main non-local one in the rest of the country. In Belfast, and in Northern Ireland generally, it was followed with an interest not normally accorded to the affairs of the Republic.

The acquittals were widely expected and generally approved in the Republic. If the prosecution had been able to prove that the defendants had conspired to import arms illegally to the Republic, to be then smuggled into Northern Ireland, many Irish people—and almost certainly some of the jury—would have thought the better of them.

The arms trial, and subsequent investigations, still leave much in doubt. It is clear, however, that the events that led to that trial had their origin in a divergence within the Dublin cabinet in relation to the crisis in Northern Ireland. To understand what has happened, one must turn back to mid-August of 1969 when fighting erupted in Derry, in Northern Ireland, between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Catholic people of the Bogside.

The Government in Dublin was then under pressure to intervene militarily. Derry is only twelve miles from the border and the Irish Army, small as it is, would probably have gained possession of it and ousted the Royal Ulster Constabulary without much difficulty. But the Irish Army could not have held the city militarily against the British Army (which of course at this stage had not been deployed in the city itself). Partisans of intervention argued however that politically it would be difficult for the British Army to force the Irish Army out of a city in which the majority would welcome their presence; the population of Derry is two-thirds Catholic and of Irish Nationalist tradition. It was argued that international opinion, and especially in America, would be favorable to the Irish intervention, and its consequences might well—if properly followed through politically and diplomatically—result in the unification of the island.

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