AT the launch of its Legacy project, The Detail shed fresh light on a major controversy from the earliest days of the Troubles: the Dublin Arms Trial of 1970. Irish authorities consistently denied wrongdoing over the episode. But in the fallout from the affair, two Irish army officers whose evidence clashed with the official version of events were harassed for years. Steven McCaffery reports.
DESPERATE times call for desperate measures.
And when violence erupted in Northern Ireland in 1969, Irish army intelligence officer Captain James Kelly was sent north to assess the risk of major bloodshed, as politicians in Dublin considered their options.
But events moved quickly.
By April 1970 news broke that Capt Kelly was at the centre of a failed plan to import weapons to defend Catholic communities, but the Irish government denied all knowledge of it, and the officer was put on trial as a gunrunner.
The captain was saved by the evidence of Irish army Director of Intelligence Colonel Michael Hefferon whose dramatic testimony confirmed that the arms operation was part of a government contingency plan, ordered by Defence Minister Jim Gibbons, to protect Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority in a `doomsday’ situation.
The jury studied the evidence and in an explosive verdict, acquitted Capt Kelly and three co-defendants of acting illegally.
The Fianna Fáil government led by Taoiseach Jack Lynch was deeply embarrassed, its position on the unfolding crisis in Northern Ireland was mired in scandal, and the revelations of planned military incursions into a region of the UK left it dangerously exposed.
Britain’s ambassador to Dublin, John Peck, wrote to officials in London at the time informing them of Irish government intentions to swiftly launch a parliamentary enquiry.
He wrote: “It has been widely inferred that the [Irish] Government see the enquiry as being tantamount to a re-run of the Arms Trial, getting the verdict right this time.”
It seemed the findings of the jury were to be swept aside – but what of the officers who gave evidence?
In a climate of extreme public tension Captain Kelly, together with his pregnant wife and their five young children, said they suffered anonymous threats and intimidation. They lost their livelihood and eventually their home.
Colonel Hefferon was criticised by public figures and ostracised by former colleagues.
The transcripts and recordings of the court proceedings went missing, the Garda file and key prosecution papers from the Arms Trial were also lost, and all records of Col Hefferon’s eight years as Director of Intelligence disappeared.
Thousands of words have been written about the Arms Trial, but the disappearance of key documents and the treatment of the two key witnesses, has never been explained.ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS
Capt Kelly was aged 40 and, having served his country overseas, he anticipated a more settled life at home in Ireland and the prospect of rising through the military ranks.
But the events of 1969 and the subsequent Arms Trial largely over-shadowed his life. At the time of his death in 2003, the man who was found innocent by a court of law, was still fighting to clear his name in the court of public opinion.
His daughter Suzanne, said the family continues to demand an apology from the state and clarity over the events that engulfed them.
“In the aftermath of the trial my father was treated as if he was a guilty man.
“We believed that there was also a consistent campaign to shut us up.
“My father lost his career in the army at the age of 40 and could not get another job – we believe that interventions were made to prevent him securing a number of positions.
“My mother was expecting her sixth child.
“My parents had no income and could not pay their mortgage.
“Overnight, we went from being an ordinary middle class family, to being left destitute."
She said: "The public took the view that my father was a gunrunner, because that is what they were told.
“People were both afraid of you and disapproved of you. We felt the suspicion and hatred in wider society. We were followed by the Special Branch.
“Teenage friends of mine were approached and told to keep their distance from me. We were all placed on a UVF death list.
“Our privacy was torn apart. My mother received abusive phone calls to our home in the middle of the night where she was told to stop saying things that embarrassed Jack Lynch.
“It was as if they didn’t want you to remain in existence.
“They wanted you disappeared. No money, no reputation, no status, no friendships, no future – all backed up by a whispering campaign to create fear and distrust.
“So the whole thing was to deny you and ostracise you.”‘PAYING A HEAVY PRICE’
As the violent crisis escalated in Northern Ireland, the political temperature around all these issues increased.
When Capt Kelly sought to produce a book on his experiences, publishers and printers backed away amid the controversy.
Documents uncovered in Britain’s national archives reveal private contacts between Jack Lynch and Britain’s Ambassador Peck, raising concerns over Capt Kelly’s planned memoir.
He published the book himself, but Suzanne Kelly claimed the government feared a public airing of the Arms Trial affair.
“The account of events given by the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch was full of holes from day one," she said.
“For example, after my father was arrested Mr Lynch sought to meet him to discuss the contents of his likely statement to Gardaí.
“I remember my father talking about it at the time and he made it public in the book that he published after the trial.
“What normal prisoner would be brought by Gardaí from a cell in downtown Dublin to the Taoiseach’s office? How would an army captain seriously believed to be smuggling guns be allowed access to the heart of government following his arrest?”
As news spread of the failed scheme to bring guns through Dublin airport, events moved swiftly and led to the explosive trial where those accused of conspiracy to illegally import arms also included Irish government Finance Minister Charles Haughey, businessman Albert Luykx, and Belfast IRA member John Kelly.
The government of the day consistently denied any wrongdoing, denied sanctioning the arms plan, and repeatedly spelt out its opposition to violence.
Supporters of Taoiseach Jack Lynch later said elements in the government had gone on a dangerous solo run – including not only Mr Haughey but also Minister Neil Blaney, who was also charged but was freed at a lower court ahead of the Arms Trial.
But as the drama unfolded Mr Lynch nevertheless faced questions over exactly what he knew and when.
Suzanne Kelly claimed the verdict of the court which ultimately cleared all the accused men had angered the authorities, and was never respected.
She added: “Our family and the Hefferon family paid a heavy price.”THE COLONEL’S EXPERIENCE
Colonel Michael Hefferon, Director of Intelligence in the Irish army from 1962-70, was a man with an impeccable military record.
His career was marked throughout by glowing tributes from superiors describing him as “honest, straightforward and energetic”, a soldier known for “loyalty” and “reliability”, “one of the best we have”.
He held key roles as a servant of the state, including as an aide-de-camp to the President of Ireland at Áras an Uachtaráin.
His standing was such that when US President John F Kennedy visited Ireland, it was Col Hefferon who the establishment chose to accompany the most important international dignitary ever hosted by the state.
By November 1962 the officer described in dispatches as “excellent in every way” was appointed to the highly sensitive post of Director of Intelligence.
But as Col Hefferon neared retirement he became embroiled in the Arms Trial, and his life suddenly changed.
His son Colm said of his late father: “I remember when daddy retired, he was a senior army figure, so there were pictures in the paper and there were parties.
“He got wonderful presents from his colleagues. Expensive presents for my mother, jewellery, all sorts of lovely things.
“He never heard from one of them, once the trial started. Nobody rang. Ever.”
Colm’s older brother Martin also has lasting recollections of the sudden shift in their father’s life.
Col Hefferon had been a Cadet Master commanding new officers in training at an early stage of his career and was widely known and respected in army ranks. Close bonds were also forged by the fact that the Hefferons lived on barracks and grew-up alongside other military families.
But those bonds of camaraderie were swiftly cut.
Martin said: “There was an army funeral. There were over 60 officers in uniform at the church.
“But my father was totally ignored.
“Only one officer came over and shook our hands. None of the other officers even looked our way.
“My dad and I sat on the right hand side of the church. They all sat on the other side, all in uniform.
“Nobody said a word. It was very eerie.”
Following his retirement Col Hefferon was offered a job that he was looking forward to taking on, but the prospective employer suddenly said that if he hired Hefferon, he feared he would lose vital public contracts.
“I have no choice,” the man told the colonel.
It was clear that as a result of the controversy one of the state’s premier military figures had suddenly been placed ‘Beyond the Pale’.
Martin said of his father: “His life was ruined.”INCONVENIENT EVIDENCE
In 1969 Belfast republican John Kelly was among delegations, made up of a cross-section of nationalist society, that raced south to Dublin for talks with government ministers.
He became one of the four men who was charged at the Arms Trial, and he told the court: “We did not ask for blankets or feeding bottles, we asked for guns – and no one from Taoiseach Lynch down, refused that request or told us this was contrary to government policy.”
He was an IRA prisoner in the 1950s and was drawn back into the organisation by the events of ’69.
But he said the plan to import arms was part of a strategy devised by the Irish authorities. The army planned to hold the guns in reserve to be used in a crisis, but he said that if the weapons had arrived, he hoped to snatch them.
These were extraordinary times.
Catholic demands for full civil rights in the unionist dominated Northern Ireland had brought simmering rivalries to a head.
Dangerous agendas were at play north of the Irish border, but also in the south, where ’hawks and doves’ in the Fianna Fáil government jostled for position. The crisis of 1969 also ignited rivalries inside the largely dormant IRA.
But the agenda was ultimately driven by the periods of rampant violence on the streets of Belfast and Derry. There were pitched battles between nationalists, the police and loyalists. Barricades, petrol bombs, and images of burning houses filled television screens.
Unionists feared Northern Ireland was being destabilised. Some were suspicious of nationalist intentions and of the role being played by the Irish government.
But vulnerable Catholic communities felt exposed to the loyalist backlash, and recounted incidents where sectarian violence came close to boiling over into an even more serious confrontation.
John Kelly claimed he and a handful of republicans prevented an attack by large numbers of armed loyalists at a Catholic district of north Belfast. The nationalists placed men on rooftops with broom handles to pose as snipers and disguise the fact they only had a handful of real weapons. Both sides exchanged shots, before backing off.
Street violence was dictating the pace of events. Paramilitaries were taking on a worrying new prominence. And politics was playing catch-up.
John Kelly’s arrest in Dublin following the collapse of the scheme to import arms caused anger among northern nationalists, even among conservative figures who were demanding Irish government intervention due to the scale of disorder in Northern Ireland.
This anger was reflected in a pro-nationalist propaganda news-sheet, which itself was controversially funded by cash drawn from Irish government coffers in yet a further example of Fianna Fáil’s disjointed policy at the time.
Dublin’s role in affairs became even more complicated as the crisis deepened.
John Kelly helped establish the Provisional IRA in 1970, but as that group embarked upon a ruthless campaign and the atrocities of the Troubles began to mount up, it became even more important for Dublin politicians opposed to violence to distance themselves from the uncertainty of the Arms Trial era.
As late as 2006 Captain Kelly’s widow Mrs Sheila Kelly wrote to the Irish government claiming key documents that could have helped clear her husband had never been brought to attention.
The Irish military archives detailed not only plans to train northern nationalists, but also to “infiltrate elements armed and equipped to organise, train and advise Catholic and Nationalist groups in vulnerable areas far from the border, e.g. Belfast”.
The documents detailed how in the event of bloodshed, the Irish army would cross the border into locations such as Newry and Derry, perhaps to hold out for an intervention by an outside force such as the UN. But it was envisaged that guns would be needed to arm vulnerable Catholic communities further inside the Northern Ireland territory.
One document detailed that it may be necessary for “the supply of arms, ammunition, equipment and medical supplies to Catholic minority, in accordance with availability”.
Special training for the Irish army was considered, including the creation of “a Special Forces Unit, prepared for employment primarily on unconventional operations…..the intelligence effort in the North be intensified and directed towards the course of action suggested”.
While the interim report was written by senior Irish military figures in the autumn of 1969, it is already in the public domain that similar contingency plans continued to be compiled, at least into the mid 1970s.
A further file forwarded by Mrs Kelly said: “No government can afford to publish openly what could be called its normal secret military plans especially if these plans are directed against a friendly state.”
Mrs Kelly said she failed to get a satisfactory response from government. She died three years later.SAD HISTORY
At the launch of The Detail’s project on the Legacy of the conflict, it interviewed Arms Trial solicitor Frank Fitzpatrick who had defended Captain Kelly in 1970.
The lawyer recounted how Colonel Michael Hefferon took the unusual step of seeking a meeting with Mr Fitzpatrick minutes before the trial was to begin.
Mr Fitzpatrick told The Detail: “I met him in the main hall of the court, a tall dignified person, who said to me that, ‘I spent two hours in the church this morning and I am not going to commit perjury. I have to tell you that your client is telling the truth’.”
The solicitor said he immediately went to the prosecution team and told them that the Colonel, who was expected to give evidence in support of the state, was now to testify in support of Capt Kelly.
A key plank of the prosecution case had been removed.
In his book on the Arms Trial, ‘Through the Bridewell Gate’, writer Tom Mac Intyre noted the weight that Col Hefferon’s presence held in the court: “Colonel Hefferon is stern, forthright: the jut of jaw under moustache and spectacles, the parade of the shoulders, say: This is how I am, how I have disciplined myself to be, take or leave – and the jury take to him at once. A good witness.”
Suzanne Kelly said: “The recent comments from solicitor Frank Fitzpatrick show that prior to the trial, Col Hefferon felt under pressure to perjure himself to support the government line and deny that link. He decided to ‘tell the truth’.
“This sheds new light on the concerns raised by my late father in 2001, when he uncovered in the National Archives a document that showed the Colonel’s original statement to Gardaí was altered before the trial, removing references to Defence Minister Gibbons.
“It is also of importance that Frank Fitzpatrick reveals that on learning of Colonel Hefferon’s decision, Mr Fitzpatrick immediately notified the prosecution legal team that its witness was now a witness for the defence, but the trial went ahead.”
She said the disappearance of a wide range of key documents since 1970 could not be “the result of a series of unfortunate coincidences”.
In the Republic the late Jack Lynch is seen by many as having eventually come to grips with a turbulent political period and halted the potential spread of violence. Successive generations of politicians have defended the record of the Irish authorities and blamed the arms crisis on a maverick element.
But the Lynch legacy is seen as being more complicated north of the Irish border, where the conflict escalated after 1970.
The Arms Trial is now being formally raised by Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson as a key moment in the birth of the Troubles, and Suzanne Kelly said the issue must be resolved.
“We still refer to the Dreyfus affair of more than 100 years ago in France – when an unfairness was done to a French army officer,” she said.
“So too, here we have an unfairness done to Irish army officers in pursuit of their duty.
“As a family, we know what happened to us.
“And if it happened to the Kellys and the Hefferons, middle class servants of the state, imagine how easily it can happen to those with no voice?
“Unless the records are set straight and the appropriate apologies issued, it will remain an indelible stain on the integrity of sovereign government in Ireland…an Irish Dreyfus affair left unresolved.”
For more on the Arms Trial see: The Irish Government and the Troubles – are they inextricably linked?