Peter Berry’s ‘Notes’ on subversion in the ‘30s & ‘40s

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2001), News, Volume 9

The recent revelation that Peter Berry, secretary to the Department of Justice, highlighted key sections of a document that were subsequently deleted, a document central to the 1970 Arms Trial, is not the first time that his name has been linked to sensitive documents relating to matters of state security. The Sean MacEntee Papers, held at University College Dublin Archives, contain a number of confidential handbooks written for ministers in the Fianna Fáil administrations from 1932 to 1948. These handbooks cover all aspects of radical and subversive activity in the Irish Free State from 1931 until 1947. Sharply observed and well written, they are a major source for any historian interested in either the republican movement, the Irish left or Irish political culture generally in that period. But how these handbooks came to be included among MacEntee’s personal papers constitutes an interesting tale of Irish political intrigue in itself.
These handbooks entitled ‘Notes on events 1931-1940’, ‘Notes on IRA activities 1941-1947’ and ‘Notes on the Republican Congress Movement’ were written by Berry who, remarkably, was secretary to the Department of Justice from 1929 until his retirement in January 1971. Berry was deeply committed to the defence of the state and his ‘Notes’ are naturally biased against its enemies. The ‘Notes’ are also heavily reliant on Special Branch intelligence, which was faulty on occasion. Nevertheless they are an exhaustive record of the years following the establishment of the state. Relatively few copies of these handbooks were produced and they were not given to every cabinet minister. Only three copies of the ‘Notes on the Republican Congress’ for example, are recorded as having been given to de Valera and Gerald Boland, his Minister for Justice. Six copies of the ‘Notes on events 1931-1941’ had been distributed, while ‘Notes on IRA activities’ had a circulation of ten.
In 1948, however, Fianna Fáil’s long tenure in office came to an end and Berry found himself serving a new regime. An inter-party government was formed comprising Fine Gael, Labour, National Labour (the product of a recent split), Clann na Talmhan and the republican Clann na Poblachta. The new Minister for Justice was Sean MacEoin of Fine Gael and in May 1948 he began to make enquiries as to the whereabouts of these handbooks following a conversatxon with his predecessor. On July 6 he wrote to Boland stating that ‘in view of the confidential nature of these documents it would be contrary to the public interest that they remain out of official custody’. He asked Boland to collect them from his colleagues and return them to the Department of Justice.
Boland, however, replied that he had understood from their conversation, that if any former minister had objected to returning the books, MacEoin ‘would let the matter drop’. He then argued that as several former ministers were out of the country, he could not take the matter any further. By July the books still had not been returned, and Fine Gael TD Thomas F. O’Higgins wished to raise the matter in the Dáil, but was dissuaded by MacEoin. Instead MacEoin wrote to the Attorney General, asking whether legal measures could be applied to force the books’ return. In reply the Attorney General argued that he was

of the opinion that every effort short of legal proceedings might be employed to recover these reports. I might add that the mere possession alone of this or any other confidential information obtained by a minister during office does not constitute any offence unless there is a use to the prejudice of state interest of such information by the minister after relinquishing office.

Following this reply of the 9 August, MacEoin’s attempts to solicit further advice from the AG were met with silence. There were no replies to letters of November 1948 and March 1949. By July 1950 an exasperated secretary at the Department concluded that it was ‘too late now to take any steps’ to retrieve the books. Why was Fianna Fáil so reluctant to return these documents?
A major reason must be that several of the characters whose activities Peter Berry painstakingly recorded, were by 1948, members of a government party, Clann na Poblachta. One was Seán MacBride, Minister for External Affairs. In the 1930s MacBride, along with fellow Clann national executive members Con Lehane, Donal O’Donoghue, Jim Killeen, Mick Fitzpatrick, Michael Kelly and Michael Ferguson were all IRA activists. MacBride had briefly been the organisation’s chief-of-staff, and both O’Donoghue and Killeen had held the post of adjutant general. As a result they all featured prominently in the confidential handbooks and Berry’s descriptions of them and their activities were less than complimentary. They were linked to a variety of crimes, including murder. Another leading Clann member and TD, Captain Peadar Cowan, whose political background was labour rather than republican, the ‘Notes’ alleged to be a Communist fellow traveller. The ‘Notes’ also allege that McBride and Lehane secretly carried on their association with the IRA despite publicly severing connections with it in the late ‘30s.
The 1948 general election had been fought in a bitter atmosphere as Fianna Fáil desperately tried to cling to power. Sean MacEntee in particular liberally applied the Communist smear to the Clann, and made scathing attacks on MacBride as being unfit to hold public office. MacBride’s legal defence of IRA suspects during the Emergency had made him a Fianna Fáil hate-figure. Inspection of their election speeches will reveal more than a little reliance by the outgoing ministers on Berry’s ‘Notes’. Therefore those ministers were understandably wary of handing their copies back. As far as can be ascertained they never did so, although one historian of the Clann believes that the allegations about Cowan did surface at a cabinet meeting. As a result of their reluctance, today’s researcher has a marvellous resource in the ‘Notes’, albeit one to be read critically.

Brian Hanley is a postgraduate history student at Trinity College, Dublin.

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