Fall of Biafra

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), News, Volume 9

As the Biafran revolt collapsed in January 1970 the twin concerns of the Irish government continued to be those elaborated upon in ‘The Forgotten War’ by Enda Staunton (HI Autumn 2000): to ensure the welfare of Irish missionaries and to avoid antagonising the Nigerian authorities. That month the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, met a leading international supporter of Biafra, Princess Cecile de Bourbon Parma, sister of the Pretender to the Spanish throne. A hand-written note, apparently intended for the Taoiseach, in the files reads: ‘Be very cautious with Princess…Nigerians friendly…like the Irish missionaries to stay on…Nigerian Red Cross sole co-ordinator of relief’. A memo of the meeting notes that the royal visitor ‘was accompanied (without notice) by the Revd. Fr Raymond Kennedy, CSSp. of Africa Concern’. The day previously Fr Kennedy’s brother Loughlin Kennedy of Africa Concern rang the Department of External Affairs to say that the princess had a letter from the Biafran leader, Col. Ojukwu for President de Valera. It was considered that a meeting with the President would be inappropriate but that the Taoiseach would meet the dignitary.
As it transpired the princess merely had a verbal message from Ojukwu whom she had met in the war zone the previous week and who, she claimed, had specifically asked her to contact the Irish government. The Biafran leader wanted the government to press for a UN observer force to ensure there would be no massacres. Lynch pointed out that it would be very difficult to obtain such a force without Nigerian agreement, taking into account the prohibition in the UN Charter on intervention in the internal affairs of states. The memo states: ‘We ourselves had experienced such a situation when the Minister for External Affairs [Dr Hillery] went to the United Nations last August and September [1969] in an endeavour to have the question of the North of Ireland inscribed on the agendas of the Security Council and the General Assembly’. Fr Kennedy wanted  food drops to begin  to Biafra but was told that such activity would not be allowed without Nigerian approval.
Following this somewhat fraught meeting the princess and her clerical colleague went to RTÉ which carried a statement from her after the 1.30 pm news that day claiming that the Taoiseach had agreed to raise the situation in the UN and with other governments. This claim was totally at odds with what transpired at the meeting, if the departmental memo is correct, and caused consternation in official circles.
In the days that followed there was serious concern for the well-being of Irish missionaries, particularly Bishop Whelan who was reported at one stage as being ‘restricted in his movements but not imprisoned’. He was being questioned by the Nigerian authorities ‘but there is no word so far of a trial or deportation’. Eventually Dr Whelan was released from his non-imprisonment and received a hero’s welcome at Dublin Airport. Ambassador P. Keating reported from Lagos that this event had caused ill-will and indignation in the Nigerian capital. ‘Our difficulty’, he said, ‘is that we still have thirty-seven people to get out of the country and I am afraid that publicity of this kind may complicate the issue’.
The Minister for External Affairs was against any government representation at the airport. The Taoiseach became aware that the President was to be represented by an aide-de-camp and that this decision had been made by de Valera himself. Lynch asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance to go to the airport ‘and’, says the memorandist, ‘I heard him instruct the Parliamentary Secretary to give the impression that while he was there as Parliamentary Secretary he was not representing the Taoiseach or the Government’.
Curiously the newspapers reported that the Minister for Health, Erskine Childers, was at the airport representing the Government and that Commandant O’Brien was there representing the Taoiseach. The Government concerns regarding the Biafran war did not end with the return of Bishop Whelan and other missionaries. In April 1970 the following was penned (apparently for the Taoiseach):

While you were away the Department of External Affairs rang to say that General Ojukwu was on the move and might come to Ireland. They wanted to tell you that they proposed to forbid him entry. I explained that you were away for a few days and that if it were vital it would be possible to contact you. They said not to bother that they would contact Dr Hillery who was in Malta! [Exclamation mark in original]

External Affairs thought the general’s brother had left Rockwell College but the wily Department of the Taoiseach knew otherwise, that he was still a pupil there—’The boy’s teacher was visiting recently, in our house and told me this’. The memo continues: ‘I didn’t bother to give this information to External Affairs. It might not be in the boy’s best interests for it to be known that he was in the college. It is of course possible that Dr Hillery, who is an ex-pupil and who was in the college after Christmas, is aware of this.’


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