New light on the arms crisis

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Volume 17

Conor Cruise O’Brien, Labour’s spokesman on Northern Ireland—Devine passed on his memorandum to him, believing that he was savvy enough to appreciate its contents and know how to deal with it. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Conor Cruise O’Brien, Labour’s spokesman on Northern Ireland—Devine passed on his memorandum to him, believing that he was savvy enough to appreciate its contents and know how to deal with it. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Relations between individuals in Labour in the south and their comrades in the North, including Gerry Fitt of the Republican Labour Party and Paddy Devlin of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), had been reasonably strong in the late 1960s and were bolstered by the events of August 1969. When violence broke out in Derry and Belfast, Labour politicians and officials in Dublin had been in constant phone contact with colleagues in the affected areas, and on 16 and 17 August two Labour delegations travelled to Armagh, the Falls and the Bogside on a fact-finding mission. Members and officials of the party also visited the North in a private capacity or under the auspices of other organisations, such as the Northern Relief Fund Co-ordination Committee; in addition, a number of political representatives from Belfast and Derry travelled south to drum up support. At a time when the minister for external affairs was complaining that he could get better intelligence reports from Lagos than from Northern Ireland, Labour’s access to first-hand information was remarkably good.

Public and private appeals for guns

On 16 August, while loyalist mobs were still wreaking terror in Belfast, Paddy Kennedy, then a protégé of Gerry Fitt, had travelled to Dublin along with fellow Stormont MPs Paddy Devlin and Paddy O’Hanlon, an independent in South Armagh. Like many other delegations that weekend, they came looking for guns to protect their communities: they made their appeal at a public meeting outside the GPO on O’Connell Street, and in private to officials in the Department of External Affairs. But if the crowd outside the GPO was sympathetic, the three were roundly rebuffed in Iveagh House. If the official channels proved uncooperative, however, other contacts were more forthcoming.
It was through conversations with Paddy Kennedy that John Devine first became aware of the importation and distribution of arms to northern nationalists and the role being played by certain Fianna Fáil minsters in facilitating this. Using information gleaned from Kennedy and others, including Paddy Devlin, Gerry Fitt and sources in the press, Devine began to piece together a remarkably detailed picture of covert operations that were ongoing across the North. Clearly a great deal of work went into compiling the document and checking the veracity of its claims. Devine noted: ‘Much of the information which follows has been checked out by me, and found to be fairly accurate. What is contained, unchecked, is passed on because it comes from what are described as “usually reliable” sources.’ The information that emerged subsequently, through the arms trials, the investigation by the public accounts committee, Peter Berry’s ‘diaries’ (published in Magill magazine in 1980) and the numerous exposés on the subject, have shown that the material contained in this memorandum was remarkably accurate in almost all respects. If most of the contents of the document are, however, at this stage well known to those familiar with the arms trials, in mid-October 1969 the information was truly explosive.

Devine’s report
Devine began by noting that since the publication of the Cameron report on 12 September a great deal of media attention had been given to ‘the influence of left-wing elements in the Civil Rights agitation in the North. While our attention has been diverted in that direction, certain other forces have been at work, and are working’:

‘Since the recent major outbreaks of troubles an “agent” of Messrs. Haughey, Blaney and Boland, has been conducting . . . military intelligence personnel on trips behind the barricades. Contacts are being built up and ammunition and money has been distributed. Generally the contacts are among the Republican element in the North, who have more or less broken with the Dublin HQ of the IRA, principally because this “agent” can deliver what the IRA cannot. The IRA is highly worried and indignant at the influence which these Fianna Fáil people are having among Northern Republicans, the possibility of retaliation is likely from the Dublin end. Fianna Fáil have now established a chain of links from Belfast to Derry, including places like Dungannon, Newry, Armagh, Coalisland, Omagh and in other places where their sphere of contacts up to now has been negligible. Their aid is being accepted.’

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Copies of Voice of the North—according to Devine, its ‘committee of management
involves some of those named on the Monaghan committee; Blaney,
Boland and Haughey’s agent [Capt. Kelly], and others, also known to me. The paper will be printed in the Anglo-Celt, Cavan. Five or six vans, necessary for transporting the newspaper, have already been acquired.’ (Linen Hall Library)

The memorandum went on to note that an office had been set up in Monaghan town, with the approval of the named ministers, from which the ‘Monaghan Civil Rights office’ of NICRA was supposed to operate, although Devine understood that NICRA had no control over the activities of the office. Among those activities was the production of nationalist propaganda, including the pamphlet Terror in Northern Ireland (written by the journalist Séamus Brady, who was close to Blaney), which Paddy Devlin had distributed in London, and organising public demonstrations such as the meeting outside the GPO in Dublin on 27 September 1969. At that meeting, speakers called for donations to be made to the Monaghan Civil Rights group, and Paddy Kennedy had told the crowd that, while he didn’t know if he could spell out what the North wanted, ‘I think you will know what I mean if I say that never again do we want an August 14th in my city’. Other speakers were more explicit: one called for money and guns, with all donations to go to the Civil Rights group in Monaghan, while another from Derry appealed for physical as well as moral support, stating that money donated would be used to buy machine-guns and revolvers. Of the ‘Monaghan Civil Rights office’ the memo continued:

‘The activities directly attributable to the Monaghan office continue to expand. It is now clear that a large number of meetings have been organised, especially in the western counties, and are aimed purely at rising the spirit of “Republicanism”.
On Friday next the first of a series of weekly propaganda newspapers [Voice of the North] will be circulated and distributed in the North. The paper will be bitterly anti-Unionist. The committee of management involves some of those named on the Monaghan committee; Blaney, Boland and Haughey’s agent, and others, also known to me. The paper will be printed in the Anglo-Celt, Cavan. Five or six vans, necessary for transporting the newspaper, have already been acquired.
As well, plans are well in hand for the setting up of a powerful mobile pirate radio . . . This also has limited cabinet backing. It is doubtful, in fact unlikely, that the remainder of the cabinet, and certainly not the Taoiseach, know anything about what is going on.’

What was Devine to do?
Having gathered and verified this information, which implicated government ministers and agents of the state in the illegal importation of arms, what was Devine to do? The gardaí were aware of what was happening and there was no visible evidence that anything was being done to interfere. The information was good, but not legally publishable. How, then, to bring this evidence to light? Devine passed the information to the one person he believed had the sophistication to deal with the information in the correct manner: Labour’s spokesman on Northern Ireland, Conor Cruise O’Brien. This was a reasonable assumption. O’Brien held the appropriate portfolio, of course, but he was also savvy enough to appreciate what was in the document and how to deal with it, introducing it into the Dáil through supplementary questions or by other means. So what happened?
It seems as though O’Brien’s attention was diverted by personal matters. A couple of weeks before O’Brien had been given the memorandum, his play King Herod explains (‘more of a preface than a play’, the Irish Times noted) had opened at the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Hilton Edwards in a January 1970 RTÉ production of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s King Herod explains, first staged at the Dublin Theatre Festival in October 1969. After receiving Devine’s report at the time, O’Brien flew to New York to discuss a Broadway production and took no further action on the memorandum’s contents. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Hilton Edwards in a January 1970 RTÉ production of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s King Herod explains, first staged at the Dublin Theatre Festival in October 1969. After receiving Devine’s report at the time, O’Brien flew to New York to discuss a Broadway production and took no further action on the memorandum’s contents. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Later that month, O’Brien travelled to New York to meet a Broadway producer for discussions on the possibility of staging his latest theatrical effort. Before boarding his flight, he rang John Devine from a payphone in Dublin airport to tell him he was going away, and promptly exited stage left. Devine imagined that O’Brien would take action arising from the memorandum when he returned, but to his great dismay nothing happened.
It is difficult to comprehend how or why he failed to act on the intelligence provided to him, especially when it concerned his bête noire, Charles Haughey. Perhaps it was simply that he had been distracted by the bright lights, which is the conclusion that John Devine reached. Maybe he felt that the information was unreliable, although clearly it was not. Similarly, while we cannot know what stopped O’Brien from using the information, neither can we be certain what would have happened had he done so. What seems likely, however, is that, in the face of the accusations becoming public, Lynch would have been compelled to act sooner rather than later, and at the very least the arms crisis of the following year would have been averted.  HI

Niamh Puirséil lectures in the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin.

Further reading:

J. O’Brien, The Arms Trial (Dublin, 2000).

John Devine’s October 1969 document is in the Conor Cruise O’Brien papers, UCD archives.

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