#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 13°C Sunday 1 August 2021

Opinion: RTÉ's GunPlot looks back at the 1970 Arms Crisis with 2021 vision

GunPlot is a new TV Documentary and podcast series from RTÉ on the Arms Crisis of 1970. Researcher on the TV documentary, Róisín O’Dea looks at the crisis fifty years on …

Róisín O’Dea

WHEN I WAS asked to be the researcher on a documentary about the Arms Crisis, I admitted to the producer-director Brian Hayes that the extent of my knowledge of the affair was whatever I had absorbed from repeats of Reeling In The Years.

Something to do with Charlie Haughey and The Troubles and guns? Only studying history as far as Junior Cert didn’t exactly bolster my credentials either. Did he still want me?

The idea behind the TV programme was to provide an overview of the Arms Crisis for those hearing about it for the first time. It seemed I was the target audience – not a bad fit after all.

Murky past

And so began my immersion into the fascinating and murky events of 1969 and 1970 which led to the sacking of two government ministers, guns intended for use in Northern Ireland being paid for with Irish government money, and the Irish trial of the century.

It didn’t take long to become obsessed, some of the basic facts of the story would seem far-fetched in a film script. And that’s the facts, which at times are hard to separate from the myths, speculation and lies that have created such intrigue around the Arms Crisis.

As Charles Haughey’s son Seán remarked in his interview for the programme – “There were lies told by all sorts of people, big lies told by big people”.

To navigate through the lies and half-truths, our research focused on facts that emerged from the trial, from footage and clips, from archive documents and from the long-hidden Arms Trial tape recordings.

We interviewed experts on the Arms Crisis, authors and historians and the sons and daughters of those accused of gun-running.

I was charged with hunting down archive material from the era. In the bigger picture, records and archive have three main functions in our society – evidence, accountability, and culture. In television, it helps us create a credible snapshot in time. Memories fade and we can never know what was said in private conversations, but we do have an indisputable record of what was said and done in the public domain.

Turbulent times

So what do we know to be true about the Arms Crisis? In August 1969, Derry and Belfast were in flames. The Battle of the Bogside took place in Derry between the nationalist community in The Bogside and the police, the RUC.

image-ref-no-2022077 Free Derry corner in the city of Derry Source: RTE

The trouble spread to Belfast and whole streets of houses were burned out. Across the North, eight people died in violence that August and thousands were displaced from their homes.

Refugee camps were set up in Donegal and Meath to cope with the stream of Catholics over the border, mainly women and children, who were fleeing the violence. The archive footage of these scenes will stay with me for a long time.

The Irish government was under intense pressure to help. There were passionate demonstrations outside the GPO on O’Connell Street calling for the Irish government to help nationalists defend themselves.

Taoiseach Jack Lynch made a speech saying Irish people could “no longer stand by” as innocent people were injured and worse. Groups from the North came to Dublin pleading with the government to get guns. In one of these delegations was John Kelly, an IRA veteran and part of the Belfast Citizen’s Defence Committee. He told the Arms Trial – “We did not ask for blankets or feeding bottles, we asked for guns”.

What was Jack Lynch, the leader of the so-called Republican party Fianna Fáil, going to do?

image-ref-no-0908051 John Kelly Source: RTÉ

Fast forward nine months to May 1970… Charles Haughey (then Minister for Finance) and Neil Blaney (Minister for Agriculture) were charged with conspiracy to import arms illegally along with three others. The tip-off came from the leader of the opposition, Fine Gael’s Liam Cosgrave.

Political power play

To put that into a modern context – can you imagine the now Ministers for Finance and Agriculture, Paschal Donohue and Charlie McConalogue, being charged with conspiracy to import guns? And the tip-off coming from the leader of the opposition, Mary Lou McDonald? Scarcely believable today but it was just as sensational fifty years ago.

Charges against Neil Blaney were dropped due to lack of evidence but Charles Haughey was put on trial in the Four Courts. He and three others faced lengthy prison sentences if convicted.

The charge was conspiracy to import arms rather than importing arms because no guns ever arrived into Ireland. But that wasn’t for lack of trying. Several attempts were made to bring arms in by sea and by air in March and April 1970. 

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

pjimage (1) Haughey & Blaney Source: RTÉ

The final attempt to import arms into Dublin airport contained the sobering inventory of 400 submachine guns, 400 pistols, 25 heavy machine guns and 250,000 rounds of ammunition. Most of the money for the guns came from an Irish government emergency relief fund for Northern nationalists.

Three of the four men accused of the conspiracy freely admitted to attempting to import guns in the trial – Captain James Kelly of the Irish army, John Kelly (no relation) of the Belfast Citizen’s Defence Committee and the IRA and Albert Luykx, a Belgian born businessman living in Dublin.

A scandal revisited

There were two Arms Trials – one in September 1970, which collapsed after an unfair allegation was made about the judge, and a second trial in October 1970. The cream of the Irish bar represented the State and the accused and the media descended on the Four Courts to hear the extraordinary evidence of lies, spies and guns.

The judge ordered that the trial be recorded due to its controversial nature. It was the first time this was done in Ireland.

After the trials, the tapes were deemed superfluous and as an afterthought, some were given to Peter Maguire SC who represented Charles Haughey. We don’t know where the rest went. Maguire retained two quarter-inch tapes in a vault and they have not been heard in public until now.

Tense and dramatic extracts from the tapes feature in both the TV documentary and the podcast series. GunPlot is RTÉ’s first bi-media project, where a subject is explored with both a TV documentary and a podcast. The TV programme gives an overview with the faces and images of the crisis, while the Doc On One podcast is a deep dive into all the complex twists and turns, with more voices and first-person witness accounts to put flesh on the bones of the people and events involved.

Working on this project has shown me just how much history can change depending on whose version you listen to or whose version gets heard. As decades pass we can view events in a fresh light, through the prism of previously hidden information and documents. And still, despite all the new documents and new books on the topic, the truth of the Arms Crisis is still contested.

If you aren’t sure of the outcome of the trial, I will avoid a spoiler, you’ll have to tune in to discover if the men were found guilty or not and why they said they believed this was a plan controlled at the very highest levels of government.

If you have already made up your mind on the truth of the Arms Crisis then take a look again, things may look a little different now.

Róisín O’Dea is a researcher with TV Documentary Unit in RTÉ. The TV documentary GunPlot will be broadcast on RTÉ 1 on Wednesday 28th of April at 9:35pm. The first three episodes of the Doc On One GunPlot podcast are available now.


About the author:

Róisín O’Dea

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel