Bertie Ahern’s declaration, however, fell far short of his family’s demand for an apology and unequivocal vindication of his good name.
Captain Kelly died in Dublin yesterday of cancer. He was aged 74.
The Government rejected a deathbed appeal by Mr Kelly, his family and opposition parties to state that the former Defence Forces officer was wrongly accused.
In a statement last night, the Taoiseach described Mr Kelly as a dedicated officer who honourably served the interests of his country.
“Captain Kelly was prosecuted in the Arms Trial in circumstances of great controversy,” said Mr Ahern. “He was acquitted of all the charges laid against him. As far as the state is concerned, he was innocent of those charges.” Offering sympathy to Mr Kelly’s family, Mr Ahern said: “it is my belief that at all times during those difficult days in the early period of the Troubles, he acted on what he believed were the proper orders of his superiors. Historians will make their own judgments about the events of that era. For my part, I have never found any reason to doubt his integrity.”
His now-widowed wife Sheila had pleaded last weekend with Justice Minister Michael McDowell to take off his legal wig and “act like an ordinary human being” before her husband’s death. Daughter Suzanne, president of the Irish Taxation Institute, said her father had made it his life’s work to clear his name. He was holding on to life, she said, to get an apology from the state on his deathbed. Mr Kelly had overseen the procurement of an arms consignment from Germany, which prompted the arms trial.
He always claimed he had government authorisation for the mission. Last May, he received €70,000 in damages from the High Court and an apology after he took a libel action against authors of a book which examined the historic trial. Captain Kelly was subsequently charged with conspiring to import arms illegally. He maintained that it was a government operation because it had approval of Defence Minister Jim Gibbons, who had the statutory power to authorise the importation. The director of Military Intelligence, Colonel Michael Hefferon, supports this contention in his statement, but Captain Kelly discovered with the opening of the state papers a couple of years ago that the colonel’s original statement had been doctored to omit all references about informing the minister for defence.
Colonel Hefferon’s testimony at the arms trial essentially undermined the state’s case, and this was compounded when Mr Gibbons admitted he had been fully informed. Captain Kelly and the three other defendants were acquitted.