It is very good in many aspects, but it makes the mistake of stressing what was initially believed to the exclusion of what actually happened. Instead of clarifying some of the bigger issues in the light of what we now know, the series has reinforced misconceptions in the light of earlier distortions.
For instance, it has emphasised the delusion that Jack Lynch was elected as an interim Taoiseach. He was leader of Fianna Fáil for over 13 years, which is longer than any leader other than Eamon de Valera. From the outset Lynch stressed that he had no intention of being an interim leader. The programme repeated the old canard that Haughey pushed Lynch. It was George Colley and Martin O’Donoghue who prompted Jack to jump in the mistaken belief that Colley would succeed him.
Lynch then tried to stampede the party by calling the election to select his successor with just two days’ notice.
Colley thought he could win without canvassing, but then when he lost, he blamed Haughey. On the night of the first cabinet meeting Colley telephoned the journalist Bruce Arnold to say that Haughey was “dangerous, should have been blocked from the leadership, and should be got out as fast as possible.”
It was absurd to depict Fianna Fáil as a united party dedicated to its leaders until Haughey upset things.
At the meeting at which Lynch was elected party leader in November 1966, for instance, Seán MacEntee savaged the outgoing Taoiseach for abandoning the party “at its lowest ebb.” He said that Seán Lemass “could not have chosen a worse time” to stand down.
“Responsibility for this situation, in my view, rests mainly on the Taoiseach,” MacEntee emphasised. “The devious course which he has pursued not only in relation to his leadership and on the succession, but to other questions as well, has confounded the members of our organisation so that none of them knows where we stand on any issue.”
It is astonishing and unjustifiable that the Taoiseach, at this precise moment, should propose, by resigning, to wash his hands of responsibility for the country’s affairs,” MacEntee continued.
“Only reason of the utmost gravity, on the borderline, so to speak, between life and death, justifies such a step on the part of a leader.”
Lemass had squandered de Valera’s political legacy, in MacEntee’s opinion.
“Sometimes in recent years it seemed as if it were being dealt with like a personal possession,” he said. “The state was tottering towards anarchy.”
Members sat in stunned silence. MacEntee could hardly not have chosen a more inappropriate moment for such an attack. After 40 years on the frontline of Fianna Fáil, Lemass had every right to retire without having his patriotism questioned. MacEntee’s contribution was absurd. He accused Lemass of leading the country towards anarchy and insisted that he should stay on for two more years.
MacEntee actually referred to the quasi-fascist dictators - Franco of Spain and Salazar of Portugal - as the prototypes of proper leadership.
“When Frank Aiken got up to nominate Colley he faced a barrage of abuse from Kevin Boland,” according to Bobby Molloy. “It astonished me. I had never seen this side of things in Fianna Fail up to then.”
Charlie didn’t start it. The treatment of the Arms Crisis in the TV series was equally superficial. Peter Berry’s famous telephone conversation with Haughey was highlighted in each of the first two programmes. The prosecution had used this material as a sensational stunt at the outset of the trial, much to Berry’s indignation. It was part of a smokescreen then and it is still obscuring the real story 35 years later.
We are being given the old, incomplete story without the benefit of hindsight. The doctoring of Col Michael Hefferon’s statement in the book of evidence was ignored, as was the secret meeting between Haughey and Justice Minister Des O’Malley before the arms trial.
We now know there was more to Capt James Kelly’s efforts to bring in arms than helping Northern nationalists to defend themselves. “It is now necessary to harness all opinion in the State in a concerted drive towards achieving the aim of unification,” Capt Kelly wrote in his report of August 23, 1969.
“This means accepting the possibility of armed action of some sort, as the ultimate solution. If civil war embracing the area was to result because of unwillingness to accept that war is the continuation of politics by other means, it would be a far greater evil for the Irish nation.” Capt Kelly was basically advocating a war to end partition. The minister with whom he was working closest was not Haughey, but Neil Blaney, who publicly announced that the use of force was not being ruled out. “The ideal way of ending partition is by peaceful means, but no one has a right to assert that force is irrevocably out,” Blaney declared in Letterkenny on December 8, 1969. “The Fianna Fáil party has never taken a decision to rule out the use of force, if the circumstances in the Six Counties so demand.”
Jim Gibbons, the Minister for Defence, essentially authorised the importation of the arms, and there is little doubt that he informed Jack Lynch. Nobody even bothered to ask him at the arms trial if he had told the Taoiseach.
Lynch later justified excluding Haughey and Blaney from the cabinet on the grounds that they did not tell him what they knew about the gun-running plans. Gibbons admitted at the trial that he was fully briefed on the whole thing, so why did Lynch not drop him? The Taoiseach not only retained him in 1970 after he undermined the state’s case, he reappointed him again in 1977 and even retained him after he took the unprecedented step for a minister of defying a three-line whip in refusing to vote for the Government’s contraception bill in 1979.
What did Gibbons have on Lynch? The answer is obvious -he had informed Lynch about gun-running plans as early as November 1969. In the aftermath of a 1980 series of articles in Magill magazine, Gibbons stated that he had kept the Taoiseach informed.
There were no valid grounds for the charge of conspiring to import arms illegally. The importation was legal because Gibbons had the authority to clear it. Lynch undoubtedly knew because, in addition to Gibbons, Peter Berry had informed him about Capt Kelly’s activities a month earlier. Of course, Lynch may not have realised until very late in the day that the real conspiracy was to subvert the constitution by provoking a war without the approval of the Dáil. Even if Lynch, Gibbons, and the whole cabinet agreed, they did not have the authority to initiate a war to end partition without Dáil approval.