The soldier they hung out to dry to conceal government conspiracy

THE late Captain James Kelly, who died during the week, seemed almost obsessed with clearing his name for having supposedly conspired to import arms illegally in 1970. He was cleared in court, along with Charlie Haughey and two others, but some people were never prepared to accept that verdict.

Captain Kelly seized on the opportunity to clear his name by suing the author of a recent book in which his acquittal was depicted as a perverse verdict. He was awarded €70,000 in May, but he did not have long to enjoy it.

People may question the captain's judgment, but there can be no doubt that he was acting with the knowledge and approval, not only of his commanding officer, but also the Minister for Defence. The latter, who secured authorisation for Captain Kelly to go to Germany to buy the weapons, admitted that Kelly had fully briefed him on what was happening. With the opening of the State papers for 1970 a couple of years ago, Captain Kelly made a startling discovery.

The statement his commanding officer had made to the gardaí investigating the planned gunrunning had been significantly doctored before it was inserted into the book of evidence.

Colonel Michael Hefferon had emphasised that Captain Kelly was acting under orders with his authority and the approval of the Minister for Defence. Yet all references to informing Minister for Defence Jim Gibbons about what was happening were deleted from Colonel Hefferon's statement, and the prosecution depicted Captain Kelly at the trial as a rogue officer.

When the Northern Troubles erupted in August 1969, Captain Kelly was on vacation in Derry and he reported what he witnessed upon his return to Dublin.

"It is now necessary to harness all opinion in the State in a concerted drive towards achieving the aim of unification," he wrote in his report of August 23, 1969.

"This means accepting the possibility of armed action of some sort, as the ultimate solution."

Nationalists and republicans from the North were clamouring for weapons to protect themselves. Captain Kelly made arrangements to meet some of these people in Bailieboro, Co Cavan, during the first weekend in October 1969. It was at this meeting that the plans to provide guns were hatched. They were supposedly for defensive purposes.

"The defensive aspect of operations is genuinely stressed," Captain Kelly noted in his report, "but then there is a definite feeling, that in the final analysis, the Defence Forces will have to come to the rescue."

In short, this was not just a plan to provide arms to protect the nationalist community of Northern Ireland against armed loyalist thugs, it was a plot to involve the 26 counties in the conflict.

As an army captain, Kelly was involved way over his head. Within a week of the Bailieboro meeting, Peter Berry, Secretary of the Department of Justice, informed Jack Lynch about what happened. Lynch then questioned Jim Gibbons about Captain Kelly's involvement and Gibbons duly informed Colonel Hefferon. Gibbons later said that he kept Lynch fully informed.

Peter Berry regularly briefed Minister for Justice Michael Moran and he said that he, too, passed on the information to the Taoiseach. But the guns were never actually brought in.

Brian Lenihan, the Minister for Transport, learned that Special Branch officers were poised at Dublin airport to seize the consignment once it arrived from Vienna. He tipped off Colonel Hefferon and the shipment was called off by Haughey when Berry refused to allow it in, even with the assurance that it would be sent directly to the North.

Charlie admitted instructing the customs and saying that he would call the whole thing off. He had provided the funds for the Bailieboro meeting as well as the money to purchase the guns, but he said that he never actually knew that guns were involved, even though he had discussed the shipment with Kelly, Gibbons, Berry, Boland, and with his personal assistant Anthony Fagan. He talked with each of them separately and never asked any of them what they were actually talking about? Yeah, right!

Lynch likewise claimed that he had been kept in the dark, and he dismissed Haughey and Neil Blaney from his cabinet. Both were charged with conspiring to import arms illegally, along with Captain Kelly and two others, but the charges against Blaney were dismissed for lack of evidence at an early stage.

Gibbons denied that he approved of Kelly's actions even though he actively facilitated those actions. Even though Haughey provided the money used to purchase the guns, he stated that this money was misappropriated. He was essentially blaming Captain Kelly.

THE politicians hung Captain Kelly out to dry, and some people at the Justice Department sought to railroad him by tampering with Colonel Hefferon's statement.

When Hefforon testified, however, he was not intimidated. He backed up Captain Kelly and stated categorically that he and Kelly had informed Gibbons, who then admitted this on the stand, even though he had earlier lied to the Dáil. Since Gibbons had the power to authorise the importation of arms, the judge told the jury that they could conclude that the minister had actually approved of the plans by not objecting to them.

If they believed this, there was no case, and that was what the jury decided.

Although both Haughey and Blaney were acquitted, Lynch refused to bring them back into the Cabinet, because he said they knew about the gunrunning plans and did not inform him. Jim Gibbons admitted in court that he also knew about the plans, so why was he not dismissed from the Cabinet? He even admitted at the trial that he had lied to the Dáil about the case. For this alone he should have been dismissed from the Government, but Lynch retained him and brought him back into government again in 1977 when he returned to power for a final term.

Gibbons actually became the first minister to defy a three-line whip in 1979 when he openly refused to support the bill introduced by Haughey to legalise the sale of contraceptives under certain restricted conditions. Yet Lynch refused to act against him. Why? The Taoiseach was obviously afraid that Gibbons would otherwise let the cat out of the bag, by openly declaring that he had informed the Taoiseach about the gunrunning plans. This would have betrayed a much more sinister conspiracy.

Haughey, Gibbons and Blaney were involved in the gun-running plans, while Boland and Lenihan tried to facilitate them, and Lynch turned the proverbial blind eye.

In the circumstances, Capt Kelly was entitled to conclude that it was a government operation, especially under the concept of collective cabinet responsibility. They had the authority to import the arms. Thus the arms trial was just a smokescreen.

The true scandal was that the Government was involved in a plot to involve this country in the Northern conflict. Only the Oireachtas has the right to involve us in war. Thus the real conspiracy was a government out to subvert the Constitution, followed by the arms trial fiasco during which nearly all of them including Haughey attempted to scapegoat Captain Kelly.

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