Historian fails to make convincing case for Lynch’s line on Arms Crisis

FORMER Taoiseach Jack Lynch was, as this newspaper editorialised upon his death, “a charismatic leader, political icon and statesman”.

Dermot Keogh at UCC is also one of Ireland’s top historians. It is a pity then that Prof Keogh’s formidable new biography fails to convince in its treatment of Lynch’s handling of the Arms Crisis.

Lynch is rightly credited with saving the republic from adopting a disastrous northern policy that would have damaged its reputation and economy. If some others had been in charge, the result might, plausibly, have been a quasi civil — or even Anglo-Irish — war.

That Lynch prevented a bad situation from becoming even worse is not in doubt. But, for a crucial few months, did Lynch allow his Government to be subverted by ministers who did not subscribe to the policy of non-violence?

Keogh devotes more than 100 pages to a robust defence of Lynch, accepting fully his vehement denials of any knowledge of a plot to arm the IRA between the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969 and the removal from office of Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney in May 1970.

Keogh does level criticisms but they are extremely muted: the Government’s diplomatic strategy was initially “in part, ill-judged”, some statements “confrontational” and decision-making “fragmented”. Keogh’s niggles are massively outweighed by the superlatives: Lynch’s “decisive leadership” and “singular stance” deserving “special recognition and respect”.

Even on the basis of Keogh’s own evidence, though, this is a questionable conclusion.

Fianna Fáil’s response to the outbreak of the Troubles was a “programme of reviving nationalism in the north”. Keogh quotes even Erskine Childers — a moderate — as seeking “a policy for ending partition”. Civil servants were alarmed at the tone of official statements. The Irish ambassador in London felt it was “opportunist and provocative” to bang on about the border while lives were being lost.

Ken Whitaker mourned the fact that a speech he had written for Lynch was delivered with the conciliatory passages removed. For months before he was sacked, Blaney made inflammatory speeches while Lynch looked the other way — but he was far from the only one playing the green card. What was official policy, and did Blaney and Haughey really misinterpret it? Fianna Fáil hawks and doves alike believed the northern crisis “could ease the way to the eventual realisation of the reunification of Ireland”, as one of Lynch’s briefs put it. What’s more, on Keogh’s own admission, the defence minister — a Lynch loyalist — gave orders for the army to prepare for “incursions” into Northern Ireland. This Keogh calls “responsible and prudent”, anticipating a complete breakdown of law and order. Can Blaney be blamed for believing it had already come to that? Whether or not the head of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, informed Lynch of a plot as early as October 1969 we will never know. Berry says he did; Lynch denies he was told ministers were involved.

The circumstances were highly unusual. Berry had asked the Taoiseach to come and see him while he lay in his hospital bed. The meeting took place while Berry was partially sedated. Nevertheless, even if Berry told Lynch nothing alarming — and it is likely the Taoiseach was informed of at least some details — why did Lynch not pursue the matter once Berry recovered? Surely if the most senior civil servant responsible for the state’s security wanted to see the Taoiseach so urgently, Lynch must have suspected Berry had vital information to impart?

Only two people knew what actually took place, and both are now dead. It seems strange, therefore, that Keogh does not keep an open mind: “It is my considered view that the Taoiseach had not been informed.”

Perhaps Keogh has overlooked other evidence — or else he has dismissed it for not fitting into the “Lynch as hero” narrative. Certainly, Government policy was in near chaos in 1969. For instance, troops were deployed along the border.

When challenged, Lynch argued they were there to defend field hospitals set up to treat injured northern nationalists. Defend them from whom, one wonders? Once Lynch had declared the Government would not “stand by” and that reunification was the “only permanent solution”, was it unreasonable to think the troops on the border had been deployed for another purpose?

At one of these “field hospitals” members of the Derry IRA were weapons-trained. Why train them but then not provide weapons? Indeed, when asked in 1969 during cabinet if he had met with an IRA man — its leader Cathal Goulding, as it transpired — Haughey admitted as much: “That could have been me... There was nothing to it”.

And still we are supposed to believe Lynch had no suspicions about Haughey and Blaney until the end of April 1970? Can Lynch not have been aware some of his TDs, according to a minister, were shipping small arms across the border in their car boots? Another minister — a Lynch ally — later claimed he had told Lynch members of the Government were “making contact with people they should not have been making contact with”. Yet another minister claimed he had informed Lynch of an attempt to import guns destined for the IRA into Dublin port.

That makes at least three ministers and one very senior civil servant all claiming they had told the then Taoiseach something was afoot. Is it sensible to reject all these testimonies and rely solely on Lynch’s own uncorroborated story?

Frankly, you would have had to be pretty ignorant not to suspect a plot. The IRA’s own newspaper, in its November 1969 edition, splashed a story alleging that the civil rights movement was being sabotaged by militants who would fight the Brits and unionists but pose no threat to the south.

Under their photographs it captioned “Blaney — he knows” and “Haughey — he knows”. Under the taoiseach’s photograph, “Lynch — can he not know?”

A FURTHER warning came in January 1970. The civil rights chairman in Newry, having been acquitted of arms offences, declared to the media: “Those weapons were in our possession... through the work of officers and agents of the Irish Government.”

According to the public accounts committee, of the £105,000 of state money directed for ‘relief’, only £29,000 was spent to that end. Much of the rest ended up in IRA hands, the Provisionals’ more so than the Officials’.

You could argue that Lynch, surrounded by hardliners, had been merely indecisive in an extraordinary situation. You could alternatively argue that he sent mixed messages until his opponents had enough rope to hang themselves. You could even try to argue — unconvincingly, mind you — that Lynch wilfully turned a blind eye to activities he privately approved of but could not be seen to condone.

But to argue the fool’s defence — that Lynch was totally and utterly in the dark about a parallel policy being run by certain ministers until late April 1970 — is little short of bizarre. Even then, it took two weeks and some prompting from the Fine Gael leader before the taoiseach finally removed the cancerous elements.

Haughey, it should be remembered, was subsequently acquitted in court because it couldn’t be proved that the Defence Minister — later promoted by Lynch — had clearly countermanded weapons transfers.

In an otherwise fine book then, Dermot Keogh should have cast a colder eye on this unfortunate episode in Lynch’s great political career.

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