Irish intrigue -- "Gunplot" and the Arms Crisis of 1970

Looking back over the decades, there were two early signals of my lifelong fascination with Ireland. The first was James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I read for my English A-level. I was mesmerised by its heady mix of family, religion, politics, nationality and identity-angst. Its uniquely Irish sensibility piqued my curiosity.

The second was the brief friendship I made in London in 1969-70 with a young Irish woman. I was eighteen or nineteen, working between high school and college, waiting and saving to get married, as one did in those days. I can’t remember her name, however hard I try, so let’s call her Marie. It fits as well as any other name I can think of. Marie was beautiful, with freckles and striking, tumbling, shoulder length dark red hair, which was drawn back at the top and fixed somehow into tight, elaborate curls. She was a few years older than I and dressed in a restrained and conservative way with knee length skirts and crisp white collars. In those days I had shoulder length straight dark blonde hair, and wore the shortest of mini-skirts. But the story that Marie told was not restrained.

Both Marie and ‘Portrait’ returned to mind recently when I enjoyed the eight episodes of Gunplot, a documentary podcast series from RTE: ‘Portrait” because the events of Gunplot – which, even fifty years later and on the 100th anniversary of partition, continue to intrigue, could similarly have happened only in Ireland, and Marie because of the gunrunning.

I met Marie while working as a “rep” for Barbour Index, a company originally founded to answer the need for product information faced by wartime architects and engineers in London. This is how the modern Barbour EHI website describes its origins:

“In 1957, Bobby Barbour (brother to Patrick Barbour) formed a company called Architects Specifile. The company was based on collecting manufacturers’ trade catalogues and storing them in a filing cabinet. The catalogues were delivered by ladies on bicycles who visited the architects, in central London only.

By the mid 1960’s the bicycles had been replaced by red minis, driven by young ladies in mini-skirts who were employed to maintain the tailor-made Barbour Index Product Library services.”

Sadly, I was given no red Mini and no bicycle, because my patch was the Square Mile of the City of London. The firms of architects I visited monthly to update their product catalogues included private firms and individual architects, the design departments of banks and insurance companies and even the Salvation Army. They were all very different, of course, some positively Dickensian, paper strewn with high wooden desks and stools, and some bright and modern. In some offices, I saw no-one except the receptionist, who would hand me the waiting package of brochures and leave me alone in the library to extract out of date catalogues and replace them with new ones. They were filed according to the patented Barbour Index classification system, and stored in heavy green plastic ring binders.

I was able to work quickly and accurately and could get the work done in fewer than the days of the month – that, and the unsupervised freedom of the work, I relished. In some of the offices I made friends. In a few, I was taken for lunch whenever I appeared, and in others there was much chat and fun.

As the months passed and Marie and I got to know each other, she shared her amazing story with me. She had been engaged to be married in Ireland and was due to move back for her wedding. She and her fiancé had even built their own house. But shortly before the wedding, her fiancé was killed in a road accident. She was comforted by and fell in love with the – Catholic, of course -- parish priest who had been due to officiate. These were the years of the start of the Troubles and he used, she told me, to run guns for the IRA. And now, here she was, living and working in London, but flying home to Ireland once a month, where she was staying overnight with the parish priest in the presbytery. In the morning, they would both have their confessions heard by the parish curate. Her story seemed impossibly exotic and wild, and I was completely entranced. My own journey into marriage felt, and indeed was, banal by comparison. Like that of Stephen Daedalus the story seemed a thrilling and risky intertwining of religion, national identity, love and sex, and fed into my growing unconscious fascination with this extraordinary country.

At the time, I knew virtually nothing about Ireland. It was the “Irish Problem” and “Home Rule Bill” of my A-level history studies. The Troubles had just begun, but I was absorbed in preparing for my wedding. Marie was the first Irish person I met, the first of many I found more intriguing and attractive than many of the British people I know. And after I left Barbour Index in August 1970, I never saw or heard from Marie again.

Gunplot retells the saga of the Irish government Arms Crisis of 1969-70, which unfolded over precisely those months that I was flitting from one architect’s office to another in the City of London. The writers and presenters of Gunplot, Ronan Kelly and Nicoline Greer, have painstakingly recreated the chronology and drama of the Irish government’s clumsy interventions in the early stages of the conflict in Northern Ireland, divided from the Republic at that point for almost fifty years – or exactly 100 years as I write. They have drawn on the many books, treatises and previous documentaries about the Arms Trial and have also interviewed the children of the various protagonists – which adds a welcome female and domestic dimension to the story, which would otherwise be entirely missing. They also had access to the only remaining tapes of two afternoons of the trial, which took place in autumn 1970. Somehow, the official transcripts of the trial disappeared.

Four highly colourful characters were charged with conspiracy to import illegal arms: Captain James Kelly, an Irish army intelligence officer; Albert Luykx, a Belgian businessman who had escaped to Ireland after the war, having been convicted of collaboration with the Nazis; Charles Haughey, then Minister of Finance; and John Kelly, an IRA man from Belfast.

All four were found innocent; others were closely involved: Neil Blaney, Donegal TD, the minister for agriculture, against whom charges were dropped; Jim Gibbons, minister for defence, who persistently claimed, along with Haughey, that he had no knowledge of the multiple bungled attempts to procure weapons; Colonel Hefferon, Captain Kelly’s boss, who retired shortly before the trial began; Peter Berry, a civil servant in the ministry of justice who loathed the IRA and became so alarmed by the plot that, he insisted, he briefed the Taoiseach.

The podcast series is, in itself, a masterclass in documentary making and I am sure I was not alone in my fervent anticipation of each new episode, all of which are now available. Terrific lockdown distraction.

The cast of characters also included two arms dealers: an Englishman, Mark Randall, who may have been an MI5 agent, and Otto Schleuter, a wily and ruthless German arms dealer. He certainly pocketed a goodly amount of the £100,000 – approx. 15 million euros in today’s money -- allocated by the Irish cabinet to the “relief of distress in the North”. Where the rest of it went is not known to this day.

The story began in Derry on 12 August 1969 with the Apprentice Boys’ Parade and the Battle of the Bogside. It happened that the off-duty Captain Kelly was in Derry at the time, and reported back to his superiors. Appeals for protection, and more specifically, for arms, came from the Catholics in the North. Many Irish people and their government had a visceral sympathy for those they saw as their fellow countrymen, who were under attack from the British army and loyalist paramilitaries. Indeed, the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, stated in a radio broadcast at the time: “The Irish government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured …”. As a result, the cabinet of the Fianna Fail government allocated the £100,000, which was divided into two anonymous bank accounts in Dublin under the authority of minister of finance, Charles Haughey, who had family in Derry, and Neil Blaney, the minister for agriculture from Donegal, whose publicly expressed republican sympathies were even stronger.

Over the following year, an extraordinary narrative unfolded – a cross between an episode of keystone cops and a series of Irish jokes. It involved a profusion of boundary confusions and border transgressions, and ended up in ruined reputations and blighted lives for several of the key characters.

Early on, the Irish army moved troops and arms to the border with the North and, according to one former soldier, actually crossed over at one point. This he knew because of the red telephone boxes – the border being otherwise unidentifiable in those days. At the same time, the documentary recalls, there was a trickle of guns being sent into the North by civilians by a variety of means – and this, presumably is where Marie and her priest-lover come in. “Farmers sent shotguns, hunters sent rifles, old arms dumps from previous wars were opened up.” Irish authorities turned a blind eye or even helped.

Captain Kelly was authorised to source illegal arms abroad, and remained adamant that this had been with the explicit authority and knowledge of ministers Haughey, Gibbons and Blaney. He travelled to London, New York and Germany to arrange the imports but one after the other the attempts failed. The Belfast IRA man, John Kelly, who represented the Citizens’ Defense Committees that had sprung up in the North, was certain that the arms were destined for the IRA; but Captain James Kelly was equally sure that his role was to make sure they stayed out of the hands of republicans, who were pledged to overthrow the very Dublin government that was attempting to acquire the weapons. From the Irish government point of view, it was critical that any guns should not be traceable back to them.

You couldn’t make it up. Following the completion of the Gunplot documentary series, the controversy, particularly about what and whether Taoiseach Jack Lynch and other ministers knew, continues in the Twitterverse and elsewhere. My own conclusion? That if members of the cabinet, to varying degrees, knew about the plot – as Kevin Boland, the minister for social welfare, who resigned from the government in protest at the sackings of Haughey and Blaney insisted at the time -- and if they were desperate to cover that up, then the trial might well have unfolded as it did. Neil Blaney would not have been charged, as he would certainly have “blown the lid” off the entire scheme; Charles Haughey would have been clever enough, as he was, never ever to speak about the arms plot or the trial privately or publicly; and the minister for defence, Jim Gibbons, would not have been among those charged. But Colonel Hefferon’s conscience would not, in the end, allow him to testify, as he was encouraged to do, against Captain James Kelly, and Kelly himself awaited an apology from the government until the very end of his life. Questions unsatisfactorily answered never go away, and in the case of the Irish Arms Crisis, they haven’t.

As I reflect on Gunplot, it occurs to me that at the heart of the story is the deeply complex and difficult relationship between England and Ireland, a reluctant and often dysfunctional relationship forced and forged over hundreds of years by geographical proximity between a larger and a smaller neighbour, whose cultures are so, so different and indeed partially shaped by or reflective of the tensions and differences between them. England the invading colonial overlord -- a role echoed during the Troubles -- always arrogant, choosing sometimes simply to ignore its minor affiliate. So Ireland has often found ways to try, sometimes violently and usually futilely, to assert its presence. That's what the Arms Crisis was: a useless attempt by Ireland to respond, to protest, to make its presence felt as the chaos erupted in the North, a chaos that was another byproduct of England's blinkered approach to the Irish Problem.

There was a time, while the UK and Ireland were both members of the EU, and the only Engish-speaking members, when the two countries could relate as equals in a different milieu. Brexit has put paid to that and, once again, the disputed territory of the North is the stage on which the imbalance between England and Ireland is being played out. But that is another story.

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