Nervous dispositions and vestigial knowledge: The 1970 arms crisis

In Issue 12 (March 2002) Maeve Connaughton drew lessons from a pivotal moment in modern Irish history.

When the arms trial opened in Dublin on 22 September 1970 one juror was excused on the very first day due to being of “a nervous disposition”. He wasn’t the only one, and recent revelations of official cover-up and minis­terial sleight of hand must have put the wind up some of the protagonists. Most of them have since gone to the great Bridewell in the sky, but beneath all the hints and allegations lies a story still relevant to today’s political struggles.

The arms crisis was only part of a far wider political crisis that swept Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The movement for civil rights in the north was gaining strength and meeting with increasingly fierce repression from the state. The armed forces of that state were complemented by paramilitary loyalism, with a considerable overlap between the two. Nationalist areas were no match militarily for such a combination and, for the most part, came off worst in the confrontations, with huge numbers of Catholics driven from their homes, injured or killed.

There was a fightback, as people resisted heroically with stones, petrol bombs, even the odd old gun that could be dug up. In Derry’s Bogside they effectively kept the state out altogether and ran their own community. Elsewhere in Ireland there was a wave of sympathy for the victims of the attacks, and a determination not to let it happen again, especially when the situation reached a height in August 1969.

The fallout of the crisis landed heavily in two political quarters: the republican movement, and Fianna Fáil.

Since its latest military campaign had petered out in 1962 a rethink had been going on in the IRA. The old notion of gathering guns and sympathy with an eye to the next round of sallying forth across the border wasn’t getting anywhere. A new strategy of getting involved in social and political agitation was adopted, and republicans began to take a central part in campaigns for decent housing, for national ownership of rivers and lakes, in the trade union movement. The idea was that IRA military action would only enter the picture at a later stage, to enforce an uprising of the working people for an Irish socialist republic.

The northern axis of the new departure centred on the demand for civil rights. Instead of bemoaning partition, republicans would build a broad coalition against the systematic discrimination against the Catholic popula­tion in voting, housing and employment. The intention was not to overthrow the northern state but to unite Protestants and Catholics in democratising it. That achieved, the north would hopefully unite peacefully with the south, but raising the spectre of fighting for a united Ireland was ruled out.

But what if civil rights proved to be more than the state could stand? What if it just couldn’t be reformed? What if the majority of Protestants opposed the demand for equality instead of supporting it? When precisely this came to pass, the republican line came under severe strain. Rather than modify their approach to meet the new reality, the IRA leadership main­tained that Stormont was an Irish parliament and abolishing it would mean less democracy; that armed defence of nationalist communities equalled sectarian battles of Irishmen against Irishmen; that partition was not on the agenda. Despite all their best-laid plans collapsing around them, they stuck to their guns.

Or rather, their lack of guns. Not surprisingly, the IRA was the first port of call for those looking for weapons to defend northern nationalists. But much of its arsenal had been got rid of (sold to the Free Wales Army, by all accounts) and the chief of staff was nowhere to be found when the August crisis broke (he was up in the Dublin mountains doing a TV interview). For many who had traditionally sympathised with the IRA, its failure to defend them against loyalist and state attack totally discredited it. Graffiti in west Belfast claimed that IRA stood for “I Ran Away”.

It was this that lay at the bottom of the split in the republican movement in 1969/70. While the issue was fought around the corner—on the question of whether republicans should take seats in parliaments—what was actually at stake was whether to support a continuation of the leadership strategy or not. It wasn’t its designation of Leinster House as a usurping assembly that caused the Provisional IRA to grow, but the fact that it was prepared to defend nationalists and fight against the northern state.

The stereotyped portrayal of militaristic right-wing Provos breaking from sophisticated left-wing Officials holds little water. While those inter­ested in nothing more than war with Britain did go with the Provisionals, so did a fair few left-wing republicans who had been heavily involved in social and economic struggle. Provisional Sinn Féin’s founding statement even declared for a democratic socialist republic (far more explicitly than its present descendants do). The socialism rejected in the split was a ‘socialism’ that was trying to force a popular revolt back into a reformist mould.

The crisis in the north caused not a little alarm for Fianna Fáil. They had held power for all but six of the previous 37 years, and the June 1969 election had just ushered in their thirteenth consecutive year at the helm; but they had their problems. Long and bitter strikes were becoming a frequent occurrence as Ireland topped the international league for industrial disputes. Fights for better housing and other political campaigns were growing, with the republican movement in the thick of them for good measure. The inter­national atmosphere of radicalism following the revolutionary annus mirabilis of 1968 still gave the ruling class nightmares. All this led Fianna Fáil to resort to red scare tactics on the hustings, and even refined politi­cians with intellectual reputations were warning of the danger of subversion.

People booting out the state and taking control of their own destinies always makes capitalist politicians uneasy, so the example of Free Derry was not to Fianna Fáil’s liking. Southern solidarity with the oppressed in the north also put them in a corner. After half a century of talk about the nation­alists’ plight, they were now faced with calls for action. Unless they did something, their own legitimacy would be undermined as elements beyond their control challenged their monopoly of armed force by arming communities under siege.

Within Fianna Fáil itself an ill-concealed power struggle was being waged. Jack Lynch’s assumption of the leadership in 1966 had only papered over the cracks: scheming in the wings were Neil Blaney, party organisation man par excellence, and Charles Haughey, epitome of the new breed of arrogant money-grubbing Fianna Fáilers. Bellicose nationalism had always been a string to Blaney’s bow as he lamented the predicament of “our people” in the north—“our people” not including any Protestants, of course. Haughey had no republican pedigree—had gleefully interned IRA men in his time as minister for justice, in fact—and seems merely to have seen a chance and grabbed it. They presented themselves as champions of the beleaguered northerners, and got themselves on to a cabinet subcommittee with £100,000 to spend on the relief of distress following the August attacks.

This money was used to buy and import guns for the defence of nation­alist areas. As well as taking some of the heat off the government, the aim was to ensure that if there was to be gun-running, it would be under the auspices of the southern state—albeit unofficially. But there was also an attempt to kill two birds with the one stone. The guns were to go only to those who disagreed with the IRA leadership’s policy. That way, the threat to the 26-county state posed by republican involvement in left-wing activism could be lessened.

Contrary to Official republican mythology, this does not mean that the Provisional IRA was the bastard child of Fianna Fáil. Undoubtedly, Fianna Fáil preferred a republican movement that confined its activities to the north and left them in full control down south, and they did their level best to get one. But the split arose from the divergent responses to the August debacle: if there wasn’t a penny or a bullet forthcoming from Fianna Fáil, something like what happened would have happened anyway. Seeing that there was, the Provisionals saw no harm in getting their hands on some of it—nor, for that matter, did the Officials, whose chief of staff got £2,500 out of Haughey.

While others in the government had an idea of what was going on—and the latest evidence points more and more in that direction—the exact nature of Blaney’s and Haughey’s operations was kept from Lynch and his faction. By pushing a more belligerent policy than Lynch’s, they hoped to embarrass him and force him from the party leadership, leaving a vacuum for them­selves to fill.

The proverbial hit the fan in May 1970 when news of the state-sponsored gun-running began to leak out. Lynch sacked Blaney and Haughey from the government; both were charged with illegal arms importation along with three others, including a military intelligence officer. The case against Blaney was thrown out for lack of evidence; after a tense trial that had to be abandoned and restarted, the others were acquitted.

Unlike the other defendants who stood over their actions, claiming that the state knew and approved of them, Haughey’s defence was to play dumb, saying that he didn’t know there were any guns in the cargo he tried to speed through customs. Nevertheless, he emerged from the court speaking “On behalf of myself and my fellow-patriots…” He called on Lynch to do the decent thing, as did Blaney, in the name of a more vigorous northern policy. With Lynch out of the country on a diplomatic mission, the stage looked set for a palace coup.

But Lynch was met at Dublin airport, not by his political obituary, but by the serried ranks of his ministers and party grandees. He saw off his opponents in votes of confidence as the soldiers of destiny rallied around their chief. Blaney brought his local political machine out of the party with him. Haughey spent the rest of the decade in the political wilderness, but a very comfortable wilderness, as evidenced by recent tribunals.

The ruling class closed ranks rather than risk being split down the middle. Just as unsettled by the northern upheavals as their counterparts in London and Belfast, they made sure to consolidate their own rule before all else. The decades of rhetorical anti-partitionism were all as sound and fury signifying nothing. Defence minister Jim Gibbons claimed at the trial that his awareness of the arms smuggling amounted only to “vestigial knowledge”. The dictionary definition confirms that the same description could apply to the southern state’s aspiration to national unity:

vestigial adj. 1 forming a very small remnant of something that was once greater or more noticeable. 2 Biology (of an organ or part of the body) degenerate, rudimentary, or atrophied, having become func­tionless in the course of evolution.

The Free State was not born in the fires of the GPO in 1916, or in a Tipperary hillside ambush in 1920: it was born in the rubble of the Four Courts bombarded in 1922, and the scattered flesh of prisoners tied to a landmine in Kerry in 1923. From the word go, it was a state committed to maintaining its grip on what it had. Keening after the fourth green field was useful to that end, but it was quite happy to be Three Quarters of a Nation Once Again. If 26-county patriotism was baptised in the civil war, it had its confirmation in the arms crisis 47 years later.

The accepted wisdom of the nationalist consensus was now clearly ‘unity by consent’: a united Ireland, but only when the unionists agreed to it. This apparently profound concept, tortuously adumbrated in the keynote addresses of Taoisigh and Nobel prize-winning nationalists, actually boils down to the old evasion ‘Live, horse, and you’ll get grass’. In its pure form it gives what it calls the unionist tradition a complete veto for as long as it likes. Its modified, Good-Friday-Agreement version promotes a demo­graphic race where nationalists and unionists do whatever it takes to out­weigh each other in the scales of sectarianism.

The events surrounding the arms crisis are instructive for those who still look to a more hopeful future for the working people of this island. Firstly, socialists need to unconditionally defend the rights of the oppressed in the north—opposing Orange parades, loyalist attacks, and discrimination now as then. Secondly, the very existence of a separate state carved out for communal convenience is a standing monument to sectarianism, whether that takes the naked form it did then or the respectable form it does now. Thirdly, the southern state is just as much an obstacle to achieving justice in Ireland, and needs to join its northern oppo on the scrapheap. Fourthly, the object of the struggle has to clearly be a socialist Ireland, a society in the hands of the workers: a goal that has the potential to lead northern Protestant workers to reject the dead end of unionism, and instead enrich a fight against exploitation.

At the time of the arms crisis, these ideas could often be heard, but usually in isolation. What is needed is a movement that can unite all these aspects into an integrated challenge to capitalism as it operates in Ireland. That difficult task faces socialists today, and drawing the lessons of thirty years ago can help us carry it out.