Off the Shelf: The Arms Crisis of 1970, The Plot That Never Was
Michael Heney Head of Zeus Publishing, ISBN 9781789545593 2020 431 pp. Review by Terry Kenneally
This months Off the Shelf selection is another one for the history aficionados in the Ohio IAN readership. Various authors have suggested that the Arms Crisis of 1970 and subsequent trials were milestone events in Irish history. They have asserted that between August 1969 and May 1970 civil war could have descended from the North after several member of the Irish government and military allegedly tried to arm northern nationalists in order to effect/ end partition in Ireland. This month’s selection, written by Michael Heney, a former RTE journalist and producer, who recently received a doctorate , has written a book which questions that narrative and provides an especially rich analysis of these events.
The principles involved include Fiana Fail’s Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, along with Captain James Kelly. Taoiseach Jack Lynch allegedly intervenes to foil the plot. Heney cross-examines a wealth of sources including new and previously released archived interviews and memoir material, and explores the views of personnel from high politics including Jack Lynch, Charles Haughey and Minister for Defense James Gibbons. Ultimately, Heney outlines Lynch’s ‘hidden policy on Northern Ireland’.
This covert policy partly ‘ involved the provision of guns- in emergencies- to Northern Nationalists’. Arms were for defensive and humanitarian purposes if civil war erupted after August 1969 (p. 326). Lynch only acted against these plans after Five Gael’s Liam Cosgrove revealed a Garda note about arms importation attempts by certain ministers on 5 May 1970.
“Overall, Lynch did much to create the political crisis for which, remarkably, he has been given great credit for resolving.” (p. 328) Haughey and Blaney, on the evidence, were operating within the broad confines of the government policy at the time they were sacked.
They have been demonized in the years since as ministers who were supposedly running a ‘shadow’ or ‘alternative’ government. The Arms Crisis was precipitated not when the attempted arms importation came to light, but when Lynch made the seemingly snap decision to renounce such activity and to sack both Haughey and Blaney from his cabinet. In the end, the sacking and subsequent criminal trial appears to have been a ploy designed in part to keep Fianna Fail in power.
THE ARMS CRISIS of 1970 is a major contribution to our understanding of a pivotal moment in postwar Ireland history. “A brilliant, forensic investigation of the 1970 arms trial.” Vincent Browne. A TOP SHELF read indeed.