Analysis: a look at the ins and outs of the Arms Crisis debacle which occurred 50 years ago this week 

By Stephen KellyLiverpool Hope University

On May 6th 1970, Neil Blaney and Charles J. Haughey were dramatically sacked as cabinet ministers by Taoiseach Jack Lynch for their alleged involvement in illegal attempts to import guns into the Republic of Ireland. Referred to as the Arms Crisis, it remains one of the most defining scandals in the history of modern Ireland.

Where did it all begin?

The origin of the crisis dates to a meeting of the Irish cabinet the previous year in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Bogside and the arrival of British Army troops on the streets of Northern Ireland. At this meeting on August 16th 1969, government ministers authorised the establishment of a four-man Northern Ireland sub-committee to deal with "certain aspects" of Northern Ireland affairs. Along with Blaney and Haughey, two border county TDs, Joseph Brennan and Pádraig Faulkner, were appointed. 

Haughey combined his role on this new sub-committee with control of a special Northern Ireland relief fund of £100,000, voted for by Dáil Éireann, to provide "aid for the victims of the current unrest in the Six-counties". As Minister for Finance, it was Haughey’s responsibility that £100,000 was used for its intended purpose. What occurred, however, was that approximately £50,000 at the very least was used to purchase guns for Northern republicans. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, David McCullagh speaks to Stephen Kelly about the Arms Crisis and what ultimately came of it

First stop: London

The first known attempt to supply Northern republicans with weapons involved John Kelly, a leading figure in the Citizens’ Defence Committees springing up throughout Belfast at this time and Pádraig 'Jock' Haughey, the Minister for Finance’s older brother. In November 1969, they travelled to London to meet a purported arms dealer, Captain Markham Randall. £11,450 was provided to purchase the weapons via a Baggot Street Munster and Leinster bank account, under the name of "George Dixon". The arranged deal, however, fell through, when Kelly became suspicious, believing Randall to be a British Intelligence spy. 

Yanks with guns

In mid-December 1969, there was a further attempt to import guns into the Republic of Ireland, this time from the United States. This time, Kelly travelled to the US with Neil Blaney's "express orders" to "ascertain how quickly arms would be available in New York from the Irish-American community". This venture failed due to insufficient funding and Blaney’s preference for the purchase of guns from continental Europe rather than the US.

Irish Military Intelligence and the Germans 

The third attempt to import guns occurred during the early months of 1970. On this occasion, with the support of Blaney and Haughey, the importing of weapons was to be carried out under the supervision of Colonel Michael Hefferon, director of Irish Military Intelligence. Significantly, Hefferon believed that he was working under the direct orders of the Northern Ireland sub-committee and thus his actions had the endorsement of the Irish government. 

200 sub machine guns, 84 light machine guns, 50 general purpose machine guns, 50 rifles, 200 grenades, 70 flak jackets, 250,000 rounds of ammunitions and 200 pistols

On this occasion, Blaney contacted Otto Schleuter, a professional arms dealer based in Hamburg, Germany. Using Captain James Kelly, a young officer of IMI, as a go-between, Blaney also employed the services of Albert Luykx, a Belgian-born businessman, who ran a restaurant in Sutton, Co. Dublin.

A ship with no guns onboard

In-mid February 1970, Captain Kelly made arrangements to travel to Belgium to inspect an arms shipment, bringing with him £10,000 drawn from the George Dixon account in the Munster and Leinster Bank. The deal was to consist of "200 sub machine guns, 84 light machine guns, 50 general purpose machine guns, 50 rifles, 200 grenades, 70 flak jackets and 250,000 rounds of ammunitions and 200 pistols".

Captain Kelly met Schleuter in Antwerp where arrangements were made to ship the cargo to Dublin. But when the ship assigned to transport the arms consignment, The City of Dublin, docked in Dublin on March 25th, the guns were not onboard. Rather, the consignment was impounded in Antwerp due to the lack of an "end user’s certificate". 

A trip to Hamburg 

The following month, April 1970, in a last-ditch attempt to procure guns, Captain Kelly travelled to Hamburg and, with the support of Schleuter, made arrangements to bring the arms consignment to Dublin on a scheduled Aer Lingus flight. When it became apparent that international regulations did not permit the transportation of firearms, Captain Kelly approached John Squires, managing director of a charter subsidiary of Aer Lingus. Once again, though, this attempt failed due to legal considerations. 

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ news special on the news that Taoiseach Jack Lynch has demanded the resignations to two ministers

Game over

It was at this juncture that Peter Berry, secretary of the Department of Justice, was made aware of this unfolding debacle. In a telephone conversation on the evening of Saturday April 18th with Haughey, Berry informed the Minister for Finance that the guns would be seized by the Irish Special Branch if the attempted shipment arrived at Dublin Airport. At this stage, Berry was unaware of the extent of Haughey’s involvement in this affair).

On hearing Berry’s words, Haughey noted that "I had better have it called off". The following day, Captain Kelly received confirmation that Haughey had decided to call an immediate halt to the attempted importation of guns into the Republic of Ireland.

Ministerial denials 

Several days later on April 29th, Taoiseach Jack Lynch summoned Blaney to his office. He made it clear that he knew all about the covert plans to import weapons and demanded Blaney’s ministerial resignation (it remains unclear exactly when Lynch was first made aware of the Blaney/Haughey conspiracy). Blaney vigorously protested his innocence and refused to resign.

Later that day, Lynch visited Haughey at the Mater Hospital. Haughey was recuperating having purportedly injured himself, either falling from his horse or having been badly beaten with an iron bar during an altercation in a public house on the morning of April 22nd. Haughey also protested his innocence. Because of his ill-health, Lynch felt that he could not continue his meeting with the frail minister, who was reportedly in a "very weak, sedated state".

The sackings 

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on the charges against Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney in connection with the Arms Crisis

As Lynch considered the fate of his ministers, events outside his control forced his hand. On May 5th, Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave received a tip-off about the plot to import guns. Later that evening, Cosgrave confronted Lynch about this information. After some procrastinating, Lynch again demanded Blaney's resignation, but the minister refused. Lynch then phoned Haughey in hospital who also refused to resign. 

Returning home, Lynch consulted a small number of his closest circle of advisers. The following morning, the Irish Government Information Bureau issued a statement announcing the sacking of Blaney and Haughey for their alleged involvement in an illegal attempt to import arms. Events reached a crescendo later that month and Blaney and Haughey were arrested at their homes and "charged with conspiring to import arms illegally into the State". 

The lessons learned

Looking back on the Arms Crisis what lessons can we learn? To put it bluntly, Blaney and Haughey’s fingerprints are all over the Arms Crisis and the entire spectacle cast a long shadow over the health of Irish democracy. They were never convicted with criminal involvement vis-à-vis the alleged importation of guns. In July 1970, the charges of conspiring to import arms illegally were dropped against Blaney, while Haughey was acquitted of the charges in October 1970 following two trials. 

From RTÉ Archives, a report from RTÉ News on the dropping of charges against Neil Blaney 

While both men holding a deep-rooted commitment to securing a united Ireland, a major reason for their involvement in this debacle was their misguided judgment that they could destabilise the leadership of Jack Lynch by supporting the cause of Northern republicans. This strategy to secure the presidency of Fianna Fáil dramatically backfired.

In the short-term, the Arms Crisis consolidated Lynch’s control of Fianna Fáil, with Blaney leaving the party, while Haughey was demoted to the political doldrums. But Haughey had the last laugh. Almost ten years after his ministerial sacking, he was appointed Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach in December 1979. 

The contents of this article are sourced from 'A failed political entity': Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland question, 1945-1992 (Merrion Press, 2016)

Dr Stephen Kelly is Associate Professor in Modern History and Head of History and Poltiics at the Department of History and Politics at Liverpool Hope University

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ