Arms Trial overshadowed a distinguished record


Mr Jim Gibbons was a central figure in the most controversial political events in the history of the State, his ministerial record overshadowed by the drama and bitterness of the 1970 Arms Trial.

He was Minister for Agriculture during Ireland's EEC accession negotiations; he played a key role in beginning the process of the amalgamation of the State's creameries; he served as Minister for Defence, as a Parliamentary Secretary at the Department of Finance and as an MEP.

He had many interests outside his 25-year political career.

He farmed 300 acres at Dunmore, Co Kilkenny. A fluent Irish speaker, he won a Leinster Colleges hurling championship medal. He spoke French, had a keen interest in European affairs, and was noted among his colleagues as an accomplished amateur political cartoonist.

He studied Attic Greek, had a keen interest in military history, the Weimar Republic and other historical subjects, and was a voracious reader on an enormous range of topics.

In politics he was socially conservative, opposing even the limited availability of artificial contraception provided for in the Bill produced by Mr Charles Haughey during his time as Minister for Health from 1977 to 1979. Mr Gibbons absented himself from the Dail for the vote on the Bill.

He also opposed the availability of divorce and the abolition of the death penalty.

Yet it is for his role as chief prosecution witness at the trial of Mr Haughey on a charge of conspiracy to import arms that he will be remembered.

As Mr Justice Henchy said in his summing up at that trial: "I would like to be able to suggest some way you can avoid holding there is perjury in this case . . . There is a flat contradiction between Mr Haughey's version and Mr Gibbons's version and the difference seems to be irreconcilable."

So were Mr Haughey and Mr Gibbons. For the remainder of his political career Mr Gibbons and Mr Haughey were bitter political enemies. The bitterness caused by the Arms Trial and its aftermath dominated Fianna Fail for 15 years and still has resonances in contemporary political events.

Born in 1924 in Bonnettsrath, Co Kilkenny, Jim Gibbons was educated at the Christian Brothers School and St Kieran's College in Kilkenny. He studied medicine for two years at UCD. He was co-opted to Kilkenny County Council in 1954 and elected to that body in 1955.

He was elected to the Dail in 1957, becoming Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance in 1965. After the 1969 election he was appointed to Cabinet as Minister for Defence.

It was in that post in the 19691970 period that the events that would most define his role in the public mind took place.

When a plan was hatched to import arms into the State for the use of Northern nationalists, Jim Gibbons found himself in the key Defence portfolio. ail for over two decades and still resonates in modern Irish politics. He said Mr Haughey knew about, and was involved in, the plan to import arms. Mr Haughey denied it on oath. Mr Justice Henchy basically said that one of them was lying.

He was deeply distressed by the Arms Trial. He was never charged with any offence and denied all allegations made against him. He was angry that a Dail debate on a motion of no confidence in the Government afterwards turned out effectively to be a debate on confidence in him.

The acquittal of Mr Haughey meant that the taint of perjury could never be fully removed from him.

The result, he once said, was some of the roughest treatment ever handed out to any politician. The Public Accounts Committee which subsequently investigated the matter implicitly criticised Mr Gibbons, Mr Haughey and Mr Blaney for failure to pass on information to the Taoiseach about the proposed arms importation.

Former Army intelligence officer Capt James Kelly maintained that any involvement he had in the affair was with Mr Gibbons's consent as Minister for Defence. Mr Gibbons rejected this.

At the emotionally charged Fianna Fail ardfheis of 1971, Mr Gibbons declared over the heckling: "I want to say this, that I stand over every single word I said . . . I did not pledge my word to Fianna Fail, or to you. I pledged my word to God and let no man call me a liar. Let them remember this, that the truth is greater and it will prevail and I was never a traitor."

In the front-bench reshuffle necessitated by the sackings of Mr Haughey and Mr Blaney and the resignation of Mr Kevin Boland, he was appointed Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries. He encouraged the moves towards the amalgamation and rationalisation of creameries and handled the agricultural side of EEC negotiations.

As a farmer himself, he was respected and liked by the farming community and its representatives.

Despite repeated attacks on him by the opposition, his political position remained safe under Jack Lynch's leadership. In 1973, when Fianna Fail lost the general election, he was nominated to the European Parliament (prior to 1979, MEPs were nominated by the political parties rather than directly elected).

He returned to the party front bench - again in the agriculture portfolio - in 1975, on the same day as Mr Haughey returned. In 1977 he was again appointed Minister for Agriculture, with Mr Haughey as Minister for Health.

His Cabinet career ended upon Mr Haughey's election as party leader in 1979, and he never served again in any government position. He had voted against Mr Haughey in the leadership ballot, and had several times called on Mr Haughey to "set the record straight" on the Arms Trial.

He lost his seat in the subsequent 1981 general election but regained it in February 1982.

He became one of the key dissidents in Fianna Fail. He described economic conditions as "frightening" and a deal made by Mr Haughey to provide financial support for Talbot car workers in his constituency as "impossible to defend".

He opposed the building of Knock Airport.

In a series of barely-veiled criticisms of Mr Haughey, he spoke of "the unchecked pursuit of power by political leaders [which] puts the whole system of democracy at risk" and of the debasement of politics.

In October 1982, on the day the Fianna Fail parliamentary party met to consider a motion of no confidence in Mr Haughey, he was assaulted in Leinster House by Fianna Fail supporters who were on the premises at the invitation of party deputies or senators.

Later that month he suffered a heart attack, was hospitalised, and missed the crucial Dail vote in which Mr Haughey's minority government fell in November. As the general election campaign got under way, Mr Gibbons and his family resisted pressure from party headquarters for him to stand down on health grounds.

However, that election, which he fought from his hospital bed, ended his political career. He lost his seat by 295 votes to a party colleague, then Senator M.J. Nolan.

When the Progressive Democrats were formed in 1986 he said he was giving his support to the new party and that there was no longer any room for him in Fianna Fail.

His son, Mr Jim Gibbons, is currently a Progressive Democrats senator and chairman of the parliamentary party. Another son, Martin, was a Progressive Democrats TD from 1987 to 1989.

Jim Gibbons and his wife Margaret had five sons and six daughters. One son, Michael, died of cancer three years ago.