Arms Trial veteran stands by SF leadership

 

John Kelly is well qualified to take the long view. His involvement in the republican movement goes back to the early 1950s when he joined the IRA. He was a central figure in the Arms Trial in 1970. And since last year, he has been a Sinn Fein councillor in Co Derry.

He does not believe there is significant opposition to the peace process within Sinn Fein or the Provisional IRA. He regards recent defections as "unfortunate but minimal and insignificant".

"I think the broad republican movement will hold because I don't foresee a major split among those who have been to the forefront for the past 30 years - the republican movement is determined to see this work."

He says the new buzz word for republicans will be "transitional" - any agreement being a staging post to a united Ireland some way down the road. He talks about five or 10 years but you wonder if his real time scale is rather longer.

The ceasefires, he says, were the logical answer to the paradox of violence continuing against a background of the British army admitting it could not defeat the IRA and the IRA admitting it could not defeat the British.

"Look, there is going to be a settlement, and now is as good a time as any. Republicans and nationalists have a lot going for them. They control four of the six counties and they should know that this statelet politically has passed beyond the point of no return. There is going to be a change in the political landscape, and the task for republicans is to map out that change."

He believes unionism has always been happier when republicanism is "behind the ditch with its Armalites, rather than out in the open arguing its case politically".

He sees as the one obstacle to an acceptable solution "the failure of David Trimble to come to terms with the fact that he must negotiate directly with Sinn Fein".

Mr Kelly says he has no objection to a fresh inquiry into the Arms Crisis of 1970 in the South, which Mr Trimble is urging as a quid quo pro for the British government inquiry into Bloody Sunday in 1972. But it must be a wide-ranging inquiry and unionists also have questions to answer.

Mr Kelly, along with Mr Charles Haughey, Capt James Kelly, and Belgian businessman Mr Albert Luykx, was acquitted of conspiring to import arms illegally into the Republic for use in Northern Ireland back in 1970.

That was the period of ú100,000 for the "relief of distress" in the North, of clandestine trips to England, the Continent and the US trying to buy guns, and MI5 agents on Oxford Street in London.

It was the Arms Crisis, Mr Trimble claims, which led to the effective creation of the Provisional IRA, a force which has killed 1,800 people. Mr Trimble argues the hands of the Irish Government are more bloodstained than those of 1 Para in Derry.

Mr Kelly says, yes indeed, the government was behind the attempt to bring in guns - a failed attempt. But any new inquiry into the Arms Crisis should have a broad scope, also looking into how unionist politicians brought down the then unionist Stormont prime minister, Capt Terence O'Neill, because he had proposed some "very modest concessions" for Catholics.

"Had O'Neill stayed as prime minister the Troubles would never have happened. Sure, look into the Arms Crisis, but look at the lead-up to it too. What happened in 1969 and 1970 cannot be taken in isolation. The loyalist pogroms and mainstream unionism linking up with the extreme unionism of Paisley to oust O'Neill also played a part."

Mr Kelly is back in Northern Ireland over two years now in his wife's hometown of Maghera, Co Derry, having lived most of his life in Dublin since the Arms Trial. He was elected a local Sinn Fein councillor in May last year, supports the peace process and believes Mr Gerry Adams and Mr Martin McGuinness are on the right track.

He usually keeps a low profile but, at 62, he has the clout of the venerable republican. He's a former IRA leader whom Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness are glad to have on-side as a counterweight to their opposition, such as Mr Ruairi O Bradaigh, the Continuity IRA, and the Thirty-Two County Sovereignty Committee.

We're chatting in his living room, going back through the past. He opens his hands and displays his 10 fingers. "When I was a youngster, there were that many IRA families in Belfast, not a lot more." The situation wasn't much different in 1969, he adds.

From north Belfast, he joined the IRA in the early 1950s, and participated in the Border campaign - albeit rather briefly. He was involved in action in 1956 when the campaign started but was arrested at Christmas that year.

He served seven years in Crumlin Road jail, Belfast, and was released around the end of the campaign in 1963. He got a job as a maintenance fitter with ICI in the mainly unionist town of Carrickfergus.

"I had a good relationship with the Protestant workers. They did not want to be seen bucking the system so they looked to me as shop steward convenor to act on their behalf. I was used to bucking the system."

At that time his republicanism was put on the "back burner". However, he was conscious that the IRA was heading for its late 1969 split, with people like Mr Sean Mac Stiofain and Mr Daithi O Conail holding to a traditional route and chief of staff Mr Cathal Goulding trying to bring the movement down a Marxist path.

One idea that the Provisional republican movement took from Mr Goulding's Marxism was the notion of democratic centralism, ensuring that all members speak with the same voice. Consequently, many republicans can make for parrot-like interview subjects. But Mr Kelly is above that, he speaks his own mind - people can believe him or not.

Mr Kelly was involved in the civil rights movement but not a member of the Civil Rights Association. Then came 1969 and the rioting and the burning of mainly Catholic homes. People fled their homes, Catholics went south. It was a period when the ideological wrangling within the IRA became academic. The taunt then was "IRA - I Ran Away".

"Remember, this was perceived as a doomsday situation. We were looking at the ethnic cleansing of Catholics to end all ethnic cleansings. And because I came from an old republican family, respectable nationalists who would never countenance violence were coming to the likes of me asking us to defend the Catholic areas. There was a lot of fear and ambiguity."

This was the period when the then Fianna Fail Taoiseach, Mr Jack Lynch, said the government would not "stand by", when there was talk of the Irish Army marching into Newry and Derry. It was also the period when Capt James Kelly, an Irish Army intelligence officer, was sent north to establish the needs of the beleaguered nationalists in Belfast.

Mr Kelly said there were Citizens' Defence Committees, some of them made up of people who became pillars of constitutional nationalism, who met Capt Kelly (no relation) and told him pointblank: "What we need are guns to protect the Catholics."

Capt Kelly accepted the advice, hence the ú105,766 allocated by the government for the relief of distress in the North. According to Mr Kelly, Capt Kelly faced requests for money both from the Official IRA and from the Northern defence groups, comprising elements which were to make up the Provisional IRA.

Concerned that Mr Goulding's Marxist IRA might use the money to overthrow the southern State - as was its policy at the time - Capt Kelly favoured the defence groups having the funding, said Mr Kelly.

But where did the money go? According to the subsequent Dail Committee of Public Accounts Committee investigation, ú29,167 went for relief purposes, ú34,850 was "possibly spent in Belfast, but on undetermined purposes", and more than ú41,000 was not spent to relieve distress.

Mr Kelly says some of the money unaccounted for unquestionably was used by Provisional IRA members on the ground in Northern Ireland to buy weapons. He stresses, however, that the government would have had no direct hand in this procurement. Nonetheless, herein lies part of the basis for Mr Trimble's allegation that the government was instrumental in giving the Provisional IRA its wings.

He said he and other members of the citizens' groups had meetings with government ministers, after which the go-ahead was given for him, acting mainly with Capt Kelly, to buy arms.

"These discussions were all about guns. The whole thing was government-sponsored, government-backed and government-related." But when Mr Lynch sacked Mr Haughey and Mr Neil Blaney, and when they, along with Mr Kelly and Capt Kelly and Mr Luykx, were charged, Mr Haughey denied knowledge of the plans to import arms.

The charges against Mr Blaney were dropped in the lower District Court on the grounds of lack of evidence, although in later years he was generally happy to admit his part in the plan. "It was a pity Blaney got off in the District Court. Had he ended up in the High Court, I reckon he might have admitted the Government's part in the plan." Mr Lynch denied any knowledge of the plan.

Mr Kelly, who had been seconded from the GHQ of the Provisional IRA to get the guns, said he was completely "mystified" by the government denials and Mr Lynch's action in sacking Mr Blaney and Mr Haughey. "We were not aware of the depth of machinations in Fianna Fail politics. That kind of intrigue was foreign to us."

He recalls running around London, Europe and the US seeking weapons to bring into Ireland. "In London with Mr Jock Haughey (Mr Haughey's brother), we met an army captain named Markham Randall, a small man with a goatee beard whom we were convinced was working for British intelligence. I remember following him down Oxford Street and seeing a woman, a colleague of his, I'm sure, trailing him and Jock at a distance talking into her sleeve, obviously telling her superiors what was happening. We quickly aborted that mission."

Through November, December and early January, he travelled to the US with Mr Sean Keenan, another veteran republican, "at the government's behest". "We were sent by Jim Kelly with Neil Blaney's approval. We met the nucleus of what was to become Noraid. They were very reluctant to deal with us at first. 'What are you doing taking money from the Free State government?" they asked.

"We had to convince them that this was the way forward. 'Have you got ú100,000?' we asked. When they said they hadn't, we said: 'OK, then let's take the money from the government.' In the end we had everything arranged: the guns would go out through New York port without any customs check and would come into Dublin port the same way. We had the unions on both sides organised."

But, said Mr Kelly, Mr Blaney scuppered that plan. "He wanted to organise the importation through the Continent with the help of a business friend of his, Albert Luykx . . . I think that with hindsight Blaney was afraid of the US connection because the government would have no control over the guns coming in."

Then, with Capt Kelly and Mr Luykx, he was off again visiting cities like Amsterdam, Dortmund, Bremerhaven and Vienna. They met Baron William Regnoriers, whom Mr Kelly dubbed "Bill the Baron" who in turn put them in touch with Hamburg arms dealer Mr Otto Schleuter.

"I never trusted Schleuter. I think his whole intention was to take the money but not to provide arms. I learned afterwards that he was killed in a car bomb explosion, probably by somebody else he betrayed . . . To use Gerry Adams's phrase, I was getting pretty pissed off at that stage. I was losing credibility back with my people. I felt all along we should have dealt with the Americans because they were our blood, they had the same aspirations as us."

Through March and April 1970, there were a number of failed attempts to bring in arms. Eventually in April it was decided that they would be imported from Vienna using government clearance.

According to the Arms Trial evidence of the late Mr Peter Berry, then secretary at the Department of Justice, on April 18th, Mr Haughey rang him to ask would "the cargo that is coming through Dublin Airport on Sunday" be allowed in. Mr Berry told him no, that the cargo would be "grabbed". According to Mr Berry, Mr Haughey described that decision as a bad one and added: "I had better have it called off."

Mr Haughey, in his evidence, gave a different account, denying knowledge of a planned importation of arms. According to his version, he said to Mr Berry during the phone call: "It had better be called off - whatever it is." This was the type of language, says Mr Kelly, which allowed the government to operate a "deniability" clause.

The jury acquitted him, and Capt Kelly, Mr Haughey and Mr Luykx of the charges. They were carried shoulder-high from the court amid a wave of emotion which prompted Mr Haughey to effectively, and unwisely, challenge Mr Lynch for the leadership of Fianna Fail. In the end, though, Mr Haughey sided with Mr Lynch, taking his punishment. Mr Blaney was out in the cold.

Up North, the violence flowed on through 3,000 deaths, with the Provisional IRA accounting for around 1,800 of these fatalities. Mr Kelly rejects Mr Trimble's allegation that the Arms Crisis laid the foundation for the subsequent 28 years of violence.

"Yes, it was a terrible period. But you can't turn the clock back. The Irish government did not create the Provisional IRA. What happened was as inevitable as the changing seasons."