Ahern says exposure of gun plot exacerbated violence in North

Former taoiseach says trial cast a shadow over Fianna Fáil for a decade

Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern at Leinster House. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern at Leinster House. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

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Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said if the gun importation plot that led to the arms trial in 1970 had not been exposed, events in the North might have taken on a different, perhaps less violent, course.

Mr Ahern also said that if the events had not occurred, Charles Haughey would probably have become Fianna Fáil leader much earlier than late 1979 and would have ensured a general election was not called in 1973, a full year before the end of that government’s term.

Mr Ahern said it was always difficult to deal with the counterfactual.

That said, he expressed the view if Irish government funds for relief had been fully delivered to under-siege Catholic communities in the North, it could have made a marked difference and not pushed things to the brink of violence in the following months.

“If it had worked and the money had gone up North, I have always grown up believing – maybe rightly or wrongly – that the money was for relief. I heard someone on the radio describing John Kelly [from Belfast] as the IRA man. But at that time he was not in the IRA even though he subsequently was. He was on the committee to defend the communities.

“This is always the struggle with the passage of time,” Mr Ahern said. “People’s history is always what they want it to be.”

The former taoiseach spoke to The Irish Times to coincide with the RTÉ TV documentary and podcast series GunPlot, which re-examines the arms crisis a half-century after it occurred.

Mr Ahern said that tactical mistakes were made by Fianna Fáil that would not have been made had Haughey been party leader.

“[He] was the brains behind the 1969 general election campaign. I don’t think he would have supported having the 1973 election when they had it.

“My own view was that holding it right after Ireland joined the EU was nuts. We had the election before the first cheque was paid to the farmers. I could never see what was behind that strategy. If they waited a year where farmers would then know they had particularly benefited. It was in those constituencies we lost some of the key seats.”

Trial’s shadow

Mr Ahern said the events preceded his own time in politics but Haughey was “never [seen as] the most republican guy hanging around Fianna Fáil in the late 1960s”.

He said the shadow of the arms trial fell over the party throughout the 1970s and the North wholly dominated Irish politics until 1977 at least. “There was a decade lost to the Troubles, there is no doubt about that,” he said.

Mr Ahern said he always felt Capt James Kelly had been hard done by. Before Capt Kelly’s death in 2003, Mr Ahern made a declaration that acknowledged he did nothing wrong and he was innocent of all the charges he faced at the trial. Capt Kelly was acquitted.

“From everything I ever heard from the older guys in Fianna Fáil when I came into politics, Brian Lenihan snr and other colleagues, the view of those guys was that Capt Kelly always believed he was acting properly and for the minister for defence and acting through [the Army’s head of intelligence] Col Michael Hefferon.

“He definitely went to his grave believing he acted in a proper manner,” he said.

GunPlot is on RTÉ1 on Wednesday at 9.30pm while the first three episodes of the eight-party podcast are available on all podcast platforms

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