Call for ‘independent trawl’ of Arms Crisis files

Son of a former Army head of intelligence officer Col Michael Hefferon seeks new investigation

'We were living in no-man's land'


The son of a former Army head of intelligence has called for an “independent trawl” of government files to help establish the truth behind the 1970 Arms Crisis.

Colm Hefferon made his call after he heard how his father, the late Col Michael Hefferon, said he would not “commit perjury” on behalf of the State.

Colm Hefferon wants the files of the Departments of Justice, Defence and the Taoiseach to be examined because he is convinced they could help ascertain the full facts behind the still disputed Arms Crisis.

During the crisis, two Fianna Fáil ministers, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, were sacked by taoiseach Jack Lynch for allegedly conspiring to import arms for Northern nationalists.

The then minister of local government Kevin Boland resigned in protest, claiming that Lynch and others in the cabinet, in particular minister of defence James Gibbons, knew about the plan.

An Army intelligence officer, the late Capt James Kelly, who was charged with conspiring to import arms illegally always contended he was acting on behalf of the government and that he regularly briefed Gibbons on progress being made towards importing arms to help defend nationalists under threat from loyalists.

Over two trials the defendants – who included Haughey, Blaney, Capt Kelly and IRA leader John Kelly – were acquitted, or, as in the case of Blaney, charges were dropped.

Now Capt Kelly’s solicitor Frank Fitzpatrick has recounted to the Detail investigative website how a troubled Col Hefferon told him at the first of the two 1970 Arms Trials that he was not going to perjure himself to support the prosecution case for the State.

“At the first trial, I think on the first morning of the court, someone came to me and said Col Hefferon – Capt Kelly’s commander – wants to meet his solicitor,” he told journalist Steven McCaffery.

“I met him in the main hall of the court, a tall dignified person who said to me: ‘I spent two hours in the church this morning’ – and I think he mentioned even yesterday morning – ‘and I am not going to commit perjury. I have to tell you that your client is telling the truth’,” added Mr Fitzpatrick.

Capt Kelly had always contended that he and Col Hefferon had kept Gibbons informed of the plan to import arms for nationalists and that they were acting under his instructions.

Documents from 1970 published in 2001 showed that book-of-evidence statements by Col Hefferon were altered. A government review found no evidence of an effort to influence the trial. It was argued the deletions referred only to the removal of hearsay evidence.

Col Hefferon’s family strongly dispute this, contending the alterations were to remove the claim that Col Hefferon and Capt Kelly had kept Gibbons informed of the plan to bring in arms.

The absolute truth behind the Arms Crisis has never properly emerged. There has been a long-running dispute over whether Lynch and most of his cabinet knew of the plan to arm the nationalist defence committees or whether it was a “rogue element” consisting of figures such as future taoiseach Charles Haughey, Neil Blaney, Capt Kelly and IRA leader John Kelly who were party to the plot.

Colm Hefferon said he was told by the Department of Defence that files relating to Col Hefferon’s eight years as Army head of intelligence did not exist.

Nonetheless, he believes there must be files extant in the Department of Defence and in the Departments of Justice and of the Taoiseach that could assist in unravelling the mystery of the Arms Crisis.

Colm Hefferon told the Detail that after his father’s evidence undermined the State’s case he was effectively subjected to official ostracisation. Mr Hefferon said that, as Mr Fitzpatrick recounted, his father was too honourable a man to perjure himself and betray his junior officer Capt Kelly.

“I am really proud of my Dad,” said Mr Hefferon.

“His big thing was he felt had asked Capt Kelly to do certain jobs. And he had to support him . . . He stood up for a junior officer that possibly other people might not have, [that they] might have sacrificed.”

Mr Hefferon added: “I don’t think it ever crossed his mind that he would ask James Kelly to do something and then run away.

“My father never ran away from anything.”

The Legacy project on the impact of the Troubles can be explored further on the Belfast-based investigative journalism website