Arms Trial questions are revived

Peter Berry, secretary of the Department of Justice, was preparing for a hospital check-up when Des O'Malley, newly appointed…

Peter Berry, secretary of the Department of Justice, was preparing for a hospital check-up when Des O'Malley, newly appointed minister for justice, wrote to him on May 22nd, 1970. "No longer are you the faceless one, just known and feared in the corridors of power," Mr O'Malley said, tongue in cheek.

Ten days later, O'Malley's stamp was inked on documents containing Col Michael Hefferon's statement about events leading up to the Arms Crisis. This week, Prime Time showed that Berry's handwritten notes were on the statement, and that 16 parts of it had been deleted. The Department of Justice therefore appears to have supplied incomplete information to the Attorney General, who was responsible for deciding to take the arms case to trial.

Col Hefferon went on to give his full evidence in court, and Charles Haughey and others were found not guilty. But, by then, time had enabled an official version of events to become fixed in the public imagination. Any change to that version changes whole swathes of how subsequent Irish history and politics are understood. Any confirmation that the Department of Justice did tamper with evidence puts into question its reputation as a fair administrator. The die was cast once the official version took root that a caucus including Haughey acted on their own initiative.

Jack Lynch was initially outmanoeuvred, but then pulled the State back from the abyss into which it seemed about to fall. Mr Haughey was characterised as a man with a big question mark over his name; the lines of rivalry within Fianna Fail and between it and the future Progressive Democrats were drawn for the next 30 years.

The version circulated at the expense of the smaller players, whose careers suffered most of all. Col Hefferon may have experienced bullying of the highest possible order. The importance his family attach to the discovery indicates the level of difficulties they experienced. He resigned from the Army in March 1970, but was brought to meet Jim Gibbons, minister for defence, and Neil Blaney the following month.

CAPT James Kelly, who reported to Col Hefferon, retired in April 1970. Though acquitted, he incurred huge legal costs as a result of the charges brought against him, and then endured two years on the dole because he could not find employment. Magill magazine did mount a sustained challenge to the official version in 1980, when it published lengthy extracts from Peter Berry's papers.

Its editorial at the time described how threats of libel action by Jim Gibbons made it difficult to find an Irish company willing to print the Berry papers. Vincent Browne stated that no Irish newspaper would publish "even a summary of the main points". The following month, he called the whole affair "a conspiracy of distortion, humbug and selectivity". There was, his editorial said, "an effective conspiracy to close minds to the possibility that maybe it wasn't Haughey and Co who were wrong".

Berry's papers do not exonerate Haughey, although he records his surprise that Haughey was involved, because of his previous successful campaign against the IRA. They underline Berry's misfortune of being subject to a minister, then Michael Moran, whose alcoholism was apparently out of control.

The Berry papers assert that Jack Lynch knew about the crisis as early as October 1969. Lynch always denied that, but he did not challenge the legend that he was not in control of his ministers or his policy on Northern Ireland from the time it erupted in August 1969 until he finally sacked Haughey, Blaney and Moran in May 1970.

IT is possible that Jack Lynch was a more ruthless politician than has been thought. Lynch appointed the young and politically inexperienced O'Malley, his former parliamentary secretary, to the senior cabinet post of Justice when Moran resigned. Berry noted the new minister's "impulsiveness". O'Malley was less than three weeks in his post when his stamp was put on the Hefferon statement, and he has no recollection of it.

Although Michael Moran, the former minister for justice, asserted repeatedly that he told Lynch about the arms plans, Lynch's view won out against Moran's. The Berry papers undermine Moran's credibility by underlining his addiction to alcohol.

Nor is Lynch linked to knowledge of the plans through his minister for defence, Jim Gibbons. The Hefferon deletions seem designed to favour Gibbons in the first instance, and by association his Department. The next step in that chain is the Taoiseach's Office. We don't know if Peter Berry made the deletions to the Hefferon papers, but we can speculate about why they were made.

If the State had successfully prosecuted the Arms Trial, the Government and its agencies would have been distanced fully from the plans, and the careers of some awkward Cabinet ministers would have ended.

Conspiracy theories aren't worth the paper they are written on, usually. But the deletions to Hefferon provoke them. Who did it, on whose authority and why? The answers have consequences for how democracy functions, but may also illuminate wider British-Irish relations, including events such as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

mruane@irish-times.ie