The events that became known as the Arms Trial convulsed the politics of this island 50 years ago. Some people came to believe that certain Fianna Fáil Ministers, along with a cabal of Irish Army officers, attempted to import arms for the IRA through Dublin Airport. A trial involving four defendants opened exactly 50 years ago today. All were acquitted. An account of these events, which was provided a decade later by the late Peter Berry, then Secretary General of the Department of Justice, made it clear that the Special Branch had a source inside the IRA who had access to the deliberations of the IRA's army council. Colonel Michael Hefferon, the director of military intelligence in G2 in 1970, knew the Special Branch had two paramilitary sources, one in the IRA and the other in Saor Éire.
In his 2016 memoirs, the Minister for Justice in 1970, Des O'Malley, revealed that the Special Branch had received a tip-off about the incoming arms flight at Dublin Airport that foreshadowed the arms crisis. The informer has now been identified as Seán Mac Stíofáin, a member of the IRA army council, in a new book to be published tomorrow, Deception and Lies The Hidden History of the Arms Crisis by David Burke. The author reveals that Mac Stíofáin exploited his position to create mischief for his arch rival, Cathal Goulding.
In August 1969, Mac Stíofáin convinced the Special Branch that the army council had struck a deal with the Government, led by the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, to assist a campaign of violence in Northern Ireland. This was untrue. In October 1969, Captain Kelly of G2 hosted a meeting of the citizen defence committees of Northern Ireland at a hotel in Bailieborough. It was called to discuss the defence of Catholic communities and the possibility of arms being supplied to them by the Government. The ranks of the defence committees including priests, lawyers, a former SDLP Minister, Paddy Devlin, as well as some IRA veterans. Yet, Mac Stíofáin portrayed the Bailieborough gathering as a gathering of the IRA in furtherance of Goulding's alleged links with Fianna Fáil. During November and December 1969, Mac Stíofáin told the Special Branch that Fianna Fáil was channelling funds to Goulding via Captain Kelly. This was also untrue.
As we know, the IRA split into the Provisional IRA and Official IRA in 1969. In March 1970, Mac Stíofáin, who joined the Provisional IRA, discovered that G2 was about to land an arms shipment at Dublin docks. It was destined for a monastery in County Cavan and earmarked for release to the citizens defence committees - not the official IRA - in the event of a pogrom. Even then, the guns were only to be released after a vote at Cabinet. Mac Stíofáin sent a Provisional IRA unit to hijack the weapons. In the event, the arms were not on the boat and the hijack was called off at the last minute. This demonstrates that Mac Stíofáin was not a genuine informer and that the guns were not destined for the Provisional IRA.
By April 1970, the Provisional IRA had established its own arms supply from America and did not need the inferior arms that G2 was now arranging to fly into Dublin. Deviously, Mac Stíofáin told the Special Branch that the guns were on their way to Goulding's Official IRA. This sparked the arms crisis. It is clear that the Special Branch had what it believed was a genuine source of information at the highest reaches of the IRA but that he was peddling misinformation. Des O'Malley, the then Minister for Justice, was aware of a tip-off to the Special Branch about the arms flight. Regrettably, the House was misled about how the State came to learn of the imminent arrival of the arms flight. It was told that it had been discovered by civil servants who were concerned about certain aspects of the paperwork associated with the flight.