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Order 'The Thimbleriggers' by James Kelly - The Dublin Arms Trials of 1970
Irish Emigrant NYC, June 18, 2004
Irish America Remembers Captain Kelly

By Patrick Hurley

Captain James Kelly, the Irish army officer caught up in the alleged Arms importation plot of 1969 – 70, died in Ireland last year. He was remembered by the Irish American Community, in a Memorial Weekend ceremony, on Saturday May 29th, at the Michael J. Quill Park in East Durham, N.Y. Up to his last breath, Captain Kelly had battled with the Southern Irish establishment to have his reputation restored. To the plain people of Ireland, of course, his integrity was never in doubt. He had courageously executed his orders to the fullest, in difficult times. Unlike his persecutors, he was not only loyal to the Southern State but his fealty to the Irish nation, in its full realization, was absolute. In the pervasive, official equivocation of the early “Troubles”, his courage and constancy were an inspiration.

In the end, the captain was expendable, thrown to the wolves, as political chameleons scrambled to save themselves. Although acquitted at trial, the fact that the establishment continued to withhold its imprimatur of exoneration troubled him greatly.

James Kelly was born in Baileboro, Co. Cavan, in 1929, into a staunchly republican family. He was commissioned into the Irish Army in 1951. In the turmoil of the evolving northern Irish crisis, he achieved an unwanted notoriety.

These were emotional, violent and volatile times. Nationalist areas were in a state of permanent siege from unionist mobs, acting with the full complicity of the northern statelet's security apparatus. Each new atrocity added fuel to the fire of Southern fraternal emotion.

IRA leaders liaised openly with ministers of the Southern government. IRA volunteers were brought across the border to receive weapons' and tactical training from the Irish Army. Emotive rhetoric, such as Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s dramatic “we will not stand idly by” speech was the order of the day. And, as materiel was moved towards the border, speculation was rife that the army would be ordered to annex peripheral areas of the northern statelet. Confrontations were frequent between Southern civilians, outraged by the injustices being perpetrated north of the border, and British Army patrols, which strayed into the South. In one incident, in County Louth, a British army armored car, and its crew, was nearly overturned by an angry crowd before the intervention of Gardai.

Ambiguity was pervasive. Historians would later allude to the role of the Southern government as a midwife in the birth of the Provisional IRA. Implicit, if not express, support was given, with the proviso that the Provisionals restrict their campaign to the northern side of the border. In a homogenous Catholic state, such support also had the effect of stifling any potential of Cathal Goulding's socialist Official IRA.

In the context of the era, an official government plan to import weapons for distribution to northern nationalists was not as outrageous as Dessie O’Malley, or other political opportunists, would subsequently paint it to be. Indeed, to those, like Captain Kelly, caught up in the turmoil on the ground, it must have seemed like a logical extension of government policy. One of the captain's co – defendants in the Arms Trial, IRA leader John Kelly, no relation, would later say on the stand: "We did not ask for blankets or feeding bottles. We asked for guns - and no one from Taoiseach Lynch down denied our request or told us that this was contrary to government policy."

At the very least, an ambiguous environment was created, which encouraged the actors, who were caught up in the volatility of the times, to believe that they were executing government policy. An elusive chain of executive authority, if not deliberately created, was conveniently allowed develop so that those at the very senior level of government could have resort to plausible deniability, in the event of exposure. Potential political rivals and unwitting servants of the State would be the scapegoats. This was not Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s finest hour.

It was into this cauldron that Captain Kelly was thrust. As a military intelligence officer, with relatives in the northern statelet, he was dispatched north of the border, to liaise with the nationalist citizen defence committees and to gather intelligence.

Kelly served as a conduit between the beleaguered nationalist population and the Dublin cabinet subcommittee chaired by Charles Haughey, and comprising Kevin Boland, Neil Blaney, and Jim Gibbons, which had the brief of ameliorating the distress of northern nationalists. Certainly, Captain Kelly had every reason to believe that he was operating with the full approval of his political superior, Minister for Defence Jim Gibbons.

In early 1970, according to the official version of events, the Fine Gael leader, Liam Cosgrave, divulged to an apparently unsuspecting Taoiseach Jack Lynch, a plot by some government ministers to import arms, through Dublin Airport, for distribution north of the border. Lynch was allegedly horrified at the plot, which had apparently evolved towards fruition under the unsuspecting nose of Micheal O Morain, the minister for Justice.

Lynch acted decisively. O Morain was replaced as Justice minister by the young, ambitious Dessie O’Malley, who zealously effected a damage control exercise. Charles Haughey, his brother Jock Haughey, Neil Blaney, IRA leader John Kelly, Captain Kelly and Belgian businessman Albert Luyx were arrested and charged with an attempt to illegally import arms. The charges against Blaney were dismissed at a preliminary hearing. The other five were acquitted at trial.

O’ Malley would be ruthlessly Machiavellian in his endeavor to circle the wagons around the taoiseach. His name still conjures up bitterness for his callous disregard for the plight of northern nationalists, and his suspected chicanery in manufacturing a protective cover up for Lynch. As recent as 2001, indications emerged that evidence crucial to the prosecution in the Arms Trial, which had been in O’Malley’s nominal control, had been “edited", so as to further distance Gibbons, and thus Lynch, from the alleged plot.

As the orator at Jack Lynch’s funeral, in a Freudian slip, O’Malley would once again display his constricted, barren “Free State” mentality. His smug assertion that Lynch had saved the "State" from a bloody conflict, begs the question from those who recognize a de jure, though de facto unrealized, 32 county state, as to how one would describe the strife, which has raged in the northeastern part of the island over the last 30 years.

Kevin Boland resigned his ministerial portfolio and Dail seat, in principled protest. Blaney was fired from the cabinet. He resigned from the Fianna Fail Party but remained on in the Dail as a self described "Independent Fianna Fail" T.D., consistently been re elected by high margins. He would continually pronounce over the subsequent years: "I didn't leave Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail left me". Charlie Haughey was also fired from the cabinet. He remained in Fianna Fail and, like Blaney, continued to be reelected to the Dail by a loyal constituency. Exiled to the backbenches, he doggedly laid the foundation for his vengeance against Lynch and O'Malley, and his ultimate control of the party.

The most tragic figure to emerge from the Arms Trial was Captain Kelly. His subsequent life betrayed the frustration of an anxious, unsettled soul. Resigning his army commission, he became obsessed with restoring his reputation. He tried his hand at various professions, one time publican and one time newspaper publisher. He tried emigration to Australia for a short period. The captain became a member of Kevin Boland's fledgling Aontacht Eireann party. However, he later rejoined Fianna Fail, becoming a member of its national executive. He eventually broke with the party over its capitulation on extradition.
In death, Captain Kelly achieved what had eluded him in life, the exoneration of the establishment. In the immediate hours after he passed, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described him “as a dedicated officer who honourably served the interests of the country… at all times during those difficult days… Captain Kelly acted on what he believed were the proper orders of his superiors.”

The Southern State fired no volley over the grave of the captain. To paraphrase Michael Collins, those shots would have been the only words necessary over the grave of a dead Fenian. In these politically correct times, such an act, of course, would have been unacceptable to the Europhillic sophisticates of Dublin 4. Devoid of any sense of nationhood, they could never comprehend the patriotism of "The Captain" from Baileboro.
Here in Irish America, the last redoubt of Irish nationalism, Captain Kelly has not been forgotten. On Saturday May 29th, at 1.p.m., a committee of veteran Irish activists under the leadership of Ken Tierney and Tommy Enright unveiled a memorial to him at the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Center State in East Durham, New York. In attendance were Captain Kelly’s widow, Mrs. Sheila Kelly and other family members.

An international lobbying effort, the “Captain Kelly Justice Campaign” is underway to have the Irish Government officially acknowledge that Kelly was innocent of all charges and that he was at all times acting faithfully in accordance with his oath of allegiance to the Irish State. In the United States, veteran activists Ken Tierney, Tommy Enright, Bob Loughman, and Pearse O’Doherty, among others, are spearheading the effort. One can receive more information and sign the international petition by logging on to the campaign’s website: www.captainkelly.org.
Books on the Arms Crisis

Order 'The Thimbleriggers' by James Kelly - The Dublin Arms Trials of 1970
The Arms Conspiracy Trial
The Arms Conspiracy Trial: Ireland 1970

Military Aspects Of Ireland's Arms Crisis Of 1969

August 1969: Ireland's Only Appeal To The United Nations
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