The Arms Crisis or Arms Trial (Irish: Géarchéim na nArm or Triail na nArm) was a political scandal in the Republic of Ireland in 1970, when two cabinet ministers - Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney - were sacked for allegedly attempting to illegally import arms for the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.
The events occurred during the Fianna Fáil government of Jack Lynch. In growing disturbances in Northern Ireland, which would lead to the The Troubles, nationalist civilians were being forced from their homes. The Irish Government established a cabinet subcommittee to organise emergency assistance and relief. Haughey, then Minister for Finance and the hardline Blaney, Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries who was from the Donegal North East constituency bordering Northern Ireland were members of the subcommittee, along with Pádraig Faulkner and Joseph Brennan. Jack Lynch took little interest in the work of the subcommittee, and after an initial meeting, Faulkner and Brennan seem to have left their senior colleagues Haughey and Blaney to their own devices. A government fund of £100,000 was set up to provide relief to nationalist civilians forced out of their homes by the Troubles, and Haughey was given sole authority over this money.
Ministers Haughey and Blaney disapproved of the cautious policies of Taoiseach Lynch on Northern Ireland and favoured a more robust approach. Blaney was an outspoken critic of government policy on Northern Ireland, but Haughey had not publicly opposed Lynch's policy. In October 1969, a meeting of Northern Citizen Defence Committees, which soon after became a front for the IRA, was held in Bailieboro, County Cavan, with Irish army intelligence officer Captain James Kelly in attendance. The meeting was told that £50,000 would be made available to buy weapons for defense of nationalist areas against loyalist attack. Haughey even met with the IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding. The Minister for Justice Micheál Ó Móráin reported this meeting to the Cabinet, but Haughey dismissed it as a chance encounter.
Neil Blaney allegedly conspired with Captain James Kelly to import weapons from continental Europe. Haughey provided the money for the purchase from his civilian relief fund, and also tried to arrange customs clearance for the shipment.
Revelation and trial:
By late April 1970, the Garda Síochána Special Branch were aware of the plot and had passed the information up to Jack Lynch. However, Lynch took no action until the leader of the opposition, Liam Cosgrave became aware of the smuggling scheme and pressed the Taoiseach to take action. Haughey and Blaney were sacked by Lynch on May 6 when they refused to resign. Kevin Boland, the Minister for Social Welfare resigned from the government in protest at the sackings as he was adamant (as were the accused) that Jack Lynch and most of the Cabinet, in particular Jim Gibbons then Minister for defence, knew about the plan to import arms all along. The Minister for Justice, Micheál Ó Móráin who was in hospital at the time was asked to resign on May 4. He later claimed that he had in fact informed Lynch of the individuals involved.
On 28 May 1970, Haughey and Blaney went on trial in Dublin, together with an Irish Army intelligence officer, Captain James Kelly, a Belfast republican leader named John Kelly and Belgian businessman and former Nazi Albert Luykx, who had allegedly agreed to use his contacts to acquire the weapons. All charges against Blaney were dropped in the District Court July 2 1970 and as a result he was not tried, before the main trial got underway under Justice Aindrias O'Caoimh. The trial collapsed a week later after allegations of bias. Following a second trial the other four defendants were cleared on October 23.
At the trial there was a direct contradiction of evidence regarding the sanctioning of the imports between Haughey and the chief prosecutorial witness, Jim Gibbons who was Minister for Defence at the time of the attempted imports. Haughey admitted arranging customs clearance for the shipment, but claimed in his defense that he did not know it consisted of weapons. This directly contradicted the evidence of Jim Gibbons and Peter Berry that Haughey was fully aware of all the details of the conspiracy. It also contradicted the stories of his co-defendants, who admitted that they had tried to import weapons, but maintained that the shipment had been legally authorised by the government.
The evidence during the trial did show that, although suspected by some, the government was not funding the Provisional IRA.
The resignations and sackings left four vacancies in cabinet. As a result there was a major cabinet reshuffle and some senior politicians of the future got their first step on the ministerial ladder such as Desmond O'Malley and Gerry Collins. The negative impact of the scandal on Fianna Fáil, in addition to the perceived role of Fine Gael's Cosgrave in defending the institutions of the state, contributed to the change of government in the subsequent 1973 election.
The scandal led to bitter divisions in Fianna Fáil between supporters of the sacked ministers Haughey and Blaney and supporters of Jack Lynch. The same divisions affected government policy on Northern Ireland. Although the events led to Haughey being demoted to the back-benches, he remained a member of Fianna Fáil, while Boland was expelled in 1970 and Blaney in 1971. Blaney went on to found his own party, Independent Fianna Fáil, which re-joined Fianna Fáil in 2006. Haughey later returned to Ministerial office and succeeded Lynch as party leader in 1979. The divisions only intensified and in 1985 several opponents of Haughey, led by the-then expelled Fianna Fáil member Desmond O'Malley, formed the Progressive Democrats political party. Other opponents of Haughey, such as Charlie McCreevy, would have to wait on the Fianna Fáil backbenches until the end of Haughey's political career in 1992 before being appointed as ministers. There was no rapprochement in the relationship between Gibbons and Haughey and when Haughey became Taoiseach, Gibbons was dropped from his Ministerial office. During a later leadership contest, Gibbons was assaulted in Dáil Éireann by Haughey supporters.
The events came to be one of the defining periods of Lynch's term as leader, during which there were several crises. Lynch supporters saw him as exhibiting strength in facing down the rebel ministers and his detractors saw it as an illustration of his weakness on the national question and procrastination in the face of difficult decisions.
As state papers relating to the period were released after 1995 further light was shed on the events, questioning the outcome. Much remains unknown about the truthfulness of the various personalities involved, and what exactly each knew, and when they came to know it. The diaries of Peter Berry, Secretary of the Department of Justice, published in Magill magazine, claimed that Taoiseach Lynch had not been forthright publicly.