Seán Haughey was just eight years old when news of the ‘Arms Crisis’ burst upon an unsuspecting nation in May 1970. He was a pupil at Manor House infant school in Raheny – and the boy sitting beside him was Niall Blaney.
“His father was Minister for Agriculture, my father was Minister for Finance, and we did sit beside each other.
“I think the nuns must have got a great kick out of that,” he recalls.
Both ministerial fathers were central to the political earthquake that dominated the rest of the 20th century and beyond it to this day.
The youngest of four children born to Charlie and Maureen Haughey, he relies upon shared memories of this period from his older siblings – Eimear, Conor and Ciarán. But he has read much about those events also.
He recalls photographers calling to the same school and photographing Eimear in her school uniform. “She was traumatised and she has retained a dislike of media people to this day,” he says.
His one clear memory of the time is of the huge party at the family home, Abbeville, in Kinsealy, on the night of his father’s acquittal of all charges of conspiracy to illegally import arms for use in the North in October 1970.
“I remember it was a great party and there was a huge crowd in the house. Of course, I had no idea who they were. But I learned more recently that they were the most prominent people in Irish life.”
He recalls his father “as having nine lives” – surviving a serious car accident in 1969, a heavy fall from a horse on the morning of budget day 1970, and his rescue at sea in 1985 after his yacht sank near Mizen Head.
“My father was charismatic and controversial – and he lived life to the full,” he recalls.
He makes it clear that he has absolutely no appetite for discussing the myriad political and personal controversies which characterised much of Charlie Haughey’s extraordinary life and times. He remains fiercely loyal to his father who died in 2006, aged 80, and notes that scarcely a day goes by without somebody referring to him.
“As Haughey children, we were part of the team promoting Charlie Haughey’s political career and we did that right throughout his life. Ours was a political house, a Fianna Fáil house. But it was a very important private refuge for our father,” he says.
His mother, Maureen Haughey, was the daughter of Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, and before she died in 2017, aged 91, Seán persuaded her to dictate a memoir which remains unpublished.
“She had a sort of blunt honesty which was very good at times – and she was often wickedly funny,” he notes.
Seán Haughey recalls his mother advising him to “get a proper job” and avoid politics – advice he did not take as he has never worked at anything else. He also loves another of his mother’s anecdotes.
She was at her parents’ home after her father died in 1971 when Taoiseach Jack Lynch called to sympathise. Since Lynch sacked her husband a year earlier, she was not talking to him – nor did she invite him inside. “I just left him on the doorstep,” she would recall.
Charlie Haughey never spoke of the Arms Crisis. His volumes of personal and professional papers appear to contain just two documents relating to the arms trial.
One is a handwritten memo, dated September 1978. It clarifies the view of former justice department secretary, Peter Berry, that he told then Taoiseach Jack Lynch of the arms importation plan in November 1969. Lynch always insisted he only learned of the arms plot in May 1970, when he sacked Haughey and Blaney who were subsequently charged.
The second document is from July 1979, based on a conversation Charlie Haughey had with General Seán Mac Eoin, who had been army chief of staff at the time of the 1970 arms crisis.
Mac Eoin told Haughey he had checked army records and gave details of a verbal directive given army officers by then defence minister, Jim Gibbons, on February 6, 1970.
This was written down immediately by a young army officer and later clarified in a verbal briefing from Gibbons some days later. It outlined several measures to be implemented to defend nationalists in the North if the British authorities failed to do this.
The plan included helping arm and train Northern nationalists. The document was released from the national archives in 2001 and is hugely important to those who argue that Haughey, Blaney and the others were engaged in a fully authorised government plan in relation to arms for the north.
For Seán Haughey, the 1970 arms crisis is now a matter of history. “But new information and a reappraisal of old facts make a full review of all the issues surrounding it very necessary,” he argues.
Two important new books this year have shed new light on things. “For me the key issue is a clarification and an apology for the family of Captain James Kelly, the army intelligence officer embroiled in all this who was wronged,” he argues.
As grandson of Fianna Fáil founder and Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, and son of another Taoiseach, he has himself been engaged in politics since 1985. He says Irish politics is fundamentally changing to a “right-left” model and Fianna Fáil as “a centrist social democratic party risks being “squeezed” in a more fragmented political set-up.
For this reason, he welcomes a call by party colleague Jim O’Callaghan to have “a conversation” about party identity. “We do need to talk about identity again. I believe that is a conversation we need to have as soon as possible.”
Source: Irish News