David Burke’s Deception and Lies: the hidden History of the Arms Crisis 1970 is probably one of the worst books written about the seismic events that took place fifty years ago around the alleged plot to import arms to defend northern Catholics, particularly in Belfast where loyalist and RUC attacks had led to the displacement of thousands of people.
There was no plot. It is claimed that Haughey and Blaney armed the IRA without Jack Lynch’s knowledge. In fact, the Fianna Fáil Government led by Jack Lynch had approved the importation of arms to be used in case another onslaught took place as was feared it would. The arms trials exonerated the defendants who included sacked Ministers Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney, as well as Irish army Intelligence Officer James Kelly and John Kelly of the Belfast IRA. While he was never charged with perjury, the general understanding was that Lynch’s Defence Minister Jim Gibbons had lied to the court.
Anyway, this is all known to anyone even remotely familiar with the history of that time. The interpretation of what the object of the arms importation was is another matter and largely relates to the interpreter’s political persuasion.
The vast bulk of Burke’s book is basically a copy and paste of some of the main secondary sources on all of this. He has conducted little original research and his few references to state documents are mostly taken from other books, which in any event are available to genuine researchers. Books claiming to be imparting significant historical evidence ought to at least adhere to the standards expected of an under-graduate dissertation. This one fails.
His interviews are mostly either with anonymous people or with people who are now conveniently dead. While that would generally relegate the book to the ranks of all the other mediocre airport pulp masquerading as “history,” and “hidden history” what is more, what distinguishes Burke’s book is that it is being marketed on the basis of his “discovery” that former IRA chief of Staff Seán Mac Stiofáin was an informer. This claim is boosted by Charlie Haughey’s son Seán putting the allegation against Mac Stiofáin on the Dáil record.
These allegations are not new. The late Liam Clarke who, as a member of the Officials had been a political opponent of Mac Stiofáin, made the claim in 2001. His story is obviously the basis of Burke’s claim which even cites the same alleged Special Branch source. Or rather one such source, because apparently Mac Stiofáin first volunteered his services to a Cork Garda who was not in Special Branch who then passed him on to Special Branch head McMahon who then told another Branchman ‘J’ and then Superintendent John Fleming who was to succeed McMahon and then another one named McNeilis who is the actual source of the story via the deeply unreliable now deceased Liam Clarke. No harm to him.
So apparently all these people knew of Mac Stiofáin being a tout, as did the British through their agents in Garda Special Branch but this is now revealed as “hidden history”, fifty years later when almost all of the protagonists are passed on. If McMahon was so promiscuous in letting the world and its dog know that Mac Stiofáin was an informer why then was the Branch man apparently kept on a retainer after his retirement in 1966 to maintain sole contact with the Army Council informer whose identity was known to others?
This is all bullshit, without putting too fine a point on it. Burke’s story simply does not make sense, nor tally with what researchers like myself and others who have actually read the Garda, British state and other files know about agents in the republican movement in the 1960s. Special Branch knew almost everything there was to know about the IRA in the 60s but significantly very little for several years about the Provos who were led by their supposed informer. But of course Burke has neither read those files, nor referenced any official files other than the ones he found mentioned in other books, which tendentiously bolster his own claim.
One of the risible aspects of the book is his sub John le Carré attempts to create an air of suspense about “The Deceiver”, especially in chapter 34 where, as the suspense builds, he supplies Mac Stiofáin’s devilish back story through – hold on to your seats now – Mac Stiofáin’s own autobiography.
It is known that Special Branch head Philip McMahon had informers in the IRA including one on the Army Council. There were at least two, and all serious researchers and indeed those who were involved in state intelligence have generally accepted that both took the Official side in the IRA split. Indeed, the only person I interviewed who claimed that Mac Stiofáin was an informer has himself been named in rather dubious connection with the British. None of the people I interviewed on the Official side who hated Mac Stiofáin ever suggested that he was a tout, and they really did hate him.
Burke’s claim that the Brits were unaware of what the Gardaí knew is nonsense given that there are documented instances of McMahon meeting with the head of RUC Special Branch in the 1960s, not to mention the fact that at least two Garda Special Branch officers were working for the British into the 1970s. That is why files on the Dublin/Monaghan bombings went missing, not to protect Mac Stiofáin. The British, apart from their own informers, one of whom had been in the Belfast IRA since the 1950s, had access to Garda intelligence.
Besides which, had Special Branch and the Brits known that Mac Stiofáin was an informer, the Provos would have been destroyed almost at birth. It was the Provos who were regarded as a threat to the Irish state, not the nonsensical Officials myth that the Irish state engineered a split because they were terrified of a socialist revolution. There seems to be a different political objective at play here: namely, to rewrite the history of the time from a contemporary post-conflict Fianna Fáil perspective.
His claim that the arms were meant for the Citizens Defence Committees is technically true, but only someone who knew nothing of Belfast in particular could have been under the illusion that it was either separate from, or an alternative to the IRA. Certainly the main actors on the Dublin side of the equation knew exactly who had taken part in the limited armed resistance to the loyalists and RUC in August 1969. And Dublin, as is quite clearly documented, was in contact with leading members of the IRA including then Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding to organise the transfer of money and arms.
There were former members of the British army who had military experience and I knew some who were involved in the armed defence in 1969 and early 1970 who were ostensibly members of the CDC, but who were also members of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA. Even some of those in Belfast who were later members of the SDLP had republican backgrounds and were working alongside the IRA in the successful attempts to persuade the Lynch government with his approval as they understood it to supply arms.
Interestingly, when it comes to informers, Burke almost casually cites the evidence that Conor Cruise O’Brien was supplying information on the Irish government to the British regarding what Haughey and others were believed to be doing. Think of a word beginning with ‘T’. As were a number of others, including Michael McInerney the political correspondent for the Irish Times who had been a member of the Communist Party, whose infiltration of the republican movement in the 1960s is also not mentioned by Burke even though it was one of the main reasons for the split.. Evidence regarding McInerney has been published elsewhere. But of course no one in the Dublin liberal elite is going to be writing about that.
From my research and from having spent over 30 years in the republican movement, I would have a pretty definite idea who the Special Branch agents within the leadership of the IRA in the late 1960s were. One of them is a plausible candidate for the person who supplied the information regarding the arms shipments, although it is also likely that the British knew of the arms importations from their own non republican sources within the Gardaí, and indeed from even better placed individuals than the Cruiser. I have no intention of naming any of those republican informers publicly, dead or alive.
Perhaps, in the aftermath of the revelations contained in Unquiet Graves which received surprisingly little attention from the bien pensants even though it was broadcast by RTE, mainstream media might pay more attention not only to the role which British state forces played in the Glenanne Gang and the bombings in Dublin and Monaghan, but also the collaboration of members of Garda Special Branch in all of this. And if Special Branch files are to be opened, assuming they have not mysteriously vanished like the Dublin/Monaghan files, then perhaps those files on actual rather than imagined agents might become available.