'Where would the IRA get weapons? By looking South'
Arlene Foster led a delegation to Dublin to seek an apology from the Taoiseach yesterday. In 2005 Liam Clarke interviewed John Kelly, a founding member of the Provisional IRA. Kelly claims some Irish government ministers helped set up the Provos. This is an edited version of that interview
Published 18/10/2012 | 08:00
It was a very chaotic time, 1969. There was a feeling right across the nationalist community, from professionals down to ordinary working class people, that we needed physical defence against attack from loyalists and the state. Where would we get the weapons from? It was natural to look to the south.
Initially we met Dublin politicians as Citizens' Defence. Brian Lenihan, Charles Haughey, Paddy Hillery, Jack Lynch and Jim Gibbons were amongst the ministers we met in Dail Eireann. Our question was what could they do to help the northern situation? They wanted to know what our requirements were and how urgent was the need?
I said "there is no need for blankets or feeding bottles. We need arms to defend the people". They accepted that. The conversation was open, transparent and above board, there was no subterfuge, no winking and nodding and no cute hoorism. I don't think there was any member of the cabinet we did not meet at that early stage.
In the midst of that Padraic Haughey [Charlie's Haughey brother] personally delivered a consignment of weapons from London to Cathal Goulding [Chief of Staff of the IRA who did not support the breakaway Provos]. There were two boxes, maybe 20 or 50 short arms, brought into Dublin on a commercial flight in September 1969. Padraic collected them in a van from the airport and delivered them personally. Those guns weren't supplied to volunteers in the north so Goulding must have sat on them.
It seems surprising now but at that time there was a lot of sympathy for us, even amongst the Gardai, the Customs, the army and officialdom.
That month we were told the decision had been made by the government to go ahead with the project of supplying arms to northern nationalists. Neil Blaney told us of the decision in the presence of Jim Kelly and Charlie Haughey.
After that the only person we had contact with at governmental level was Neil Blaney. He drove that whole arms procurement mission on behalf of the Irish government.
The first thing Blaney did was send Padraic Haughey and me to London to meet with this Captain Markham Randall who, he said, could buy arms within 48 hours but the whole thing was a farce and Markham Randall was a British agent. I copped on when I saw a woman walking along talking into her headscarf, saying "they are coming towards the cafe".
After that we told Markham Randall and said we were in a hurry to leave and we left. Padraic and I separated because we thought for sure that we were going to be taken and arrested but nothing happened. I figure that British Special Branch knew exactly who they were dealing with and that this was part of an Irish government escapade. Maybe they were trying to suss out how far this was going to go or maybe they were told to lay off it for a while.
When we met up at the Irish Club in Eaton Square, who was there but a guy from the Irish embassy.
When Markham Randall made contact again I invited him to Dublin to meet us along with [Captain] Jim Kelly in the Gresham hotel. We were going to assassinate him; that is why we suggested the meeting but when I told Jim Kelly what was planned he said "no, Jesus Christ, we can't have that". He then had a conversation with Markham Randall and Markham Randall then got off-side.
I'll say this for Markham Randall, he must have had b***s of steel. When we questioned Blaney about him later he just said "it was a mistake, I'm sorry John but we were put on a bum steer".
After that I kept in contact with Padraic and he was informed about what was going on. We formed a friendship and we went to America with Sean Keenan [an IRA member]. After the Markham Randall fiasco I suggested that, instead of dealing with people we didn't know, why not go to those we can depend upon amongst the Irish Americans?
Blaney agreed to that and provided us with passports to go to America. We met Michael Flannery [a veteran IRA arms supplier] and his people in the Bronx around December 1969. Their reaction was one of horror. "No effing way are we going to deal with the Free State government and de Valera and Fianna Fail and all that", they said.
I told Flannery: "I agree with all you are saying in terms of not trusting the Free State government but who else? Can you supply the money that will get this deal put together? Have you actually got it now?"
The answer was "no" so reluctantly they agreed. [They then arranged a shipment from Canada to Ireland via New York but Blaney refused to transfer the money].
I think that the reason Blaney cancelled the American operation was that he was afraid that we would take it and that he wouldn't see it. This leads me on to believe that this was a government operation. He wanted to have it under control.
Anyway I arrived in Dublin a very angry man but Jim Kelly assured me "Blaney has this guy in Belgium who will be in contact and the weapons will be here in a couple of days".
Jim Kelly and I were back and forth to Vienna and Amsterdam after that to arrange it. Three times we went to the docks in Dublin to receive a shipment and we had people in place to take the stuff.
[In fact the operation was compromised. Peter Berry, an Irish Department of Justice official, alerted the Gardai and the conspirators were arrested.]
The next time I met Charlie Haughey was when we were actually in court. Jim Gibbons was never charged although he knew the whole thing and Brian Lenihan knew too. When I met Lenihan afterwards he was always giving the thumbs up and saying "keep it on, keep it on". I asked him about it he said "I am the X in OXO", by which he meant a leg on both sides.