Gibbons, James M. (‘Jim’) (1924–97), government minister, was born 2 August 1924 in Bonnettsrath, just outside Kilkenny city, the son of Martin Gibbons, a local farmer, and his wife Agnes (née Bowe). An uncle, Sean Gibbons (1881–1952), was a Cumann na nGaedheal TD for Carlow–Kilkenny (1923–7) who later joined Fianna Fáil and represented that party as TD for the same constituency (1932–7) before serving as cathaoirleach of the seanad.
Gibbons was educated in Kilkenny at the Christian Brothers’ School and St Kieran's College, where he won a Leinster colleges hurling championship medal. He studied medicine at UCD for two years before turning to farming, as owner of a 300 acre farm – the Pheasantry, Dunmore, Co. Kilkenny. Throughout his life he had a keen interest in history, especially military history (this interest may have been encouraged by his service in the FCA) and the history of the Weimar Republic. He spoke Irish and French fluently, was well read in European affairs, and was an accomplished political cartoonist and mimic. He was also a co-founder of the Kilkenny Restoration Society and possessed extensive knowledge of the history of the county.
Gibbons's political career began when he was co-opted as a Fianna Fáil member of Kilkenny county council in 1954; he won re-election in his own right the following year and remained a member of the council until 1967. For several years he was chairman of the Co. Kilkenny committee of agriculture. Having been elected TD for Carlow–Kilkenny at the 1957 general election, he served as parliamentary secretary to the minister for finance from 1965 to 1969; in this capacity he was in charge of the Office of Public Works and allocated funding for the restoration of Kilkenny Castle and other historic buildings in the city. In the leadership election which followed the resignation of Seán Lemass (qv) in 1966, Gibbons supported George Colley (qv) against Jack Lynch (qv).
In July 1969 Gibbons became minister for defence. In this capacity he facilitated access to third-level education for young military officers; however, while this had a lasting impact on the career prospects of such officers, Gibbons's term in the Department of Defence was overshadowed by the developing Northern Ireland crisis. Shortly after taking office he was appointed to a cabinet sub-committee set up to monitor the Northern Ireland situation. This met only once, though its existence was used as a fig-leaf by its leading members, Neil Blaney (qv) and Charles Haughey (1925–2006), for activities which included the importation of arms for possible supply to paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, at a time when the failure of the cabinet as a whole to discuss explicitly northern policy added to the general confusion within the administrative machine.
There is some evidence that Gibbons was operating at cross-purposes to Haughey and Blaney, seeing himself as preparing contingency plans for a doomsday situation rather than immediate intervention (he was acutely aware that the Irish army was under strength and severely under-equipped; he submitted a report on this to the cabinet in August 1969). He also claimed that some measures which later aroused comment, such as the movement of military supplies to the army barracks in Dundalk, were undertaken to placate Blaney and restrain him from reckless action.
Gibbons's involvement in the arms crisis was central to his career; it also became central to the subsequent legal proceedings, since as minister for defence he had the legal authority to permit the importation of weapons. (He claimed that at one point Blaney had asked him to supply written permission for the arms importation and that he had refused.) There are two versions of his actions. Gibbons claimed at the arms trial that he had been unaware of the attempt to import arms and had acted at once to stop it when he became aware of it. The army intelligence officer Captain James Kelly (qv) (d. 2003), who acted as liaison with northern republicans, claimed on the other hand that he had kept Gibbons informed of his actions and intentions at all times and had received at least tacit authorisation. (Kelly maintained this version of events for the remainder of his life.) Two other defendants claimed that they had acted in the belief – derived from Kelly – that the government had authorised their activities.
During cross-examination Gibbons admitted that Kelly had told him of the shipments but that he had not responded and believed his silence conveyed disapproval; however, Kelly's counsel argued that Kelly would not have behaved in this manner if he had been trying to deceive Gibbons and that he was entitled to interpret the latter's non-response as tacit approval. (In private, Lynch told the British ambassador of his anger at Gibbons's inept performance; some commentators have suggested that it indicates that he was attempting to tell the truth as he saw it or as he had persuaded himself he saw it.) The former director of military intelligence Colonel Michael Hefferan (1910–85) also testified that Kelly had kept both him and Gibbons informed of his activities.
Charles Haughey asserted that, although he had arranged customs clearance for an imported shipment of arms through Dublin airport, he had not known that they were weapons. This was resented by the other defendants, who felt that his claim of ignorance undermined their defence; Gibbons and Peter Berry (qv) claimed to have had direct knowledge that Haughey had been aware of the contents of the shipment. At the conclusion of the arms trial the judge stated that there was a direct conflict of evidence between Haughey and Gibbons, and that one or the other must be guilty of perjury. Kevin Boland (qv), who resigned from the dáil in 1970 rather than vote confidence in a government which included Gibbons, repeatedly claimed that both Gibbons and Haughey had committed perjury. He stated privately that Haughey had personally told him of the arms shipment and publicly declared that, while not directly involved in the arms importation, he knew arms were being imported and could not see how any member of the cabinet could have been ignorant of this. Gibbons unsuccessfully attempted to block the 1980 publication of Berry's account of the arms crisis, which claimed that Gibbons and Lynch had been informed of the prospective arms shipments earlier than they subsequently alleged; Dr Noel Browne (qv) stated in the dáil that Berry's account clearly indicated that both Gibbons and Haughey were perjurers, but Gibbons stood over his testimony.
The subsequent acquittal of the defendants was hailed by their supporters as proof that they had been vindicated and Gibbons was a perjurer; Lynch, however, declared his continuing confidence in Gibbons as a member of his cabinet. Blaney, though prepared to support a 1970 dáil vote of confidence in the government, was expelled from Fianna Fáil in November 1971 after refusing to vote confidence in Gibbons specifically; Haughey, however, supported both confidence votes and remained in the party. (Gibbons claimed in a radio interview on 27 July 1980 that Haughey, when readmitted to the Fianna Fáil front bench in 1975, had tacitly agreed to make some form of indefinite public apology to him.)
In 1997 revelations that Haughey had engaged in widespread financial malpractice throughout his career led Gibbons's relatives and admirers to claim that he had been vindicated, but this does not affect the accusation of perjury in relation to his dealings with Kelly. At the very least, Gibbons showed an unacceptable degree of passivity – possibly overawed by the senior ministers Haughey and Blaney. It is arguable, however, that Kelly's fierce commitment to the northern nationalist cause led him to overestimate the extent of Gibbons's agreement with him; and most commentators agree that a policy of arming paramilitaries with the aim of destabilising Northern Ireland and causing a British withdrawal could only have led to bloodshed, economic disaster, and political destabilisation of the whole island to a much greater extent than actually took place. Perhaps the most balanced judgement was offered by the journalist Vincent Browne, in his comments on the 1980 publication of Berry's recollections, when he suggested that Gibbons was to a considerable extent a scapegoat for the wider confusion surrounding official attitudes towards the North in 1969–70.
Gibbons was minister for agriculture from 1970 to 1973, distinguishing himself in the negotiations for Irish entry to the European Economic Community and in encouraging Irish creameries to amalgamate and rationalise. (He also persuaded the newly merged Avonmore Dairies to locate its principal factory in Kilkenny rather than Tipperary, secured replacement industries for Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny, after the closure of its coal mine, and placed the regional offices of the agricultural training agency Teagasc in Piltown, Co. Kilkenny.) He was a nominated member of the European parliament (1973–7), where the Scottish Nationalist MEP Winifred Ewing admired his conviviality and deep knowledge of Scottish literature and history; his knowledge of the Napoleonic campaigns impressed his French Gaullist colleagues. In opposition he served on the dáil committee of procedure and privileges and the oireachtas joint committee on the secondary legislation of the European Communities. He was opposition spokesman on agriculture (1975–7) and then minister for agriculture in Lynch's last government (1977–9).
Gibbons was regarded as a social conservative opposed to the legalisation of contraception and divorce and the abolition of capital punishment; his abstention from voting on government legislation (sponsored by Haughey when minister for health) legalising contraception under certain circumstances, and Lynch's subsequent failure to reassert cabinet responsibility by dismissing him, occasioned much comment. The former Fianna Fáil government press secretary Frank Dunlop, himself from Kilkenny and personally acquainted with Gibbons, claims that Gibbons privately expressed contempt for Lynch, sneering at his childlessness – Gibbons was proud that he and his wife, Margaret O'Neill, whom he married in January 1950, had five sons and six daughters – and accusing him of being excessively influenced by his wife. After Gibbons's death Desmond O'Malley (who had himself been expelled from Fianna Fáil in 1985 for repudiating the party's opposition to the increased availability of contraception and abstaining on a subsequent dáil vote) argued that the strong religious scruples displayed by Gibbons on the issue showed that he was unlikely to have perjured himself in the arms trial.
The sight of Gibbons and Haughey on the same front bench in opposition and government gave rise to much comment. Dunlop claims that Gibbons initially exercised an informal veto on Haughey's return but was persuaded to relent while warning that Haughey would eventually destroy Fianna Fáil. When Haughey defeated Gibbons's patron George Colley for the Fianna Fáil leadership in 1979 it was inevitable that Gibbons would be dropped from the cabinet. Gibbons opposed the suggestion that Colley supporters should refuse to vote in the dáil for Haughey's election as taoiseach, but thereafter he was one of the hard core of deputies opposed to Haughey's leadership and supportive of successive attempts to depose him. Gibbons was narrowly defeated in the 1981 general election. (The margin for the last seat between him and the Carlow-based Fianna Fáil TD Thomas Nolan (qv), initially in single figures, was transformed into a slim but decisive lead for Nolan when it was discovered during a recount that a Carlow ballot box had been overlooked in the original count owing to confusion when a participant was taken ill.) After losing his seat Gibbons called for a change of party leadership.
Gibbons regained his dáil seat from Nolan in the February 1982 general election. In October that year he was one of the ‘Club of 22’ deputies who supported a motion of no confidence in Haughey as Fianna Fáil leader. As he left Leinster House after the meeting at which the vote was taken, Gibbons was recognised and physically attacked by rowdy Haughey supporters (he described them as ‘a Nazi fascist element’ – Collins, 152) who had congregated inside and outside the building. He never fully recovered from the shock, and the incident was regularly cited by Haughey's opponents as evidence that he was not only a bad leader but a danger to democracy. Shortly afterwards Gibbons suffered a heart attack which confined him to hospital in Kilkenny; as another Fianna Fáil deputy had just died the minority government was no longer able to govern even with the support of sympathetic independents. Gibbons rejected requests that he should be brought to Dublin at the risk of his life to support his old enemy in a dáil vote of confidence, and the government fell by one vote.
Gibbons's defeat by Nolan's son M. J. Nolan in the November 1982 general election ended his political career; he retired into silence, and his last years were marked by a series of heart attacks and strokes. When the Progressive Democrats were formed in 1986 he announced his support for them; his son Martin was Progressive Democrat TD for Carlow–Kilkenny (1987–9), and another son, James, unsuccessfully contested the constituency in 1997 and was a senator (1997–2001). Gibbons died 20 December 1997 in Aut Even Hospital, Kilkenny.