Kelly, James (1929–2003), army officer and republican, was born in the townland of Leiter, Bailieborough, Co. Cavan, on 16 October 1929, eldest of ten children (five sons – two became priests – and five daughters) of James Kelly, farmer, miller, publican and War of Independence Sinn Féin activist. The Kellys claimed descent from Robert Kelly, a 1790s Cavan United Irish leader.
Kelly was educated at a local primary school, at St Patrick’s College, Cavan, and Presentation College, Bray. In 1949 he joined the Irish army as a private, but soon transferred to the Military College at the Curragh, Co. Kildare. In 1951 he was commissioned second lieutenant in the 5th Infantry Battalion, based in Dublin. In 1956, the year he was appointed training officer to the Boyne area FCA, Kelly married Sheila Kane; they had two sons and four daughters. In 1960 he was promoted captain and assigned to military intelligence at GHQ; from October 1962 he was a personal staff officer to Col. Michael Hefferon, director of intelligence. Between 1963 and 1965 he was an observer with UNTSOP (UN Truce Supervision Organisation in Palestine) on the Israeli–Syrian border. For much of the 1960s Kelly edited An Cosantóir, the Defence Forces’ journal. Between October 1969 and July 1970 he attended a command and staff course at the Military College at the Curragh; at this stage he considered leaving the army for an academic career.
In August 1969 Kelly was on leave and visiting a brother in Belfast (a priest of the Down and Connor diocese). He witnessed massive riots in Derry (the ‘battle of the Bogside’) and Belfast (marked by loyalist mob incursions into catholic districts, widespread expulsions and home-burnings) which led to British army intervention. He was profoundly affected by what he witnessed and by the feeling among northern nationalists that the Republic should give them military assistance. On returning to Dublin he reported to Hefferon and was encouraged to develop his northern contacts: at first on visits to the north, then by meeting them in the Republic. On October 4–5 he met representatives of citizens’ defence committees from across Northern Ireland (several, including his principal northern contact, John Kelly (d. 2007), later became prominent in Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin) at a hotel in Bailieborough; James Kelly stated that funds were available, and the meeting formally decided to request the importation of arms for the defence of nationalist areas in a doomsday situation. Kelly reported to Col. Hefferon, though the latter was not fully aware of the extent of his activities. He also reported directly to James Gibbons (qv), minister for defence, and he worked closely with Neil Blaney (qv) and to a lesser extent with Charles Haughey (1925–2006), minister for finance.
Under Blaney’s direction, Kelly oversaw attempts to secure weapons from continental arms dealers, culminating in attempts to bring weapons into Dublin by sea (25 March 1970; this attempt failed because the Antwerp port authorities refused to load the cargo without an end-user certificate) and by air from Vienna, with Kelly himself going to the continent to oversee operations (21 April; Aer Lingus refused to take the weapons without an end-user certificate, and the operation was finally scuppered after Peter Berry (qv), secretary of the Department of Justice, got to hear of it and ordered Garda special branch to seize the weapons on arrival). The consignment consisted of 400 pistols, 400 sub-machine guns, 25 heavy machine guns, and ammunition.
Kelly always maintained that if the arms shipments had been allowed to go ahead, what became the Provisional IRA could have been maintained as a purely defensive force, keeping nationalist areas free from British control and secure against loyalist incursions; he argued that under such circumstances a British declaration of intent to withdraw at a stated future date could have been secured and the Ulster unionists could have been brought to terms since resistance would have no attainable political objective. This analysis has been shared by some republican commentators, but the predominant view is that it is an exercise in wishful thinking which grossly overestimated the ability of the southern government to control the IRA or secure Northern Ireland in the event of a British withdrawal, while at the same time ignoring the prospect of armed loyalist resistance leading to a ‘malign scenario’ (massive bloodshed, ethnic cleansing and political destabilisation north and south).
Kelly always maintained that the ministers with whom he worked were acting on behalf of the government as a whole; he pointed to the fact that Haughey and Blaney had been appointed to a cabinet sub-committee on northern policy – which they only convened once, thereafter invoking its authority to justify their actions – and that in February 1970 the cabinet as a body decided that contingency plans should be drawn up for incursions into Northern Ireland in a ‘doomsday situation’. This was apparently based on the assumption that such a situation was not imminent, whereas Kelly operated on the assumption that it was close at hand and that such plans included the covert acquisition of weapons for use in such an emergency. Kelly’s critics, on the contrary, maintain that he knew himself to be engaged in an illegal conspiracy and that his primary loyalty was to the Blaney faction and the northerners. The majority of commentators, including some who disapprove of his actions, have taken the view that Kelly sincerely believed himself to be acting with proper authority, and much of his behaviour during the attempted arms smuggling is difficult to explain on any other interpretation; it might be suggested, however, that his republican views and commitment to the northern nationalists made him predisposed to believe this and to overlook danger signals.
Hefferon retired on 10 April; his successor, Col. Patrick Delaney, was highly critical of Kelly’s behaviour and after the Dublin airport fiasco formally ordered him to abandon his activities and return to normal duty. On 28 April Kelly decided he must resign from the army to avoid the possibility of being held incommunicado after arrest under military law. Just after his resignation took effect on 1 May, he was arrested and taken to the Dublin Bridewell. He demanded to see Gibbons (who advised him to tell everything, which Kelly interpreted as incitement to perjury) and was subsequently taken before Lynch, who asked him to make a full statement of his activities. He refused to do so. Some critics (notably Garret FitzGerald (qv)) have maintained that if Kelly had really believed he was acting on Lynch’s authority, he should have obeyed this direct request.
During the dáil debates after the dismissal of Haughey and Blaney from the government on 6 May, Gibbons denied that he had participated in arms smuggling and disavowed Kelly. Kelly responded by stating that he had kept Gibbons fully informed, describing Gibbons’s statement as ‘a tissue of lies … The man is an unmitigated scoundrel and I say this not under privilege of Dáil Éireann’ (Justin O’Brien, 135–6). On 27 May 1970 Kelly was arrested, as were Albert Luykx and John Kelly; Haughey and Blaney were arrested the next day; all were charged with conspiring illegally to import arms. On 28 June the district court decided that Blaney had no case to answer. The trials of the other defendants (a first trial, beginning 22 September, collapsed on 29 September when the judge withdrew from the case after one of the defence counsel accused him of bias; the retrial took place 6–23 October) turned to a considerable extent on the clash between Kelly’s claim that he had kept Gibbons – who as minister for defence was legally entitled to authorise arms shipments – informed of his activities, and Gibbons’s denial that he had authorised the importation. Kelly’s version of events was supported by Hefferon, who was called as a prosecution witness in the first trial (at the retrial the prosecution refused to call Hefferon, but the judge summoned him on his own initiative) and to some extent by Micheál Ó Móráin (qv). Kelly’s counsel, T. A. Finlay, famously compared Gibbons’s failure to prevent Kelly’s proceeding with the arms importation to a man being repeatedly told by his gardener of his plans to cut a hedge, saying nothing, and subsequently claiming the hedge was not cut with his authority. The trial ended with the acquittal of the defendants, including Kelly. In January 1971 he testified before the dáil public accounts committee, which was seeking to account for the money allocated for northern relief. During his testimony Kelly had stormy exchanges with some committee members (in particular Garret FitzGerald).
After the arms trial Kelly found himself unemployable. Payment of his army pension was only secured through the intervention of Patrick Hillery (1923–2008), who always maintained both that Lynch was unaware of the conspiracy and that Kelly genuinely believed the ministers to whom he reported acted on behalf of the whole government. Kelly’s financial position was relieved to some extent by the sale of his account of the arms trial, Orders for the captain? (1971 – initial print run of 2,000 copies with additional impressions; reprinted 1986 – an expanded version, The thimbleriggers, appeared in 1999). As distributors and publishers refused to handle it for fear of libel suits, Kelly oversaw its printing and distribution himself. Then, and for the rest of his life, Kelly frequently used the letters pages of national newspapers to demand vindication. Journalists who interviewed him were struck by the obsessive vehemence with which he insisted that he had always acted under due authority, and even some observers who disapproved of the attempted importation of arms (such as the Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby (qv) (1918–2004), who as a former military intelligence officer identified with Kelly to some extent) believed he had been made a scapegoat for the government’s blunders.
Kelly became a vice-president of the Aontacht Éireann party on its formation by the former government minister Kevin Boland (qv) in 1971, and undertook a speaking tour of Australia to gather support for the party. His Australian talks formed the basis for The genesis of revolution (1976), which set out his analysis of the northern conflict: that guerrilla wars were caused by failure to address the injustice which caused the conflict and could not be defeated while that injustice remained; that the mere existence of partition, as a denial of northern nationalists’ identity, constituted such an injustice irrespective of whether northern nationalists’ other grievances were removed; and that any internal solution, even if it involved power-sharing, would be unacceptable since nationalists who participated in a partitionist administration would thereby cease to be nationalists. Kelly claimed that Lynch and his government, by refusing to back the northerners to the hilt, were principally to blame for the subsequent Northern Ireland troubles and were ‘a mere British puppet’ (Genesis, 89), actively colluding in the maintenance of partition.
Kelly contested the 1973 general election for Aontacht Éireann in the Cavan constituency (winning 8 per cent of the vote) and stood as an independent in Cavan–Monaghan in 1977 (3.6 per cent of the vote) and February 1982 (0.8 per cent). He subsequently joined the Bailieborough cumann of Fianna Fáil, expressing the belief that under Charles Haughey Fianna Fáil had reverted to its ‘constitutional republican’ outlook. In 1985 he was elected to the party’s national executive, holding this position until he resigned from the party early in 1989 in protest against the government’s acceptance of the Anglo–Irish agreement (1985) and the extradition of republicans to Northern Ireland. He comments on these developments in The Courage of the brave: The Anglo–Irish agreement. A politico-military analysis (1989).
For some time Kelly worked as an auctioneer and as a journalist for Construction and Property News, a building industry newspaper. He was subsequently forced by financial pressures to sell his Dublin house and move back to Bailieborough. He and his wife acquired the Cavan Leader, a weekly newspaper based in Cavan town and covering events in the neighbouring counties; it closed after some years. They also acquired the West End, a Bailieborough pub formerly run by Kelly’s father, but disposed of it after Kelly suffered a stroke in 1983. In his later years he sculpted with bog oak and mounted several exhibitions.
His 1987 novel The marrow from the bone combines a somewhat pedestrian depiction of ‘Tunnygee’ [Bailieborough] in the mid-twentieth century with a roman à clef of the arms crisis and subsequent events (in which Kelly himself features as ‘Captain Ned Roche’ and Lynch is christened ‘Jack Toler’, after the hanging judge (John Toler (qv), Lord Norbury) who presided at Robert Emmet’s (qv) trial.) There is a vignette of Tom Barry (qv) telling Aontacht Éireann activists that the Provisional IRA campaign is no different from the War of Independence since guerrillas only ever receive the support of a stalwart minority: ‘As for the rest of them, those we didn’t intimidate, we terrorised’ (Marrow, 300).
In 2001 after the release of documents under the thirty-year rule, Kelly discovered a copy of Col. Hefferon’s statement of evidence which had been altered to remove statements that Gibbons had been aware of Kelly’s actions; this was subsequently highlighted by an RTÉ ‘Prime Time’ television programme on which a number of lawyers expressed the view that had the omissions not been made the 1970 arms trial would never have taken place. Two subsequent official enquiries concluded that the changes were simply made in order to comply with the evidentiary rule against hearsay and did not materially affect the substance of the document. In his last years Kelly won several libel suits against writers and publishers of accounts of the arms trial, most notably when he was awarded ㉆,000 against Gill & Macmillan over the inclusion in The arms trial by Justin O’Brien (whose account is generally sympathetic to Kelly) of a statement by Garret FitzGerald that he believed the arms trial verdict had been perverse.
James Kelly died of cancer on 16 July 2003 at Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross, Dublin and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery under a headstone inscribed ‘Put not your trust in princes’. The Kelly family and their associates continued to campaign for the full vindication of the man they described as ‘the Irish Dreyfus’. In July 2008 a plaque in his honour was unveiled at the library in Bailieborough.