Capt. James Kelly, former Irish Army intelligence officer who is found not guilty of attempting to illegally import arms for the Provisional Irish Republican Army in the Arms Trial of 1970, is born on October 16, 1929 in Bailieborough, County Cavan.
Kelly is the eldest of ten children born into a staunchly Irish republican family. His father, also named James Kelly, had stood for Sinn Féin in local elections in 1918, topping the poll. An ancestor from the late 18th century, Robert Kelly, was a member of the Society of United Irishmen, and was supposedly a Officer Commanding of the United Irishmen in the East Cavan/South Monaghan area. Kelly joins the Irish Army in 1949. By 1960 he has been promoted to captain and appointed to the intelligence section at army headquarters.
Kelly is a central figure in the Arms Trial, having travelled to Hamburg to arrange the purchase of arms. It emerges later that Neil Blaney had ordered him to do so outside normal legal channels, but before the weapons arrive the Garda Special Detective Unit has heard of the plan and informs Taoiseach Jack Lynch, aborting the importation and resulting in criminal charges for the plotters. Although in his summation the judge says it is no defence for Kelly to say that he believed that the government had authorised the importation of arms, Kelly is acquitted.
Although he is acquitted, Kelly suffers financially because he had felt compelled to resign from the Army even before the prosecution is brought. He prints and publishes a personal memoir in paperback format called Orders for the Captain? in 1971.
Kelly never denies that he had been involved in extra-legal arms purchase talks, but contends that he had been ordered to do so by some ministers. A typical version of the events is found in a 1993 hostile biography of Charles Haughey, claiming: “As early as October 1969, to the certain knowledge of Charles Haughey, James Gibbons, the Department of Justice, the Special Branch and Army Intelligence, there were meetings with leading members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), when they were promised money and arms. The critical encounter took place in Bailieborough [sic], County Cavan, on Saturday, 4 October 1969. It had been arranged by Captain James Kelly, an army intelligence officer, and Cathal Goulding. Kelly, at that stage, was already the subject of several security reports to the Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, from the Special Branch, implicating Kelly with subversives and with promises of money and of arms.” Kelly never objects to such versions of the events of 1969.
Following the Arms Trial, Kelly joint-founds Aontacht Éireann, a political party directly born out of the scandal. He is elected vice-chairman of the party and stands in Dáil elections for them unsuccessfully on two occasions in 1973 and 1977 in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency. Aontacht Éireann meets with little success at the polls and by 1980 he has joined Fianna Fáil, becoming a member of its national executive. Following the first applications of the 1987 Extradition (European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism) Act, he resigns from the party in 1989 in opposition to the extradition of Provisional IRA prisoners to the United Kingdom. He also serves twice as President of the “1916-1921” Club.
Kelly is heavily involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. In 1989 he publishes his own draft on how a peace process could proceed. His document called The Courage of the Brave is launched in Conway Mill, Belfast on August 24, 1989. Present on the platform party at the launch of the document are Fianna Fáil Councillor Macarten McCormack, Ernest Cowan, Chairman of Kentstown Fianna Fáil who had served with Captain Kelly on the Fianna Fáil National Executive, Robert C. Linnon, National President, Irish American Unity Conference, Kate Lavery, representing John J. Finucane, National President, American Irish Political Education Committee and Father Des Wilson of Belfast.