James Kelly (Irish Army officer)

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For other people named James Kelly, see James Kelly (disambiguation).

Captain James Kelly (16 October 1929 – 16 July 2003) was a former Irish Army intelligence officer who was found not guilty (along with two former Irish government ministers) of attempting to illegally import arms for the Provisional Irish Republican Army in the Arms Trial of 1970. James Kelly was the eldest of ten children, born in 1929 into a staunchly Irish republican family from Bailieboro, County Cavan.

Kelly was a central figure in the Arms Trial, having travelled to Hamburg to arrange the purchase of arms. It emerged later that Neil Blaney had ordered him to do so outside normal legal channels, but before the weapons arrived the Garda Special Branch had heard of the plan and informed the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, aborting the importation and resulting in criminal charges for the plotters.[1] Although in his summing-up the judge said it was no defence for Kelly to say that he believed that the government had authorised the importation of arms, Kelly was acquitted.

Although he was acquitted, Kelly suffered financially because he had felt compelled to resign from the Army even before the prosecution was brought. He printed and published a personal memoir in paperback format called Orders for the Captain? in 1971.[2]

Kelly never denied that he had been involved in extra-legal arms purchase talks, but contended 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 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."[3] Kelly never objected to such versions of the events of 1969.

He was elected vice-chairman of Aontacht Éireann. Aontacht Éireann met with little success at the polls and by 1980 he had 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 resigned from the party in 1989 in opposition to the extradition of Provisional IRA prisoners to the United Kingdom.[4]

He launched a successful defamation case against Garret FitzGerald over an article in The Irish Times.[5] He died in 2003 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. The epitaph on his grave is "Put not your trust in princes", a quote from Psalm 146.


  1. ^ "Irish Times" essay on the Arms Trial
  2. ^ Belfast Telegraph
  3. ^ Arnold, B. Haughey: His Life and Unlucky Deeds (London: HarperCollins 1993, chapter 7, pp72-73)
  4. ^ Text of 1987 Act
  5. ^ Gray, Sadie. The Times http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article850953.ece.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  • Obituary
  • Kelly, James (1971). Orders for the Captain?. Dublin: James Kelly. p. 246. 

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