When Neil Blaney, who was a TD for almost 50 years and also a minister and MEP, was born 100 years ago on October 1st, his father, who fought on the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War, was in jail under death sentence. This had a deep and lasting influence on the son and while the father, who also became a TD, was friendly with individual members of Fine Gael, the son regarded that party as an implacable foe to be fought mercilessly. Blaney junior was a controversial figure in Irish political history but also an enormously successful public representative.
He was reared in Rossnakill on the Fanad peninsula in Donegal and after finishing his schooling in St Eunan’s, Letterkenny, he worked as a civil servant before becoming organiser of the Irish National Vintners and Grocers Association. He inherited his father’s Dáil seat for East Donegal in December 1948 following the latter’s premature death from cancer and he held his Dáil seat until his own death. One of the few younger post-war Fianna Fáil TDs, he was appointed to the party’s national executive and was given a leading role in overhauling the national organisation following its defeat in the 1954 general election (he’d already established a highly efficient political structure in Donegal). Following ministerial appointment in 1957 and marriage (to Eva Corduff) in 1959, he made his home in Sutton, Co Dublin; his brother Harry ran the constituency for him and he always maintained very close contact with his native county. So successful was their political organisation and methods (not just in Donegal but when they operated at by-elections in other constituencies all over the country) that they became known as the “Donegal mafia”.
Blaney was briefly minister for posts and telegraphs and then for local government until 1966, during which he organised the unsuccessful 1959 referendum to abolish proportional representation (PR), introduced an extensive domestic pipe-water programme in rural Ireland, and passed the Road Traffic Act (1965) which introduced a compulsory driving test. The Planning Act (1963), An Foras Forbartha (1964) and housing development, including the Ballymun high-rise flats, were other aspects of his tenure.
His role in Taca (the Fianna Fáil fundraising businessmen’s organisation) caused controversy; George Colley was probably referring to Blaney as well as Charles Haughey when he referred to “low standards in high places” but Blaney defended Taca’s activities. He was also responsible for some controversial planning decisions, such as the demolition of Georgian houses on Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, to make way for ESB offices.
As minister for agriculture and fisheries, he took on the National Farmers’ Association, believing it was dominated by Fine Gael-supporting big farmers, and he participated in the early negotiations leading to Irish membership of the EEC. He took a leading role in the second unsuccessful referendum to abolish PR in 1968, and his and Kevin Boland’s “red-scare” tactics against Labour at the 1969 general election bore fruit.
He’d wished to run for his party’s leadership in 1966 but was persuaded by Seán Lemass to stand aside for Jack Lynch. He disagreed with Lynch over his Northern Ireland policy and matters came to a head in the so-called “Arms Crisis”. Patrick Maume, who did the Blaney entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, said that his actions 1969-70 can be seen as “driven by a mixture of genuine ideological commitment and concern for the position of Northern nationalists, desire to assert control over the increasingly volatile forces of Northern nationalism (including in this support for the Northern-based nucleus of what became the Provisional IRA against the Marxist-oriented Official IRA leadership who were seen as threatening the Republic), personal contempt for Lynch and a wish to assert his claim to the succession”. There is not room here to go into the details but the crisis led to his dismissal from cabinet in May 1970 and subsequent arrest, charged with conspiracy to import arms (the charges were dismissed as district-court level) and expulsion from Fianna Fáil.
Although he remained a TD until his death, he never held ministerial office again. From 1972, his political organisation operated under the name Independent Fianna Fáil. He topped the poll in Connacht-Ulster in the 1979 European Parliament elections. Remaining a TD, as well as being an MEP, he supported Haughey’s Fianna Fáil governments in Dáil votes. He opposed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement (as did Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin). Haughey’s subsequent acceptance of the agreement, after coming to power in 1987, and coalition with the Progressive Democrats in 1989 he regarded as betrayals.
He died in Dublin of cancer on November 8th, 1995.
In his assessment of Blaney, Patrick Maume refers to “the ruthless authoritarianism which marked his career [and] his effectiveness as administrator and party fixer. The volatile mixture of calculation, resentment, sophistication, provincialism, ruthlessness, and nostalgia which he displayed is reminiscent of other political figures of his intermediate generation; he might well have been taoiseach but instead became a catalyst for the formation of the Provisional IRA”.