Blaney, Neil Terence Columba (1922–95), sometimes referred to as Neil Óg, politician and Fianna Fáil cabinet minister, was born in Rossnakill (half-way up the western side of the Fanad peninsula in the Milford electoral area), Co. Donegal, on 29 October 1922, the eldest of the eleven children of Neal (Neil) Blaney (qv), TD, and his wife, Nora (née Sweeney). He was born when his father was under sentence of death for participation on the anti-treaty side in the civil war, and in later life he frequently recalled that his childhood memories included searches of the family home (during one of which, at the age of two, he was kicked out of his cot) and, at the age of ten, being ‘beaten black and blue by a Blueshirt’.
Following his education at St Eunan's College, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, he worked for the Irish Tourist Association and as a temporary civil servant with the Department of Local Government before being appointed organiser with the Irish National Vintners and Grocers Association. Blaney later claimed that he had not originally intended to enter politics, but was forced to do so by his father's early death from cancer; his father asked him the day before he died to inherit the seat. At a by-election on 8 December 1948 Blaney was elected TD for East Donegal, and he retained his dáil seat until his death (though boundary changes meant that he variously represented Donegal East, Donegal, and Donegal North-East). His election to the dáil took place on the anniversary of the execution of Rory O'Connor (qv) and three other associates by the Free State government in 1922; Blaney liked to call attention to this coincidence. Although Neal Blaney had been sentenced to death during the civil war, he remained on friendly terms with individual supporters of Fine Gael; his son, in contrast, regarded the struggle against Fine Gael as approximating to a ‘holy war’.
Fianna Fáil organisation
As one of the few representatives of the younger generation in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, Blaney was appointed to the party's national executive, serving as joint treasurer from 1949; he was disappointed not to achieve junior ministerial office in 1951 and considered leaving politics (he was the principal support of his numerous younger siblings). However, Seán Lemass (qv) recognised his ability and gave him a leading role in the overhaul of the Fianna Fáil national organisation which followed defeat in the 1954 general election. In 1956 he became joint national trustee of the party.
Blaney's organisational abilities were conspicuous in his own constituency. In 1948 he was elected a Fianna Fáil member of Donegal county council and its subsidiary bodies; he retained his council seat until he became a cabinet minister in 1957, and was chairman of the county council (1955–7). The elder Blaney had relied on a loose organisation composed of his old IRA associates, rarely active outside election time and without a clear territorial focus (though centred in the Milford area); his operation had been held together by face-to-face contact, involving extensive socialisation in the pub. In contrast, Neil Blaney was a teetotaller for most of his adult life and developed a gruff, somewhat remote persona; it was said that he did not ask for support but expected it. Between 1948 and 1957 he and his brother Harry constructed a highly professional political machine built around their father's old comrades and their own extended family. An extensive branch (cumann) network was built up in which the cumann leaders conveyed requests and information between the Blaneys and their constituents; the Blaneys attended formal meetings to meet the faithful and receive requests, though cumann leaders dealt with routine business, keeping the Blaneys in reserve for more intractable matters. Personal loyalty was reinforced by state patronage, especially after Neil entered cabinet in 1957. This powerful network, centred on Milford and Fanad, allowed Blaney to dominate the constituency as a whole; activists in the Milford area who showed signs of disaffection were crushed, while Blaney freely sought votes within the Inishowen bailiwick of the constituency's other Fianna Fáil TD. After his appointment to the cabinet in 1957 and marriage in 1959, Blaney made his home in Sutton, Co. Dublin, while Harry acted as his principal representative within the constituency (a relationship compared by some local wits to that of absentee landlord and agent). Blaney, however, maintained the family home at Rossnakill as a second residence. The house was still thatched in the late 1960s, and by frequent visits there Blaney emphasised to his constituents and himself that he remained in touch with the lifestyle and problems of the Donegal small farmer. As a cabinet minister he saw himself as Donegal's representative on such matters as factory location (at least one brother was employed in a managerial position by a firm which Blaney brought to Donegal); some of his cabinet colleagues amused themselves by noting the terms (e.g. ‘peripheral areas’, ‘deprived areas’, ‘areas containing Gaeltachts’) which Blaney used to advocate preferential treatment for Donegal without mentioning its name.
In the late 1950s and 1960s Blaney brought his style of electioneering nationwide. His personal entourage (at first mainly from Donegal, later incorporating activists from elsewhere, such as the Kerry councillor Jackie Healy-Rae) regularly moved into constituencies where there were by-elections, to reinforce and strengthen the local organisation. As in his other activities, he was renowned for close personal supervision, searching out and correcting areas of weakness and driving his subordinates relentlessly. The election campaigns of this travelling ‘Donegal mafia’ – a term later extended to Blaney's constituency organisation – combined traditional elements (in the 1968 East Limerick by-election, where the Fine Gael candidate was a relative of Kevin O'Higgins (qv), Blaney's men marked roads and walls with ‘77’ in red paint (an allusion to the number of republican prisoners executed during the civil war by the Free State government, in which O’Higgins was minister for home affairs) with American-style glitz (motorcades, a fondness for dark glasses, gum-chewing, and brightly coloured ties). These campaigns won Blaney extensive admiration among Fianna Fáil grassroots activists. The mixture of modernity and provincialism among Blaney's entourage is reflected in the willingness of many of them to talk with surprising openness to the American political scientist Paul Martin Sacks in 1968–70 about the workings of the machine – apparently in the naïve belief that whatever might be written on the subject in America would never find its way back to Ireland.
In 1957 Éamon de Valera (qv) appointed Blaney minister for posts and telegraphs (March–December 1957). He was Donegal's first Fianna Fáil minister. Although he held the portfolio only for a short time, he drew up plans for privatising the telephone system and initiated moves to set up a national television service which would be largely commercial in character and dependent on advertising revenue. Simultaneously he created disharmony within Radio Éireann by his dismissive treatment of Comhairle Radio Éireann and the disparaging comments he made about the station at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis (20 November 1957).
The death on 11 November 1957 of Sean Moylan (qv) caused a cabinet reshuffle, and Blaney was made minister for local government (1957–November 1966). At the Department of Local Government he organised in 1959 the first constitutional referendum for the abolition of proportional representation (which failed to pass), introduced legislation extending the vote in local authority elections to non-Irish citizens, and devised a gigantic programme to pipe water into the houses of rural Ireland. He spoke of his commitment in this area as having been inspired by memories of rural women carrying heavy buckets of well water. He was also responsible for the Road Traffic Act (1965) which introduced a compulsory driving test. Blaney was strongly committed to the development of physical planning (he said that if he had not been a politician he would have liked to be an engineer or architect). He enacted the Planning Act (1963), established the planning institute An Foras Forbartha (1964), and implemented a housing policy which saw the construction of the Ballymun high-rise flats. Later he denied responsibility for the social disasters associated with this development and blamed Dublin corporation for filling what had been intended as a showpiece with unsuitable tenants and failing to provide them with facilities. However, even the most charitable interpretation of Blaney's role must admit that he relied too much on a personalised style of leadership which did not provide adequate long-term policy structures. It has also been suggested that his Donegal background gave him insufficient sensitivity to the needs and requirements of urban life and the Dublin working class.
Blaney's role in Taca (the Fianna Fáil fundraising organisation composed of businessmen) provoked considerable controversy; George Colley (qv), seen as the inheritor of a more austere view on such matters, was held to be referring to Blaney as well as Charles Haughey (1925–2006) when he spoke of ‘low standards in high places’. At the 1968 Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis, Blaney effectively defended Taca, against charges that it represented a departure from the party's traditional representation of the ‘small man’, by declaring that the businessmen of Taca were former ‘small men’ who had benefited from Fianna Fáil's enlightened economic policies and wished to see these benefits extended. In later life he acknowledged that he had been offered bribes in return for planning permission but denied that he had accepted them. Blaney was responsible for several controversial planning decisions taken against the advice of his officials and over the protests of conservationists and/or Dublin corporation, including the demolition of Georgian houses in Fitzwilliam Street to make way for an ESB office block, the construction of a large block of flats overlooking Herbert Park, and the building of Lansdowne House at the corner of Lansdowne and Northumberland roads. He also issued a regulation under the Planning Act which exempted demolitions from planning permission, to the considerable benefit of speculators.
Blaney was a candidate in the 1966 Fianna Fáil leadership contest but withdrew at Lemass's request in favour of Jack Lynch (qv). He later commented that ‘We were foolishly blinded by the necessity for unity in the party’. Blaney and some of his supporters, notably Kevin Boland (qv), believed that his grassroots support would have given him victory but would have caused lasting division; since Blaney was only three years older than his rivals Haughey and Colley, neither of them could have hoped to succeed him, while the succession of Lynch (b. 1917) gave all three another chance. Blaney's view that he had been kingmaker to Lynch (whose ministerial experience equalled his own, though Lynch had been a TD ten months longer), coupled with the new taoiseach's lack of a republican pedigree (during the rows which followed the arms crisis, Blaney once claimed that Lynch's father, a tailor, had sewed uniforms for British soldiers during the war of independence) and the rivalry between Blaney and Haughey, set the stage for the party divisions which culminated in the arms trial.
Minister for agriculture
As minister for agriculture and fisheries (1966–May 1970) in the new administration, Blaney adopted an aggressive policy with the National Farmers’ Association (NFA) and so resolved a long-running dispute – though not before the imprisonment of 200 farmers. Blaney, like other Fianna Fáil members, distrusted the NFA as dominated by Fine Gael-supporting big farmers; this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the conflict led many Fianna Fáil-supporting farmers to leave the NFA, as happened in Blaney's constituency. The government saw the NFA as seeking to dictate government policy, while the NFA believed Fianna Fáil preferred to handle farmers through its own party patronage structures. Blaney participated in some of the early negotiations which led to Irish membership of the EEC. During the entente in 1965 between Lemass and Terence O'Neill (qv) Blaney visited William Craig, the Northern Ireland minister of home affairs, in Belfast. (They were photographed together outside Stormont, to their later mutual embarrassment.) After the 1969 general election Blaney defied an attempt by Lynch to demote him. Some sources say this involved a proposal to place Blaney in a new department of economic planning; others say Blaney wished to hold such a ministry and accused Lynch of going back on a deal to create one. Possibly Blaney did wish to hold such a ministry – which if defined broadly enough might rival the Department of Finance in influence – but thought Lynch had circumscribed its proposed powers.
In 1968 Blaney led a second and again unsuccessful campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum to replace proportional representation with the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. During the 1969 general election campaign, Blaney and his ally Kevin Boland added to their considerable unpopularity among the Irish liberal left by running an aggressive (and successful) red scare. Blaney predicted that a Labour government would build Soviet submarine bases on the west coast, while the election of a ‘rag-bag coalition’ would bring the immediate destruction of the Irish economy. In Blaney's constituency, Fine Gael attempted to take a second seat by running a protestant councillor from Inishowen, Bertie Boggs, with their sitting TD, Paddy Harte. After the 1961 redrawing of constituency boundaries made it impossible to elect a protestant independent TD, a large section of the protestant population had drifted into supporting Fianna Fáil and Blaney had recruited some protestant activists; however, many protestants saw Blaney's increasingly vocal irredentism as having anti-protestant undertones and were thus open to Fine Gael persuasion. Blaney's machine struck back with a combination of its usual well-organised poll management and a sectarian whispering campaign which included slanderous rumours that Boggs had participated in the loyalist attack on civil rights marchers at Burntollet; both seats were retained.
There has been much speculation about how far the ultra-republican stance taken by Blaney from the late 1960s was due to conviction. Blaney had served in the Fianna Fáil cabinet which interned IRA men after 1957. Like Boland, he later tried to excuse this by presenting the earlier IRA campaign as a threat to the sovereignty of the republic and the later one as directed against the northern government. Paddy Harte, who publicly accused Blaney of advocating a policy which could only lead to ‘civil war too cruel to contemplate . . . guns used for self-defence also kill . . . the real issue is uniting people by trying to understand one another’, commented sarcastically that ‘Neil Blaney . . . found his republican voice after twenty years in politics’ (Harte, 146–8). It is clear that Blaney genuinely believed in traditional Fianna Fáil irredentism – all the more fervently because the party had abandoned so much of its other traditional ideological baggage in the 1960s – and that the effect of partition on Donegal influenced his view that it had been an unjust and damaging imposition. It is also the case that he privately saw the ‘new unionism’ of O'Neill as a dangerous deception, disliked the civil rights movement's decision to replace traditional anti-partition slogans with the demand for equal treatment within Northern Ireland or ‘British rights for British citizens’, and did not welcome the defeat of an old ally, the Derry-based nationalist party leader Eddie McAteer (qv), by the civil rights activist John Hume in the 1969 Stormont elections. His actions in 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.
During the crisis of August 1969, with the support of Boland and some other ministers, he advocated the sending of Irish troops into Northern Ireland to bring about UN intervention. Thereafter he made numerous public statements (most notably a speech on the twenty-first anniversary of his election to the dáil) in which, while professing to reflect government policy, he denounced the view that unity could only come through consent and declared that the use of force should not be ruled out. Within the cabinet, Blaney and Haughey secured the establishment of a sub-committee to handle northern policy with themselves as members; the committee was allowed to lapse after its first meeting, thus cutting its other two members, Padraig Faulkner and Joseph Brennan (qv), out of the loop. Meanwhile, relief funds secured from a variety of sources were used for such purposes as the establishment of a propaganda paper, the Voice of the North (edited by Séamus Brady, a journalist who had worked as Blaney's speechwriter), which called for traditional anti-partitionists to assert themselves and promised southern sympathy. It is generally believed that such declarations encouraged traditionalists within the Belfast IRA to break with the Official leadership, thus setting in motion the creation of the Provisional IRA.
Blaney and Haughey also became involved in schemes to supply arms to catholic self-defence groups in the North (largely fronts for the nascent Provisional IRA) in association with the military intelligence officer Captain James Kelly (qv), who always maintained that he acted in pursuit of his duties and with the knowledge of his superiors, including the defence minister James Gibbons (qv). The extent of Gibbons's knowledge is disputed, but many of those who believe he was initially complicit suggest that he was politically or even physically overawed by Blaney. According to John Kelly (d. 2007) – later one of the arms trial defendants – Blaney was the ‘engine room’ of the scheme and Haughey's role was relatively marginal; Blaney vetoed a proposal to import arms from traditional IRA suppliers in America, preferring European arms dealers. This made it easier to ensure that the arms would remain under the control of the government forces involved; it also increased the possibility of leaks to various security services. It has been said that the arms plot was characteristic of Blaney in that it showed great skill in the handling of internal Irish politics and complete ineptitude in its international dimensions.
In late 1969 the garda special branch and Peter Berry (qv), secretary of the Department of Justice, became aware of these developments and made attempts to forestall them, with Berry personally blocking the final attempt to import arms through Dublin airport in April 1970. Garda hostility to the plotters – Blaney in particular – was increased when Garda Richard Fallon was murdered by the republican splinter group Saor Éire on 3 April 1970. It was widely rumoured that Saor Éire was linked to the arms plot, though these rumours were later believed to be inaccurate. Blaney subsequently denied any contact with Saor Éire, whom he described as a ‘lousy group’.
Blaney was dismissed from cabinet on 6 May 1970; in the subsequent dáil debates he declared his continued support for Fianna Fáil while making a vitriolic attack on Lynch's policy under the guise of an attack on Fine Gael. This speech led Garret FitzGerald (qv) to call Blaney ‘the Paisley of the Republic, with the Hitler-like ability to stir up a mob’ (O'Brien, 139). Blaney's failure to mount an all-out attack on Lynch reflected unwillingness to split the party or precipitate a general election which might let the opposition in; subsequent developments showed that he had seriously underestimated the ability of Lynch as party leader to command support in the name of discipline and unity, while the widespread upsurge of sympathy for beleaguered northern nationalists in August 1969 had masked considerable fear of importing northern violence into the South and destabilising the republic. Blaney later expressed regret that he had not brought down Lynch at this time. The dissidents were also hindered by the fact that neither Haughey nor Blaney was prepared to take second place to the other.
On 26 May Blaney was arrested on a charge of conspiracy to import arms; however, he was able to have the charges dismissed at district court level on 2 July on the grounds that there was no direct evidence of his involvement. This was followed by a triumphant motorcade back to Donegal (cutting across Northern Ireland despite loyalist threats) and a show of support in Letterkenny. Blaney subsequently consolidated his position in his constituency by taking up positions on Donegal VEC and the board of Letterkenny Regional Technical College; in August 1970 he appeared at the Kilmichael commemoration in Co. Cork, where Tom Barry (qv) gave a speech denouncing unity by consent and implicitly supporting Blaney.
Blaney's role in the arms plot was thus not fully explored at the arms trial, though Garret FitzGerald commented: ‘When one reads this trial carefully, Deputy Blaney crops up time and time again and disappears again into the mist’ (O'Brien, 66). John Kelly speculated that Blaney later regretted not having gone ‘the full way’ – presumably on the basis that it might have been more effective to use the arms trial as a platform for self-justification. Unlike Boland, Blaney supported a vote of confidence in the Lynch government after the arms trial; however, he was marginalised within the party organisation and expelled from the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party in November 1971 after he abstained in the dáil on a motion of confidence in James Gibbons which Haughey supported. On 26 June 1972 he was expelled from the party organisation by a vote of the national executive ‘for conduct unbecoming for a member of the organisation’ (his supporters had been organising the Fianna Fáil national collection in his constituency without reference to headquarters). This was followed by a purge of his hardcore constituency supporters, including several councillors; nevertheless, Blaney retained his seat in the 1973 general election and at all subsequent dáil elections until his death.
Independent Fianna Fáil
From 1972 Blaney's constituency organisation operated under the title Independent Fianna Fáil Republican Party, though this was never formally registered as a political party. At its height it claimed to have between 2,500 and 3,000 members, and normally held four or five Donegal county council seats. It also had a second TD in 1976–7 in Paddy Keaveney (d. 1995), returned in a Donegal North-East by-election. Some Blaneyite support existed outside Donegal: in senate elections during the 1980s Blaney was able to command the votes of twenty-eight to thirty councillors, most of whom were located in the border counties. However, he did not give support to Boland's attempt to form a nationwide republican party, Aontacht Éireann, and he turned down later suggestions that he should found such a party. The most notable of these came in 1979 after his surprise victory in the European Parliament elections for Connacht–Ulster, when he topped the poll and was elected on the first count; it was subsequently suggested that he should establish an all-Ireland party incorporating the Northern Ireland-based Irish Independence Party (based on remnants of nationalist party support, and subsequently displaced by Sinn Féin). Blaney's reluctance apparently reflected fear that verbal sympathy for him among elements of the Fianna Fáil grassroots might not translate into support for a breakaway party, that a definitive break with Fianna Fáil might alienate some of his supporters who hoped for eventual reunion, and that the overstretch involved in creating a nationwide organisation might weaken his hold on his Donegal base.
The most forthright republican voice in the dáil, Blaney took a pro-active interest in the H-block protests, visiting Bobby Sands (qv) during his hunger strike and campaigning for him and Owen Carron in the 1981 Fermanagh–South Tyrone by-elections. After Jack Lynch's resignation as taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil (11 December 1979), Blaney welcomed Charles Haughey's succession; during the tightly balanced electoral conflicts of the 1980s Blaney operated in what Boland described as ‘external association’ with Fianna Fáil. In return for his support for the minority Fianna Fáil government in March 1982 Blaney secured the appointment of his director of elections, James Larkin, as a taoiseach's nominee to the seanad, unfulfilled promises of state support for the construction sector (which he continued to regard in quasi-Keynesian terms as the key to kickstarting economic recovery), and commitment to a tougher stand on Northern Ireland. He regularly flew back from Strasbourg to support Haughey's government in tight votes, and in 1983 his personal advice played a significant role in persuading Haughey, by now leader of the opposition, to resist the internal challenge to his leadership after the revelation of a phone-tapping scandal. In common with Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, Blaney opposed the Anglo–Irish Agreement of 1985, and at this time serious consideration was given to a reunion of his organisation with Fianna Fáil. This initiative came to nothing, because the Fianna Fáil constitution did not provide for such a corporate reunion as distinct from individual membership applications and because Blaney's association with extreme republicanism made him a potential political liability for the party. (Kevin Boland highlighted a possible perception of Blaney's return when he declared that he would have voted for Fianna Fáil in 1987 only if Blaney had been readmitted and given ‘a key position in the government’ (Boland, 20)).
Blaney appears to have persuaded himself that he might still wield significant influence over Fianna Fáil via Haughey, and took to claiming that he had never really wanted to be taoiseach in the late 1960s but would have been satisfied with the position of leader's right hand and hatchet man. After Haughey's return to power in 1987 was followed by acceptance of the Anglo–Irish Agreement, implementation of extradition for political offences and support for the Single European Act, Blaney spoke of Haughey as having betrayed his personal friendship, saying it had taken him thirty years to realise that Haughey always took and never gave. This glossed over the considerable elements of distrust and contempt which had always marked their relationship. Blaney saw Haughey's 1989 coalition with the Progressive Democrats as a final betrayal, and commented after Haughey's retirement in 1992: ‘He was simply power-crazed with an ambition to be powerful for the power of position . . . What a pity he ever happened’ (Rafter, 110–11).
Blaney was a highly effective MEP for Connacht–Ulster (1979–84, 1989–94) and in the European Parliament was subsequently a member, vice-chairman and treasurer of the Rainbow group, which he helped to found. This group, primarily a coalition of local nationalist and regionalist groups, had a slight ‘leftward’ influence on Blaney's thought – for example, in the 1980s he was highly critical of US policy in Central America. An early advocate of community cohesion spending (which would benefit peripheral regions such as Donegal), he was a member of the parliament's budgetary control committee and the agriculture, fisheries and rural development committee. In his last years he witnessed the demise of the small farming class which had played a central role in the Fianna Fáil of his father's generation and his own early career. ‘There will not be another generation of farmers in Ireland. There will be ranchers but not family farms as we know them’ (Rafter, 140).
Although Blaney predicted that the peace process beginning in the early 1990s would lead nowhere, he was one of the independent TDs who sat on the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation at Dublin Castle (1995) as a representative of the ‘technical group’ of small-party and independent TDs.
With the loss of his ministerial post, Blaney expanded the family farm to about 200 acres and opened the Ramelton Inn and other pubs in Co. Donegal. He was president of the FAI (1968–73) and subsequently a patron of that organisation (1973–95). In 1959 he married Eva Corduff, a nurse and the daughter of Michael Corduff, a folklore collector of Rossport, Co. Mayo. They had five sons and two daughters. Neil Blaney died in Dublin of cancer on 8 November 1995. Independent Fianna Fáil survived under the leadership of Harry Blaney (TD for Donegal North-East, 1997–2002) and then his son Niall (Independent TD for Donegal North-East, 2002–7, thereafter Fianna Fáil) until shortly before the 2007 general election, when it reunited with Fianna Fáil and Niall Blaney took the party whip.
Many admirers, and some enemies, romanticised Blaney as an archaic figure – a Donegal ‘chieftain’, a figure of solitary integrity. The Fine Gael TD Percy Dockrell spoke of Blaney's references to his father's civil war experiences as displaying a ‘strange sad bitterness . . . he forces his mind into the past and lacerates himself with pity’ (O'Brien, 117). This should not obscure the ruthless authoritarianism which marked his career or 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.